The story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, as with all such texts, was inherited from earlier oral traditions: stories that were handed down by word-of-mouth. And since all stories begin somewhere, and must have varied with subsequent retellings before they were committed to writing, we need not be so surprised if we come across variations of these now-familiar stories.
We might consider this or that version of a story definitive, as being the ‘right’ version, simply because it might be the version which has become the most familiar to us. In reality, definitive versions of these stories seldom exist. With the stories in scripture, the reasons behind why one is accepted into scripture and another is left by the wayside have had more to do with the arbitrary happenstances of history and individual opinion than is usually realized. So it is with the story of Eden.
In the morning of the world, on the slopes of Ararat, the gods El and his consort Asherah live in an idyllic garden. All is peaceable, and would have gone on being so were it not for the dark ambitions of the evil god Horon. The dark god has his sights set on El’s position as the supreme creator god, and might have made his ambitions a reality were his schemes not discovered by El. Horon finds himself cast out and hurled down the mountain. Seething with jealous rage and thwarted ambition, the dark god cloaks the world in a poisonous fog, and turns the beautiful Tree of Life that grows on the lower slopes into a black and twisted Tree of Death. As a final measure, he transforms himself into a terrible serpent and twines his glittering coils around the Tree’s branches.
|Horon. Jealousy and thwarted ambition can poison the mind. When that mind belongs to a god the world as well can become poisoned.|
Seeing the terrible transformation, and wishing only to restore his creation to its former pristine state, El dispatches the god Adam to set things to rights. Accompanied by his wife Eve, Adam journeys down into the world to confront Horon. Reaching the Tree of Death, Adam, it seems, seriously underestimates the evil serpent’s intent. Instead of persuading Horon to leave, Adam finds himself attacked and bitten by the serpent, and so relinquishes his immortality in the tree’s twisted shadow. The precious task entrusted to the god Adam by El has failed, and the world is changed forever. From that moment, Adam and Eve must live in the world as mortals, knowing death as the end of their days.
We recognize the principal characters and elements in this story. What we experience as its strangeness emerges from those other elements unfamiliar to us. Whether the story is more or less ‘true’ than the version in Genesis is a question with little hope of an answer. It is, after all, a story, not a historical event. What we instead can say is that, being centuries older than the Genesis version, and therefore having gone through fewer retellings, it is closer to the original source. The story is found on recently-deciphered clay tablets from the site of the Canaanite city of Ugarit, and the tablets have been dated to the late 13th-century BCE.
|The influential port city of Ugarit was centrally situated among the surrounding kingdoms and empires.|
But how could this be a story of the Canaanites and not the Israelites? In a previous post I mention the likelihood of the Israelites emerging from the Canaanite diaspora displaced by the Egyptian conquest of Canaan. In other words: the Israelites originally were the Canaanites. When the Israelites made a drive to assert their own identity as a people, they changed the name of El to Yahweh (Jehovah). But this happened over an extended period of time. The word appearing in the original Genesis text as elohim is plural: ‘gods’, referring to El (the first syllable of Elohim) and Asherah. Thus the first words of Genesis correctly read:
“In the beginning the gods created the heaven and the earth.”
As with all goddesses, Asherah was eventually banished from the Israelite pantheon to be replaced by a single male-only deity, although her shadowy presence survives in these plural terms. Through our familiarity with Genesis we are aware of the similarities in the older Canaanite version of the Eden story. It is the differences which are momentous.
|The goddess Asherah, mother of life. The rise of the new all-male monotheism left no room for any female presence of authority, and Asherah - and Eve the goddess - were among its victims.|
In this world of gods and goddesses no blame falls upon Eve. Eve the goddess is not a woman who succumbs to temptation and taints the whole of humanity with sin. Rather, she is a victim of her husband’s reckless mishandling of the situation. It is Adam who drops the ball. But in the all-male preserve of later Israelite beliefs, such a scenario would not wash, and the story was subsequently changed to become the scriptural version which has damned womankind ever since.
 Two Creations in Scripture: In fact, there are two different versions of the creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. The first chapter has an unnamed first man and woman being created simultaneously from the same prima materia. This unnamed couple appear after the creation of the animals. The second chapter contains the familiar version of Eve being created from a rib of the sleeping Adam, with Adam now being created before all the animals. From a scholastic perspective, this is a clear indication that the texts of Genesis were compiled from at least two different sources. Unlike science, there are no mechanisms in place within scripture which allow for correction and revision. Scripture is immutable, and contradictions and discrepancies in these texts, however obvious, remain unchanged for centuries.
 Stories from Exile: Original sources of scriptural stories often-enough lie in the lands of Hebrew exile, which principally were Egypt and Babylonia. Such stories would have been exported from these lands with the exiles’ return. The story of Noah’s Ark is Babylonian, the original version, as with the Ugaritic Eden story, pre-dating the scriptural version by several centuries. The clay tablets which relate the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh contain the story of Ut-napishtim, who is chosen with his family by the gods to be the sole survivor of a great flood. He builds a huge vessel and takes his animals on board with him. To discover whether the waters have abated, he releases in turn a dove and a raven to find signs of dry land. Coincidence? I think not.
 As current scholarship dates the texts of Genesis to the 6th-5th-centuries BCE, the Ugaritic version of the Eden story is twice as old as these.
 Please see my post The Butcher of Canaan.
 Preserving Belief: In their annotation to Genesis 1:1, the editors of my King James Study Bible (pub. Zondervan) acknowledge the plural term, but explain that it indicates “intensification rather than number”. No, I don’t really understand what they mean by this either. Attempts to demonstrate the term as singular by coupling it to the singular verb (as the Zondervan editors further mention) offer little traction, as the term would then still refer to 'the god El'. Since academic opinion now accepts that early Hebrew beliefs, having been derived from Canaanite beliefs, were polytheistic, the Zondervan editors provide an unintentional example of the way in which a belief can at times only be preserved by wilfully omitting known evidence.
Marjo Korpel & Johannes de Moor: Adam, Eve, and the Devil: A New Beginning. Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014. The text of Professors’ Korpel and de Moor’s book provides the basis for this post. This earlier version of the Eden story, deciphered by these authors, and retold by myself here, is not a ‘what if?’ situation. The clay tablets exist, they have been deciphered, and they say what is said here.
The 'Horon' serpent is based upon a photo by Steve Gooch. The 'Tree of Death' background is my own. The map has been compiled from various sources. Other images of the gods Adam and Eve and Asherah are painted by Hawkwood for the © David Bergen Studio. All Rights Reserved.