The Secret of the Garden of Eden: Knowledge or Immortality
YHWH Plants a Garden
The Garden of Eden story begins with a description of the earth before YHWH places living things upon it:
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 the earth and the heavens, 2:5 when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because YHWH God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil.
YHWH’s first creative act is to form the first human:
בראשית ב:ז וַיִּיצֶר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
Gen 2:7 YHWH God formed the man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
Given the reference to rain and working the field, the reader at this point would assume that this story is going to explain the origin of Israel’s rain-based agriculture. The story takes an unexpected turn, however, when YHWH plants a garden of fruit trees in Eden that is fed by a river:
בראשית ב:ח וַיִּטַּע יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים גַּן בְּעֵדֶן מִקֶּדֶם וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר. ב:ט וַיַּצְמַח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים מִן הָאֲדָמָה כָּל עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן וְעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע. ב:י וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת הַגָּן...
Gen 2:8 YHWH God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed. 2:9 And from the ground YHWH God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad. 2:10 A river issues from Eden to water the garden…
Thus, the man will not be engaged in the labor-intensive agrarian work implied earlier, but in a labor-lite watching over of fruit trees:
ב:טו וַיִּקַּח יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן עֵדֶן לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
2:15 YHWH God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.
The garden described in this story is not an otherworldly paradise but a description of how Israelites pictured life in places fed by rivers instead of rain.
The Lushness of River Land
Ancient Israelites knew that, unlike Israel, some lands were fed by rivers and were lusher and more “garden-like” than the land of Israel. Thus, when Lot and Abram separate in Genesis 13, the narrator compares the well-watered plain of the Jordan—imagining a time before it became arid—with both the land of Egypt and the Garden of Eden:
בראשׁית יג:י וַיִּשָּׂא לוֹט אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת כָּל כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן כִּי כֻלָּהּ מַשְׁקֶה לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת יְ־הוָה אֶת סְדֹם וְאֶת עֲמֹרָה כְּגַן יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר.
Gen 13:10 Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it -- this was before YHWH had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah -- all the way to Zoar, like the garden of YHWH, like the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy contrasts the river-fed land of Egypt with the rain-fed highlands of the Southern Levant, and clarifies that:
דברים יא:י כִּי הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע אֶת זַרְעֲךָ וְהִשְׁקִיתָ בְרַגְלְךָ כְּגַן הַיָּרָק. יא:יא וְהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ אֶרֶץ הָרִים וּבְקָעֹת לִמְטַר הַשָּׁמַיִם תִּשְׁתֶּה מָּיִם.
Deut 11:10 For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden; 11:11 but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.
The text continues by stating that the reliance on rain connects Israel directly with YHWH, but underlying the comparison is the assumption that a land fed by rivers provides for constant, easy access to water and, by implication, lush greenery.
A place supported by rivers is where the first man lived and worked, and this could have been how all humanity would live. Indeed, because the Garden of Eden had such abundant fruit, they wouldn’t even need to plant crops or carry the water from the river, like the passage from Deuteronomy quoted above imagines the Egyptians doing.
The reference in the opening verses of Genesis 2 to “rain” and “man tilling the soil” foreshadows the fact that humanity’s future will not be in this garden; Eden is but a staging ground for the events that serve to bring the familiar, agrarian world into being. What will cause this change is humans eating from the tree of knowledge.
Does YHWH Command in the Garden of Eden?
YHWH introduces the tree of knowledge to the man:
בראשׁית ב:יו וַיְצַו יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. ב:יז וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת.
Gen 2:16 And YHWH God tzivahed the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; 2:17 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.”
Almost all English translations render the verb tzivah (root צ.ו.ה/י) in its piʿel form as “command.” Read this way, the speech is a command not to eat from the fruit and a threat to punish the man with death for disobedience. And yet, the verb can also be translated as “instruct.”
This verb occurs twenty-six times in the book of Genesis. Modern English translations always render the verb as “command” or a similar locution when the verbal subject is YHWH or Elohim, but when the subject is a human agent, they allow for a greater range of meaning, including “instruct.”
For example, when Rebecca decides to have Jacob trick Isaac, so that he could get his father’s blessing instead of Esau, she says:
בראשית כז:ח וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי לַאֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְצַוָּה אֹתָךְ.
Gen 27:8 Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you. (NJPS).
Translating the verb this way in Gen 2:16 creates parity with the beginning of YHWH’s speech, which permits the eating of fruit in general.
בראשׁית ב:יו וַיְצַו יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. ב:יז וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת.
