Michael A Rizzotti
The creation narrative of Genesis is similar in certain respects to creation myths that describe the beginning of a new cultural, religious, and cosmological reality. These accounts show how the divinity uses his word to articulate a new world. The word, and consequently language, is the medium that allows God to communicate to “man” his creation. This spoken aspect of creation can also be found in Egyptian, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Persian cosmogonies.1
the setting…………the beginning of the “world”
the quest………….. order and meaning
the obstacle……….void, darkness, and chaos
the mentor…………speech and language
the outcome……….the Genesis ─beginning─ of the Bible
The first book of the Bible is appropriately called Genesis, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew in the beginning. As such, it is the introductory setting for the story of the people of Israel as recounted in the first five books of the Bible: namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are also called the Pentateuch and the Torah.
God did not physically write these words. Several unknown priests/scribes did. Extensive biblical studies show that several versions of similar stories were compiled together by a redactor called “R” into one single narrative. His final compilation shows how important his role has been in creating the Bible. He was responsible for putting together into one narrative several versions of often contradictory accounts that, until recently, were believed to have been written by Moses.2
Genesis 1 thru 3, which is the subject of this chapter, is divided according to three sources of composition:
verses 1:1 to 2:3 are accredited to P
verse 2:4a is attributed to R
verses 2:4b to 3:24 are written by J
P refers to the priestly source, who is also the largest contributor to the Pentateuch. He has been given this designation because his accounts are mainly concerned in securing priestly interests. The second source, which is a single phrase, is written by R, the Redactor. This single verse links the two sources into one uniform account of the creation. J, the writer of the second version of the creation of “man”, as well as the fall, is called the Yahwist because in his accounts he refers to God as Yahweh.
Gen. 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
The first paragraph above is more of an introduction to God’s as the subject of His creative activity which really begins with:3
Gen. 1:3 And God said…
God literally uses his speech to create the world. Language is God’s primordial tool. Without it he could not reveal his existence, neither could he describe his creation.
If we make a parallel with the first verses of the Gospel of John we find that the Evangelist also identifies Christ with the Word in the beginning. The example is in itself an important clue to the nature of the “Word” in God’s creative endeavor.4
John. 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
Similar ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and Indian cosmogonies also imply a divine power inherent in the word itself which when uttered brings out order. Numerous ancient myths provide a good example of the likeness of the creative power of the divine word. In ancient Egypt the god Ptah of Memphis, in a comparable fashion, created the world through his spoken word.5 While Sumerian myths describe how divinities first plan their creation by thinking, and then the world comes into being through the power of speech.
Based on the content of the biblical text above, it appears that speech is one of God’s primordial activities.6 Language allows the divinity to reveal his creation to us. We might say that before the first words of Genesis are spoken there is nothingness, and before the order of syntax is put forth there is chaos. The Bible -from the Latin ta biblia which means the little books- is sacred precisely because the God’s inspired words have been recorded, but mostly because they have been preserved for posterity by the Priests and scribes.
Hence, God’s rhetoric describes the beginning of a reality which is the Bible itself. As such, the Bible is foremost a literary creation, albeit a sacred and holy one for the believers.7
The narrative does not explain to whom God speaks, nor from where. God here is an individuum vaguum; i.e., a vague and imageless individual. He nevertheless uses speech, which is a human characteristic. He does so without using the configuration of an individuum certum, in other words, without assuming the identity -or the image- of a person. Consequently, the creative powers of the word supersedes any other human attribute.
Furthermore, the way the narrative reports God’s words is analogous to the way lords or sovereigns dictated their will to the scribes. As the account reveals, the Lord speaks and his will is being transcribed. In this context, the account links the ancient oral tradition to the written.8
Moreover, the biblical Hebrew alphabet is made up primarily of consonants. In the un-vocalized Hebrew alphabet, speech is necessary to give meaning to the un-vocalized words, otherwise the letters are a meaningless and chaotic code. Only with the spoken word are the vowels uttered. By exhaling one’s breath into the letters, the alphabet miraculously takes on a life and Spirit of its own, and words finally become meaningful.
