What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?


What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?

By Ziony Zevit
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 400 pp., $30 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Mary Joan Winn Leith

When he saw Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (1541) in the Sistine Chapel, papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Casena denounced the fresco’s “dishonest” and “shameful” nudity. Thirteen years later at the behest of the Council of Trent, Daniele da Volterra (and other artists over the centuries) draped the “obscene” figures with fig leaves and vestments in a literal cover-up that only ended in 1994 when restorers at last stripped away the offending drapery and restored the figures to the nudity and nobility envisioned by Michelangelo. In this new book, author Ziony Zevit attempts a similar restoration, not of a painting, but of the story at the opposite end of cosmic time: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Zevit argues that readers of the Bible have been infected by an interpretation of the Adam and Eve story that dates to the Hellenistic era (323 B.C.E.–c. 100 B.C.E.) centuries after the story was originally written down. Yet central to the “muscle memory” of Western civilization is the idea that the Garden of Eden was the site of “the Fall,” a sin for which humans forfeited a “blissful life in a state of grace before the presence of God.” What Zevit calls “backreading”—putting ideas into the story that were never there, like the draperies da Volterra added to the Last Judgment—misleadingly “infuses the story” with “mythic authority,” including the misogyny that feminists decry. But what if, like the fresco restorers, one strips away inherited preconceptions—what Zevit calls the “defect explanation”—to uncover the original story, the story as understood by its ancient Israelite narrator?

This book in essence tells you “everything you wanted to know about the Garden of Eden but were afraid to ask.” Zevit, Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has combined his experiences as scholar and popular lecturer into a formidably minute yet consistently engaging exploration of the world of Adam and Eve. The book is a response to “complaints against and comments about the story of Adam and Eve,” especially from women in his classes who ask questions such as, “Why is it called the ‘Fall’?” and “How bad was Eve’s sin?” Students want to know why God cursed humanity and what Original Sin is.

Zevit acknowledges the pitfalls of assuming anyone can really know the original intent of a Biblical story. Biblical scholars emphasize that the Bible is like an archaeological site with strata of additions and edits accumulated over time. Nevertheless, after presenting a clear (and compact!) history of early Hebrew and making a case for the relevance of archaeological data and texts from neighboring cultures, Zevit works up a fairly convincing picture of the Biblical author as a ninthcentury B.C.E. citizen of the kingdom of Judah. While this may sound like standard historical-critical Biblical scholarship, one of the unique features of this book—which occasionally leads to some disingenuousness—is that Zevit wants to show readers that the ancient story, understood on its own terms, can provide life-affirming insights relevant to human life today.

This book employs unusual strategies to guide the reader deeper and deeper into the Garden of Eden. One encounters a lively array of Biblical commentary from rabbinic Midrash and Rashi to Martin Luther and Biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, by way of African-American spirituals and irreverent American jokes. Epigrams juxtapose 20th-century novelist Marcel Proust and the Talmud. In his renderings of the Biblical text, Zevit leaves some Hebrew words and names untranslated and then discusses their meaning in detail. This effectively short-circuits pre-existing ideas about the story and sets readers up for fresh, often surprising perspectives. Referring to the first woman as Hawwa, for example, circumvents culturebound negative associations that the name “Eve” might trigger. The first man, the ’adam, is made from ‘aphar, not “dust” but a “dirt clod.” The role of the first woman as ‘ezer k’negdo (in the NRSV this is “helper as his partner”) undergoes careful linguistic scrutiny before Zevit proposes “a powerful counterpart,” observing that none of the animals submitted for this role could share the first man’s “load of labor and responsibility.”

Many of Zevit’s word choices and interpretive suggestions would be familiar to Biblical scholars, but this book includes one new idea that many, including this reviewer, have found persuasive. He points out that “rib” is actually only a guess for the meaning of the unusual Hebrew word ṣela‘. In a tour de force of zoology, physiology and linguistics, Zevit plausibly contends that Hawwa was constructed from Adam’s penis bone (part of his argument is that the story explains why human males differ from many mammals in not having one). Some of the other suggestions in this book, while worth consideration, belong in the “maybe” category: that Adam and Eve had sex—and children—in the Garden of Eden* and were mortal from the start.

Feminists will find helpful Zevit’s observation that, while the Garden of Eden story comes from a patriarchal culture, it never alludes to “nonbiological male and female roles and tasks,” perhaps because, as Carol Meyers has argued, in the rural settlements of Iron Age Israel, men and women had to perform many of the same tasks.** Zevit also points out that the Bible barely alludes to the Garden story. So even though the story is essential to Judeo-Christian culture, it “was not a particularly important story, nor did it have any direct bearing on the historical, covenantal, and other theological themes of interest to most authors of the texts included in the Bible.” Zevit concludes that the story is not about a “Fall” at all but about “how all humanity … obtained the knowledge to discriminate between the more and the less preferable when making choices.”




*Mary Joan Winn Leith, Biblical Views: “Who Did Cain Marry?” BAR, November/December 2013.

**Ross. S. Kraemer, Bible Books, review of Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, by Carol Meyers, Bible Review, August 1990.



Mary Joan Winn Leith is associate professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, and regular contributor to Biblical Views.

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10 Responses

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  1. JOHN says

    Interesting. Answers some old questions and raises some new.

  2. Elizabeth says

    Let me put down some comment here as a lay person in Biblical scholarship, because I am only a graduate of high school in 2013 that learn to put a high regard to the Bible as the truth that God wants all Christians to understand it and do good things accordingly. I am so interested to learn more about this discussion, but I believe that as far as I can understand it in the Indonesian translation, where my father as a pastor has also guided me through, the position of Eve as a person beside Adam has been put so high, as symbolized by the bone of Adam’s rib, close to his heart, either not above nor far below his central beat of the man’s life since it early stage.

