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The Garden of Eden story

It is suggested that the Garden of Eden story is an allegorical account that encapsulates some of the deepest philosophical underpinnings of Judaism.  It is not a simple story, and it requires considerable analysis to reveal its profundity.  But this is the hallmark of a great story. 

The story of Adam and Eve is one of the most beloved in the Hebrew Bible.  The description of Eve and then Adam’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit, followed by their attendant punishment is wonderfully graphic. And the narrative tantalizingly tangles the possibility of understanding the very basis of good and evil  and that most complex of human attributes - free will.


And yet, the more one attempts to grasp the essence of this story, the more it seems to slip away. None of the pieces seem to fit together.  The function of the magical Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the center of the Garden of Eden is most enigmatic. Adam and Eve clearly have free will to be able avoid or succumb to the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit – then what was the function of the Tree?  Was the walking-talking snake functioning autonomously or under the direction of God? If the latter, then God could clearly have prevented this tragedy. The snake’s temptation of Eve was also one that she was almost guaranteed to fail since she was pitted against the “most cunning” of all animals. Why then was this couple punished so severely?


It is no wonder then that at least one Biblical commentator states  (Kimchi) was prepared to say


His solution is to delve into kabbalah, but this by no means clarifies the issues. Instead, the story becomes even more fantastical and unbelievable.


This essay is based on the supposition that we are placing the wrong emphases within this story.  This is not an historical account.  Nor is it a philosophical treatise on the subject of free will. Rather, it is a beautifully constructed allegory that addresses issues that have been and always will be relevant to mankind - sexuality, sexual morality, the travails attendant on being human, and human mortality. Accept these propositions and all the pieces will fit nicely together.


Before going any further, however, we need to focus on the three fundamental issues that will determine our approach not only to this story, but to all the early stories in Genesis:


  • Is the Garden of Eden story fact or fiction?


  • Is this a different creation story from the first creation story, and perhaps even contradictory to it, or is it but an elaboration of the first? And does it really matter?


  • And why is the literary format so important in the understanding of this account?


Fact or fiction –history or allegory?


To the Sages who wrote the books of Midrash, as well as most traditional Jewish commentators, there could be no question as to whether the Garden of Eden story should be taken literally or figuratively. It may contain messages of an allegorical nature, and some commentators were prepared to go further than others in seeking these out, but this had to be a factual account. 

There were a number of reasons that that they were so categorical on this issue, even though the text itself suggests otherwise. Firstly, Genesis I and the soon to follow Noah story were always considered historical accounts, so that an intervening allegorical story would be quite out of place. Secondly, there was the fear that allegorizing any of the Torah stories would be a slippery slope towards allegorizing the rest of the Torah, including its halachic (legal) aspects.


It is now clear, however, that Genesis I and the Noah and Flood story have little factual basis,   so that an allegorical approach to the Adam and Eve story no longer seems out of place. It is also possible to differentiate the very early chapters of Genesis that have obvious allegorical-like imagery from the rest of the Torah.


Just from an historical perspective alone, it is difficult to accept this story as being other than allegorical. We know (because the Torah tells us) that Adam and Eve were created in the year 3,750 BCE.  We also know that Homo sapiens first appeared in the fossil record about 70,000 years ago.3 More primitive homo species, such as Neanderthal man, had already existed on this planet for about 1½ million years, although these species disappeared when homo sapiens came on the scene. Why this happened we do not know. Anthropologists also tell us that about 40,000 years ago, homo sapiens became more intelligent and were now no different from modern man  in any respect. Also, at about this time, Homo sapiens began spreading over the globe. 12,000 years ago, for example, Homo sapiens crossed the Bering Straits and moved from Europe into North, and then into South America.  Clearly, the notion that Adam and Eve were the first human beings on earth cannot be.


How then can a Bible-believing person accept the Garden of Eden story?  Either there was something special about Adam and Eve in their perception of God, which seems unlikely. More plausible, as that this story is an allegory.


In actuality, that this was an allegorical and not factual account would have been readily apparent to anyone reading this story at the time it was written.


