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What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?

What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?
    Book Description:

    The Garden of Eden story, one of the most famous narratives in Western history, is typically read as an ancient account of original sin and humanity's fall from divine grace. In this highly innovative study, Ziony Zevit argues that this is not how ancient Israelites understood the early biblical text. Drawing on such diverse disciplines as biblical studies, geography, archaeology, mythology, anthropology, biology, poetics, law, linguistics, and literary theory, he clarifies the worldview of the ancient Israelite readers during the First Temple period and elucidates what the story likely meant in its original context.

    Most provocatively, he contends that our ideas about original sin are based upon misconceptions originating in the Second Temple period under the influence of Hellenism. He shows how, for Ancient Israelites, the story was really about how humans achieved ethical discernment. He argues further that Adam was not made from dust and that Eve was not made from Adam's rib. His study unsettles much of what has been taken for granted about the story for more than two millennia and has far-reaching implications for both literary and theological interpreters.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19533-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A Preface about “Really”
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. Introduction: The Fall Is with Us Always
    (pp. xix-xxviii)

    Christians and Jews have read the narrative about Adam and Eve in the Garden for more than two millennia, or at least they have heard about it. Preachers and scholars regularly address its plot, themes, and theology—none of which are understood to bode well for humanity. Because of constant retelling, the story is so ingrained in popular awareness that it is possible to know it through hearsay and folklore alone.

    Many Americans who spent a summer or two at camp may have made their first acquaintance with the story through the hand-clapping spiritual “Them Bones Will Rise Again” in...

  6. PART ONE Now and Then

      (pp. 3-17)

      In popular perception, the Garden story in Genesis teaches about humanity’s forfeiture of an ideal relationship with God and about the origins of sexuality and lust in acts of disobedience and rebellion against him. It explains the derivation of some human woes in divine curses: the struggle for livelihood and the pain of childbirth. It instructs wives to submit to the rule of their husbands. It informs us about the curse onReptilia squamata serpentes(Ophidia) that brought about its novel form of locomotion. Finally, the story explains, at least as some interpret it, why, after a life of struggle,...

      (pp. 18-27)

      The Garden story exemplifies a type of very distinguished story. Stories of this type exercise such power and influence on the consciousness and awareness of those believing in their complete or essential truthfulness that they act on them. This type of story is what scholars of religion and many contemporary theologians label “myth.” So long as any story maintains its power (1) to define the correct relationship between people and God and how it is to be maintained and (2) to influence conceptions of the cosmos, rules for the organization of societies, and individual conduct, it is considered living myth....

      (pp. 28-47)

      Although responses to the questions Who wrote the Garden story? and When? may be stated plainly, the answers are complex. My discussion focuses primarily on the who question and addresses the when question secondarily.

      We do not know who wrote the Garden story in the sense that we know that Samuel Langhorne Clemens, under the pen name Mark Twain, wroteHuckleberry Finn.He has a generally known life story, publishers, and a bibliography. Nor do we know who wrote the Garden story even in the sense that we know William Shakespeare wroteHamlet.Shakespeare, too, has a name, a poorly...

      (pp. 48-53)

      To approach the Garden story free of its Hellenistic-bred, centuries-old interpretation as the story of the Fall, I employ loosely a method labeled “reader-response criticism.” Following this method, I examine the relationship between author and original audience by considering what they knew and what was new in what the author was presenting. None of this can occur without studying the major objective element available for critical analysis: the text. Considering the text a communication intended to inform and educate its readers and hearers makes it possible to suggest, using controlled imagination, what effect it may have had on them.¹


      (pp. 54-72)

      This chapter describes briefly how the middle part of this book is structured and why.

      In this middle part, Part II, beginning with Chapter 6, I divide the Garden story into units of narrative, each of which I discuss in a separate chapter using a method calledexplication de texte:the explication, explanation, exposition, exegesis, and interpretation of the text. Users of this method take little for granted about the meaning of each unit, attempting, rather, to study the text as a lover might pore over a love letter or as a litigant might scrutinize a document sent by opposing...

  7. PART TWO Before Then

    • 6 A DOWN-TO-EARTH STORY (Gen 2:4–7)
      (pp. 75-84)

      The familiar story of the six days of creation is told in chapter 1 of Genesis. Th e Garden story itself begins in chapter 2, verse 4. Its beginning immediately raises three questions.

