Monday, June 8, 2015

The Real Garden of Eden

Artist's idea of the Garden of Eden
The story of the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament has long fascinated mankind.  The account of the fall of humans from such a paradise led to the concept of Original Sin and epic poetry like “Paradise Lost,” among other creations.

In the biblical account in the opening book of Genesis, God creates a man and a woman.  In one case, they are created together; in the succeeding chapter, God uses a “rib” to form the woman.  He tells the man, called Adam, not to eat from a plant identified as the Tree of Knowledge.  His wife, Eve, beguiled by a snake, does eat from the tree and then gives some to Adam.  After which, both are dismissed from the Garden.

This tale has also been extensively studied by scholars virtually from the first reading of the text. As a result, most biblical scholars today have a clear understanding of the word usage, grammar and context of the story.  They have found parallels in neighboring cultures as well as a keen understanding of what was meant by the writing.
On the other hand, few people outside that lofty educational realm do.  They simply read the English translation and assume they have a grasp of the events. 

To merge the two worlds, Yale Press has published a book titled What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?  It was written by Ziony Zevit, distinguished professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages and Literature at the American Jewish University, Los Angeles, California.  Zevit is a recognized expert in biblical studies and the ancient Israeli religion.

In his book, Zevit has taken commentary and explanations from such world-renowned scholars as Martin Luther, 1100s Jewish scholar RASHI, ancient sages and modern linguists to analyze the text from a linguistic and legal point of view.  The results are accessible and refreshing.

To start with, Zewit notes that the text must have been comprehensible to the audience who would read (or heard) it when written.  They would have to understand the legal terminology and the nuances, none of which would have the same meaning today.

Just for an example, he records that rich landlords thousands of years ago hired laborers to tend their gardens.  The terminology used in the Eden story matches the wording already documented in ancient sources for such farming. Adam was basically a gardener.

Other findings, based totally on the word usage and not on similar stories in other cultures, point out that:

1) The Garden of Eden is intended to be a model, not a real place.  Multiple attempts to find the four rivers that watered it or to link names in the Bible to known rivers have failed. Moreover, Eden was a working estate, not an idyllic paradise.

2) Adam and Eve are not the only people created.  Uses of plural where singular would be appropriate demonstrate that.  Based on the language and root words, Eve was created as an equal helpmate, not as subservient to Adam in any way.  The parallel is to the creation of animals, which are treated as equal regardless of gender.

Eve is also not created from a rib, as many translations claim.  The term in the Bible is “penis.”  The reference is to the missing baculum bone in humans which is attested to in animals, Zevit argues. However, his translation has been challenged by other linguists.

3) The Tree of Knowledge is not identified beyond its title.  It was not an apple tree.  Adam is warned to not eat it, but the threat is vague and not a command.  Commands in the Bible take special words, none of which are used in the text.
Snake in the Garden

4) The snake was clever, not evil.  He had been formed when God was looking for something to help Adam.  The writer used past tense to describe its punishment for giving fruit to Eve, meaning that the snake already crawled along the ground.  The punishment was that it would continue to do so.  The snake misled Eve because, according to terminology used, it wished to become superior to man. 

5) Eve did nothing wrong.  She was not told about the Tree of Knowledge; Adam was informed before Eve was there, or, for that matter, the snake existed.  As a result, she is not punished.  The grammar indicates the wording should be that women “will continue to feel pain during childbirth.”  Eve would know that because Cain, her eldest, had already been born in Eden, as indicated by the grammar.
Tree of Life?

6) The concern about the Tree of Knowledge had nothing to do with nakedness, but about overpopulation.  That was a major concern in the ancient Middle East with stories of how disease and other problems were created to keep mankind at a proper population level for the available food.

7) As such, again based on the grammar, Adam and Eve were not dismissed from the Garden for eating the fruit.  In fact, they had broken no laws: Eve didn’t know she wasn’t supposed to eat; Adam simply ate without knowing what his wife gave him.  They were exiled to avoid eating from the Tree of Life and gaining immortality.  In that, God was concerned about them, not punishing them.

In essence, as Zevit wrote, “It is not a story about death and redemption.  It is a story about the origins of mankind and human nature, about proper comportment, dignity, the acquisition of knowledge, and, ultimately, ethical self-awareness.”

He concluded that “it was a homely story, not a cultic, or ethic or tribal legend.  It originated in the very human quest for knowledge about what is known through experience and observation.  Its author assumed that there are rational explanations for what is knowable about the physical and social world within which Israelites lived.”

It is an uplifting story, a positive story that has been twisted and turned ever since into something it definitely isn’t: a tale of a fall and sin.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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