Gen 2:16 And YHWH God instructed the man, “Feel free to eat from all the trees in the garden; 2:17 but you should not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (My translation)
Rather than imposing his will on the man, YHWH provides advice about the inherent cause-and-effect relationship between the stated act and consequence. As the Garden of Eden account is the opening story of the J source, the only Pentateuchal source without a law collection, it would be odd for it to begin with a tale emphasizing the need to obey divine commands. Indeed, nothing the narrator says characterizes what the humans do as disobeying a command.
To use an analogy, a parent who tells a child “I told you so” may be referring to a parental command or to parental advice. The choice of translators, noted above, to render Hebrew tzivah as “command” when it has YHWH as its subject, but often “advise” when it has a human subject is based on a theological assumption, not shared by J, that YHWH only commands, but never advises—or that all divine advice is so superlative, it must be understood as a command.
Not Framed as Rebellion
Understanding YHWH’s words as “instruction” makes it possible to understand the relationship between eating from the tree of knowledge and death: YHWH is not threatening to execute Adam for disobedience but warning him that the natural consequence of eating the fruit is death.
This reading fits with the later part of the story, in which the snake says to the woman something like “so God instructed you not to eat any of this fruit,” to which the woman responds by phrasing God’s statement as a warning about the dangers of the fruit:
בראשית ג:ב ...מִפְּרִי עֵץ הַגָּן נֹאכֵל. ג:ג וּמִפְּרִי הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן אָמַר אֱלֹהִים לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא תִגְּעוּ בּוֹ פֶּן תְּמֻתוּן.
Gen 3:2 “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. 3:3 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 snake’s response confirms that the fear is not that God will kill them for eating the forbidden fruit but that God was warning them that it was dangerous. The snake claims that God is lying; the fruit is not dangerous and will in fact make them wise and godlike.
The Woman’s Evaluation
As the story continues, the woman makes her own evaluation of whether the fruit is good or bad:
בראשׁית ג:ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ וַתֹּאכַל וַתִּתֵּן גַּם לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ וַיֹּאכַל.
Gen 3:6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.
The woman, however, misjudges the situation and assumes that what she sees with her eyes is all she needs to know. In this sense, the woman’s behavior is reminiscent of Abraham’s, when YHWH informs him that he may destroy all of Sodom, also a J story (Gen 18:16–33). Central to the J source is its understanding of humans as reasoning creatures with limitations, who would do better by trusting YHWH’s judgment.
In the Sodom story, Abraham argues that YHWH’s behavior seems unjust, and begs to have the city spared if a certain number of righteous people are there. In the end, the city does not have enough righteous people in it and is not worth saving, which is why YHWH destroys it. Having limited information, Abraham has no way of knowing the extent of Sodom’s depravity.
Both Abraham and Eve demonstrate the human mind’s capacity to make independent value judgments, but these judgments may be compromised because humans do not always have access to all the information YHWH possesses. In this case, the man and woman do not know about the Tree of Life—nowhere does it say that YHWH tells them about it—nor do they know the importance YHWH places on maintaining a boundary between humanity and the divine.
Separating the Human from the Divine
On one level, the snake seems to have been telling the truth. He claimed לֹא מוֹת תְּמֻתוּן “You are not going to die” (Gen 3:4), and he seems to have been right. Was YHWH lying? The answer lies at the end of the story.
Following the consequences faced by the first couple, YHWH notes, ostensibly to his divine council, that the new status of humanity poses a problem:
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.
Gen 3:22 And YHWH God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!”
This verse suggests that the Tree of Knowledge is not deadly, but that now YHWH is going to have to block their access to the Tree of Life. The problem is that knowledge has made them god-like. Indeed, this is exactly what the snake told the woman:
בראשית ג:ה כִּי יֹדֵעַ אֱלֹהִים כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְכֶם מִמֶּנּוּ וְנִפְקְחוּ עֵינֵיכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם כֵּאלֹהִים יֹדְעֵי טוֹב וָרָע.
Gen 3:5 For God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.
Now that they have knowledge, if they also gain immortality, they become more than just god-like, but actual divine beings. Thus, YHWH acts expeditiously to bar the humans from accessing the Tree of Life:
בראשית ג:כד וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֶת הָאָדָם וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם לְגַן עֵדֶן אֶת הַכְּרֻבִים וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת לִשְׁמֹר אֶת דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים.
Gen 3:24 He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.
YHWH’s urgency implies that the tree of life functions similarly to the tree of knowledge. It would only take one bite for the humans to now become immortal beings. By barring them from eating from the tree, YHWH condemns them to death. Nevertheless, the verse does not present this decision as punishment, but as a necessity: humans are not supposed to be gods.