      (1) Why doesn’t the story start at the beginning of a new chapter?

      (2) Why is it introduced by a sentence that refers back to the cosmic creation that begins the book of Genesis in chapter 1?

      The answer to the first question is that the chapter division may reflect a Christian polemic. Originally, the Hebrew Bible did not have chapter divisions. It was written as a...

      (pp. 85-95)

      First, God himself planted the Garden. He did not cause a garden to be planted or call it into existence with words such as “Let there be a garden.” The Hebrew verb translated asplantedin verse 8 refers to a broad range of activities necessary before plants take root. Isaiah describes some of these: breaking ground, clearing away stones, planting (which involves digging holes and irrigation trenches and filling in earth around saplings), putting in a protective hedge, building a wall, pruning and hoeing (Isa 5:2–6). God did it all, personally. And when that work was completed, he...

    • 8 WHERE IN THE WORLD WAS EDEN? (Gen 2:10–14)
      (pp. 96-113)

      In “Lectures on Genesis,” delivered in June or July 1535, Martin Luther suggested that it was time to give up on fruitless searches for Eden. After perusing writings by scriptural exegetes and geographers of his own and earlier periods, Luther metaphorically shrugged his shoulders. The pursuit of Paradise, he wrote, was an exercise in futility: “At this point people discuss where Paradise is located. The interpreters torture themselves in amazing ways. Some favor the idea that it is located within the two tropics under the equinoctial point. Others think that a more temperate climate was necessary, since the place was...

      (pp. 114-119)

      The function of the garden determined how it would be tended.

      Biblical references indicate that individual Israelites had fenced gardens and that their kings established gardens within cities or just beyond their walls (1 Kings 21:2; 2 Kings 21:18, 26; 25:4; Song of Songs 4:12–5:1; 6:1–3; Neh 3:15). Israelites probably understood, then, what was involved in maintaining a garden, and they could easily have imagined the work routines of the first human.¹

      Their gardens could have vegetables, fruit trees, open areas sufficient for a few tethered grazing animals, and beds of spices. Nothing in the Bible indicates the...

    • 10 THE SECOND COMMANDMENT (Gen 2:16–17)
      (pp. 120-126)

      A few years ago, I asked a class of undergraduates the following question: According to the Bible, what are the first two commandments that God directed to humanity, not just to Israelites? Some students started thumbing through their Bibles, but others answered without cracking the book. They offered three different answers, all based on Exodus 20:1–3. Here are the verses:

      1 And the Lord spoke all these words saying:

      2 I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt from the house of bondage.

      3 You shall not have other gods before me....

      (pp. 127-136)

      Sometime after warning the man, God decided that it was not good for him to be alone, that man lacked something, and so God determined to make for man’s benefit an‘ēzer kenegdōw(Gen 2:18). The Hebrew word‘ēzer, usually translated as “help” or the like, does not imply inferiority in and of itself. It is used to describe YHWH god as the helper of the tribe of Judah (Deut 33:7), of the people of Israel (Ps 33:20), of the sons of Aaron and those that fear him (Ps 115: 9–11). It is not the word‘ēzerthat presents...

    • 12 THE FIRST LADY (Gen 2:21–23)
      (pp. 137-150)

      The three verses about the creation of Hawwa raise interesting questions:

      (1) Why did God construct the woman from Adam’sṣela‘,commonly taken as referring to rib?

      (2) Why does the narrator mention that God “closed the flesh beneath it,” that is, at the place from which the rib was taken?

      A third question derives from Israelite burial practices. In the Iron Age, these consisted of placing bodies on raised benches in burial caves, leaving them until only the skeleton remained, and then, when the bench was needed again, removing the skeletal bones to a common storage niche.¹ It is...

    • 13 WHY “THEREFORE”? (Gen 2:24)
      (pp. 151-157)

      Ostensibly verse 24 continues Adam’s statement in verse 23: “This one. This time. Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. This one will be called Woman because from man this one was taken.” However, when the two verses are read consecutively, verse 24 immediately presents a problem. The word “therefore,” a correct translation of Hebrew‘al kēn, signals that what follows is a conclusion reached on the basis of what precedes. The problem is that verse 24, withya‘azōbunderstood to mean “leaves” or “will leave,” does not seem to follow the previous verse logically or to present...

