Garden of the Gods
And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, From the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyckand brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him. – Genesis 2:18-20 (NKJV)
I have always loved the creation stories in the Bible. They were probably among the first things that I read in Scripture, since I remember them from early childhood, and also they are in the front of the book! Christians have interpreted Genesis 2 and 3, the famous story of the Garden of Eden, to be the Fall of Man and the origin of Sin. Paul originates the Doctrine of Original Sin based on this story in Roman 5:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. – Roman 5:12-13 (NKJV)
Because the Doctrine of original sin is so crucial to Christianity, the Garden of Eden story as the literal portrayal of the Fall of Mankind is rarely challenged in conservative Christian circles. As I said, I have read the Garden of Eden story since childhood, and even as a boy I found several things that did not make sense:
- God cursed the serpent to go on his belly. Did God make serpents with legs?
- If it really was the Devil talking through the serpent, why did God curse the serpent and not the Devil?
- Does the Devil crawl on his belly like the serpent?
- Do serpents eat dust?
- Why did God think animals would be good companions for Adam before he made women?
- Does The Garden of Eden still exist, with cherubim and flaming swords and everything?
Some of these questions are silly and childish, but others are a little more profound for a youngster to catch. As I have gotten older, I have a few more questions that are perhaps more profound:
- Our Christian traditions have equated the serpent with Satan. Yet, there is no mention of Satan or the Devil anywhere in this story. There is just the cunning serpent. Why should we assume the snake is Satan?
- Genesis 3:15 is often cited as the first Messianic Prophecy. A portion of God’s curse to the serpent contains this phrase:
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”
- Note how the NKJV capitalizes where it assumes a reference to Christ. It assumes this is the correct interpretation, placing the interpreters as inerrant writers of Scripture. But if this is a reference to Christ, it is so vague as to make little sense. Her Seed is assumed to be Christ. What does your seed refer to? The scribes and Pharisees (John 8:44)? When did Christ bruise the head of Satan? When did Satan bruise the heel of Christ? These are the vaguest of assumed prophecies that can mean absolutely anything the interpreter wishes, to meet whatever end desired. What do they really mean?
- In the story, God tells Adam things that do not transpire, yet events turn out for Eve exactly as the snake predicted. The snake was telling the truth, God was not, or he was mistaken.
Genesis 3:22 confounded me for two reasons:Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—
- Man was just cursed to die (For dust you are, and to dust you shall return). If they ate the fruit of he Tree of Life, would they have undone God’s curse and lived forever? God just said so. Was God powerless to affect the outcome of eating the fruit? Was God punishing mankind for disobedience, or did these trees have actual magical properties which God had no control over?
- And lastly, when God said, “man has become like one of Us,” who was God talking to? Christians traditionally interpret this to mean communication between members of the Trinity. But how can we be sure this is the meaning without referring to our church creed? The concept of the Trinity is not even implied in this story. Invoking the Trinity is interpreting the Scriptures through the lens of a Church Creed in the attempt to keep them unified. We know the creed, and I think interpreting the Scriptures to force it into a creed is cheating. Is there any other meaning to this peculiar address of God?
After doing a lot of reading about the stories and myths of Genesis, I have become personally convinced that the evolution of ancient Judaism can be glimpsed as one progresses through the pages of the Old Testament. Part of that ancient tradition of Judaism, I am convinced, is a strong culture of polytheism that gradually becomes monotheistic with the worship of One God. Books like Margaret Barker’s The Great Angel – A Study of Israel’s Second God and more recently, David Penchansky’s Twilight of the Gods – Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible challenge at least 2500 years of monotheistic tradition on the Old Testament. I think they do so convincingly. The belief is growing among scholars that the Old Testament is filled with polytheism and monolatrism – if one just knows where to look.
Wait Wait!! Don’t click your browser window shut just yet. Let’s look at how this could apply to the Garden of Eden story. When following along in Genesis Chapter 2 and 3, remember that the Hebrew word YHVH is usually translated as LORD, and elohim translated as God. Thus, YHVH elohim comes out as LORD God in most Bibles. It is interesting to note that elohim is a plural form of the singular el, so it is literally gods. At least that is what most reference books will tell you, despite the Biblical translation of god singular. From here, I will just quote a few paragraphs of a portion of Penchansky’s interpretation of the Eden story out of his book. Why hack out a paraphrase, when he tells the story perfectly? I hope this is legal:
“In the Garden of Eden story, YHVH is called YHVH elohim. This phrase suggests a range of possible meanings. It might mean that YHVH is the leader of the band of elohim or else that YHVH is a god from the class of beings named elohim. This two-word title might also mean both of these things. In either case, the term elohim qualifies YHVH, indicating what category of being YHVH is.”
