Book Review: What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit

Zevit is a Hebrew scholar, and says the Genesis story can only be understood if you read it in Hebrew. His book is worth reading, and you don’t need to understand Hebrew to read it (but you probably do to evaluate his claims, so read it with a sceptical mind). He looks at the language used, and tries to assess what the story meant to the people who wrote it. It was told orally long before it was written down, and Biblical Hebrew is a translation of ancient Hebrew, so we can’t be sure, but he makes some bold claims.

Firstly, he claims the story wasn’t written as a myth, but as an historically accurate event. (Of course, this doesn’t mean it was historical, only that those writing it believed it was.) He also says it overlaps a lot with the Gilgamesh Story, which would have been well-known to those reading it. You might not be familiar with Gilgamesh—but Zevit is right, lots of it is very like the Genesis story (and it was written first).

Zevit makes some interesting translation choices. The one which has earned him a not-too-flattering nickname is his claim that Eve was not made from Adam’s rib, but from his penis. His evidence for this is the Hebrew word used means ‘side’ in most other places, that Hebrew writing of this time used various euphemisms for body parts and this is just another example. He also notes that humans are the only species which don’t have a bone there, as it works on hydraulics (and he provides drawings of skeletons to prove it). Whilst it’s an interesting view, I think it’s bit speculative (and slightly weird). It’s true that the Hebrew doesn’t mean ‘rib,’ and ‘side’ would be a closer translation (and every scholar I’ve read agrees with that). But I don’t think he’s correct on the rest of it.

Another point he makes is that humans were created mortal—in other words, they were always intended to die. I have heard lots of sermons (especially at funeral services) that say death is a result of sin, and not what was intended, but I think Zevit is right here. The story seems reasonably clear that humans were created with the intention to die when old. Otherwise the world would become too full (because reproduction also seems to have been intended) and why would ‘the tree of life’ have been created if people already lived forever? The Old Testament doesn’t see death as a bad thing, it talks a lot about people living to a good old age, and ‘going to sleep’ and joining their ancestors.

He also says that the idea of idle paradise is not what the story is about. The humans were created to work in the garden—first Adam, and then the woman to help him. (Please note, the word used to describe Eve as a ‘helper’ does not imply Adam was the boss! It’s the same word used many times in the Old Testament to describe God helping people, and if anything it implies a stronger being helping a weaker being. But we won’t go there.)

The most dramatic (for me) of Zevit’s claims is that the humans did not sin, and they were not punished. The language used to describe the command given to Adam (before Eve was made) was, Zevit claims, more of an ‘aside’ than a specific command. The main command was to eat from every tree, followed by, “Oh, but don’t eat from the tree of knowledge.” He sees the story as a ‘coming of age’ story, whereby humans gained knowledge, and this resulted in them becoming aware of certain things, which increased their discomfort. If you don’t know childbirth is painful, then you don’t fear it and it’s less painful. I think some of his points are true, and I’ll discuss them in a later blog. Scholars such as James Barr and Joseph Fitzpatrick have similar beliefs and I found them more reliable. Certainly some of Zevit’s points are true—the woman was not cursed (a point worth making as I have heard the pain of childbirth described as a curse). Only the snake and the ground were cursed, the people were simply told things would be harder for them. There is no evidence of anger in the story, nor do words akin to ‘punishment’ appear.

This book certainly challenges some of the traditional ideas about the Garden of Eden story. He makes some interesting points, such as that the first commandment given to humans was that they must eat from every tree in the garden. I’m not sure whether Zevit always believes what he writes, or if he is simply enjoying being controversial, but if you read it with a sceptical mind, I think you will find it interesting.

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