Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: An Etiology for the Human Condition
In the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve disobey YHWH and eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Out of concern that they might also eat from the tree of life, and thus gain immortality and effectively become gods, YHWH expels them from the garden and tells them that their lives will be filled with pain and suffering (Gen 2–3).
When I teach this story, I have one primary goal in mind: To convince my students that it is not about “the fall of man,” nor about “original sin.” (These two theological concepts aren’t particularly Jewish, but there are Second Temple Jewish texts that read Genesis 2–3 in comparable ways.) According to this popular (mis)reading, humans were meant to live an idyllic life in the Garden of Eden, but eating the forbidden fruit, humanity’s first sin, alienated humans from YHWH and introduced death into the world.
But this is not what the story is about. Rather, the story is an etiology—from Greek aitiologia, “giving a reason for”—a story offering explanations of the world as we know it, in this case reflecting on the “human condition”: life is difficult, almost as if we’ve been cursed.
Unlike stories that begin with a status quo and work forward to an unknown future, etiologies begin, as it were, with the ending, and then tell the backstory that leads to that ending. Since the harsh reality of human life is the premise of the story, the conclusion is fixed at the outset. Thus, the sequence of events that unfolds in the Garden of Eden could not have been avoided, and no happy ending would have been possible.
The Garden of Eden story is also an allegory. Adam and Eve aren’t unique individuals, but rather emblems of what all humans are like. Thus, while I use the traditional names Adam and Eve as a convenience, in the story they do not have proper names. Adam is referred to in Hebrew as “the human” (haʾadam), and Eve is called his “woman” (ʾishah)—or wife:
בראשׁית ב:כה וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְלֹא יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.
Gen 2:25 And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.
Adam ultimately names his wife Eve, and the explanation of her name signals that she personifies motherhood:
בראשׁית ג:כ וַיִּקְרָא הָאָדָם שֵׁם אִשְׁתּוֹ חַוָּה כִּי הִוא הָיְתָה אֵם כָּל חָי.
Gen 3:20 And the human called his woman’s name Eve, for she was the mother of all that lives.
A Disconnected Story
As an allegory, the story of Eden is disconnected from the rest of the narrative. Adam and Eve aren’t a part of history, aren’t described as the first human couple from whom all others descend, a telling contrast to the later claim by this author, the Jahwist (J), that all human beings who live after the flood descend from Noah:
בראשׁית ט:יח וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי נֹחַ הַיֹּצְאִים מִן הַתֵּבָה שֵׁם וְחָם וָיָפֶת וְחָם הוּא אֲבִי כְנָעַן. ט:יט שְׁלֹשָׁה אֵלֶּה בְּנֵי נֹחַ וּמֵאֵלֶּה נָפְצָה כָל הָאָרֶץ.
Gen 9:18 And the sons of Noah who came out from the ark were Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Ham was the father of Canaan. 9:19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth spread out.
Indeed, other humans already exist in the world outside the Garden of Eden. Thus, when YHWH exiles Adam and Eve’s son Cain for killing his brother, Cain fears the people he might meet in the wider world:
בראשׁית ד:יד הֵן גֵּרַשְׁתָּ אֹתִי הַיּוֹם מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וּמִפָּנֶיךָ אֶסָּתֵר וְהָיִיתִי נָע וָנָד בָּאָרֶץ וְהָיָה כָל מֹצְאִי יַהַרְגֵנִי.
Gen 4:14 Now that You have driven me this day from the soil and I must hide from Your presence, I shall be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Cain also takes a wife from among these other peoples (4:17).
The Setting in Time
The allegory begins at a particular time, at the beginning of creation:
בראשׁית ב:ד ...בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם. ב:ה וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָרֶץ וְאָדָם אַיִן לַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה.
Gen 2:4 …On the day YHWH God made earth and heavens,2:5 no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for YHWH God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil.
Created first, before anything else existed on the earth, humans are central to creation:
בראשׁית ב:ז וַיִּיצֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
Gen 2:7 Then YHWH God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.
The Setting in Space
The scene then quickly shifts from the barren expanse of the lifeless field (sadeh) to the garden (gan):
בראשׁית ב:ח וַיִּטַּע יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים גַּן בְעֵדֶן מִקֶּדֶם וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
Gen 2:8 And YHWH God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and He placed there the human He had fashioned.