“YHVH places the two trees in the garden for the benefit of the elohim. I infer this because YHVH did not allow the humans to eat from them, and the trees impart qualities by which the gods are identified. Apparently, the elohim regularly consume the fruit provided by the two trees. YHVH intended neither for the humans. The tree of life imparted to the elohim eternal life or immortality. The other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, imparted divine insight and gave the elohim their unique knowledge (see footnote). When humans eat the fruit from that tree, YHVH addresses his council with the problem: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:22)
“The elohim therefore conspired to drive the humans out of the garden before they gained access to the tree of life. If, in addition to gaining divine knowledge they would live forever, then there would be nothing to distinguish the elohim from the humans. Such a prospect was unacceptable to YHVH elohim, there leader. As a result of human impudence, he drove the first couple from the garden and forced them to fend for themselves. Apparently, divine prerogatives must be preserved at all costs!”
“Two things about the elohim in the Garden of Eden story deserve our attention. First, when YHVH says, “See, the man has become like one of us,” the negative import of that line is powerful – the elohim are horrified at the prospect of sharing their realm with the humans. YHVH however, includes himself in the “us”. He is one of the elohim. Second, YHWH questions the elohim and consults with them about how to dispose of his creation. Therefore, they must have wisdom upon which YHVH depends.”
“I thus note the two chief characteristics that distinguish the elohim from other types of beings: divine life (immortality) and divine knowledge. The remainder of the human story following the expulsion from the garden might then be understood as an eternal, generation-by-generation quest to recover the tree of life, which is finally granted to the humans at the end of the age in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions.”
“footnote: Some have seen this tree as imparting moral knowledge, but more likely it indicates the scope of knowledge, the entirety of things that can be known. “From good to evil,” we might translate, as in English one might say “from A to Z”, or “from top to bottom”
I am convinced that this is at least closer to the original intent of the myth than the traditional Christian interpretation. It just makes more sense. The story flows better. In this light, the Tower of Babel story is very similar in theme – the gods feel threatened by humanity and must figure out a way to humble them. It ties together loose ends that I could never understand. For better or worse, here is what the polytheistic interpretation does to this long familiar Genesis story:
- Let’s get this out of the way first: it destroys the idea that the ancient Hebrews have always been monotheistic.
- I don’t think the Doctrine of Original Sin can be developed with the polytheistic interpretation of The Fall of Man. Mankind still disobeyed, but the image of God is radically altered.
- The ambiguity of the purpose of Tree of Life that the traditional interpretation gives is removed. The polytheistic interpretation shows how the gods conspire to remove the Tree of Life from man, lest they become indistinguishable from gods, or reach godhood themselves. This also ties in nicely with the Tower of Babel story.
- Much of the traditional Christian interpretation of Gen 3:17 is to include all disease, sickness, natural disasters, and all other human and animal suffering as part of this curse. However, this global view of suffering must be read into the text. The polytheistic interpretation limits the curse to be just what the text says it is, an explanation as to why man must work, till, labor, and remove thorns and thistles from the ground (cultivation) in order to live.
- The curse of the woman (labor pains and submission to man) is left ambiguous. Were there to be no children in the Garden of Eden, or was the labor to be painless? Or is this just a general mythological story to explain the woman’s birthpains?
- It removes the idea that the Serpent is a traditional Satan, devil, or some other form of evil; an idea that is never in the text anyway. Actually, it is still ambiguous as to who the Serpent is, or the meaning of the curse of Gen 3:15, and that is my one major complaint about this polytheistic interpretation. There is still no mention of the serpent. Is the serpent pictured as one of the elohim, conspiring to rid man from the Garden of the Gods? Who knows – that part of the story is never explained.
- Most obviously, it explains who the LORD God (YHVH elohim) was talking to when referring to ‘us’ and ‘our’.
There are other implications to this interpretation, but I will leave it at this. From a strictly literary and mythological standpoint, this interpretation makes quite a bit of sense to me. It removes much of the ambiguity in our traditional Christian interpretation, as it may be closer to the original intent of the story.
Unfortunately, this is a big ticket item in Christianity. As a Christian, I knew that this story was necessary for Original Sin and the need for a Savior to be valid. Yet as a scientist, I knew that the beginning of humanity did not happen this way. Attempts at allegorizing this story to keep the theology and science both intact were futile to me. This is where I ended up. This makes the most sense to me.
What are your thoughts? Is it possible that ancient Judaism was polytheistic?