Literature

A Summary and Analysis of the Garden of Eden Story

According to Oscar Wilde, ‘The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden. It ends with Revelations.’ But as with many stories from the Bible, there are many things we get wrong about that ‘man and woman in a garden’, Adam and Eve. Where was the Garden of Eden? And was Eden the name of the garden of merely the location of it? What did the serpent represent, and what was the forbidden fruit hanging from the Tree of Knowledge?

Clearly there is much to unpack and analyse here. But before we get to the analysis, let’s briefly summarise the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Garden of Eden story: summary

On the sixth day of Creation, God created ‘man’ in the form of Adam, moulding him from ‘the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2:7), breathing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. God then planted a garden ‘eastward in Eden’ (2:8), containing both the tree of life and ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’ (2:9).

Adam is tasked with keeping or maintaining the garden. God tells him he can freely eat of every tree in the garden, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for to eat of that tree would be to die.

God then creates the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air and asks Adam to name them all. Then, while Adam is asleep, God takes one of Adam’s ribs and forms a woman from the flesh of the rib. God says that this is how human relationships will be: a man will ‘leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh’ (2:24). Adam and Eve are naked, but not ashamed of their nakedness (yet). Nor is Eve named yet: Adam has somehow managed to name all of the beasts and fowls, but hasn’t bothered to give his wife a name yet. However, she will be named Eve shortly after this.

The serpent now enters the story, telling ‘the woman’ (i.e., Eve) that she and Adam will not die if they eat of the tree of knowledge, because they will then know what good and evil are and will be like gods. How could God possibly object to their knowing about good and evil? Eve is won over by this argument, seeing the fruit of the tree as delicious-looking and a gateway to wisdom, if eaten. So she eats from the tree and gives Adam some of the fruit to eat too. Their eyes are immediately opened, and they are ashamed of their nakedness, and fashion fig leaves to make themselves ‘aprons’ to cover their nakedness. God appears walking in the garden, and Adam and Eve promptly hide themselves.

God calls for Adam. Adam tells God that he hid himself because he was naked. God asks Adam, who told him he was naked? Has Adam ‘eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’ (3:11). Adam blames Eve for leading him astray, and Eve blames the serpent.

God finds the serpent and tells it that, as punishment for doing this, the snake will crawl upon its belly from now on, and eat dust for the rest of its life. As for Eve, she (and all woman descended from her) will have ‘sorrow’ or pain in childbirth, and Adam will rule over her as her husband. And because Adam listened to his wife and allowed himself to be led astray, he will eat the food of the ground and ‘the herb of the field’ (3:18).

And Adam and Eve will now be mortal, and will die, as God told them they would. Famously, God tells Adam, ‘for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (3:19). It is at this point that Adam (belatedly) gets round to naming his wife, calling her Eve ‘because she was the mother of all living’ (3:20).

God clothes Adam and Eve and sends them out of the Garden of Eden, and guards the tree of life with angels (‘Cherubims’) and a flaming sword.

Garden of Eden story: analysis

The story of the Fall of Man – which Adam and Eve bring about when they eat of the forbidden fruit from ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ – is significant because it marks the beginning of Original Sin, which every human being was said to inherit from Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve live in blissful childlike innocence, as their lack of self-consciousness or shame around their nakedness demonstrates. Only once their eyes are opened, after they eat of the forbidden fruit, do they learn shame, and in doing so, displease God, who wished them to remain innocent.

Clearly there is a parallel here between a parent and his children, wishing to keep them safe from the harms and evils of the world. The Garden of Eden provides a safe haven for Adam and Eve, and God, like a watchful father, wishes to keep his children innocent. He doesn’t want them to grow up and learn what evil is. But there comes a time when all of us have to grow up and lose our innocence. It is significant that Adam and Eve only have children once they have left the Garden of Eden behind (at the beginning of chapter 4 of Genesis, directly after their expulsion); it’s as if they can only fully embrace adulthood once they have had the blinkers removed from their eyes.

God, however, does not want his creation to have the same knowledge as he has: to have true knowledge of good and evil is to be a god, and God wants that role all for himself. Adam and Eve go against his divine commandment, disobeying him. Adam and Eve are guilty of giving into temptation, but perhaps more than that, the Genesis writer presents them as presumptuous, because they wish to know of good and evil, as God does.

Analysed this way, then, the Adam and Eve story is a kind of origin-myth for the hardships of the flesh: women’s pain in childbirth, man’s back-breaking toil in the field, the wife’s subjection to her husband. But any God that allowed such things to afflict his people can’t be wholly good. The way the writers of the Genesis story solve this problem, of course, is by presenting a narrative in which God initially did shelter his creation from these hardships, until humankind showed itself untrustworthy and ill-deserving of relief from these travails. And that was it: it was pack your bags time, and don’t slam the garden gate on your way out.

