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The story in the Book of Genesis of the Garden of Eden, of Paradise lost, has haunted our imagination for thousands of years. To people who have lost something precious, as many people have, it is a deeply moving story. I came to consider it recently when investigating traces of the rite celebrating the Great Goddess (another moving story and of importance to people living in the ecologically challenged 21st century). I read the first book of the bible, something I had intended to do for many years, yet never accomplished.
I read several English translations, with an awareness that no translation can possibly convey more than 50% of the meaning contained in the Hebrew language text. I thought the most beautiful version, though not apparently the most accurate, was the version authorised by King James, based on that of John Wycliff. To show that this is a personal investigation, no doubt coming up with ideas discussed before, I have paraphrased the story, and taken it from what I call the Book of Beginnings.
There are two stories told in the first three chapters of the Book of Beginnings. The first is about the golden age, when the earth was new, and god walked on the earth and spoke to his creation. Its caretaker was man, made in the image of god, bought to life by the breath of god, which formed his soul.
The second story is more sophisticated, and much more tragic. It attempts to explain the origin of evil in the world, of how the beautiful world of god became the imperfect world of man.
There are four characters in these two stories: God, Adam, Eve, and the serpent. All repay study.
God is depicted as an emotional and autocratic man, who acts like a powerful ruler, a sheik, caliph or vizier of the Eastern world. He loves, he hates, he gets angry. He hurls curses and gets jealous. And when aroused, he can destroy. He is far from the sophisticated theological concepts of the Byzantine Greeks, eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, eventually, as Christianity developed, one of three ‘persons’ in a ‘godhead’. He is different again from the gods in classical Greek religion, human in form, infinite in power, somehow as merciless and inexorable as fate. He is not nurturing, as the Great Mother whom he replaced in the religion of the Hebrews was. He is simply powerful. Unlike Western societies, where emotions are kept under wraps, the society depicted here is one where emotions sway people, where fear, cowardice, ambition, anger, all affect behaviour.
Adam is a Hebrew word meaning mankind, both male and female. In the account of the first writer in the Book of Beginnings: ‘then god made man (adam), male and female, and man was in the image of god. God told man, be fruitful, and multiply, and to man he gave mastery of every living thing he had created’. The second writer’s account, a much more profound and sophisticated one, mentions two names, Adam, and Eve. Adam now means “from the dust”. Eve is mentioned in passing almost at the end of the account of the Fall, and her name means “the mother of all”. This role I believe shows an awareness on the part of the second writer of a rite addressing the Great Mother or Great Goddess, practised by Canaanite peoples in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age in the Middle East (as it was called). In crafting his story of the fall, the second writer has cast this god, a false one to him, in the role of temptress, and made of adam, mankind, Adam, the first man.
The serpent has nothing to do with Satan, until medieval Jewish legend. The serpent has a role in many ancient religions, the guardian of hidden knowledge and the mouthpiece of the gods. Serpents speak the truth, but it is a dangerous truth for those without the wisdom to understand it. The second writer has radically changed this role, making the serpent not the voice of god, but a creature who gives wrong advice, fatal as it eventuated for the race of human beings. For the second writer, the woman (goddess/priestess) and her medium serpent have led mankind astray. Only by submission to god (Yahweh) can they find salvation. This is a revolutionary interpretation in the history of religions, and makes of the second writer in this book one of the most influential in the bible.
2. The golden age
The golden age haunts many different traditions. For the Greek writer Hesiod, a younger contemporary of Homer, mankind once lived without conflict. Nature provided food without stint, they knew not disease nor old age. The era ended when man learned the arts of agriculture and metal working, the gift of Prometheus. In Vedic culture the cycle of the ages begins with a golden, ideal, age. In the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Polynesians and other Pacific Ocean nations lived in a state of nature as the ‘noble savage’, innocent of the complexities and corruptions of civilisation. Everywhere, in all cultures, is the sense that once life was more perfect. And it was. Most of the ills we resent and rebel against, and have for thousands of years, are the result of civilisation. Prior to the formation of cities five or six thousand years ago mankind lived in a hunter gatherer society, and the memory of this is a core around which the legends of the golden age have formed. An essential characteristic of the golden age is that it is in the past, lost, vanished.
