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The Story of the Garden of Eden

In the last several posts, I’ve discussed my view on various aspects of the story of the Garden of Eden. Given the resolution that the Pennsylvania House passed declaring 2012 to be the Year of the Bible, we ought to ask whether this story “teaches” (to use the resolution’s word) us anything. Actually, I think that’s a hard question to answer. Some would argue that it teaches us about original sin, the fall of humankind from grace, and where the basic problems of nature come from (pain in childbirth, difficulty growing crops). The story itself, however, doesn’t teach any of that. A particular reinterpretation of the story teaches that but not the story as it was originally told.

So, what does it teach? “Darned, if I know” is perhaps the most honest answer, but I’d like to suggest three things that might help with this question. First, the story shows us that not all biblical authors or Read More

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The snake’s other two predictions also come true. He says that the man and the woman will not die and that their eyes will be opened. Genesis 3:7 confirms the latter: “Then the eyes of them both were opened.” What about the former — the bit about not dying? Well, clearly they don’t die, right? Some (even some well-known biblical scholars) argue for a metaphorical death or a death of innocence or a loss of immortality and so on. But there’s really no getting around Yahweh’s statement, “On the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” I could go into excruciatingly painful detail on this, but, given the way it’s worded in Hebrew, it has to mean immediate, physical death. And that is precisely what they DON’T experience. Thus, this prediction on the part of the snake also comes true.

I would say that the whole story about the Garden of Eden is really not a creation story, per se, but a story that’s much more like Kipling’s “How the Leopard Got His Spots” (Kipling called his stories like this “Just-So Stories”). The Garden of Eden story explains how humans came to be as they are now. They’re not animals (naked and ignorant), and they’re not gods (immortal). They are, instead “like” gods — that is, they have knowledge, especially the knowledge about what’s good and what’s evil (or, at least, that’s what the story’s claiming, despite how many folks we might know who don’t seem to know the difference between much of anything). Perhaps an appropriate title for the story would be “How the Humans Got Their Knowledge.”

Another reason to see the story of the Garden of Eden as a story about the rise (and not the fall) of humankind has to do with what the snake says to the woman at the beginning of Genesis 3. The snake predicts three things for the humans: 1) they will not die; 2) their eyes will be opened; and 3) they will be like divine beings who know good and evil. Do all three come true? Let’s start with the third. At the end of chapter 3 (verse 22), Yahweh says, “Look, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Oh, what if he reaches out and takes something from the Tree of Life, too, and eats it and lives forever,” the fairly clear implication being that this would be a catastrophe that must be avoided at all costs. The first part of the statement, though, confirms the veracity of the snake’s third prediction. Yahweh himself has to admit that the man and the woman have become like “us”—divine beings—because they now know about good and evil. They have moved from the status of ignorant, naked, animal-like creatures to the status of being “like” divine beings. They do not become fully divine in the story but like divine. In other words, they achieve human status. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, after Enkidu becomes civilized, he is told, “You have become wise, Enkidu; you have become like a god.” He, too, had become human. What about the snake’s other two predictions? Stay tuned.

With the story of the Garden of Eden, I think it’s important to take the story by itself and on its own terms without giving too much consideration to how the story came to be interpreted later. This means that, instead of seeing the story as one about the “fall” of the first humans, we will find it to be one about their “rise”—a rise that takes them almost to the level of the gods. This idea first came to my attention when reading Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition by Bernard F. Batto, a professor at Depauw University in Indiana, which I had assigned for my course, Myth and History in the Bible. Batto deserves a great deal of credit for his articulation of this idea and for how his work has stimulated my own thinking and that of other scholars.

First, there is nothing in the story to indicate that the man, initially, and later the woman lived in a state of moral innocence or grace. They lived, rather, in a state of ignorance. They did not realize, for instance, that they were naked. In the ancient Near East, being unaware of one’s nakedness was not a Read More

I want to explain why it’s not in keeping with the way that the story is told in the Bible to refer to the man in the Garden of Eden as “Adam.” The main problem is that, in the story itself, he is never called “Adam.” He is only ever called “the man.” Some might say, “Now hold on a minute. Isn’t the Hebrew word for “man” in the story (with the exception of “man” in Genesis 2:23, where the Hebrew word is ishadam?” Yes, it is. So, what’s wrong with calling him “Adam”? What’s wrong with it is that the term adam is always preceded by the definite article (Hebrew ha, “the”). The story never calls him just adam but ha-adam. Because the story itself always includes the definite article with its use of adam, I conclude that it doesn’t want the reader to think of this figure as having a proper name — it wants the reader to think of him only as “the man” (or, possibly, “the human,” but whether it should be “the man” or “the human” requires another lengthy discussion that I will bypass for now). I should hasten to point out that some scholars might disagree with me here because of how the word adam is used in Read More

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.