According to the standard theological interpretation, the Eden story in Genesis explains the origins of death, toil, suffering and sin. It is the parable of mankind’s dramatic fall from grace and from a paradise of enchantment and innocence, a story of temptation, seduction and of disobedience leading to lust, recrimination and shame, and thence to punishment, to death and to the fallen condition of man.
Not so, according to Ziony Zevit, a distinguished professor of Bible studies and Semitic languages at the American Jewish University, in his new book What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (Yale, £20). By re-creating the mental world of Iron Age Israel which brought us the bible in its final form, Zevit comes to the conclusion that our reading of the story has been distorted, mainly by later Hellenistic accretions and anachronisms. The standard theological interpretation is consequently flawed.
The core of this scrupulously scholarly, yet, for the general reader, accessible and entertaining book, is a meticulous line-by-line parsing of the key passages of the Genesis text, which pays close attention to the grammar and syntax of ancient Hebrew and re-creates the story as the author’s Iron Age contemporaries would have understood it.
It follows that the narrative should be read quite differently from the way countless generations have read it. Sex, work, death and childbirth all existed before our first ancestors disobeyed God’s instruction and ate from the tree of Knowing. The punishment they receive from God is more like the chastisement from a loving parent than the severe sentence of an implacable judge. References to Adam and Eve elsewhere in the Bible, few as they are, are invariably positive and make no mention of sin or punishment or paradise lost. The point of the story, according to Zevit’s reconstructed narrative, is the transformation of human consciousness. By tasting from the tree of Knowing, and becoming aware of the good and the bad, the story of Eden is simply the story of man’s coming of age as a reflective and fully socialised ethical being.
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