What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?
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ZIONY ZEVIT examines the Eden narrative and rightly rejects any
idea that it describes the concept of the Fall resulting in the
doctrine of Original Sin. This derives from St Paul's misuse of the
text, and is foreign to the original author's intentions. Zevit
considers both the possibility that the story is the work of Moses
as well as the conventional literary historical approach, and
argues for an author of the ninth century BCE.
Rightly, Zevit also rejects both the notion of creatio ex
nihilo as well as the belief that Adam was intended to be
immortal. Among many unusual interpretations of the text (for which
the reader will need a knowledge of Hebrew) are his assertion that
other people existed outside Eden; Eve was created from Adam's
penis; Adam may have attempted sexual union with animals and found
it unsatisfactory; Eve gave birth to Cain in the garden; Eve was
guilty of nothing but irritating God; all three sentences marked
not a punishment, but a heightening of awareness; the couple were
not disciplined in any way, but remained in the garden; and only
much later were the couple expelled for their well-being: God
feared that the garden could become overcrowded.
For Zevit, ancient Israelites understood this story as a
positive and optimistic one. Its purpose was to record the
acquisition of the knowledge to discriminate between the more and
the less preferable when making legal, ethical, and moral choices
consciously. The narrative is about not loss, but gain.
But the Eden episode cannot be understood in isolation from the
rest of the original ninth-century- BCE narrative (Genesis 2-11),
which, in successive incidents, pictures man trying to grasp at
divinity, culminating in the attempt to enter the divine realm
itself - a narrative that also reflects God's enduring grace
towards humankind, climaxing in the call of Abraham. Is not the
true purpose of the garden story to delineate the fundamental
difference between God and humankind - that the latter cannot know
as God knows, and must die in ignorance?
Zevit's lively interpretation, accompanied by exhaustive notes,
is both entertaining and challenging, and deserves close attention,
even if this reviewer found that its radicalism diminished the
theological significance of the narrative, so enabling Zevit to
conclude that it was "not a particularly important story".
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King's