As the text shows, God speaks from nowhere and to nobody in particular. Yet he becomes preoccupied with the order and plan of things to which he is about to give names. He also becomes involved in the separation of the world into a set order of categories; most obvious of which is the division of time into seven days and the classification of his creation by name.9
The name giving activity in creation is not exclusive to the Bible either. It is also prevalent in the ancient Near Eastern mythology where it was seen as an exercise of sovereignty, especially in terms of property and dominion.10
The act of separating and naming reveals another important facet of the divine creative activity. This classification of words and names can be appropriately referred to as a biblical glossary.11 This order becomes in effect a description of God’s identifiable creation; i.e., the inventory of the property to which “man” can “have dominion”. The definition of things and beings is setting the stage for the world of the Bible.
Numerous studies made on primitive classification reveal how this complex display of symbolic representations and relationships is meant to represent the grounds of social organization. A typical example is the system of moieties in tribes of Australia. It is also prevalent in the astronomical, astrological, geomantic, and horoscope divinatory systems of ancient China, of which Taoism is a fine example.
In the 6th day, his last day of activity, God ultimately utters the concept of his most important creation.
Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
God speaks in the first person until verse 26, but as he gets closer to the pinnacle of his creation he finally opts for the plural form. The change is fundamental, especially in view of its underlining message.
The first and obvious sense of “Let us” could be taken as “abstract plural” or “plural of intensity”. In Hebrew, for instance, the word for man –‘adam– also has a collective meaning and may be used here in the sense of “mankind”.
There may be yet another connotation implied by the plurality. Before the people of Israel adopted Yahweh as their only God, they worshiped El, which was also the God of the neighboring Canaanites.
El, which means literally the Lord, shared his title with his consort Asherah. Both had the epithets of the “creator” and the “creatress”. Archaeological findings at Quntillet cAjrud show that not only El, but also Yahweh was associated with a divine consort named Asherah.13
Gen. 2:7 then the lord God formed man of the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In Hebrew, the words genesis, beginning, and birth are all synonyms. So are the words Spirit, wind, breath. The first point to pro-creation as the genesis of life itself.
In the narrative God proceeds to mold from the soil ‘adam -man- which is taken from ‘adamah -the ground- and like a potter he molds his creation. Adam finally becomes a living being when God breaths into it the breath of life.
Although in the first account man, the only creation that is able to understand God’s words, is created on the last day, all that was created prior to him was created specifically for him. In chapter two, however, man is the center of attention, everything evolves around him.
In chapter one, the creation is spoken out of chaos and nothingness into an orderly syntax. Whereas in the second version God creates man to put him in the center of a tree garden called Eden. Man is purposefully created by God as a tiller and keeper of his garden. At the outset, the relationship between God and man is established as one of land-lord and keeper. J marks a clear distinction between the sovereignty of God over his garden and man; i.e., the separation between the creator and his creation, between the master and his servant.
Unlike in the former version, God enables man to call and name every living creature; an important role he had kept for himself before. In doing so he allows man to share his divine power of speech and appropriation.
Gardens, particularly fertile fields, were the marked possession of great kings. And as we see in verses 2:4b-6 the writer uses words like plant, field, earth, herb, sprung up, rain, till the ground, and soil from which man was made. All these terms have an agricultural connotation and expose the fertility symbolism of the passage.
Finally, in the midst of this garden God planted the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And God commanded man not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil or else he will die. The center is a primordial theme in mythology.14 Here, the narrative describes both trees of life and of good and evil as being in the middle of the garden.15
Popular misconception still associates the forbidden fruit with the apple. There is no mention of an apple tree in the text. The confusion probably stemmed from the similarity between the Latin words malum, evil, and malus, apple. The two terms were apparently confused in the course of history.
Concerned about man’s solitude God decides to give him a helper. The narrative goes on to describe a shift in the normal role of procreation. Ironically, God and man appropriate the function of begetting: God takes the woman out of the man. Then the man called his companion woman because she was taken out of him. This inversion reveals an appropriation of woman’s fecundity and may allude to the strict opposition to the fertility cults associated with the fertility goddesses. Any implicit allusion to a goddess Asherah, has been obliterated from the narrative. The first commandment given by Yahweh is clear: he opposes any other divinity including that of the goddess.16
Deut. 16:21 You shall not plant any tree as an Ashe’rah beside the altar of the lord your God which you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the lord your God hates.
