The Story of the Garden of Eden

Since 2012 has been declared the year of the Bible in Pennsylvania, and if, as House Resolution 535 says, our nation needs to apply the Bible’s teachings, then it seems like a good idea to take a look at what biblical texts say. Let’s start near the beginning with one of the creation stories. In the introductory course that I teach on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) at my university, we usually discuss the story of the Garden of Eden in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Genesis. It’s a story that nearly all of the students claim to know fairly well. I often begin by asking the students who they think is the most trustworthy character in the story. There are only four characters from which to choose. First, there is the deity, who, in most English translations of the Hebrew Bible, is referred to as “the LORD” (or “the LORD God”). Notice the use of all capital letters for the word “LORD.” As you may know, translators make use of this convention (capitalizing all the letters) to render the name “Yahweh” (sometimes spelled Yhwh, Yahveh, or even Jehovah), the name of the god worshipped by the biblical authors. The story’s second character is the man. For reasons I might go into later, we can’t really call him “Adam” — not until late in chapter 4 of Genesis. The third character is the woman; as with the man, we don’t want to give her a proper name just yet. The final character is, of course, the snake.  When asked which of these characters comes across in the story as the most trustworthy, the vast majority of my students say that the answer is Yahweh. I don’t know if it ever occurs to them that I probably wouldn’t be asking the question if Yahweh were indeed the best answer. They usually assume that, because they’re in a religious studies course at a Catholic university, the right answer to this question has to be the god-figure in the story. The least trustworthy, they say, is the snake. But if one takes the story as it’s told in chapters 2 and 3, I think it’s hard to make a good case for this view. I then explain to them that another option is to say that those two answers should be reversed. Occasionally, a student beats me to it and makes this claim during our discussion. This second option is far better in terms of what the story actually says. I’ll explain in coming posts.

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