Sweat of Thy Brow

Working in the Garden of Eden

Adam and Eve farming, away from the sweat free paradise of the Garden of Eden.
Credit: First Work of Adam and Eve by Alonso Cano

In the coming months many across the world will find themselves toiling sway in the summer heat and drenched in sweat. Being hot and sweaty is a natural part of life, albeit an uncomfortable one. But what if this was not always the case? What if toil and sweat hadn’t been a part of the plan from the beginning? These are questions that the ancients likely pondered when they thought about the idyllic abodes of the gods or the paradises of the afterlife. Indeed, perhaps the ancient Israelites even found themselves asking the same question of their legendary forebears—did Adam and Eve sweat in the Garden of Eden?

According to Mary Joan Winn Leith, the answer is no. Drawing on God’s pronouncement to Adam in Genesis 3 that “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” Leith claims, “effort is what Adam is condemned to when he farms outside Eden. Thorns and thistles are weeds, not something humans can eat. The logical conclusion is that, in Eden, Adam didn’t sweat.” In Eden, “the food was easy to grow, harvest, and eat.”

Leith goes on to describe similar scenarios from ancient sources including the Odyssey, in which Odysseus finds himself in the fertile land of the Phaeacians, and a New Kingdom Egyptian wall painting found in the tomb of Sennedjem and his wife Iineferti. The scene painted in the tomb shows the couple, who are attended to by the gods, as they farm the fields in the paradise of the netherworld. According to Leith, the fact that the deceased man and his wife are shown wearing white linen signifies they are not sweating.

In relation to Adam and Eve, who did not wear linen garments but were naked and unashamed, Leith claims, “Sweat characterizes the human world, even the human condition, but not a world where, like Adam and Eve, like Sennedjem and Iinefeteri, like the Odyssey’s Phaeacians, humans live in the proximity to the divine.”

To cement her views further, Leith makes reference to one of the only other times sweat is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Ezekiel 44:18. In this passage God bestows upon the prophet a vision of the restored Jerusalem Temple with the priestly regulation that “they shall have linen turbans on their heads, and linen undergarments on their loins; they shall not bind themselves with anything that causes sweat.” In other words, sweat has no place in the presence of the divine—neither in the Jerusalem Temple nor in the Garden of Eden.

Leith’s notions are certainly thought-provoking. If working the ground in Eden did not produce sweat, one could hope that other activities, such as running, jumping, or sitting in a hot room, didn’t either. It would make for a pleasant (and sweet smelling) existence to be sure. In a word—paradise.

To learn more about Leith’s views on sweat in the garden of Eden, read Epistles: “The Garden of Eden: Don’t Sweat it!” by Mary Joan Winn Leith published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review

Subscribers: Read the full piece, read Epistles: “The Garden of Eden: Don’t Sweat it!” by Mary Joan Winn Leith published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review


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Was Eve created from Adam’s rib? In “Was Eve Made from Adam’s Rib—or His Baculum?” by Ziony Zevit, a controversial Bible translation is put forward. The Book of Genesis tells us that God created woman from one of Adam’s ribs, but Zevit contends that Eve actually came from a different part of Adam’s body—his baculum.

In “Creating Woman,” Mary Joan Winn Leith looks at the etiological and euphemistic support for Ziony Zevit’s interpretation of how Eve was created, and she considers how this would have fit into ancient views of biology. Then Leith focuses on an interesting part of the Adam and Eve story in the Bible: the “punishment poem” in Genesis 3:14–19.

The first woman has been blamed for a host of ills—from inspiring witches to being the very source of sin. Tracing the roots of Eve’s bad reputation leads not to Genesis (as many people assume), but to an obscure set of texts known as the pseudepigrapha, says Susan L. Greiner in “Did Eve Fall or Was She Pushed?”

“The devil’s gateway, the unsealer of that forbidden tree, the first deserter of the divine law”—so Eve was described by the Christian theologian Tertullian (c. 160–240 A.D.). And it’s been downhill since then for the popular image of the Biblical mother of all humanity. Downhill, that is, until feminist Bible critics started studying the creation stories in Genesis 2–3. In “Eve and Adam—Is a Feminist Reading Possible?” Bible scholar Pamela J. Milne offers a lucid and fascinating interpretation of the Eve and Adam story, and compares her own view with many others that have been promoted, past and present.

Does the Garden of Eden story in Genesis tell us how primitive peoples actually lived? Well, maybe. In “How Did Adam and Eve Make a Living?”Frederic L. Pryor and Eleanor Ferris Beach draw on anthropological research and on the economics of primitive societies to demonstrate that the description of Adam and Eve’s transition from gatherers—in Eden—to farmers/shepherds—after the expulsion from Paradise—closely resembles the evolution of early humans.


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