The first Commandment is explicit and categorical, any worship of or reference to any other god is prohibited. The ethos implemented by the priests through the ages reinforced this belief. The narrative of Genesis implicitly overshadows the fact that the tree is a also symbol of genealogy and a metaphor of Asherah.
The fundamental point to be made about biblical patriarchy is related to the genealogy of the people as a tribal clan. Only with strict ethical laws and prohibitions could men control women’s fertility and their progeny. In addition, these laws legally reinforced the fact that women were a closely supervised property of men who became their controlling agents of fecundity.17
Gen. 2:24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.
The above verse of Genesis, which may be a reference to matriarchy, is in plain contradiction with the patriarchal customs of Judaism. According to ancient Jewish customs, it is not the man who leaves his parents but the woman.18
Gen. 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, `You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'”. But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
the setting…………the tree garden of Eden
the quest…………..knowledge of good and evil
the hero…………… woman
the obstacle……….God’s ban
the mentor…………the serpent
the outcome……….Eve: the mother of all living
In The Fall, the events that describe the beginning of the relationship between the protagonists are doomed at the outset. The narrative depicts the characters entangled in a situation in which the quest for knowledge and the emulation of God are greater than the fear of punishment. The crux of the narrative reveals that the desire to be like God prevails.19 But because of their deliberate disobedience, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden. As a consequence, they will be excluded from God’s presence and property. In theological terms this exclusion from God’s presence implies the death of Adam and Eve and their progeny, hence mankind. The narrative makes it explicitly clear that the woman is to be held responsible for man’s alienation from his God.
As we have suggested earlier, the garden of Eden is full of fertility symbols. The four rivers that flow in the garden allude to it. The trees bearing the most alluring of fruits denote it. And the presence of the serpent confirms it.
The serpent, a Canaanite symbol of life, health, and fecundity, simply strengthens the fertility theme of the whole narrative. Not to mention that the tree of life is obviously another prominent symbol of genealogy and fertility.20 But the most stunning aspect about these verses is that the tree as well as the serpent are both symbols of Asherah.21 There is even an etymological connection between the Hebrew name Eve, hawwah, and the name Asherah.22 In addition, there is also a similarity between the name hawwah and the Aramaic word hewya’ for serpent.23
Gen. 3:20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
The meaning of Eve as the mother of all living is a further allusion to fertility connected to the mother goddess Asherah as the nurse to the gods. Moreover, the explicit consequence of the woman’s disobedience is described as the pains of childbearing emphasizing even further the fertility theme of the narrative.
The serpent is a major protagonist in the creation myths of the ancient Near East where he is a celebrated symbol of wisdom.
Mt. 10:16 So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Many of the oldest Egyptian goddesses were thought of as serpents, mostly as cobras. In fact, the symbol of the serpent preceded the name of most of the goddesses and is the hieroglyphic symbol for the word goddess. The Sumerian goddess Nidaba, the patron deity of writing, was also depicted as a snake, while the Sumerian goddess was referred to as the Great Mother Serpent of Heaven. Furthermore, symbols of numerous goddesses of Old European, Indian, Akkadian, and Babylonian mythologies were also portrayed as serpents. Most of them represented a common symbol of fertility and immortality.24
The presence of the snake among God, Adam, and Eve represents the alien, which from the outset is excluded from God’s design. As such, he is the visible cause of the fall. Furthermore, the narrative correlates the woman to the reptile as both outsiders. They are portrayed as the rebellious prototypes who ignore God’s command.
As the account shows, the serpent offers Eve much more than the knowledge of good and evil; he tells her she could be God’s equal. That suggestion even implies that she would forsake her rank of tiller.
The narrative makes it quite clear that the serpent and the woman are both responsible for man’s alienation from God. It is no coincidence that so early in the biblical texts the writers portray the woman and the serpent as being condemned by God. As we mentioned earlier, both are linked to symbols of pagan cults that are radically opposed by Yahweh.
1 Kings 16:32 He erected an altar for Ba’al in the house of Ba’al, which he built in Samar’ia. And Ahab made an Ashe’rah. Ahab did more to provoke the lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the Kings of Israel who were before him.