  3. Phillip says

    It is surely understandable most books and scholarly papers reviewed on this site would necessarily tend to lean on the conservative side, but even so I was expecting something with a little bit more meat on its bones in a piece about Adam and Eve in the Garden.
    This nonsense about a penis bone pales in comparison to many other aspects of what took place between this first couple of the human race, like Adam leaving Eve for 120 years and returning to what Rabbis called to the “rulers of the fields” the Cro-magnum hominids of his origin before God put within him the nephesh and he became a “living personality”.
    Whatever bone it was which God took from Adam, it was surely DNA without which a human woman could not have been possible.

    The entire account, and far from being any “myth, is crammed full of the most graphic and telling details full of the realness of their existing in a hoary past truly relatable to anyone today in a marriage relationship.
    We are immediately confronted with an Eve cursed with an irresistable desire to “overflow” her husband in whatever he does.This mirrored his curse in ever struggling to contain her. Why? Because The woman would not listening to her husband. So there was a fall.
    As the Nephesh God deposited in Adam was imparted to his wife, they both were thereby covered with a garment of something not unlike the glory of God.
    In the New Testament Paul called sin “coming short of the Glory of God.”
    Doing what was right, was impossible to the human race because of the lack of this glory the first couple were endowed with.
    The research by scholars such as Hislop reported that in the ancient legends of the earliest, people were very much aware of Mother Eve causing this catastrophy and there sprung up taunt songs vilifying her as the “Crab” which as they taunted, a crab goes sideways from the straight path when it walks.
    And it also seems that in the Garden, Adam was simply oblivious, or wholly ignorant, and one may even say-indifferent-to his shining garment of eternal glory which God had given to him as a covering for his body.
    So there were two very important and consequential things which happened to the Father of the human race when he disobeyed God’s instructions and did eat from the tree of the knowledge of Good and evil.
    The day he did so, he began to die, and so he became painfully aware of this wrong and therefore of what was right also, when God thrust him unceremoniously out of the Garden.
    Ever since then in every country and in cultures of every clime, All civilizations which sprung up afterwards, have been trying to get back to the Garden.

  4. Ian says

    I just want to pose a question, if I may. To start off firstly in a way I agree with Phillip, but my thoughts tell me something different. The bible notes “God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. Now, sin, what is the sin we are referring to in the bible.

    Phillip notes the following:-
    We are immediately confronted with an Eve cursed with an irresistable desire to “overflow” her husband in whatever he does.This mirrored his curse in ever struggling to contain her. Why? Because The woman would not listening to her husband. So there was a fall.
    As the Nephesh God deposited in Adam was imparted to his wife, they both were thereby covered with a garment of something not unlike the glory of God.
    In the New Testament Paul called sin “coming short of the Glory of God.”
    Doing what was right, was impossible to the human race because of the lack of this glory the first couple were endowed with. Good points.

    Eve means life. We are all human and understand anything if we relate things to human understanding. The penis, Adam and eve. Have we looked at this in the spirit. God is a spirit?
    ADMAN the first man selected by god. Eve the life within Adam. The conversation with ourselves – do it no don’t. Who is doing the talking between both and the actions of both are wrong for not understanding Gods, word. Madness. If the meaning of Eve is life surely it places
    a different way of looking at it. So, what is sin, and how is the spiritual side being applied? there is always anther way of looking at not understanding. Darkness or no light.

    My mane is Ian and on iabooysen0@gmail.com

  5. Nii says

    One thing I would say is that Satan’s pitch was the woman will be “like God knowing good and evil” but the woman “saw it was good to eat and desirable to make one wise”. My language is descended from Ancient Egyptian and Hebrew though a distant relative but in Akan knowing good and evil does not mean knowing preferences but your ability to judge. A proper translation of the name of the tree is the Tree of Judgement between Good and Evil. This eɔplains original sin not as knowing good and bad choices which the narrative says Adam (Adammah) and Eve (Hawwah) had already. NB:Eve is a German spelling. It is assuming or presuming to be Judge between God and the Devil which is what Good and Evil is ultimately. By this we declare we are more righteous than God. This attitude is manifest in Atheists and dogmatic religious people alike. So I do not agree with the premise of his book though it will be a good read.

  6. Ed says

    Ergo, a “boner” is simply a miracle from the Almighty, for creating life? Once that bone has been taken from man, a new life will be made in woman… Such a smutty Book (but the ways to draw a human audience, in Chapter1 haven’t changed in 6000 years)… :)

  7. Irene says

    To me it makes more sense, that Eve came from Adam’s penis. After all, that is where life comes from, and other Ancient religions use ideas and imagery connected with procreation. And it makes sex more acceptable, it makes it part of the religious world, that it is part of God’s plan and is not a ‘sin’.

  8. Anthony says

    It always amazes me how people can take the plain reading of the Hebrew text in Genesis or anywhere in the scriptures for that matter and twist it to fit their own ideas and agenda rather than reading with authorial intent in mind. There is absolutely zero evidence to support the idea of this penis issue. In fact is blasphemous. Idiots like Ed would make it even more blasphemous with statements like what he just said. Why can’t people just look at the text for what it says and quit trying to read into it something else not found, which is called Isegesis. We’re called to do exegesis. The original sin was pride. All sin stems from pride. Pride from the serpent taunting the woman that she can be like God like the serpent or Satan wanted to be, and pride in their disobedience to God’s command and will. Just that simple.

  9. hmmm says

    what’s a bce ? Before Christ’s Era ?

  10. Joyce says

    Sin is unbelief. Eve doesnt totally believe in God’s word as He says do not eat nor touch the fruit lest you will die but she reason out with the serpent. And that she was deceived.

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