Bible Read: Creation and Eden

As I discussed last week, Betsy and I are reading the Bible all the way through, a chapter a day. We’re still in Genesis at the moment. All Bible quotations in this and future Bible Read discussions are from the NRSV translation unless otherwise noted.

So let’s get started.

Talk to someone reasonably well-versed in Christianity and ask them about the Creation story. They’ll likely tell you something like this:

God alone created the universe in six days, making certain things on each day, in a fixed order, then rested on the seventh. Adam and Eve, the first humans, lived in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had forbidden. Eve took a bite, and persuaded Adam to do the same. This disobedience was mankind’s Original Sin (which Jesus would later atone for), and as punishment, God cast them out of the garden and into the hard world.

Sound familiar? Nothing wrong with it per se. But it’s important to understand that the story recounted above is an interpretation of Genesis. The text itself says something rather different.

Let’s walk through it together, and I’ll point out whatever especially interests me, the strange and the beautiful.

In the beginning

I have long believed that the Bible has the best opening lines, the strongest “hook,” of any book on the planet. The version familiar to me is something like the one from the NIV:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
Genesis 1:1-3 (NIV)

What we’re reading now, however, is the NRSV, and imagine my surprise when I found the opening lines rendered as:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
Genesis 1:1-3

The short, declarative sentence at the start is transformed into a mere clause, modifying what’s to come. The second version is far less elegant, in my opinion. That’s not a criticism of the NRSV, which is merely translating an existing Hebrew text; and a footnote in my edition does acknowledge that “scholars differ” on which translation is more correct.

Theologically, it doesn’t matter. But the lesson is clear from the very first sentence: the text of the Bible is what it is, not what I expect it – or want it – to be.

I’m fascinated, by the way, by that term – “the deep.” In Hebrew it’s tehom, implying primordial chaos, perhaps related to Tiamat the monstrous Sumerian chaos goddess. Tiamat is often depicted as a serpent, much like the biblical Leviathan, who in the Book of Job is described as an unworthy adversary of God during Creation. Remember chaoskampf? That’s what we’re talking about here.

I wonder if Leviathan was one of the “great sea monsters” God created in Genesis 1:21.

Who is “us”?

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”
Genesis 1:26

This happens so quick it’s easy to miss it. We will make humankind? In our image? Who else is out there, anyway?

Nobody seems to know for sure; answers vary, all equally fascinating.

The most obvious answer for a modern Christian is that “us” refers to the three parts of the Trinity. If so, this offers a fascinating insight on the psychology of God: he actually thinks of himself, sometimes, as “us.” It’s also a reminder that (again, according to mainstream Christian theology) it wasn’t just God the Father there at Creation. The Son (Logos) and the Spirit were there too, and we are made in their image as well.

But Genesis is first and foremost a Jewish text. I greatly doubt the original author of Genesis had the Trinity in mind; at the very least, it’s not the Jewish interpretation. So what do they make of “us”? It seems they generally believe that “us” refers to angels. If that’s the case, it’s just as fascinating: angels were actively involved in creation! Humankind was made in the image of angels as well as God!

I’ve also heard the argument that the plural pronoun is merely an artifact of Hebrew grammar. Evidently the word for “God” used here (Elohim) has some aspects of a plural noun? My knowledge of Hebrew being nonexistent, I can’t begin to speculate on whether that makes sense, but the theory doesn’t seem to have a lot of defenders.

Creation happens twice

The seven days of Creation are described in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Creation happens in this order, day by day:

  1. Day and Night
  2. The sky
  3. Earth, sea, and plants
  4. Sun, moon, and stars
  5. Birds and sea animals
  6. Other animals, and then humans (male and female)
  7. Rest

Curiously, this is followed by a separate, seemingly contradictory account in Genesis 2:4-25. Here we are not told about separate days, and the story begins with the earth already created:

  1. The first man (Adam)
  2. The Garden of Eden (possibly these are the first plants, though it’s a bit unclear)
  3. All animals
  4. The first woman (Eve)

The scholarly view is that these two accounts indicate multiple sources for Genesis which have been stitched together. (Similar “hiccups” occur all throughout the book.)