YHWH Limits Humans: Other J Stories
Elsewhere in J, YHWH is concerned with preserving the boundary between the divine and human.
A little later in the J narrative in Genesis, when divine beings take human wives and procreate (Gen 6:1–2), YHWH sees this as a problem, and decides to limit the human lifespan:
בראשית ו:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.
Gen 6:3 YHWH said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.”
The problem YHWH was addressing here is explained in the next verse: a union of divine being and human produces demigods:
בראשׁית ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
Gen 6:4 It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
As with the removal of humans from the garden, this is not a punishment, but YHWH’s maintaining the boundary between human and divine; YHWH sees this boundary as essential.
Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel story shows a similar concern. The humans all congregate in one valley and build a city with a large tower that scrapes the sky, so that they will be able to remain together as one group and make a name for themselves (Gen 11:1–4). YHWH goes down to see the city and tower (Gen 11:5), expressing concern:
בראשית יא:ו וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.
Gen 11:6 YHWH said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”
Again, humans are overreaching by invading physical spaces and functional roles that belong to the divine. Thus, YHWH has no choice but to block this endeavor and force humans to scatter and settle across the world:
בראשית יא:ז הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ. יא:ח וַיָּפֶץ יְ־הוָה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר.
Gen 11:7 “Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 11:8 Thus YHWH scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.
In all these stories, YHWH is not punishing the parties involved but is preserving the boundary between the divine and human. But if so, how do we explain the end of Genesis 3, typically understood in terms of punishments for eating from the tree?
Punishments or Consequences?
After hearing the man and woman explain their actions, YHWH’s first response is to punish the snake:
בראשית ג:יד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הַנָּחָשׁ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה...
Gen 3:14 Then YHWH God said to the snake, “Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts…”
When it comes to woman, however, the word אָרוּר “curse” does not appear:
בראשׁית ג:טז הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ בְּעֶצֶב תֵּלְדִי בָנִים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּךְ.
Gen 3:16 …I will make great your toil and many your pregnancies; with hardship shall you have children. Your turning is to your man/husband, and he shall rule/control you [sexually]. 
The verse here is not explaining why childbirth is painful but why childbirth exists: now that humans cannot access immortality, childbirth is necessary. Otherwise, the death of the primordial couple would mean the end of humanity.
A close look at what YHWH says to the man shows that he too is not cursed; the ground is cursed on the man’s account:
בראשׁית ג:יז ...אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכֲלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. ג:יח וְקוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר תַּצְמִיחַ לָךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ אֶת עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה. ג:יט בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם עַד שׁוּבְךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה כִּי מִמֶּנָּה לֻקָּחְתָּ כִּי עָפָר אַתָּה וְאֶל עָפָר תָּשׁוּב.
Gen 3:17 …“Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it All the days of your life: 3:18 Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; 3:19 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.”
These new agricultural conditions are what the opening of the story foreshadowed: the emergence of agriculture. YHWH is describing man’s new condition outside of the garden, where his work will now cost him energy and toil. Outside the garden, he must live off agriculture, which means human sweat. Moreover, his new life is suited to the newly knowledgeable human, since adversity requires humans to rely on their ingenuity to survive.
The end of YHWH’s message simply explains death: man comes from the ground and returns to it. Yes, there was an immortality option—namely, eating from the tree of life (though the man does not know this)—but the primordial couple has forgone this in favor of wisdom, and these new circumstances are the consequence.
Humanity’s Choice and YHWH’s Response
In J, YHWH does not issue binding commands or demand that humans obey him. Rather, YHWH functions more like a parent–one of the principal metaphors for the divine-human relationship in Proverbs–helping human characters develop sound judgment.
YHWH’s instruction to the man earlier in the story to avoid eating from the tree of knowledge, since this would result in his death, reveals how the fate of humans at the beginning of the story has not yet been decided. They have neither knowledge of good and bad nor immortality, and, if they follow YHWH’s instructions and avoid the tree of knowledge, they may live forever like gods. YHWH explains the choice to them, but not the mechanics of it; these are never explained to the couple, but only to the reader.
YHWH knows that if they eat from the tree of knowledge, he will have to preserve the boundary between divinity and humanity by denying them any further opportunity to acquire immortality. This means cutting off their access to the Tree of Life by removing them from the Garden of Eden.
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October 26, 2022
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Dr. Joseph Ryan Kelly is the Teacher Licensure Coordinator in Educational Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. He holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology. He has written several articles and is now working on a monograph that examines the relationship between ethical norms, concepts of justice, and gods in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece and compares it to the same in the Hebrew Bible.
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