The garden is thus defined in opposition to the field outside, for gardens are artificial creations, cut off from nature as a whole.
בראשׁית ב:ט וַיַּצְמַח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן הָאֲדָמָה כָּל עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Gen 2:9 And YHWH God caused to sprout from the soil every tree lovely to look at and good for food, and the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge, good and evil.
The garden, in other words, is a domesticated natural space, the field outside a wild natural space. More precisely, the garden is YHWH’s private fruit orchard, apparently attached to the divine domicile, since YHWH comes out to stroll in the garden during the day (Gen 3:8). And gardens, to judge from biblical narrative, are rare. Very few men—all of them kings—are said to possess one. The best-known example is King Ahab’s infamous project of planting a גַן יָרָק, “garden of greens,” next to his palace (1 Kgs 21:1–2).
The Eden story traces the inevitable process whereby Adam and Eve, at first residents of the garden, come to be sent forth to the field outside, where they are fated to till the soil.
From Animals to Humans
This process corresponds to the transformation that Adam and Eve undergo. In order to understand this transformation, we must step back and divide the cast of characters into three distinct classes of beings.
1. Living Creature
Adam at the beginning of the story is a נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה “living creature” (2:7), as are the animals he later names (2:19). As a living creature, Adam exists in a child-like state, lacking the knowledge to discern between good and evil, and YHWH’s prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge serves to keep him in that state (2:17).
Eve, it is implied but never stated, shares this status with her husband. At the same time, she is an outlier, because rather than being “fashioned from the soil” like Adam and the rest of the animal kingdom (2:7, 19), Eve is created out of Adam’s rib or side (2:21–22). It is for this reason that she can function as the hero of the story. She is the one who ushers humankind into the next stage of its existence, namely, as creatures like YHWH, “knowing good and evil” (3:5, 22).
2. Like Gods
In the garden, the serpent convinces Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge by appealing not to her appetite for food, but to her desire to become like the gods. Contradicting YHWH’s pronouncement of doom for humans if they eat from the tree (2:17), the serpent tells Eve:
בראשׁית ג:ה כִּי יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע.
Gen 3:5 “You shall not be doomed to die. For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become [like] gods knowing good and evil.”
This knowledge, far from bringing about the “fall” of humanity, will elevate humans from being merely one species of animal (living creatures). To know good and evil is to leave childhood behind and become a legally competent adult, one accountable for his or her actions.
Thus, Moses, reminding the Israelites that their disobedience in the wilderness has cost them the opportunity to enter the promised land, declares:
דברים א:לט וְטַפְּכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם לָבַז יִהְיֶה וּבְנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ הַיּוֹם טוֹב וָרָע הֵמָּה יָבֹאוּ שָׁמָּה וְלָהֶם אֶתְּנֶנָּה וְהֵם יִירָשׁוּהָּ.
Deut 1:39 And your little ones of whom you said they will become prey, and your sons who know not this day good [and] evil, they it is who will come there, and to them I will give it, and they will take hold of it (see also Num 14:29–31).
The children are ignorant and thus not punished; the adults, who should have known better, are doomed to die in the wilderness.
Human nature, according to our writer, is animated by an innate desire to know, to be like YHWH. This is not hubris. Human nature simply compels us to distinguish ourselves from our erstwhile companions, the animals. Thus, the first bit of knowledge the humans gain is the shame of nakedness, leading them to create improvised clothing:
בראשׁית ג:ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.
Gen 3:7 And the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.
This is not a mockery directed at human knowledge; it is an indication that humans have left the realm of nature for culture.
What would be hubris, an unacceptable transgression of the human condition, would be for humans to become immortal as well, in effect, gods. Thus, out of concern that the humans might also eat from the tree of life, YHWH expels them from the garden:
בראשׁית ג:כב וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים הֵן הָאָדָם הָיָה כְּאַחַד מִמֶּנּוּ לָדַעַת טוֹב וָרָע וְעַתָּה פֶּן יִשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וְלָקַח גַּם מֵעֵץ הַחַיִּים וְאָכַל וָחַי לְעֹלָם. ג:כג וַיְשַׁלְּחֵהוּ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים מִגַּן עֵדֶן לַעֲבֹד אֶת הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר לֻקַּח מִשָּׁם.