The first writer in the Book of Beginnings tells of this age, of how mankind lived in a beautiful garden, nurtured by the fruits of the trees, without conflict, in concord with the birds and animals.
Before this, he gives an account of the creation of the world. Here is the story of the six days of creation, told in the first chapter of the Book of Beginnings. The universe consists only of water. God appeared on the water, and decided to create. He has made light; the heavens; earth and the plants; the sun, the moon and the stars; the fish and the birds; and the animals.
Then god made man, male and female, and man was in the image of god. God told man, be fruitful, and multiply, and to man he gave mastery of every living thing he had created.
In this vision the creation is seen from the point of view of man, even before he is created. This is the order in which you would view the world if you were imagining its creation, and far from the evolution of the universe as we deduce it now.
During the creation god is shown as like a human craftsman. Nothing exists in the universe except water, until god decides to create the world. Each of the six creations is treated much the same way as a potter would examine his newly thrown pots. God looks at what he has created critically to see how it turned out. Presumably he might be dissatisfied. But he has been successful, what he has created is good, and he is pleased. He goes on to the next creation.
Notable also is that the Hebrew religion is not at this stage monotheistic in the sense we use the word. Later in the Book of Beginnings it is clear there is one god, but he is not the only god. Other peoples worship other gods. Aaron worships Baal for a time. These are false gods not in the sense of imaginary gods, still less evil gods. They are less powerful gods, and god will prevail against them. From this stems the perennial Hebrew fantasy of becoming masters of all the kingdoms on earth, under the rule of the most powerful god, which follows from being the chosen people of the most powerful god.
The first chapter of the Book of Beginnings has parallels with other creation stories, from Sumeria and other Mesopotamian cultures, and from primitive cultures around the world. From the fourth chapter onwards, we are presented with the spread of the peoples of the world, the invention of agriculture and settled existence, and the growth of the Jewish people. It is in many ways a chronicle, and one, to us unfamiliar, characteristic is the recording of descent and kinship.
3. The fall
But between the account of creation, and of the spread of mankind, comes the story of the fall of man, chapters two and three of the Book of Beginnings. The author of this account is one of the world’s greatest writers. In many ways his account is similar to a Greek tragedy, say Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus. Like the Book of Job it is concerned with the existence of evil and wrong in the perfect creation of god. Job is considered to have been modelled very closely on a Greek tragedy. Most people know these chapters two and three, even those who have never read the bible.
God made man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him a soul. He put him in the east of the land of Eden, and made a garden there for man. Everything man needed for food was there, and there were two trees, of life, and of the knowledge of good and evil. The garden was watered by a river which came from Eden to the east where the garden was. God placed man in the garden, and told him he could eat from every tree, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That would be the tree of death for him. But of the tree of life he could eat. God made the animals, and gave Adam command of them, and Adam gave them names. Then, while he slept, he took one of Adam’s ribs and made a woman to be his companion.
In the garden was a serpent, and the serpent spoke to the woman, saying, can you eat of the trees in the garden? And she said, of all, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, of the fruit of that tree we shall die. The serpent said, this is not true. If you eat the fruit of this tree you will be like god. The woman desired to be wise, and to make her husband wise. She disregarded the word of god, and listened to the word of the serpent, and ate the fruit of this tree, and gave the fruit to Adam; he ate from it also. Suddenly they were aware of good and evil. They saw they were naked, and that it was wrong, and covered themselves. But they were still ashamed of their nakedness, and hid from god. When god realised they had eaten the fruit of the tree, he cursed the serpent, so that he had to slide on the ground. He cursed the woman, making childbirth painful for her, and making her subservient to man. He cursed Adam, making the getting of food laborious. And to man god gave death. Adam called his wife Eve, the mother of all living things. God made clothing for Adam and Eve. Then god was afraid that man would eat of the tree of life, and live for ever. He drove Adam and Eve from the garden he had made for them, and guarded its entrance with an angel, to keep man from the tree of life.
