The story of the Garden in Eden, and how Adam and Eve lost Paradise through the temptation of the snake, is one of the most influential myths in many cultures. But the story is not what it seems. It comes from the Jewish Tanakh or Bible, from the book called Genesis. What do we find there?
This is a book which explains how things began, the world, mankind, the Jewish people. In Genesis there are two accounts of Adam and Eve. Here is the first one (I’m quoting the New English Bible translation, OUP 1970). “Then god [whose name is Canaanite El] said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule…fish, birds, cattle, all wild animals on earth…’. In the image of god he created him, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase…’” (Genesis 1, 26-31). After a problem caused by the murder of Abel, Adam’s first son, it continues: “Adam was 130 years old when he begot a son in his likeness and image, and named him Seth [who replaces the slain Abel]. After the birth of Seth he lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. He lived 930 years and then he died.” (Genesis 5, 3-5). There are no problems except for Abel’s murder. It’s a short and sweet account. Adam and Eve are created by the power of god, given rule over other animals, and told to have children.
Later, an unknown editor added to this account a version by another author which forms chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. This is the bit which everyone remembers. This dramatic second account tells not just of the origin of humankind. It explains how a Golden Age ended and a more imperfect age began. “Then the lord god [whose name is now Yahweh, YHWH] formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…Then the lord god planted a garden in Eden away to the east…and in the middle of the garden he set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…The lord god told the man, ‘You may eat from every tree in the garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; for on the day you eat from it you will certainly die’…so the lord god put the man into a trance, and while he slept, he took one of his ribs and closed the flesh over the place. The lord god then built up the rib, which he had taken out of the man, into a woman…Now they were both naked, the man and his wife, but they had no feeling of shame towards one another.
“The serpent was more crafty than any wild creature that the lord god had made. He said to the woman, ‘Is it true that the lord has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ [Eve said, we may eat from any tree except that in the middle of the garden]. “‘If we do, we shall die’. The serpent said, ‘Of course you will not die. God knows as soon as you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods knowing both good and evil’…When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good to eat… she took some and ate it. She also gave her husband some and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they discovered they were naked. So they stitched fig leaves together and made loin clothes”. [They confessed, and god put them out of the Garden]. “The man called his wife Eve because she was the mother of all who live. The lord god made tunics of skins for Adam and his wife and clothed them. He said, ‘The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; what if he now reaches out his hand and takes fruit from the tree of life also, eats it and lives for ever?’ So the lord god drove him out of the garden of Eden…” (Genesis 2, 7 − 3, 24)
That’s all we know, from Genesis, about Adam and Eve, three short chapters. But others have added to the story. People usually think Genesis contains more than it does. In Genesis there is:
• no history.
Genesis was written down about 540 BC, and history was invented by Herodotus about 450 BC. Genesis tells how things began. It is not a history book.
• no devil.
The snake who persuades Eve to try the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a crafty animal. A clever one. He is not seen as malicious or evil. That’s from Milton’s Paradise Lost.
• no temptation.
The snake wants to confer a benefit on Eve, and she on Adam. They listen to god’s warning, then the snake’s suggestion (both god and snake say the same thing about the fruit of the tree). God doesn’t want them to know good and evil, the snake does. In earlier myths the snake was god too.
• no Original Sin.
That came with St Augustine. Human beings are not cursed. Adam and Eve are forced to leave the garden, and told life will be harder, but god still cares for them and provides them with clothing.
• no punishment.
God makes Adam and Eve leave the garden for practical reasons, to prevent them from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life. They now know good from evil, and this has made them mortal. The snake apparently loses its legs and has to slither (not many have imagined a legged snake offering the forbidden fruit); Eve will bear children in pain (at this stage she hasn’t a clue about sex and childbirth so she does’t know what god means); and Adam will have to till the soil instead of picking fruit (again, he does’t really know what god is talking about). These “curses” are not a punishment.
• no heaven, no hell.
These ideas were not present in Judaism at this stage, and this meant
• no salvation.
These ideas are all additions to the original story. What’s happened is that the Jewish tale has been altered to reinforce some of the doctrines of Christianity. We don’t know who added most of these ideas, but they’re not from scripture, Jewish or Christian. They’re not in Genesis. What is?
The two trees
The author of Genesis chapters 2 and 3 centres his version of the story on two trees. God plants a garden east of Eden, where he walks in the cool of the evening and where he places Adam and Eve. God is imagined as a human being like them. Both he and the snake speak to Adam and Eve, who can understand them. God has at least one other companion (perhaps his once wife Ishtar) to whom he expresses his anxiety that Adam and Eve have become “like one of us” and might now eat of the Tree of Life and become immortal, now they have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There is some confusion here, as Adam and Eve were originally immortal. It was eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that made them mortal. Eating of the fruit of both trees will apparently turn Adam and Eve into gods. God is said, not to forbid the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but warn that it will bring death if eaten. He sends Adam and Eve from the Garden to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life.
In some way not fully explained these two fruits are important. We learn only about the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating of this fruit makes Adam and Eve “like one of us”, like gods, yet also makes them mortal and aware of their sexual nature. It seems this knowledge, of good and evil, is why they must leave Paradise. Only by encountering difficulties will they learn to fully distinguish good from evil, develop a moral nature and progress towards perfection, a perfection they lost with self consciousness. This is too commonly seen as a punishment for the sin of disobedience, following the disturbed ideas of St Augustine, but I think the author of chapters 2 and 3 is more subtle than that. Look at the alternatives he describes: to live without knowing good from evil, and be immortal; or know the difference, and become mortal. Would we be fully human if we couldn’t distinguish between good and evil? I think the author of Genesis 2 and 3 has added to a story about the tree of immortality guarded by the snake and ‘eaten’ by those who follow the rites of Ishtar/Ashtoreth a story about how mankind came to distinguish between good and evil. This moral concern is his great contribution to the book: how we are separated from god in this life but can find god again through the rites laid down by Moses, which help us distinguish between good and evil.