But which tree did Adam and Eve eat from? There is an inconsistency in the Genesis narrative. God originally tells Adam not to eat of the tree of knowledge (i.e., knowledge of good and evil), but every other tree is fine to eat from. However, this becomes the ‘tree of life’ at the end of the narrative. Is this another name for the tree of knowledge? That would explain things. Except that Genesis 2:9 presents them clearly as two distinct trees: ‘the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.’ At the end of chapter 3, they appear to have become one central tree. And it’s the tree of life that God wants to guard with the flaming sword.

It is often assumed that the serpent in the Book of Genesis, that speaks to Eve and tempts her to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, is Satan in disguise. In fact, the Bible never mentions this, simply referring to the snake as ‘the serpent’. The idea that the serpent is the Devil first turns up in the Apocrypha, in the Wisdom of Solomon (2:24: ‘Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world’). But in Genesis there is no reason to suggest he is evil incarnate: he is simply the subtlest of all creatures.

There’s also a strong suggestion that it had legs, like a lizard: at least, initially. This is because, owing to its role in leading Adam and Eve astray, God punishes it, according to Genesis 3:14, by declaring: ‘Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life’. This implies that the serpent, prior to this, did not crawl about on its belly, but had limbs. Viewed in this way, the fate of the serpent acts as a kind of Just-So Story explaining how the snake came to be without arms and legs.

The serpent in the Garden of Eden is also one of only two examples of talking animals in the Old Testament (the other being Balaam’s ass). This suggests the talking snake is possibly part of an earlier nature myth. It also has echoes of the serpent which steals the plant of immortality from Gilgamesh in that Sumerian legend (which also features a catastrophic Flood event). By contrast, the serpent steals immortality from Adam and Eve, whose time in paradise comes to an end after they eat of the forbidden fruit.

Indeed, it’s possible to argue that the story of Adam and Eve represents, on one level, mankind’s shift from hunter-gatherers to agricultural communities: Adam, remember, must till the field after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden, leaving behind a life spent plucking fruit from trees (the forbidden tree excepted) and otherwise being untroubled by the need to work the land.

By the way, at no point is this forbidden fruit identified in the Book of Genesis. The identification of it as an apple is a much later invention. Genesis 2:16-17 simply states:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

The idea that the forbidden fruit was an apple may have arisen, curiously enough, because of a misunderstanding of two similar words: the Latin mălum means ‘evil’ (as in malevolent, malign, and other related words), while the Latin mālum, from the Greek μῆλον, means ‘apple’.

What’s more, although the story of the Fall of Man is often viewed as a regrettable and damaging development, introducing as it does the concept of Original Sin, it can also be viewed as the first stage of mankind’s journey towards enlightenment and self-knowledge. God may not be happy with human beings acquiring such knowledge, but we all have to grow up and become less innocent – at least, many people (including many Christians) would argue.

Viewed in this light, the serpent – far from being Satan in ophidian form – is actually, as Kristin Swenson observes in her brilliantly informative A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, ‘midwife of sorts to the humans’ passage from infantile innocence to the maturity of experience’. Swenson also observes the symbolic role that serpents play in other ancient stories: in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,000-year-old story which also features a Flood narrative, Gilgamesh attempts to seize a plant that might confer immortality, only for a snake to turn up and steal the plant away. The symbolism is arguably similar to that found in the Genesis story: the serpent, while elsewhere representing immortality (Ouroboros etc.), here acts as the agent making man realise that he, at least, is not meant to live forever.

Although Eden is now viewed as synonymous with the garden from the Book of Genesis, the garden was not the be-all and end-all of the limits of the land known as ‘Eden’. That would be like saying the Lake District is all of England, or Bordeaux is the same thing as the country of France. But where was Eden?

We are told in Genesis that Eden is ‘eastward’, i.e., east of Canaan, the area of the Middle East where the authors of the Genesis story would have lived. 2 Kings talks about the ‘children of Eden which were in Thelasar’ (19:12), on the Euphrates river, but the term ‘Eden’ may have been applied to a wider region.

Curiously, in the Sumerian language, eden means ‘plain’, and it’s quite possible that the story of the Garden of Eden – as with the Genesis account of Noah and the Flood – originated in earlier Sumerian myths, in this case charting the Sumerians’ emergence from the nearby hills down onto eden or ‘the plain’.

But by the time the earliest narratives began to be written down, the Sumerian civilisation had had its day. As Isaac Asimov ponders in Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The Old Testament by Isaac Asimov (September 19,1973), the tale of the paradisal world of the Garden of Eden could have been a reflection, at least in part, of the Sumerian longing for a vanished past: a paradise lost, if you like.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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