Is it true or myth? Literal or not? This is an important question as it still affects us thousands of years later in culture wars over science, history and religion. It figures into patriarchal society and the reduced status of women. It is the affirmation that all humans are sinful and need a savior. So this is no unimportant question.
Today we have clues, evidence and understanding that we did not have just a few hundred years ago. This is both good and bad. It is bad, in that typically we project our present day cultural worldview back into the Hebraic stage of history. It is good that we now have research, archeological excavations and computerized tools with cross referencing capabilities not available anytime in history.
So let’s take a look at two origin stories of the Garden of Eden theme. First we will explore where the immediate influences of the garden came from, then we will journey further back in time to pre-history where the concept became archetypical and influenced the world since.
I’ll only summarize the Garden story since we are all already familiar. God creates Adam and Eve in and places them in a paradisiacal garden whose entrance is guarded by cherubim, angels with swords. They are told they can eat anything they want except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. These naked innocent ones live in harmony, while tending the garden and living off the land. But there is a talking serpent in the garden who tempts Eve who then tempts Adam, to disobey God. This disobedience results in them being “cast out” and required to toil the land for their food.
The Use of Myth in the Bible.
A myth, by definition is “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events or a widely held but false belief or idea.” Did the writers of the OT use mythology? Yes, of course they did, sometimes by using mythology to present their own view that Yahweh is greater.
For instance, Duncan Hester writes in The Real Devil, “Job 26:5-14 has a whole string of allusions to popular Canaanite myths of cosmic combat; and the point of the passage is that Yahweh is so far greater than them that effectively they don't exist. Thus "The Shades writhe beneath Him [a reference to Mot, writhing as a serpent]... he strips naked Abaddon... stretches Zaphon... by his power he stilled the Sea [a reference to the god Yamm]. By his cunning he smote Rahab. By his wind the heavens are cleared [a reference to the Labbu myth, in which the dragon is cleared out of Heaven], his hand pierced the twisting serpent". Compared to Yahweh, those gods have no power, and they have been effectively 'cleared out of heaven' by Yahweh's power- they simply don't exist out there in the cosmos.”
What about the Garden of Eden? Throughout I will have to summarize because this could easily become a book in itself. Does the Garden idea have prior history in other surrounding cultures? Yes.
A. H. Sayce of Oxford in 1887 showed how the ancient near eastern people believed that the gods often lived in “flesh” on earth and could only live if they ate the food of their city-gardens. Eventually they tired of the work so they created man to work in the gardens for them. The Sumerians from which the ideas came, portray men working in their gardens while naked. These gods did not want man to possess their secret knowledge of the laws of good and evil and heaven and earth. “At Eridu in Sumer, next door to Ur of the Chaldees where Abraham lived and Ea was worshiped, a man (Adampa) is warned by his god Ea, ‘not to eat of food of death or he will die,’ prefiguring Yahweh’s warning to Adam. Both men, Adap and Adam, are blamed for losing out on obtaining immortality for themselves and for mankind.” (The Garden of Eden as recast Mesopotamian Myth, by Walter R. Mattfeld).
Further, cities and temples were designed in that day, with a garden setting. From this city-temple the king/priest ruled his nation under “god” or as representative of God/god. We find the description of the trees of the garden in Ezekiel 31 which are in the temple. We see from Psalm 2 that the king was called the son of God at his coronation, “ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” (vs 7-8). Like other ANE nations, the king/priest of Israel ruled within a garden-temple setting.
As Dr Stavakopoulou shows on the Netflix documentary called The Bible's Buried Secrets, that Ezekiel 28 contains what may be the oldest Eden story and a key to understanding. It is an account of a real king, the King of Tyre, and how he was in the Eden of God. It should be noted that this Phoenician king was not an Israelite, was in a pagan temple, yet he was in the Eden of God. Why? This story shows us how in the ANE kings were supervisors of the temple complex in which he fellowshipped with the divine and tended “the garden”. To be cast out was to typify the loss of that temple fellowship and role as king.