Consider the following verses describing the location of the Garden of Eden: 


“A river issues forth from Eden to water the garden and from there it is divided and becomes four headwaters. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that encircles the whole land of Chavilah, where the gold is. The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there and the shohan stone. The name of the second river is Gichon, the one that encircles the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Chidekel, the one that flows towards the east of Ashur; and the fourth one is the Euphrates.” (Genesis 2:10-14)


But there is no place in the Near East at which a river splits into four major headwaters like this. The river “Chidekel” is usually identified with the Tigris, which was known in Mesopotamia as “Idiglat,”6 and this river does indeed join the “Euphrates” near the Persian Gulf. However, this is nowhere near “the land of Cush.” The “land of Chavila” is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as where Ishmael’s progeny lived, but this land is far from Mesopotamia (“They dwelt from Chavila to Shur – which is near Egypt – towards Assyria.” Genesis 25:18)7 Mesopotamia was, and still is, poorly endowed with mineral wealth, but the upper reaches of the Nile were well known for their “gold”, and it is possible  that “Pishon” and “Gichon” were two tributaries of the Nile in southern Egypt.  


What the Bible is doing here is describing a fictitious place in which the most desirable water and mineral resources of the then known world were combined together to create the most fertile and richest paradise in the world.


The 19th century Biblical commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, after proposing the unlikely notion that these rivers joined together underground, explains as follows:

Four districts seem to be named which, each in its way, yielded the richest of products. All the riches and all the abundance which lay separately in these lands were found together in Paradise.”


The walking-talking snake that has such a prominent role in this story is also very difficult to accept in any way other than allegorical. Medieval Jewish commentators have been bound to a literal understanding of this snake, although most have also been prepared to accept that the serpent is a representation of evil.  Nevertheless, a snake with vocal cords that emitted sounds that a human could understand, that had limbs that enabled it to walk, and that could in one instance change to the crawling snake we recognize today is hard to accept except as allegory. Admittedly, God could do it if He wanted, but there is nowhere else in the Torah in which God breaks the laws of nature in such a miraculous way. (reference to Bilaam)

The question as to whether the Torah contains one or two creation stories, is also very much linked to this issue.  Once we are prepared to say that there are two different creation accounts, then there is no way of explaining this other than allegorically. If however, the second creation story is but an elaboration of the first one, then this not an issue.


So let us address this manner right now – are there one or two creation stories?

One or two stories?


There are two creation accounts and as is apparent from the following table, they are different in their emphases, and even in their factual information.












Looking at the first creation account in Genesis I, for example, it can be seen that fowl and fish are created from very watery beginnings. 


“And Elokim said: let the waters teem with teeming living creatures and fowl that fly about over the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” (Genesis 1:20)


Yet in the second creation account, all life, including birds, is described as arising from the earth:


“Now YKVK Elokim formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to man to see what he would call each one, and whatever the man called each living creature that remained its name.” (Genesis 2:18)


In the first creation account, the fish, birds, animals and insects are created before the creation of man (1:20-25), yet in the second account beasts and birds are created after man (2:19)


For the Jewish sages and medieval Jewish Bible exegetes it was unthinkable that there would be contradictions between the two creation account. It must be that the second account is an elaboration of the first. The great Medieval commentator Rashi was prepared to admit that they may sound like different accounts, and he explains as follows:

And YKVK Elokim formed [man of soil from the earth]” etc. and He made the Garden of Eden grow for him, “and He placed him in the Garden of Eden” and “He cast a deep sleep over him.”  One who hears this is under the impression that [the second account of the creation of man] is a different incident [from the earlier mention of his creation], yet it is nothing but a detailed account of the first mention. Similarly regarding the animals [the Torah] came back and wrote “and YKVK Elokim formed …..out of the ground every beast of the field” [after having mentioned the creation of animals in 1:25 in the first creation account] in order to explain in detail “and He brought them to the man” to name them, and to teach us about the birds that they were created from mud.9 


In the first account, fowl arise from water, whilst in the second account they are formed from earth. Rashi’s solution is that they must have been formed from a combination of water and earth – i.e. from mud. Rashi has resolved the contradiction, but not necessarily in a way that everyone will find satisfactory. 


Another way of resolving some of the contradictions is to change the verbs in the second account from the past tense to the pluperfect tense. For example, instead of the verb “He formed” (וַיִּצֶר) (viytzar) in Genesis 2:17 which seems to be in the past tense, it should read “He had formed.”  Thus, the beasts and fowl brought to Adam to name had previously been formed in the first creation account, and they were not formed after Adam was created as the second creation account seems to suggest. 