There are those who see parallels to the natural life of man in this story. Embryonic life in the womb is paradise, expulsion from the garden is through the birth canal, from whence man lives his life in an imperfect world, bounded by death. Others see a metaphor for the bitter transaction we all must make, buying wisdom at the cost of our innocence. There are many overtones to the story. The second writer is a very great poet indeed.
Right from the opening words the second writer gives us a dramatic, almost cinematic, account. God reaching to the ground and gathering a handful of dust, forming the first man, then breathing into him the breath of life. Compare this to the first writer’s account, more concise but also more remote (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them“).
The second writer also sparks the interest of those enthusiastic amateur geographers who ignore the more profound meanings the writer is trying to convey and who go off on the quest of finding where exactly the garden was. The garden was to the east of a country called Eden, apparently. On the eastern border of Eden a river flowed, branching into four, which watered the garden and made it fertile. Provided the writer of this account knew any accurate geography, the two rivers mentioned we know about haven’t changed their courses, and the two rivers mentioned we don’t know about don’t matter, this makes Eden somewhere in eastern Turkey and the garden further east again, perhaps in the Armenian highlands. This is supposing quite a lot to very little purpose in my belief. The historic meanings of many of the Hebrew words used are not clear to scholars, and added to this is the fact that the language does not write vowels, so translators have a more than usual level of difficulty to render an English version.
The second writer also mentions, among the trees whose fruit nurtured Adam and Eve, two special trees he calls, one, the tree of life, which gave immortality, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which gave wisdom. These two magic trees seem right out of folk tale, a part of the hero’s quest. There is a slight inconsistency in the account, as earlier god allows man to eat of the tree of life, but later he drives Adam and Eve out of the garden to prevent them from doing so. They apparently don’t eat of this tree, as they do not live for ever. But god is concerned about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eat of this tree, he says, and man will “become as one of us”. I wonder to whom he is talking? This knowledge is a characteristic of gods, and not of animals. Hitherto man has been as one of the animals, though master of them. God does not want man to have this knowledge, yet he creates the tree. It is usual to follow Augustine in saying this was a test of obedience, that the ‘sin’ of Adam was disobedience to the will of god. Yet god is not depicted in this book as a ruler who demands unconditional obedience, the arbitrary tyrant of St Augustine. He is rather a creator who has plans for man. The trees are created for man to eat their fruit, when he is ready and can benefit from the gifts the fruits can bring. But he is not yet ready.
The question of obedience is raised by the second writer, but not quite in the way we think. When a child runs across the road and is hit by a car, we do not think he has been punished for disobeying his father’s warning to look both ways before crossing, except in a metaphorical way. Rather, the child suffers the consequences of not being guided by the superior wisdom of his parent. There’s actually a big difference between not following advice and disobeying a command, a difference Augustine did not want to acknowledge, and we have unfortunately followed his lead.
The knowledge of human nature shown here is truly extraordinary, and to show it in such a poetic and condensed way would be extraordinary in any age. The curse of man, then and till now, has been the use of knowledge, without the discrimination to use it wisely. Just as in Greek tragedy, Adam’s crime, his excess, is that of hubris. This is not pride, as it is usually translated. It is wanting too much too soon, without heed of the will of the gods. Excess is a good word for it. The fault is a want of balance, of consideration. It is a tragic flaw. The fault is not circumstantial, it is a part of our human nature. The second writer is saying, I think, that we could have, and can, overcome this flaw, by unconditional submission to the will of god. Not to learn this lesson, he says, is to encounter death.
In another dramatic and vivid depiction, god put Adam to sleep. He took one of his ribs and made a woman of it. The writer apparently felt that to make Eve the same way as Adam, from a handful of dust, into which was breathed the breath of life, would be to make of her a separate creation. He was trying to explain the difference of sex within the one creation (something we still wonder over). He had recourse to a false etymology, out of man=woman. In Plato’s Symposium the comedy writer Aristophanes tells a fable of the days when men and woman were one body. They grew too successful, and aroused the jealousy of the gods, who split them into male and female parts, and now men and women go looking all the time for their original other half. In the second writer’s account men and woman cleave together, become one flesh, because they were originally one body. It’s as good a theory as any.