    • 14 HOW BARE IS NAKED? (Gen 2:25)
      (pp. 158-159)

      This verse, the logical continuation of verse 23, moves readers from the first to the second series of episodes constituting the story, from those about the formation of the Garden and its inhabitants to those about the encounter between cognizant humans and their world. It directs attention to the sorry sartorial state of the first couple even as it emphasizes, by repeating the word for woman/wife from verses 23 and 24, that the first two humans were married, a detail of consequence in the unfolding narrative. It is unclear to me what, if any, significance should be attached to the...

      (pp. 160-171)

      The event called the Fall, if indeed it was a fall, is covered at the beginning of chapter 3 of Genesis—more precisely, in verse 6. The drama occurs in the first five verses, however. They tell about a fatal conversation in the course of which one aspect of God’s plan for the Garden was undermined.

      The serpent, unmentioned until now, has actually been part of the narrative since Genesis 2:18–20, which described the “first social welfare program.” In Genesis 3:1–6 he slides out of the crowd, no longer an extra in the background. He moves forward into...

      (pp. 172-178)

      The couple eat, and as the serpent had foretold, they do not drop dead on the spot.¹ Likewise, just as he had stated in verse 5, their eyes open themselves and they know the world differently. Verse 7 continues to describe how their “eye opening” manifests itself in action: in sewing. Although their rush to make loincloths is sometimes presented as a demonstration of their guilt, it is actually about the rush of knowledge that follows a blush of shame. Shame is tied to understanding cultural values and to changeable individual behavior; guilt is tied to juridic, forensic contexts and...

      (pp. 179-183)

      God asks two questions, but it is the second, simple, direct one that he wants answered immediately: “Have you [second person masculine singular] eaten from the tree concerning which I commanded you [ṣiwwīytīykā; second person masculine singular] to not eat from it?” (Gen 3:11). What triggers God’s suspicion is that Adam has introduced the concept of nakedness into a social context and appraised it negatively. On prior occasions Adam appeared before him as he had been formed. The idea of nakedness implies its correlative, the idea of being draped, covered, clothed. Adam implied in the previous verse that dressed properly,...

    • 18 PROCREATION IN THE GARDEN (Gen 3:14–19; 4:1–2)
      (pp. 184-191)

      God makes declarations, one after another, without interruption. Two aspects of his sentences stand out. First, not one indicates that the consequences of eating might be an untimely death by some agent.¹ Second, sentences addressed to both the serpent and to the woman focus on progeny and childbirth (Gen 3:15–16a). To comprehend the full significance of these sentences, we must skip ahead and discuss Genesis 4:1 first. God’s other sentences of Genesis 3:14–19 are discussed in the next chapters.

      Genesis 4:1 occurs in the narrative sequenceafterAdam and Hawwa have left the Garden but does not continue...

    • 19 NOT A LEG TO STAND ON: The Serpent’s Sentence and the Israelite Culture of “Curse” (Gen 3:14–15)
      (pp. 192-205)

      According to Martin Luther, “Before the sin, the serpent was a most beautiful little animal and most pleasing to man, as little mules, sheep, and puppies are today; moreover, . . . it walked upright. And so it is due to the curse and not to its nature that it now creeps on the ground, just as it is due to the curse that a women conceives with shame, gives birth in pain, and brings up her offspring in toil.”¹ Luther’s comment to verse 14 reflects Jewish and Christian interpretations since Late Antiquity. These held that as part of the...

    • 20 NO BUNDLE OF JOY: Hawwa’s Sentence and Israelite Predilections in Legal Reasoning (Gen 3:16)
      (pp. 206-218)

      Contemporary Western society tends to view childbirth—or the process of childbirth—as a positive experience despite the acute pain and discomfort that accompany it. Those who prefer or must endure natural childbirth view the pain as a test of womanhood, a private, bittersweet experience, and an act of motherhood.¹ This was not always the case.

      In contemporary English, “the curse” is sometimes used in place of the more clinical “menstruation.” The phrase was also widely used to refer to childbirth until 1853, when Queen Victoria gave birth to Prince Leopold, using chloroform to alleviate her birth pains. As the...

