November 16, 2018

After the fall

Perhaps no single Bible story is quite as familiar as the fateful encounter in the Garden of Eden between God, Adam and Eve, and that damned snake, an episode that entered Western theology as “the Fall.” It may appear to be a kind of biblical fairytale, but Ziony Zevit reveals the remarkable richness of meaning that can be extracted from the spare text in his new book, “What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?” (Yale University Press, $30), a model of biblical scholarship that is also wholly accessible to the general reader.

Zevit, distinguished professor of biblical literature at American Jewish University, was attracted to the subject by the questions he heard from his students, young and old: “Why is it called ‘the Fall’? What is the Fall? How bad was Eve’s sin? Why did God curse humanity? What is ‘original sin’? Why is the story in the Bible at all? Did it really happen, or is it a myth?”

His book is rooted in academic expertise, but it is also enlivened by Zevit’s wit and good humor. He explains that his work was encouraged and informed by conversations with, “a chatty fellow in a kosher take-out Chinese restaurant, my barber, as well as with personal friends in business, crafts, and trades.” His sources include ancient texts but also jokes and camp songs, and he points out how the notion that human beings are deeply flawed passed from Genesis into Christian theology and thence into our collective unconscious: “One need not be a confessing member of any church or Christian denomination to accept as appropriate some attitudes toward human nature engendered by the concepts of the Fall,” he explains. “They are ubiquitous throughout Western civilization.” 

Zevit reaches all the way back to biblical antiquity to explain not only the origins but also the enduring influence of the Garden of Eden story. The author of the original Hebrew text, he writes, did not necessarily embrace a “negative assessment of humanity or the physical world,” which is precisely the moral burden that the story carries today. “Neither Adam nor Hawwa [Eve] is ever singled out in prophetic texts as a source for Israel’s misfortunes or for the miscreant actions of any other people.” Indeed, it is only in the writings of Paul that the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge becomes the original sin.

But Zevit encourages us to put aside much of the modern theological baggage and approach the story as it was understood in ancient Israel. The Israelites did not see the characters in the story as “embodiments of ideas such as truth, virtue, or cupidity,” nor did they interpret it as “a veiled account of a historical event or process.” For them, he insists, “the Garden story was a tale about real people, the primeval progenitors.” 

As he guides us through the text, Zevit suggests what each word and phrase in the biblical text likely meant to its author and his original audience. He calculates the imagined physical location of Eden as “a landscaped artifact in a high mountain valley near the western edge of the Ararat mountains range.” He draws from ancient Egyptian and Babylonian art to show us what Eden and its denizens looked like in the mind’s eye of the biblical author. But he also suggests that God’s punishment of Adam and Eve — man must labor for his bread, and woman must bear children in pain — can be seen in modern terms.

“Where once life had been lived, now life was lived and evaluated,” he argues. “God’s sentences were, in essence, introductions to what we in the twenty-first century call existential guilt. They were God’s way of demonstrating what it meant to know good and bad, to distinguish between proper and improper. They were the aftertaste of the fruit.”

Zevit’s book, so artful, charming and informative, can serve as a guided tour through the opening pages of Genesis, a textual excursion that conjures up vivid sights and, at the same time, allows us to see the world in which the Bible was written through the eyes of its authors and first readers and listeners. Above all, it is an exercise in exegesis that casts an entirely new light on the ancient text. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright). Kirsch will lecture on “Many Gods But One Judaism” at Temple Isaiah on Dec. 18, at 8 pm.