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Yairah Amit





The Exposition of the Garden of Eden Story





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Yairah Amit





The Exposition of the Garden of Eden Story








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The Exposition of the Garden of Eden Story

The Garden of Eden story includes a lengthy introductory exposition (vv. 2:4b-3:1a), whose seemingly tangential details contrast the utopia of Eden with the dystopia of the real world.


The Exposition of the Garden of Eden Story

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden Artist Thomas Cole 1828 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston -Wikimedia

Many biblical scholars suggest that Genesis 1-3 contains two different creation stories that have been redacted together.[1] The first (1:1-2:4a) describes seven days of creation, and the second (2:4b-22), which begins with “When YHWH God made earth and heaven,” focuses on the creation of man and woman and their environment, which functions as the opening to the Garden of Eden story.

But this second account is an incomplete creation account; for example, it gives no information about the creation of the seas, or the heavens. Thus, the so-called "second creation story" is incomplete, and only contains important parts or ideas from a different, lost creation tradition.

This raises a question: for what purpose did the author/s or editor/s of the Garden of Eden Story (2:4b-3:24) decide to choose and even to shape precisely these pieces of a preexisting creation story and include them in the opening section of the Garden of Eden narrative? My answer is that they needed them for the unique exposition of the story, dedicated to describing the ideal life in the Garden.

Narrative Exposition

Exposition is one of the rhetorical “modes of discourse,” and its function is to provide basic background materials that enable readers to enter and understand the world of the story. The Garden of Eden story can be neatly divided into a section that is primarily expository (2:4b-3:1a) and a section that describes the action of the story and begins with the conversation between the serpent and the woman (3:1b-24). In other words, parts of a lost creation tradition create the long exposition, explaining the circumstances of the creation of the Garden and what/who is found in it. Hence, the reader is informed that:

  • It was planted by YHWH after the creation of earth and heaven and the formation of man;
  • The earth was first watered by a mist;
  • Man was placed in the garden to till and tend it;
  • A river watered the garden and became four rivers, at least two of which are famous;
  • It lies east in Eden, an otherwise unknown land;
  • It is filled with fruit trees that are good to eat;
  • Two special trees were planted in its middle, one of life and the other of good and evil;
  • Man is forbidden to eat from the latter;
  • Man was lonely;
  • Animals were created, which man named, but they did not cure his loneliness;
  • Woman was created from man, and this cured his loneliness;
  • The man and the woman were both naked and were not ashamed;
  • The serpent was the shrewdest animal.

Only after all these expositional details do we get to the actual narrative (3:1b-24), which begins when the serpent speaks to the woman.

Literary Connection Between Exposition and Narrative

The exposition and narrative are deeply connected, not only in terms of content but also stylistically:

Plants of the Field (עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה) – Both sections use the term “plants (or “grasses”) of the field” in a functionally similar way:

Exposition (Gen 2:5)

וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ וְכָל עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה טֶרֶם יִצְמָח
(Gen 3:18) When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no plants of the field had yet sproutedThorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the plants of the field

Narrative (Gen 3:18)

וְקוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר תַּצְמִיחַ לָךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה.
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the plants of the field

This repeated phrase is not merely a literary flourish, but gives closure to the story, which begins with the creation of grasses of the field and ends with man destined to eat these plants of the field.

Dust of the Ground (עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה) – Both sections also use the word “dust” in the context of dust of the ground or earth with a similar function:

Exposition (Gen 2:7)

וַיִּיצֶר יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
YHWH God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Narrative (Gen 3:18)

בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב.
By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground -- For from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

Here again we get closure. Man was created from the dust of the ground, and he will return to being dust after he dies, now that he is mortal.Moreover, the dialogue between the serpent and the woman (3:1b-4), presumes the exact phrasing of God's commandment to Adam concerning the tree of knowledge (2:2:16-17). Thus, the inclusion of the prohibition in the exposition allows the reader to gauge the accuracy of the quotations of God:

God’s Command (2:16-17)

מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת.
Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.

Serpent’s quote (3:1)

אַף כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.
Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?