The snake in the Garden of Eden has become associated with the Devil. But just think: god doesn’t want Adam and Eve to partake of the tree of life, or to be able to distinguish between good and evil. The snake thinks it a good idea. So do we, so do all religions. The snake was once the guardian of the tree for Eve, and now assumes the form of a recurrent figure in religion, the trickster god, one who acts unexpectedly. In Greek religion the god Hermes is one, and not surprisingly he carries a snake entwined around his staff of power, the caduceus. Hera’s garden in the West where the golden apples of the sun grow which bestow immortality is guarded by the Hesperides, and by a snake. God is presented rather negatively by the author of chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, as someone who wants to conceal knowledge. Why? Then he seems fearful Adam and Eve will eat the fruit of the other tree, and sends them out of the Garden to prevent this. Again, we have to ask why. The serpent’s advice is the wiser, but we are dealing here with a jealous god.
Many religions have a snake figure. The snake is wise because immortal; immortal because it sheds its skin and is periodically renewed. In the ancient religion of the Goddess the snake guided the priestess. The snake was present in the worship of the mother, Ishtar, supposed by some to be god’s wife in a polytheistic original of Judaism. In chapter 2 and 3 of Genesis, the snake speaks only to Eve. It’s possible this relates to a Goddess rite, where priestess/goddess invoked the wisdom of the snake. Eve is the one who is interested in the distinction between good and evil. She is the teacher.
The patriarch Abraham or Ab-ram, whose story is also told in Genesis, lived in the city of Ur in Sumer. He travelled around the fertile crescent to the land of Canaan because of a long drought that made living difficult in Sumer about 2000 BC. Along with his family and livestock he took with him many of the tales of Sumer, which were handed down in stories to his descendants and are present in the Bible. About the time of Abraham’s journey a hero of Sumer called Gilgamesh, perhaps an ancient king of Uruk near Ur, became the centre of a series of poems. They were sung or recited much like the poems of Homer originally were, but also recorded on clay tablets by scribes, some of which have survived, though incomplete. There would have been many tales of him, told in many different versions, and some of them have been handed down in the Bible.
Gilgamesh loves the wild man Enkidu, his only equal as a warrior. Enkidu falls in love with a woman, a temple prostitute called Shamhat, who tames him, and cuts his hair, in a story related to that of the hero Samson. Enkidu dies, killed in revenge by the goddess Inanna/Ishtar. Gilgamesh goes looking for the plant of immortality, enters the underworld, finds the garden of the gods, where there are trees bearing jewels. He crosses the waters of death and meets the immortal Utnapishtim, survivor of the flood, whose story resembles that of Noah. Gilgamesh finds the plant that restores youth by wading on the bottom of the ocean to collect it. But it is stolen by a snake.
To summarise: a hero enters a garden created by god, looking for the fruit of the Tree of Life for his friend who is dead. A snake defeats him and steals the fruit, and it becomes immortal instead. The hero is told it is his lot to die, and learns about good and evil. Could this be the original of Genesis 2 and 3? The author of Genesis 2 and 3 has the better story, is the greater artist. The image of god leaning down to gather a handful of dust and breathing life into it, or the serpent telling Eve she will learn the difference between good and evil, are ones that have never been forgotten.
Darwin and Russell
So even when modern scientists come up with a different scenario, people hang onto the old story of Adam and Eve. It is much more beautiful, so much more full of poetry, wisdom and ideas which resonate in the minds of all kinds of people. But both stories can’t be true. Or can they?
Genesis has been interpreted as telling of a period about 4,000 BC. Modern anthropologists, using a structure suggested by Charles Darwin and simultaneously by Alfred Russell Wallace which was based on earlier studies in population growth and in geology, estimate the first humans to have lived about 2.3 million years ago, called homo habilis. Not a true human, but the first tool user. Another precursor to man, homo erectus, showed a sudden increase of brain size, and was the first to use fire, and lived about one million years ago. Humans with a similar skeletal structure to modern man evolved 400,000 years ago, and are called homo sapiens. By 50,000 years ago this species was behaving much as we do today, using language, living in communities and developing more complex stone tools and simple technologies. And 5,000 years ago we became ‘civilised’.
Early reactions to these theories (based on skeleton remains and tool traces) was one of horror. Instead of the godlike Adam and Eve, humans originally looked something like a chimpanzee does today, and behaved similarly. They weren’t monkeys or chimpanzees though, but precursors to mankind, something unique. Those who accepted the evidence and the theories were confused. Was the Garden of Eden in Africa? Was god a negro? The idea of someone who looked like a chimpanzee accepting fruit they thought was good destroys the guilt aspect of the loss of Eden.
The Genesis author’s narrative centres on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eating its fruit began man’s long journey from animal life to human. Like the story of Gilgamesh, the theory of evolution is not too different from the story of Adam and Eve. Because that story contains spiritual truth.
Word of God
This essay separates the story of Adam and Eve from the rest of the Bible (and the faiths of which it forms a part) to look at it in a fresh perspective. Some people feel that the Bible is the “word of God” and cannot be interpreted in other than a way authorised by their faith. In fact, historical investigation and faith are distinct activities and can co-exist, even in the same person. The “word of God” has never meant that god wrote the Bible, or spoke it. It means that its writers were divinely inspired, and that the contents have spiritual truth. Different sects of Judaism and Christianity have different Bibles. Does the “word of God” apply to all versions, only the Hebrew and Greek originals, or to translations into other languages as well? What about oral traditions of commentary? The Bible is part of a faith, but also a text we use to explore our ancestors’ thought.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.