Of modern Biblical scholars, Cassuto is also bound to one creation account, although he does suggest that the two stories may have been based on different manuscript sources. He suggests, similarly to Rashi, that when the Bible says that “every beast of the field and every bird of the sky” were created and brought to Adam, that the Torah is talking about a selection of already created animals and birds being brought rather than new creations.


Nevertheless, the pluperfect tense in Hebrew has its own grammatical construction, and the Torah could easily have used that tense if that was its intention.


Among secular academics, the contradictions are most commonly explained by the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, which postulates that the two different creation accounts were composed by different authors in different historical periods and later joined together by a “redactor”.  It is suggested, for example, that the first chapter of Genesis was written by a priestly source (P source) during either the Second Temple period, or according to some during the First Temple period, while the second chapter was written in the southern Kingdom of Judah in about 950 BCE by a source that used the name YHVH for God (Jahwist or J source),


The P source was familiar with the J source and repeated some of the previous stories, albeit with a more priestly perspective. J and P sources are to be found throughout the Pentateuch, with P sources comprising the largest sections of the Torah.


A foundational pillar of the Documentary Hypothesis is that these two different sources used different names for God.  The P source invariably used the name Elokim for God ??? Therefore, since the first creation story uses only the name Elokim, this must be a P source. The second creation story uses the name YKVK (followed by the name Elokim) and is therefore a J source. It follows from this that if it can be shown that there are specific reasons for using these different names for God, then the Documentary Hypothesis loses much of its validity.


The first authoritative figure in the modern Jewish religious world to acknowledge that there may indeed be two different creation accounts here having nothing to do with different sources was Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his well-known essay “The Lonely Man of Faith.” Rabbi Solveitchik studied philosophy at Berlin University before immigrating to the US and was doubtless familiar with the ideas of secular German Biblical scholarship.  R’ Soloveitchik suggests that these two stories describe different aspects of man. The following quotation from this influential essay summarizes the direction he is taking:


There are two accounts in early Genesis of the creation of man …. The two accounts deal with two types of Adam, two representatives of humanity, two fathers of mankind…. Adam I wants to be a “man,” to realize his humanity by being distinguishable from the rest of creation, by becoming the master over his environment ……  Adam I is engaged in creative work, trying to imitate his creator…. Adam I’s creativity is not limited to the mind. He also creates beauty with his heart, in the physical and literary arts. He also creates legal systems to govern an orderly society ….. It is important to note that Adam I is not a rebel. He is merely carrying out G-d’s mandate to him on the sixth day of creation when G-d acknowledged his singularity by addressing him and summoning him to “fill the earth and subdue it.”11


In a word, Adam I seeks to dominate nature, while Adam II aspires to holiness, is faith-oriented and seeks to serve that mysterious “He” that he perceives in creation. 


The influence of this essay for modern orthodoxy cannot be underestimated. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s article provided an answer to a very real question being posed by religious immigrants to America. Namely, is it possible for a traditional Jew to participate fully in American life and yet remain faithful to Jewish tradition? Rabbi Solveitchik’s answer is that there is almost a Biblical mandate to function as a productive member of society by becoming involved in the sciences, humanities and arts. This is the role of Adam I. Now, after having accomplished his work, the man of faith, Adam II, turns to his family and his faith community and seeks a relationship with God. In effect, religious man oscillates between Adam I and Adam II. It is a lonely existence and this explains the title of his essay “The Lonely Man of Faith.”


Nevertheless, in this essay, Rabbi Solveitchik has breached a major barrier for the religious world in that he has raised the possibility that within the first three chapters of Genesis are two different accounts of creation, each with its own unique emphasis.


It needs to be admitted, however, that R’ Solveitchik was probably using the two creation stories to advance his own ideas regarding the relevance of two types personalities for modern America. This was not Biblical exegesis, but far more like Midrash.


Nevertheless, I would suggest that it is possible to take R’ Solveitchik’s ideas much further than this. There are indeed two different accounts here and the reason for their differences are very much related to the two names of God - Elokim and YKVK.  These two names for God have nothing to do with different textual sources, but a lot to do with Biblical textual methodology.


And this is what we now need to examine.

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