Woman’s Quote (3:2-3)

מִפְּרִי עֵץ הַגָּן נֹאכֵל. וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ פֶּן תְּמֻתוּן.
We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: “You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.”

The serpent’s quotation of God is totally inaccurate, and purposely so, to get the woman to speak about the prohibition and quote God. The woman’s quote is partially inaccurate, since God never made a rule against touching the tree.

‍A Uniquely Long Exposition

Most biblical narratives are short, between 25 to 30 verses on average. Moreover, their expositions, or expository introductions, range from half a verse (Gen 22:1a), as in the story of the Binding of Isaac (whose story is 18 and half verses), to 5 verses (Job 1:1-5), as in the story of Job (whose story is 35 verses). In both cases the expositions are much shorter than the narratives they preface.

The exposition for the Garden of Eden story, however, includes almost 22 verses while the narrative itself, which begins when the serpent tempts the woman (3:1b) and ends with the expulsion from the Garden (3:24), has fewer than 24 verses.

In short, the exposition and the narrative of the Garden of Eden story are approximately the same length. This is extremely unusual and calls for explanation.

Rivers and Surrounding Lands: Long and Extraneous

Quite surprisingly, not all of the details of the exposition are relevant to the following story. For example, the description of four rivers and their accompanying lands that ostensibly surround Eden and its garden is irrelevant for what follows:

בראשית ב:י וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת הַגָּן וּמִשָּׁם יִפָּרֵד וְהָיָה לְאַרְבָּעָה רָאשִׁים. ב:יא שֵׁם הָאֶחָד פִּישׁוֹן הוּא הַסֹּבֵב אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ הַחֲוִילָה אֲשֶׁר שָׁם הַזָּהָב. ב:יב וּזֲהַב הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא טוֹב שָׁם הַבְּדֹלַח וְאֶבֶן הַשֹּׁהַם. ב:יג וְשֵׁם הַנָּהָר הַשֵּׁנִי גִּיחוֹן הוּא הַסּוֹבֵב אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ כּוּשׁ. ב:יד וְשֵׁם הַנָּהָר הַשְּׁלִישִׁי חִדֶּקֶל הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ קִדְמַת אַשּׁוּר וְהַנָּהָר הָרְבִיעִי הוּא פְרָת.
Gen 2:10 A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches. 2:11 The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is. 2:12 The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. 2:13 The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. 2:14 The name of the third river is Tigris, the one that flows east of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates

With the exception of 10a, which explains where the water comes from in the garden, none of these details has any bearing on the story; they all describe areas outside the Garden, their names and their courses are irrelevant to the story (2:10b-14). Removing this passage from the exposition would not leave us with any unanswered questions in the narrative, so why did an editor or editors include these verses in the exposition?

I suggest that this element was part of the editors' attempt to paint the Garden of Eden as a mythic and ideal place, different from our current world.

Eden as a Mythic Place

The function of this special exposition is thus, not only to supply necessary facts for the plot, such as the special trees and the creation of humans, but to paint a picture of what the garden was and what it represents: a kind of Utopia, a “No Place” (ou tópos in Greek), life in a lush Garden located in an unknown region and impossible to find.

This is why extraneous elements such as the rivers and the land of Havila with its gold and precious stones are included. The Garden of Eden is an ideal land that exits in no identifiable place on earth, since, in order to find it, at the non-existent junction where the river that issued from Eden became four rivers.[2]

The Bible is not the only ancient source sporting such a myth; the Greek description of the River Okeanus (the English word “ocean” derives from this term), a freshwater stream that surrounds the earth and feed all the worlds rivers, is similar. Looking for the source of the four rivers is like of looking for a pot of gold where the rainbow meets the earth, or finding the River Styx and sailing to Hades.