Gen 3:22 And YHWH God said, “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” 3:23 And YHWH God sent him from the garden of Eden to till the soil from which he had been taken.
Immortality, divinity, must remain forever out of our reach.
The Emancipation of Humanity
The banishment from the garden is not a punishment that humans could and should have avoided. Remember, this is an etiology for the human condition: we are fated to suffer and die. So long as Adam and Eve lived in the garden, naked in YHWH’s backyard, they were something like YHWH’s pets, more precisely, guard dogs, tasked as they were with watching over the garden:
בראשׁית ב:טו וַיִּקַּח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
Gen 2:15 And YHWH God took the human and set him down in the garden of Eden to till it and watch it.
In other words, they weren’t God’s beloved children living with him in his house. And far from enjoying a genuine relationship with God, as Abraham and his descendants later would, they were simply owned by God. Humans didn’t so much lose a paradise as gain their independence.
By sending Adam and Eve out of the divine estate, YHWH treats them like the adults they have become, who should no longer be dependents of the divine household. They are legally emancipated.
Life outside the Garden
But living on one’s own, no longer recipients of divine largesse, is difficult. Our writer thus represents life in the real world as a series of curses imposed upon the serpent, the woman, and the man. These curses spell out various aspects of the human condition.
YHWH’s curse upon the serpent is meant to explain why this strange, legless creature must slither upon its belly, apparently eating dust as it goes (3:14). More important, however, is the enmity that YHWH places between serpents and humans, which represents the danger that the animal kingdom poses to civilized humanity, and vice-versa:
בראשׁית ג:טו וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב.
Gen 3:15 Enmity will I set between you and the woman, between your seed and hers. He will [boot] your head and you will [bite his] heel.
This aspect of our world is reversed in the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a future restoration of paradise:
ישׁעיה יא:ח וְשִׁעֲשַׁע יוֹנֵק עַל חֻר פָּתֶן וְעַל מְאוּרַת צִפְעוֹנִי גָּמוּל יָדוֹ הָדָה. יא:ט לֹא יָרֵעוּ וְלֹא יַשְׁחִיתוּ בְּכָל הַר קָדְשִׁי....
Isa 11:8 And an infant shall play by a viper’s hole, and on an adder’s den a babe put his hand. 11:9 They shall do no evil nor act ruinously in all My holy mountain….
Much later, Jesus will offer a spiritualized version of this same trope:
Luke 10:19 Indeed, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you.
In fact, our writer inherited this trope from an already ancient Mesopotamian tradition. Thus, in the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, dating from the early second millennium BCE, the “spell of Nudimmud” evokes a time when animals will no longer pose a threat to humans:
Enmerkar ll. 135–40 There will be no snake, no scorpion, ... / And thus there will be neither fear nor trembling, / For man will then have no enemy.”
Closer to Genesis in terms of the time of composition, Gilgamesh, in the late-second millennium Standard Babylonian Version of the epic, tells how Enkidu, after acquiring culture thanks to a sexual encounter with the harlot Shamhat, scares off his erstwhile companions, namely, gazelles, wild cattle, and so forth. As the harlot explains:
You have become [profound] Enkidu, you have become like a god. / Why should you roam open country with wild beasts?
Yet knowledge has a price. Enkidu can no longer keep pace with his erstwhile companions:
Enkidu had been diminished, he could not run as before. / Yet he had acquired judgement (?), had become wiser.
Humans and animals are at odds with each other. The one threatens the other and vice-versa. Just so, YHWH himself kills an innocent animal so that Adam and Eve might wear more suitable clothing:
בראשׁית ג:כא וַיַּעַשׂ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים לְאָדָם וּלְאִשְׁתּוֹ כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר וַיַּלְבִּשֵׁם.
Gen 3:21 And YHWH God made skin coats for the human and his woman, and He clothed them.
Henceforth, humans will live at the expense of animals.
YHWH’s curse upon Eve has to do with the frailty of the human body—not unlike Enkidu’s. Childbirth will henceforth be a painful and dangerous thing:
בראשׁית ג:טז אֶל הָאִשָּׁה אָמַר הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ בְּעֶצֶב תֵּלְדִי בָנִים וְאֶל אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשָׁל בָּךְ.