The difference between these two accounts is striking in many ways. In the first story, God is simply called “God” (Elohim), and he is omnipotent, willing all things into existence with words alone. In the second, God gets a personal name: Yahweh, or YHWH, the Tetragrammaton, often translated as “LORD” (and occasionally as “Jehovah”). Yahweh is portrayed as less all-powerful and more humanlike; for instance, he creates animals in a failed attempt to find a mate for Adam, rather than for their own sake. (Of course, the usual Christian interpretation would be that God did this on purpose, but we don’t find that in the text.)

No apple, no Satan, no sin

The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is simply called “fruit.” The word “apple” does not appear anywhere. This doesn’t matter theologically, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Much more significant is the fact that the serpent in Eden is never described as Satan. The serpent seems to be, well, a serpent.

What does the text say?

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made.
Genesis 3:1

Than any other wild animal. So the serpent is explicitly described as a wild animal. But wait – what does the NIV say?

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.
Genesis 3:1 (NIV)

Here, the serpent is explicitly not a wild animal. Large conclusions hinge on tiny differences in translation. Again we see that the Bible is a very difficult text that must be read with extraordinary care.

So Genesis 3:1 is ambiguous. And later:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this [tempted Eve], cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures…”
Genesis 3:14

Again, for the NRSV, the serpent is clearly an animal. But the NIV has:

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!”
Genesis 3:14 (NIV)

Again, the NIV indicates it’s not an animal.

Am I reading too much into small details? Maybe. But the serpent seems an ambiguous figure at best.

“Sin,” too, is a word that appears nowhere in the Eden account (much less “original sin”). You can infer that Adam and Eve sinned because they disobeyed God; but, since Original Sin is the reason for the sacrifice of Jesus, and thus the foundation of the Christian faith, it’s curious, at least, that the story describing it doesn’t speak of it in those terms at all.

God lies, the serpent tells the truth

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Genesis 2:16-17

(The NIV has “for when you eat of it” instead of “for in the day that you eat of it.”)

But Adam and Eve do eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and they don’t die that day. They do eventually die – centuries later – but not because they disobeyed God. Genesis makes it clear that they were created mortal, and would only have become immortal if they’d eaten from the Tree of Life.

So what God said was incorrect, at least from a plain reading of the text. To make God’s statement true, you have to supply some extra interpretation, turning “die” into some sort of metaphorical or spiritual death.

By contrast:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God [or ‘gods’], knowing good and evil.”
Genesis 3:4-5

And, as we will see, this is exactly what happens.

Why are Adam and Eve expelled?

Anyone will tell you that Adam and Eve were removed from Eden as punishment for disobedience. That’s not what Genesis says, however.

They are punished for disobedience. Eve is given pain in childbirth, and Adam is forced to toil for his food, among other things.

But Genesis is quite explicit about why they’re expelled, and it has nothing to do with sin.

Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 3:22-24

“See, the man has become like one of us.” Just as the serpent predicted. God’s concern here is that Adam – having gained one aspect of divinity already – might acquire another aspect, immortality. If you didn’t know better, you’d think God was worried. This theme will reappear with the Tower of Babel.

(Incidentally, note that Adam is expelled from the east gate of Eden; a chapter later, Cain is also cast out, this time into the Land of Nod, which is described as “east of Eden” – Genesis 4:16. That is the source of the title for the Steinbeck novel.)

Women, obey your men

Backing up just a bit. Among the punishments listed for the three sinners – the man, the woman, and the serpent – we find this punishment for Eve:

To the woman he [God] said, “…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Genesis 3:16

This is said to Eve; but since literally every other punishment listed here applies to their descendants, it would seem this one is likewise. So not only does God create the idea of men ruling over women, he also makes it explicitly clear that this sexism is the woman’s fault. (As we’ll see much later, St. Paul is very much on board with this plan.) You stay classy, Genesis.