Eden then was most likely not some far distant story of the first two humans, but rather a story of a king who like the King of Tyre, is punished for some disobedience and cast out of their role.
Interestingly enough, in Northern Syria is a pagan temple for most likely the god Ishtar, and it is patterned with the almost identical design as the Jerusalem temple. It too was guarded by cherubim at the door guarding the “garden”. In other words, the temple of Jerusalem was based on the same design, shape, size and so forth as other pagan temples. The Jerusalem temple, if you remember, was filled with garden design, symbols and imagery!
Symbolism in the Garden story.
Adam is cast in the tradition of the ancient near eastern mythology, as either the origin of Israel, or as a king of Israel, symbolizing the king and tender of the garden of God in the temple system. It is this story that some scholars believe was only later placed in Genesis at the beginning of the book thereby associating it with the creation of the world.
Eve is the wife of Adam. You will find throughout the Hebrew Bible that kings were forbidden to “multiply wives” because as they married wives offered from other nations, it introduced idolatry into the nation.
The Sacred Trees. The trees in the ancient world were symbols of life and divinity. They outlived the people, they feed the hungry, their wood could be used for fire thus warmth, and they reached into the “heavens” because they were so tall. Arthur George writes, “As such, they are a conduit for accessing the upper and lower divine realms, and for transmitting divine power. As portals to the divine, naturally trees had an oracular role, giving people access to divinities and to divine knowledge.” As such, worship took place around and to trees in idolatrous ceremonies in the Bible and trees represent access to the spiritual realm.
The Asherah pole was a tree or stick or idol made of wood that was representative of the god Asherah who was worshiped by Israelites in many places beside El. A pottery shard was discovered that specifically calls the Hebrew El (as in El-Shaddai, etc) the husband of the god Asherah. The god Asherah was depicted with large breasts and a defined pubic triangle which often had a tree symbol above it known as the tree of life whereas the priesthood saw her as representing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a deadly false religion. The king of Tyre in his “Eden of God” probably worshipped the goddess Asherah.
The Serpent. The serpent was not always a sign of evil, but was at one time a picture of the very representation of divine power. Since they were known to be on trees and “under” trees it was believed that they had access to both the spiritual and natural realms.
Moses staff was said to have been made from serpents and it was this staff that was extended over the Red Sea for it to be split. To Israel they became a sacred symbol when according to Numbers 21, “7Then the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD to take the snakes away from us.” So Moses interceded for the people.8Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will live.” 9So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. If anyone who was bitten looked at the bronze serpent, he would recover.”
In fact, serpent worship in that world was common, so much so that the bronze serpent cult became normal Hebrew worship for a time. Eventually as that bronze serpent on a pole became an idol to be worshiped by the people, Hezekiah had it destroyed because people were burning incense to it. The serpent in later history became a representation of the wisdom of a false religion or idol worship.
So what is the Garden story about?
Remember the prophet Jeremiah? His calling was against the idolatry of Israel that invaded the nation and the temple system by permission of the king. It was for this reason that Jeremiah quotes God as turning Israel over to their idolatry resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Babylonians. The king, who tended the temple garden of God, listened to the wisdom of foreign wives who were steeped in serpent wisdom, ie, idolatry.
There is uncertainty of the extent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon called one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and recorded by historians such as Josephus, but it is described as elaborate tiered gardens of trees built by Nebuchadnezzar. Now imagine you are an Israelite who is a slave in Babylon. Your “God” has been defeated by the Babylonian god. Your temple and its garden has been destroyed. Your king and its people have been cast out and toiling as slaves. You are of the priestly line and you know that you must explain why this has happened as you sit looking at these gardens. It is of the utmost importance to preserve the national identity and to keep the people from embracing the foreign gods. So, you gather with the priests and begin the process of writing down the history and origin of your people.
