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