And lest you think that these are just harmless antiquated notions that nobody takes seriously anymore – Betsy and I went to a mainstream Christian church less than a year ago, right here in Ohio, that preached a whole sermon about how men should rule the family and women should obey, based solely on Scripture.

Obviously most Christians I know don’t think that way, because they’re not morons. The point, however, is that these verses can and do cause major problems in the world even today. If this is God’s Word, one is forced to think long and hard about why the verses are there.

Final thoughts

Does it sound like I’m nitpicking? I hope not. I certainly don’t mean to. I think the account of Creation and Eden is a beautiful story, poetic and insightful. It’s part of our shared heritage as a culture. It asks important questions and makes us think. Like many parts of the Bible, however, it is also deeply problematic. When it comes to biblical study, if you’re not confused (at least part of the time), then you’re not paying attention.

Also, wow this turned into a long post. I think this is my longest nonfiction post ever, by a wide margin. And that’s only the first three chapters. I’m past chapter twelve in my reading now, and believe, I’ve got thoughts on that stuff too!

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10 responses to “Bible Read: Creation and Eden

  1. Another interesting thought is that in Genesis 1:2, the word “was” (was without form and void) comes from the Hebrew word “hayah” which is properly translated “became”. This implies that it didn’t start out that way.

  2. Only very briefly touched Jewish mysticism, but the Kabbalah suggests the creator is all things simultaneously, so ‘us’ could refer to the fact that the creator includes the concept of duality.

    To throw things into the mix, there is pronoun ambiguity in: ‘…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’

    People read ‘he’ as referring to ‘husband’, but the clause structure is such it could equally apply to ‘desire’. Which would make it about the power of lust to influence human behaviour.

    • Kabbalah’s fascinating to me, though I haven’t studied it in any depth yet. Of course, Kabbalah (like Christianity) was a much later development, so its interpretation doesn’t apply to the original author of Genesis, unless you accept the tenets of Kabbalah itself as being true.

      As to your second comment, about the pronoun, is that based on your own knowledge of Hebrew grammar, or can you provide a source for that? I’d be interested to read more. I looked at eight different translations, and all had “he” (which in English implies the husband) rather than “it” (implying desire).

      • My history of Kabbalah comes from conversations and lay reading as part of wider comparative theology and mysticism, so I’m not an expert; however, from what I remember there is evidence that at least some of the techniques and knowledge was part of Jewish practice at the time of the Exodus, which is well before the earliest written copy of Genesis. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of what the oral Genesis said, or which influenced the other.

        My second comment is based on a difference in types of language. While ‘he’ would only work for the husband in English, Hebrew is a gendered language, so in the original ‘desire’ almost certainly has a gender.

        There are several Hebrew words that could be translated ‘desire’ so without seeing the original I am not sure which gender the noun in the original would be.

      • I get what you’re saying about Hebrew nouns having gender. (I studied Spanish, which does the same thing.) But by rendering the pronoun as “he” rather than “it” in English, the translator is creating a sentence where the pronoun refers unambiguously (in English) to “husband.” If the original Hebrew is ambiguous, I would expect some translations to resolve the ambiguity the other way, or at least have a footnote. The fact that they all resolve it in the same way causes me some doubt about the underlying ambiguity. But of course, I have no idea what it really says, I’m just speculating.