You use the mythological Sumerian story as a launching place that is a familiar way to express it. Then you help establish the identity of the people by showing how they originated not like the other “gods” but from the first Man, the king who was given dominion or as a symbol for the king himself and his paradise temple garden. The serpent was none other than the wisdom of false religion and idolatry that the king’s wife or wives embraced, represented by Eve. The king was influenced and allowed that “hidden knowledge” or perspective of the world into the temple system (which the ancient Sumerians called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”) resulting in idolatry. This resulted in being cast out of the garden and now becoming slaves by a foreign nation. It was their origin story and explanation for the root cause of their exile and toil.
This was the time of the roots of the synagogue as well since they needed to gather to rehearse that history to create a generational legacy of belief and identity.
Do you know one of the first things that Ezra the priest does when they come back from exile? He commands all the men to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 9:1–2 ) so that they are not cast out of the garden-temple again.
Scholars believe this is exactly how it happened. The oral stories, the traditions, anything that was written was compiled during this time. Hebrew language scholars are able to see how traditions and stories were woven together because of the use of words that are stylistically and uniquely consistent within the same books of the Bible yet layered over other authors with their own uniqueness. In other words, it is not hard to tell different authors within a book by the style and word use.
An entire arena of scholarship developed called the JEPD theory in which they note stories that came from Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly writers, each with distinctive writing styles. What we have today was gathered and written by various writers sometimes using mythic imagery as they are in exile in Babylon as a way to preserve national identity with their own origin story that explains their dilemma.
But wait, there’s more. In fact it gets better!!!
It is entirely possible though that the main themes have their origin further back in history where the archetype began. The following is a very brief summary of the way that humanity “fell” and felt banished from the “garden”. It is based on the latest archeological research, and studies of tribal groups today that have been untouched by outside influences for thousands of years. For more information see Steve Taylors great book, The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of the New Era.
Was there a time in the history of the world where humans existed in a more paradise type state? Yes, it seems that for thousands and thousands of years until around 8000 BCE the relationship between humans was not war-like, patriarchal, sexually repressed, nor difficult. In fact evidence suggests that they were relatively free of diseases, they were hunter-gatherer communities that foraged off the land in a garden like climate and they got along with their neighbors with relative ease. They lived with a sense of oneness with all creation. They shared responsibilities among its members, both male and female. They had respect for one another. They communed with the divine as the planet was their Eden. There was no “ownership” of land as they all shared with one another and moved from place to place in their region.
Nor did they live laboring intensely for their needs to be met. According to Steve, “far from exhausting themselves in their search for food, they only actually spent 12 to 20 hours per week searching for it – between a third and a half of the average working week in the modern world!”
Even after this period, which we will come back to in a moment, there is a town called Catal Huyuk in southern Turkey which flourished for 1500 years from about 7000 BCE to 5500 BCE. Archeologist James Mellaart excavated the site and found, “it shows no evidence of any damage by warfare; in fact, there is no sign of any violent contact between human beings at all. Catal Huyuk was apparently a multi-ethnic society, but there is no sign of any conflict between the different peoples who lived and worked there. Even though there was craft specialisation – including potters and toolmakers – the similarity of house sizes and graves suggests that there was little or no inequality. The town seems to have had sexual equality too: religious affairs were conducted by priestesses…” (Taylor).
The golden age in the history of the world with Eden-like qualities was described in other historical accounts. For instance, Taylor writes about Hindu writings, ”According to the ancient text, the Vaya Purana, during the first age, the Krita Yuga (or Perfect Age): Human beings appropriated food which was produced from the essence of the earth … They frequented the mountains and seas, and did not dwell in houses. The never sorrowed, were full of the quality of goodness, and supremely happy; they moved about at will and lived in continual delight … There existed among them no such things as gain or loss, friendship or enmity or like or dislike. Since then, however, history has moved through the three succeeding ages, through to the present Kali Yuga (Age of Darkness), in which human beings are materialistic, lawless and decadent. In fact, this age – as described in another religious text, the Vishnu Purana – sounds like a fairly accurate description of the way that many people live in the modern world: “Accumulated treasures will be spent on dwellings. The minds of men will be solely preoccupied with acquiring wealth; and wealth will be spent on selfish gratifications.”