Gen. 3:21 And the lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them. Then the lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us , knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”- therefore the lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
As a result of the transgression, the couple’s eyes were opened and they perceived their nakedness.25 Too much emphasis has been placed on the sexual connotation of the narrative. It is rather the theme of fertility and the nature of perception itself that should be more readily stressed. Their eyes are opened to a new condition which is closely tied to the transgression. Especially in the awareness of transition from:
nakedness/nature to clothing/culture26
The narrative explains that the reason why the woman was enticed to eat the fruit in the first place was to be like God. But as they both ate from the fruit they soon realized that God is the sole ruler of the garden and that they, as tillers, are naked and destitute. As a result, Adam and Eve covered themselves with readily accessible leaves while afterward God clothed them with garments made of skins, denoting the property of cattle. The difference in clothing also marks a distinction between:
leaves/nature and skins/domestication
leaves/agriculture and skins/herdsman-ship.
Exodus is also closely tied to the idea of herdsman-ship and grazing. God himself favored sheep herding, a predominantly a tribal occupation, over agriculture which was closely connected with the fertility cults of the goddess which he opposed.
Adam and Eve were living in the garden surrounded by God’s overwhelming dominion. Eve, nevertheless, chose to challenge God’s authority. She refused to be at the center of God’s providential benevolence, preferring independence instead. Perhaps the serpent’s assertion that the eating of the fruit would not bring her death may have convinced her. In fact, the serpent’s assertion turns out to be right as the impending physical death does not materialize. It engendered a metaphysical death as an alienation from God’s presence and providence.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not hard work that is the unfortunate consequence of the fall -man tilled and kept the garden before his expulsion- it is the exclusion of man from God’s realm. It is an exclusion from the presence of the holy.
Finally, God is concerned that the couple might also eat from the tree of life and live forever. To eliminate such a prospect he quickly evicts them. The act of disobedience also brought forth suspicion and distrust, another consequence of the fall. Promptly, God places a cherubim to guard the garden’s entrance. The angel becomes a symbol of man’s alienation from God.27
As the story shows, the cherub’s duty is to guard the boundaries of the sacred and to protect the tree of life located at its center.
Contrary to popular belief, the cherub -or cherubim- is not a cute and chubby winged child flying about the clouds of heavens. Biblical tradition describes the cherub as a sphinx: a four legged animal often depicted with the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the head of a human, frequently with the face of a woman. The cherub was usually carved out of olive wood and plated with gold.28
The symbol of the cherub is part of another sacred Jewish tradition. The sphinx was also present inside the first Temple of Jerusalem.29 Two of these carved creatures were placed side by side with their wings stretched to form the tabernacle. Between their protective custody lay the ark. The ark, which is Israel’s most sacred relic, was a golden box which contained the tablets of the ten commandments, and, according to different sources, also contained a sample of the manna; i.e., the food sent from heaven to sustain the life of the God’s chosen people during the exodus.30
The symbolic cherub is used as a guardian of both sacred places: the garden of Eden and the ark. At the center of the garden are the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. In the midst of the Jerusalem temple, which according to Jewish beliefs is also located at the center of the world, is the ark with the ten commandments and the manna.
Furthermore, the knowledge of good and evil is connected to the law embodied by the ten commandments. One who knows and interprets the law knows the difference between good and evil.
God’s immediate concern in placing the cherub is stopping Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life. Yet the tree of life is also connected to another content of the ark. Both, the tree of life and the manna, are symbols of a sustenance of mysterious origin.
The cherub is put in both places to protect and guard the garden and the ark from the profane man and woman. Henceforth, only God is permitted to enter the garden, and only the high priest can enter the Holy of Holies. Jewish law forbids anyone but the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies, and whoever does must die.
The symbolic analogy between the garden and the ark is interesting. It shows that J, who wrote the account, was preoccupied with preserving the priestly dominion over the divine law and its interpretation. The texts also suggest that the fall brought forth the separation between the sacred/holy center which God rules and the outside boundaries of the common, the impure and the profane.
1 Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, Chicago, Open Court, 1901.
2 See Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?, New York, Summit Books, 1987.
3 The first verse can also be rendered “in the beginning of” which also allows the translation: “When God began to create the heavens and earth”. The Torah, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1962.
