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All quiet on the Eden front

07 March 2014

Anthony Phillips reads that actually not much went wrong there

(Temple?) garden fed by an aqueduct: a drawing of an Assyrian garden, with a path to a posed image and altar, from eighth-century-BCE Nineveh, from Stephanie Dalley's article "Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens" (Garden History 21 [1993]: 10 [fig. 2]), is reproduced in the book under review, courtesy of Stephanie Dalley

(Temple?) garden fed by an aqueduct: a drawing of an Assyrian garden, with a path to a posed image and altar, from eighth-century-BCE Nineveh, from ...

What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?
Ziony Zevit
Yale £20
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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 School, Canterbury.

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