    • 21 TOIL AND TROUBLE: Adam’s Sentence and the Rights of Laborers (Gen 3:17–19)
      (pp. 219-226)

      Translations of Genesis 3:17 employ words indicating that Adam is indicted for listening to his wife. They faithfully represent the Hebrew wordšāma‘ta,derived from the rootš-m-‘,which in most of its 1,159 attestations in the Bible refers to hearing and listening. These translations of verse 17 are problematic, however, for a rather embarrassing reason. In the description of what happened in Genesis 3:6, the woman said nothing to her husband. She gave fruit to him and he ate. This anomaly raises the following question: Was God misrepresenting what actually occurred at the tree?

      Accepting a translation involving “hearing”...

    • 22 OUT OF THE GARDEN (Gen 3:20–24)
      (pp. 227-236)

      No material in the Garden story suggests that the thought of gaining immortality ever flitted across a human mind. Had it done so, we have no reason to think that Adam and Hawwa would have considered it desirable to eat from the Tree of Life, especially after eating from the Tree of Knowing and learning the implications of that. The author may have imagined that time elapsed between the Tree of Knowing incident (Gen 3:19) and Adam’s renaming of his wife (Gen 3:20)—two years, maybe three. In any event, emerging developments and their attendant circumstances over an extended period...

  8. PART THREE Then and Now

      (pp. 239-242)

      The analyses in the preceding chapters give us a revised plot of the Garden story, one stripped of its Greek and later accretions. Reprised in modern English, the story goes like this.

      God planned a garden for himself in a place called Eden, a name meaning “Bountiful,” located in the most distant northern corner of the world as it was known to ancient Israel. Far off the beaten track in what is now eastern Turkey, the Garden contained many fruit-bearing trees, among which two were special: the Tree of Knowing Good and Bad and the Tree of Life. Grains such...

      (pp. 243-250)

      The typical artistic and structural features of biblical narrative discerned and described by biblical scholars for almost a century characterize this narrative.¹ It contains alliterative patterning throughout:śīyaḥ haśśādeh(edible plant of the field—Gen 2:5),’ādām, ’adāmāh, ’ēd(human, soil, surge of water—Gen 2:5–6),wayyippaḥ be’appā(y)w(blew into his nostrils—Gen 2:7),’īyš, ’iššāh(man, woman—Gen 2:23),hannāḥāš hiššīy’anīy(the serpent beguiled me—Gen 3:13),pen yišlaḥ. . .welāqaḥ(lest he send forth . . . and take—Gen 3:22),wayyešalleḥēhūw. . .luqqaḥ(he sent him away. . . . . and...

      (pp. 251-259)

      The Garden story, told in the book of Genesis, is alluded to in other parts of the Bible. Indeed, favorable allusions to the story illustrate clearly that a wide range of biblical authors knew it and understood it positively.

      Isaiah of Jerusalem, a prophet of the late eighth to early seventh centuries BCE, describes a future in which a descendent of David will put evil to death by proclamation (Isa 11:3). As a consequence, predation, a feature of created nature, will cease; the natural order will be reformed:

      A wolf will dwell with a lamb,

      and a leopard will lie...

      (pp. 260-264)

      The translation and interpretation of the Garden story in Part II of this book do not support the common interpretation, described in Chapter 1. The common interpretation so entrenched in Western culture reflects, in mild form, attitudes about gender attested as early as the eighth–seventh centuries BCE among the Greeks. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky observes:

      The Greeks considered females to be inherently so different from males that they spoke of agenes genaikon, “a race of women,” in effect calling women an entirely different species from man. The Greek philosophical systems viewed the male-female polarity as the major axis of...

      (pp. 265-268)

      When Alexander the Great conquered the Levant in 323 BCE, the cultural world of the ancient Near East began to give way slowly to Hellenism. More by seduction than by force, more through evolution than through revolution, Hellenism influenced, indeed invited, change. An ill-defined cultural movement, it made an impact more like that of the printing press or tourism than the computer. It posed new issues to religious thinkers and provided new ways of thinking about them. The social dislocations caused by wars and political ferment in what had been the Iron Age kingdom of Judah, destroyed in 586 BCE,...

  9. Appendix: Transliterating Hebrew for Tourists in the Garden
    (pp. 269-272)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 273-334)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 335-356)
  12. Index
    (pp. 357-368)