4 Yet orthodox interpretation of the significance of the “word” is commonly understood as being an expression of God’s will. See Gerhard von Rad, on the Word of God in “Old Testament Theology”, London, Oliver and Boyd Ltd, 1966.
5 Siegfried Morenz, Egyptian Religion, New York, Cornell University Press, 1973, 159 f. Another interesting aspect about ancient Egyptian creation myths is God Khnum’s creative ability as craftsman and procreator compared to the biblical God who molded man from the ground and created woman from man.
6 The noted Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad explains: “This naming is thus both an act of copying and an act of appropriative ordering, by which man intellectually objectifies the creatures for himself. Thus one may say that something is said here about the origin of language, so long as one does not emphasize the discovery of external words but rather that inner appropriation of recognizing and interpreting which happens in language.” in, Genesis, London, SCM Press, 1963, 81.
7 Northrop Frye, The Great Code, Toronto, Academic Press Canada, 1982, XVI.
8 And as we have already mentioned writing and recording were the monopoly of the scribes.
9 Paul Ricoeur has suggested that there is something to be said about the “metaphorical” as being at the origin of logical thought; Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977.
10 As Gerhard von Rad puts it; “let us remind ourselves once more that name-giving in the ancient Orient was primarily an exercise of sovereignty, of command.” in Genesis, Ibid., 81.
11 Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1963.
12 Emile Durkheim, Ibid.
13 See article by David Noel Freedman, Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah, in, Biblical Archeologist, December 1987, 241-249.
14 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper And Row, 1959, 12 ff.
15 The word midst could be translated as the center or middle. The Torah uses the word “bad” instead of evil, which gives a more pragmatic significance, see The Torah, Ibid.
16 Asherah was also known as Athirat, Astarte, which is a dialectical variant. She is also referred to in the Bible as Ashtoreth, Ashteroth, Astoreth, Astaroth, Ashterathite, Anath, Beeshterah, Elath, and Baalath. The title “holy one”, is also believed to be one of her epithets. See Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman, San Diego, A Harvest Book/HBJ Book, 1976, 163-170.
17 Denise L. Carmody, Judaism, in, Women and World Religions, ed. by Arvind Sharma, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987. I cannot help thinking, whenever I come across similar examples, of how men are fascinated and also envious of women’s fertility. It seems that men had to compensate for their sense of inadequacy in this regard by a propensity to dominate religion and mythology, since they are unable to control nature. The powerful God depicted as the male creator figure is just one example.
18 “Curiously, the statement about forsaking father and mother does not quite correspond to the patriarchal family customs of Ancient Israel, for after the marriage the wife breaks loose from her family much more than the man does from his. Does this tendentious statement perhaps preserve something from a time of matriarchal culture?” Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, a Commentary, London, SCM Press, 1963, 83.
19 See the role that desire and vanity play in Rene Girard’s, Mensonge Romantique et Verite Romanesque, Paris, Grasset, 1961.
20 “Thus we can see that there is an association between Asherah and trees or symbols related to trees although the full details of this association are unknown. Since Asherah herself is the great mother-goddess, chief consort of the Canaanite high god El, it stands to reason that the cultic symbols of the goddess could be associated with fertility or the gift of life in some manner.” See Howard N. Wallace’s dissertation, The Eden Narrative, Atlanta, Scholars Press, 114.
21 Howard N. Wallace, Ibid., 163
22 “The possible etymologies for hawwah suggest that the name and the connection with Asherah are part of a long tradition.” Howard N. Wallace, Ibid., 157-158.
23 Howard N. Wallace, Ibid., 148.
24 Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1983, 903-909.
25 Torah, Idid.
26 Claude Levi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked, New York, Harper & Row, 1969.
27 The angel, throughout the Bible, is depicted as God’s messenger; as such, he is depicted as the symbol of an obstacle to the direct communication between God and man.
28 R. E. Friedman, Ibid., 86-87.
29 J, who wrote the account, was from the southern kingdom of Judah where Solomon built the first
Jerusalem temple. A strict Yahwist, J was outraged by the idolatries of King Jeroboam who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. The King had built in the cities of Beth-El and Dan two shrines for the worship of the golden calf associated with the fertility cults of Asherah.
30 Ex. 16:31f.