Before the eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were naked. The second writer considers it noteworthy they were not ashamed, as nakedness is a sign of poverty in Eastern countries, of lack of success. In the garden this nakedness was a sign of innocence. Adam and Eve were naked as an animal was naked. After eating the fruit, and almost the only effect recorded, is self consciousness and shame at their nakedness. They certainly have not “become as one of us” as god had feared. As a result of knowing the difference between good and evil this seems an anticlimax. God has concern for the shame Adam and Eve now feel at their nakedness, and makes clothes for them. The writer is moving on to the second main point of his story, that of the origins of the ills man has to cope with. Clothing stands for modesty, the relative standing and appropriate behaviour of men and women, the social ranks distinguished by styles of dress and based on inequality of wealth and a sign of rank and occupation. All these existed in the society the writer knew about, all came about because of the loss of Paradise.
We tend to blame the serpent for it all. We’ve only just stopped blaming Eve. And yet, consider that the serpent only says, that when you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall know the difference between good and evil. Adam and Eve already know this, because god has told them, by so naming the tree.
There is a whole genre of pictures showing women and snakes, too many for me to show here. Many have a sexual element, though whether that is a male fantasy or a female one I’m not sure. Leaving the soft, plump medieval and renaissance depictions of Eve behind, here are two strong women showing different aspects of their femininity towards a snake.
A famous portrait of Rachel Weisz
A woman who may well be listening to what her snake is saying
The woman is searching for wisdom. The serpent tells her how wisdom is to be found. A prevalent religious rite of Neolithic and early Bronze Age Eastern countries involved an appeal to the Great Mother (Eve is called the mother of all) for guidance, and for fruitfulness, of the fruits of the earth and of humankind. The priestess in this rite received an oracle through a sacred snake, and spoke the words of the goddess. That is all that has happened here. Yet we are at a watershed in the history of religions. The story in the Book of Beginnings signifies that the Great Mother is dead. Gone are the nurturing rites of the earth. Now man must follow the law and obey the will of god, who acts very much as a male.
The Great Goddess worship from Crete as depicted at the ’04 Athens Olympics
became a story of temptation and weakness and the fall of man
Then come the three curses of god. The serpent loses his legs, and must slide on his belly. The woman must bear children with pain, and be subject to man. And man must know hard labour to earn his living, and die in the end. The tragic story of loss of innocence and of paradise is interrupted, to explain the origin of certain human customs.
Only now does god think of the tree of life. Before the fall, Adam and Eve could have eaten of the fruit of this tree, but didn’t. No prohibition was placed upon them. After they have tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, everything changed. The fruit of both trees would make mankind “like one of us” god fears. This is the reason given for driving man out of the garden. Adam has incurred the jealousy of god. In Greek tragedy hubris on the part of man led to the jealousy of the gods, and their retribution. That is what happens here. And the second writer finishes his account with one last, indelible picture. Cherubims, a kind of griffin with a human face, and wielding flaming swords, stood guard at the east of the garden, to prevent man from returning. The angels, of which cherubims were one kind, were both the messengers and the guards of the gods (just as the serpents and dragons were). Geographers please note that this was further to the east again. The second writer believed human settlements began to the east of a garden which was to the east of a country called Eden, which means we must be in Armenia or Afghanistan by now. Or perhaps further east (and south) at Mehrgarh in Pakistan, where settlements of herders and farmers dating from 7000 BC have been discovered.
The story as we have it in the bible has been assembled from various sources by more than one editor. One source, whom I call the second writer, forms the second and third chapter of the Book of Beginnings. His account lacks the coherence and power of the best Greek tragedy, but contains many of the elements of such tragedy. Here is an attempt to deal with the central paradox of human existence, the battle between transience and immortality, between significance and meaninglessness, between the world we know and the one we have lost. It’s a tale we have taken to heart.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.