Eden as an Ideal Place

The Garden of Eden is not only a mythic place, but an ideal, utopian place, as is clear from some of the details we learn about it and its environs from the exposition:

Fruit not gems – The space is free of valuable materials; gold and gems are outside the Garden, in the land of Havilah, and not in it (2:11-12). In stark contrast to the description of Siduri’s mythical garden in the Gilgamesh Epic (Book 10):

Before him the garden of the gods appeared with gem-trees of all colors, dazzling to see. There were trees that grew rubies, trees with lapis-lazuli flowers, trees that dangled gigantic coral clusters like dates. Everywhere, sparkling on all the branches were enormous jewels: emeralds, sapphires, hematite, diamonds, carnelians, pearls. Gilgamesh looked up and marveled at it all.[3]

In contrast, the Garden of Eden grows only fruit.

Work for work’s sake – In the Garden of Eden, work is a value for itself, but not hard work for survival or existence. As Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) notes in his comment on v. 15, explaining why Adam was placed in the garden:

לעבדה – בזריעה ונטיעה, עבודה קלה ובלא זיעת אפים. ולשמרה – מן הבהמות והחיות, שתהיה תבואתה לעצמו, והרי זה כאלו אמר שיעבדנה וְיֶהֱנֶה ממנה.
“To work it” – by seeding and planting, light work with no “sweat of the brow.” “To guard it” – from domesticated and wild animals, so that its produce will be for him, and thus it is as if the verse said “he will work it and gain benefit/pleasure from it.

In short, work in the Garden is a must but it is light and done for preservation and pleasure.

God’s rule – Obedience to law or to God's commandment is a necessary condition for remaining in the garden; disobedience leads to punishment, expulsion and eventually death.

Human dominance – The man is the ruler of all creatures. This is expressed clearly by him giving them names, which is an act of sovereignty (see 2 Kings 23:24; 24:17).

Naïveté - Human beings in the Garden were naïve: "the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed" (2:25). Sexual awareness does not belong to the routine of the Garden.

Immortality – Death did not exist in the garden; Adam was not forbidden to eat from the tree of life until after he ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Instead, death comes with expulsion from the garden and as a punishment for violating God’s command and gaining knowledge that undid their naïveté.

Even if, in modern times, many of these expositional ideas, about what a utopian world should look like would be unacceptable to us, we should remember that this story was written almost 2000 years before Thomas More, who developed the idea of a utopian world and coined the term "utopia" in his book: De Optimo Reipublicae Statu deque Nova Insula Utopia (On the good republic which exists in the new island Utopia, 1516). Moreover, not all Moore's ideas fit our time and our world-view. What is interesting, is to see that for our ancient writers, it was important to shape a utopian world. They did it by reediting parts of a creation tradition and turning it into the expository introduction to the garden of Eden story.

A Utopian Vision to Highlight a Dystopian Reality

Although the exposition sets the Eden account in this idyllic utopia, to which humanity has lost access, this is not the whole story. I would argue that the real point of this exposition is not just to describe what was lost, but to hint through contrast about the nature of the world in which all creatures, human beings and animals, have been condemned to live ever since the expulsion

.The story (exposition + narrative) criticizes the real world both through its description of the garden and by laying out the punishments of the man and his wife. By emphasizing the good life in the Garden, the reader better understands the message of the punishments that accompany the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden forever. Life outside the Garden is different from life in the Garden, meaning that our real world is a dystopia. In short, the lengthy exposition is not an accident, and its apparently extraneous parts, such as the description of the rivers, are not digressions or off topic. Instead, the exposition as a whole paints a picture of a utopian world and offers the readers direction for thinking about the need to improve our dystopic space.


October 5, 2018


Last Updated

June 15, 2024


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Prof. Yairah Amit is Professor (Emerita) of Hebrew Bible in Tel Aviv University's Department of Hebrew Bible. She is the author of The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing (1999), History and Ideology: An Introduction to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible (1999), Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative (2000), Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (2001). Her exegetical work is to be found in her Hebrew commentary to the book of Judges (in the Mikra Leyisra’el series) and in the commentary to the book of Judges in the Jewish Study Bible (JPS: 2004). Prof. Amit emphasizes critical approaches and is especially interested in aspects of story, history, ideology and editing. Her most recent publication is: In Praise of Editing in the Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays in Retrospect (2012).