In China we have this record, ”During this time human beings followed the way of heaven rather than the way of men. They were naturally part of the Tao, the natural harmony or order of nature and the universe. As Chuang Tzu wrote in the fourth century BCE: ‘In the Age of Perfect Virtue they were upright and correct, without knowing that to be so was righteousness; they loved one another, without knowing that to do so was benevolence. [They] did not rebel against want, did not grow proud in plenty. Being like this, he could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make it a show. Since then, however, human beings have become separated from the Tao. They have become selfish and calculating rather than spontaneous. They have begun to follow the way of men, and as a result, laws and rulers have become necessary, to keep their selfishness and greed in check.’”
So what happened that all these cultures develop an archetype of a “fall”? What event triggered this? It seems that, based on the latest research, a cataclysmic climate event happened that dramatically impacted everything in the Saharasian region of the world. Food became harder to find, animals began migrating, harsh climates became normal and the result was that they were “cast out” of the land and their way of life with world changing cultural shifts to go with it. What resulted was a shift in relationships, an emphasis on property, fortified cities, and a dramatic decline in connection based on “survival” behaviors. This eventually resulted in the “desertification” of the region.
Again Taylor writes, “the old Iranian word Paira-daeza, from which the English word “paradise” comes – on a mountain where the water of life flowed and the tree of life grew. It was in a perfect country with a mild climate, and the people who lived with Yima knew “neither heat nor cold, neither old age or death, nor disease … Father and son walked together, each looking but fifteen years of age.” However, this perfect age came to an abrupt end when an evil being called Airyana Vaejo intervened, and changed the mild climate to a harsh winter one. As a result, the garden became infertile and was destroyed by snow and ice.”
Taylor continues to describe the growing migration, “All over these areas it was the same story. From 4000 BCE (or thereabouts – Marija Gimbutas dates the first invasions of Old Europe at 4300 BCE) the Indo-Europeans swept through Old European culture like a forest fire. As Gimbutas writes, ‘Millennial traditions were truncated, towns and villages disintegrated, magnificent painted pottery vanished; as did shrines, frescoes, sculptures, symbols and script.’ From this point on everything is different. There are no more female figurines, no more artistic depictions of natural phenomena, and no more communal graves or whole communities with equal-sized graves. Now war takes precedence over nature in art, and death seems to take precedence over life. Weapons are found everywhere, and settlements are always fortified and walled. Here the historian P. Stern describes the impact of the Indo-Europeans in eastern and central Europe from 3500 BCE onwards: they were introducing violence to a part of the world that previously had been relatively peaceful. And along with ruthless invasions, undeclared warfare, and appropriation of women as their rightful spoils, they were developing a society in which masculinity was supreme. An insatiable desire for property and power, together with insensitivity to pain and suffering in themselves as well as in others, characterised everything they did.”
Ancient Israel inherited these same stories of the paradise in history, and they write their story, while being slaves toiling away as they overlook the Babylonian gardens. Those gardens stood as reminders of their own exile, and the priests begin to write a version of the story that is designed to maintain their identity in the midst of a foreign people and designed to explain why their king, and they, were cast out of temple fellowship with God. They drew from both their historical context regarding ancient myths, but also from the origin of the myths themselves, the archetype created from the great end of an age of paradise.
In other words, the Garden story is not literal. It is reworked mythology which was based on prehistory to make a case against idol worship that kings allow which cause the whole nation, in their eyes, to be cast out of the “land” and temple garden.
Recommended Reading: Steve Taylor’s The Fall; Arthur George’s book The Mythology of Eden; Walter Matfield’s book The Garden of Eden Myth: Its Pre-biblical Origin in Mesopotamian Myths; Also see the Netflix documentary The Bible’s Buried Secrets, The Real Garden of Eden.
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