Gen 3:16 To the woman He said, “I will terribly sharpen your birth pangs, in pain shall you bear children. And for your man shall be your longing, and he shall rule over you.”
On one hand, animals, as the saying goes, simply “drop” their young, often in litters. Thus, the midwives in Exodus, appealing to Pharaoh’s presumed racism, explain why they failed to murder the infant Hebrew boys:
שׁמות א:יט וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי לֹא כַנָּשִׁים הַמִּצְרִיֹּת הָעִבְרִיֹּת כִּי חָיוֹת הֵנָּה בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ.
Exod 1:19 “For not like the Egyptian women are the Hebrew women, for they are [animals]. Before the midwife comes to them, they give birth.”
Abraham and Isaac, on the other hand, find it difficult to beget a male heir (Gen 16–17; 25:21). Rachel, Jacob’s beloved, similarly finds it difficult to provide her husband with a son (Gen 29:31; 30:22) and dies while giving birth to a second (Gen 35:17–18).
Finally, the curse upon Adam addresses how men will have to wrest sustenance from a nature that is no longer a hospitable domesticated garden, but an inhospitable wild field:
בראשׁית ג:יז וּלְאָדָם אָמַר כִּי שָׁמַעְתָּ לְקוֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ וַתֹּאכַל מִן הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לֵאמֹר לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכֲלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. ג:יח וְקוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר תַּצְמִיחַ לָךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה.
Gen 3:17 And to the human He said, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree that I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat from it,’ Cursed be the soil for your sake, with pangs shall you eat from it all the days of your life. 3:18 Thorn and thistle shall it sprout for you and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
In the garden, the humans ate raw fruit that was simply gathered—in the anthropological sense of the word—from an orchard that they did not plant and that required no watering. A lazy existence.
Life in the field, conversely, will require agriculture. The man will now have to sow seeds in order to eat plants of the field—read “grain”—rather than fruit. Adam will have to work the ground to grow these plants, and Eve will have to process and cook their sheaves of grain to produce bread.
בראשׁית ג:יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב.
Gen 3:19 “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread till you return to the soil, for from there were you taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return.”
Though “the sweat of your brow” (lit. “nose”) appears to be an indication of the hard labor that agriculture requires, in this context it is a sign of fear or anxiety.
The garden required no watering because a type of spring “would well from the earth” (2:6). Agriculture, at least in Israel, that land our writer knew, requires rain. But rain is fickle: there can be too little (drought) or too much (flood). Indeed, there has been no rain in Genesis thus far, but chapters 6–9 will tell of a flood of biblical proportions.
The Moral Value of a Cursed Life
There are lands, however, that require no rain. Lot, for example, chooses the river-fed plain of the Jordan as his dwelling place:
בראשׁית יג:י וַיִּשָּׂא לוֹט אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת כָּל כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְ־הוָה אֶת סְדֹם וְאֶת עֲמֹרָה כְּגַן יְ־הוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר.
Gen 13:10 And Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, saw that all of it was well-watered, before YHWH’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of YHWH, like the land of Egypt, till you come to Zoar.
Those who farm on the banks of a river experience no anxiety, thanks to a steady water supply and the relative ease of irrigation-based agriculture. As in Egypt, they can always bring water to their crops (Deut 11:10).
Yet a life of ease, for our writer, leads to moral decadence and divine judgment. Thus, the plain of the Jordan will shortly be burnt with fire due to its crimes against humanity (Gen 19), and Egypt, the reader knows, will soon enough meet with a comparable fate due to its treatment of its Hebrew slaves (Exod 6–11).
The reader looking back at the garden can now see that life there would have been physically and spiritually enervating. Humans would have remained ignorant and naked animals lazily living off the fruit of YHWH’s estate. The human condition, it turns out, is good for us. According to our writer, living by the sweat of one’s brow keeps us ever mindful of our dependence on YHWH’s providential care, lest we follow in the footsteps of Sodom and of Egypt.
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October 21, 2022
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Prof. Robert S. Kawashima is an associate professor at the University of Florida, in the Department of Religion and the Center for Jewish Studies. He was awarded the Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author most notably of Biblical Narrative and the Death of the Rhapsode (2004) and The Archaeology of Ancient Israelite Knowledge (2022), both published with Indiana University Press.
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