  3. “The seven days of Creation are described in Genesis 1:1-2:3. Creation happens in this order, day by day:

    Day and Night
    The sky
    Earth, sea, and plants
    Sun, moon, and stars
    Birds and sea animals
    Other animals, and then humans (male and female)
    Rest”

    You didn’t mention that this creation myth goes against what modern day science teaches us, and that science has a better foundation than words in a text written by some ancient person or people ignorant of such science who dubiously allege divine guidance. Most important of the contradictions, is the earth being older than the sun and the other stars; this is just completely counter to what astronomers and physicists can demonstrate. The other inconsistencies are less important, only because it is possible to form very weak explanations and counterarguments. But here they are anyway: Green plants, which depend on photosynthesis to exist, being created before there was a Sun also belies our knowledge of biology, even if it took only a day to “correct” this. To a lesser extent, the creation of day and night before there was a Sun sort of contradicts basic understanding of the meaning of day and night. There is no mention of the creation of other celestial objects such as planets, which suggests that whoever wrote this knew nothing of them other than perhaps thinking of the visible ones (erroneously) as being stars. Where was the divine guidance here?

    • I didn’t mention this because I figure most of my readers know about it already. The wide gap between science and a literal reading of Genesis is fairly well understood, I think, and it’s been discussed at length elsewhere, so I wanted to focus on lesser-known stuff.

  4. Pingback: Man in picture, seen from the other planets | Marcus Ampe's Space

  5. “Who is “us”?
    Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…”
    Genesis 1:26”
    It was God’s Master Worker Christ Jesus he was referring to, “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, Before the earth was.
    24When there were no depths, I was brought forth, When there were no fountains abounding with water.
    25Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills was I brought forth;
    26While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, Nor the beginning of the dust of the world.
    27When he established the heavens, I was there: When he set a circle upon the face of the deep,
    28When he made firm the skies above, When the fountains of the deep became strong,
    29When he gave to the sea its bound, That the waters should not transgress his commandment, When he marked out the foundations of the earth;
    30Then I was by him, as a master workman; And I was daily his delight, Rejoicing always before him, 31Rejoicing in his habitable earth; And my delight was with the sons of men.(-Proverbs 8:23-31)

    “The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is simply called “fruit.” The word “apple” does not appear anywhere. This doesn’t matter theologically, but it’s interesting nonetheless.”

    Correct the Hebrew word simply translated “fruit” not specifically “apple” so it could have been any various type of fruit-even one were haven’t heard of.

    “Much more significant is the fact that the serpent in Eden is never described as Satan. The serpent seems to be, well, a serpent.”

    The identity of the serpent is by no means nebulous for the Scriptures tells us:
    “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. “(Revelation 12:9 NKJV)

    “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”(Revelation 12:9 KJV)

    “He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:2 NKJV)

    “He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.”(Revelation 20:2 NIV)

    “Ancient Serpent”, “Serpent of Old”, Old “Serpent” it becomes crystal clear that the serpent that deceived mother Eve was Satanas himself.

    “(The NIV has “for when you eat of it” instead of “for in the day that you eat of it.”)

    But Adam and Eve do eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and they don’t die that day. They do eventually die – centuries later – but not because they disobeyed God. Genesis makes it clear that they were created mortal, and would only have become immortal if they’d eaten from the Tree of Life.

    So what God said was incorrect, at least from a plain reading of the text. To make God’s statement true, you have to supply some extra interpretation, turning “die” into some sort of metaphorical or spiritual death.

    By contrast:

    But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God [or ‘gods’], knowing good and evil.”
    Genesis 3:4-5”

    15 And Jehovah God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. 16And Jehovah God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
    God said “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Nowhere therein dose God give a specific amont of time remember “But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3: 8)And so we should not be hasty to believe foolishly that our concept of time is God’s.

    “To the woman he [God] said, “…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”(Genesis 3:16)”
    God simply declared the eventuality of womenfolk by the hands of their husbands who would dominate them, never dose God Jehovah approve of such, only that it would happen as a result of mankind’s disobedience. Forsooth its a direct result of Adam’s sin(disobedience) a tragic outcome due to mankinds alienation from God. In no way or form was God approving of said conduct of women.
    It is absolutely crucial to take an account the entire Bible so as not to draw erroneous conclusions.

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