Friday, January 7, 2011 Login

The Bible & History: Creation (Part 2)

Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the Garden of Eden, like their ancient mythic counterparts, have no historical basis whatsoever. Their purpose, rather, lies in their etiology (explanation of origins).

The break between Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is incredibility misleading. The Priestly creation account that begins in Genesis 1Open Link in New Window continues into Genesis 2Open Link in New Window with God resting on the seventh day. Why does God rest on the seventh day? The Priestly authors were particularly concerned with ritual. The fact that God rests on the seventh day and the fact that there are seven days in a week is no coincidence. One ritual that was important to the ancient Israelites and the Priests was the observation of the Sabbath. On the Sabbath the Israelites would rest by restraining from doing any work, and this would occur on the seventh day of every week. A Priestly passage inserted into the third commandment, which involves keeping the Sabbath, states, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11Open Link in New Window). Thus, the Priestly authors tried to justify this practice theologically or mythically by claiming that God rested on the seventh day of creation. This reasoning, which is presented in Exodus’s version of the Ten Commandments, wouldn’t have made any sense without the Priestly creation story.

Image via Wikipedia

The Priestly account ends with Genesis 2Open Link in New Window:4a. To the untrained eye, the rest of Genesis 2Open Link in New Window might appear to be a continuation of the creation story presented in the first chapter. Alas, Genesis 2Open Link in New Window:4b-25 is actually a second version of the creation myth. While in the first account the cosmos emerges out of the primeval sea, here the Earth is a dry desert that Yahweh waters by raising up a mist from the ground. The order of creation is also different. In the first account we saw that God’s creation culminated in the creation of both man and woman in the sixth and final day. In chapter 2, however, Yahweh first crafts man from the soil of the ground and animates him through Yahweh’s breath. Yahweh then forms all of the plants and animals hoping that Adam (which is actually the Hebrew term for “earth creature” or “humanity”, not a proper name) would be able to find a suitable mate out of these. When he doesn’t, Yahweh forms a woman out of Adam’s rib and emphasizes that they are of “one flesh”.

The style and language of Genesis 2Open Link in New Window:4b-25 is much different from what we see in Genesis 1:1-2Open Link in New Window:4a. More importantly, the picture of God painted by chapter 2 is more theologically primitive than the Priest’s cosmic and transcendent God who shaped the cosmos merely by speaking. In the second account, Yahweh as a deity possesses human-like characteristics. He forms man from the dust of the ground and breathes life into his nostrils. He puts Adam asleep and forms Even from Adam’s rib. He lets Adam name all of the animals and actually expects that Adam will find a mate from among them. In Genesis 3:8Open Link in New Window we are told that Yahweh takes physical strolls through the Garden of Eden “in the cool of the day” and has to call out to Adam when He can’t find him hiding in the bushes. This is vastly different from how the Priests visualized God.

Equally important is the observation that the Priest’s account and chapter 2’s account use two different names for God. Genesis 1Open Link in New Window uses Elohim, or God, while Genesis 2Open Link in New Window uses the name Yahweh. In English translations, the name Yahweh is often replaced with the word LORD in all capital letters. Just remember that whenever you see LORD the original Hebrew read Yahweh. Because of this naming convention, scholars refer to the authors of the second creation account in chapter 2 as the ‘J’ source. The ‘J’ comes from the German spelling of Yahweh, Jehweh. Richard Elliot Friedman, in his now classic work, Who Wrote the Bible?, dates the J composition to somewhere between 848 and 722 BCE (pg. 87). At this point in history Judah and Israel were still two separate kingdoms, which is about several hundred or so years before the Priests would have completed their account.

That a god would fashion man from soil was not an uncommon motif in the ancient Mesopotamian world. In theEnuma Elish a race of savage human beings, known as the “lullu”, were created by mixing clay and the blood of a god. An Egyptian creation myth describes the god Ptah creating humans out of clay on a potter’s wheel. In Hesiod’sTheogony, written in the same time period as the J document, Prometheus molds man out of clay and Athena breathes life into him. Both the breath and the blood were viewed as carriers of the life force, so the fact that in J Yahweh breathes into Adam’s nostrils to give him life accurately reflects the myths and beliefs of that time.

The Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach der Ältere.
Image via Wikipedia

The ancient Near Eastern society in which the author’s of J lived was certainly agriculturally based, meaning that their very lives depended on how well they could work the land and grow food. It was also a patriarchal society, which means that socially women were always being dominated by the men. In Genesis 2Open Link in New Window, Yahweh plants a tree of the knowledge of good and evil and a tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Nowhere is it explained why Yahweh would even bother to plant such trees if He plainly didn’t want Adam or Eve to eat its fruit. Neither is it particularly clear to modern readers exactly how eating a piece of fruit could grant special knowledge or immortality. Ancient myths, however, have historically associated fruits and herbs with wisdom and life. In a Sumerian myth, Enki is condemned to death by Ninhursag for eating a forbidden herb. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a snake steals the herb of immortality from Gilgamesh before he is able to acquire it. It is no wonder then, that the authors of J adopted this symbolism into their own creation story to set up Adam and Eve’s disobedience, from which they could explain the origins of several negative aspects of their lives.

The two main qualities that were thought to separate humans from gods are the god’s superior knowledge and their immortality. Thus, the two trees that Yahweh plants in the Garden of Eden represent the two qualities that humans are lacking from God. As I argued in part 1, an earlier tradition had Yahweh create man in the image of the gods in His divine council, except that Yahweh made man a little less than the gods (Psalm 8:5Open Link in New Window). To make man a “little less than the gods” would mean to strip man of those two qualities: wisdom and immortality.

So, when Adam and Eve do eventually eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and gain that wisdom, they have become that much closer to the gods in Yahweh’s council. That’s why in Genesis 3:22Open Link in New Window we see this otherwise mysterious passage with its use of the plural tense:

“Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.”

To protect the tree of life Yahweh banishes Adam from the Garden of Eden (interestingly, the text does not say whether or not Eve was also banished, as it merely refers to Adam) and posts cherubim and a flaming sword that block its path. The true purpose of this myth comes to us in the form of Yahweh’s punishments to Adam and Eve. He condemns Eve and all subsequent women to pains during childbirth and subordination to men. “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16Open Link in New Window). He condemns Adam and all subsequent men to farming and toiling the land. In the days before modern medicine, childbirth was a risky and painful endeavor, and in J’s society women had to get used to being dominated by men. Being an agricultural community, laboring the land was a necessary but tireless job for men. Thus we can see that J’s myth of Adam and Eve is a simple explanation of the origins of these harsh realities that J’s society experienced on a day to day basis.

The idea that the serpent who seduced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit is Satan does not appear anywhere in Genesis or the rest of the Hebrew Bible. According to Tim Callahan’s Secret Origins of the Bible, “Throughout the ancient world serpents are associated with immortality, death, healing, and wisdom” (pg. 49). As I mentioned earlier, the hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh has the herb of immortality stolen from him by a serpent that immediately sheds its skin and becomes rejuvenated. “This motif, that the serpent stole immortality from humans, is widespread in myths from many parts of the world” (Ibid.). The author of J’s use of a serpent that misleads Eve should be considered as a form of mythic symbolism that would have likely been easily recognized by its ancient readers.

The doctrine of Original Sin that is often associate with the story of Adam and Eve also cannot be found anywhere within J’s story or the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh condemns man and women to several types of labors, but nowhere does it state that this transmits death and sin to all of mankind. Paul is one of the first Christian writers to speculate on this idea, while the later Christian theologian Augustine (early fifth century CE) saw it as a tragic “fall from grace” in which all of humanity inherited the original parent’s sinfulness. Such concepts, however, simply are not built into the original story and are merely the inventions of later theologians.

Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the Garden of Eden, like their ancient mythic counterparts, have no historical basis whatsoever. Their purpose, rather, lies in their etiology (explanation of origins). Historically and scientifically, we now know that humans did not suddenly appear at one point alongside all other animals, but rather, gradually evolved from a common ancestor through the well-known mechanisms of evolution. Fragments along this evolutionary path have been preserved and discovered by paleontologists working in Africa, and it is apparent that the evolutionary process which eventually led to human beings is a long and complicated one.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

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