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Illogic of the Garden of Eden Story

There’s a great Far Side cartoon with the caption “Fumbling for his recline button, Ted unwittingly instigates disaster.” The drawing shows some guy in an airplane seat, not paying attention as he reaches down to the buttons on the arm rest. There’s the light switch, the call button, and a switch for “Wings stay on” in the up position and “Wings fall off” in the down position.

In the Garden of Eden story, God is like the engineer who thought it smart to put the switch to jettison the wings in the arm rest. He knows that humans mustn’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so where does he put it? In with the humans.

Maybe God didn’t know how to childproof the Garden—he was new at parenting, after all. But some safeguards seem like common sense. Why not tell Adam and Eve not to believe the snake? Or step in once the snake spoke to Eve? Or make the fruit of the tree look or smell unappealing? Or put the tree far away? Or put a wall around it? Or, if it’s not good for anything, not make the tree in the first place? God knows how to establish effective guards, since he put cherubim with a flaming sword to keep Mankind out of the Garden after the fall. Then why not guard the tree to keep Adam and Eve away?

It’s like the James Bond movies where the bad guy captures Bond and arranges a slow death (like Goldfinger’s metal-cutting laser slowly working its way up the table between Bond’s legs) and then leaves. Bond always escapes. If Goldfinger were serious about eliminating Bond (he’s not—it’s Hollywood), he would have just shot him. If God were serious about the danger of Adam eating the fruit (he’s not—this is a just-so myth), he wouldn’t have put the tree in the Garden.

I know what you’re thinking. Why treat this ancient myth as if it’s actually history? Why worry about the logic of a 3000-year-old myth? Because, according to four in ten Americans, it is history.

Different creation stories

The Documentary Hypothesis argues that the Garden of Eden story comes from the oldest parts of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and was written around 950 BCE, while the six-day creation story was added almost 500 years later. To historians, this jumble of stories causes no problem. It’s fascinating to learn about what ancient cultures did. But the claim that Genesis is literally true runs aground in many places.

Consider the contradictions. In the comparison below, the 6-day creation story is from the Priestly (P) source, and the Eden story is from the Yahwist (J) source.

  • P says that man and woman are created together (Genesis 1:27), while J says that man came first (Gen. 2:20–22).
  • P says that they can eat from every tree (1:29), while J says that one tree is forbidden (2:27).
  • P says that plants preceded humans (1:11–13; 27–31), while J says that plants grew after Adam was placed in the Garden (2:4–9).
  • P says that animals preceded humans (1:25–7), while J says that God made animals after Adam to find him a companion (2:18–19).
  • P says that animals and birds come from water (1:20), while J says that they come from the ground (2:19).
  • J says that it’s not good for Adam to be alone and God finds him a companion, but Paul says that celibacy is better than marriage (1 Cor. 7:1, 9)

Older myths

Old though the J source is, it seems inspired by other Mesopotamian myths that are far older. The 18th century BCE Sumerian Atra-Hasis epic is another creation myth. In it, one of the gods creates lesser deities to do the farm work, but they eventually refuse. The gods create humans to take over, but all is not perfect. After twice 600 years (600 is a round number in Mesopotamian base-60 representation), “The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull.” The god of the wind was eventually fed up: “The noise of mankind has become too much. I am losing sleep over their racket.” His solution: a plague, then a famine, and finally a flood.

In this story, mankind is created to tend the gods’ garden (as was Adam—see Gen. 2:15). Eventually, they annoy one god enough that he decides to rid the world of them with a flood (see Gen. 6 ff). Noah’s age at the time of the flood (600 years) also has a parallel.

Take the story at face value, and not only is the Bible contradictory about the creation, but God is culpable (with the story spun to make it Man’s fault). Alternatively, we can see it as a version of a story inspired by a much older version from that region of the world. If it doesn’t make complete sense, okay, but understand that it’s just myth. And if you stick the Garden creation myth with the six-day-creation myth, don’t be surprised when they don’t match up. Neither approach does much to bolster claims of historicity.

Continue with part 2 here.

The church doesn’t like for people to grow up
because you can’t control grown-ups.
— John Shelby Spong

About Bob Seidensticker
  • Y. A. Warren

    The church doesn’t like for people to grow up because you can’t control grown-ups. — John Shelby Spong

    This is so true. Their hubris is actually in thinking they can actually control children. Clearly they need more experience dealing with babies and toddlers.

    • Lewis C.

      Hmm…let’s see, it’s well-known that religiosity correlates with age, so you don’t have statistical evidence for your claim. Also:

      “Having more education corresponds to a higher level of attendance at religious services.”

      Page 28 in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell.

      http://amzn.com/1416566732

      Do you base your opinion of religion on facts or unfounded prejudices?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Why not tell Adam and Eve not to believe the snake?</I.

    The snake told Eve the truth, while Yahweh lied to Adam.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    P says that animals and birds…

    This is a common mistake of redundancy. Birds are animals.

  • RichardSRussell

    Thank you for the astonishing factoid that 40% of Americans believe this story is literally true. Armed with that fact, I have prepared a response for the next time I hear some anti-gay crusader claim that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve:

    “You know that the Garden of Eden story is just a myth, right? Because, if you’re one of the 40% of Americans who’s stupid enuf to believe it IS literally true, then you’re clearly hopeless, and I’m not going to waste any more of my time on you. But if you’re just a simple bigot who thinks he’s being clever by being able to rhyme names like a 5th grader, then perhaps there’s some hope for you after all.”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      As George Takei observed, you need to use the French spelling: Adam and Yves.

  • John Kesler

    I know what you’re thinking. Why treat this ancient myth as if it’s actually history? Why worry about the logic of a 3000-year-old myth? Because, according to four in ten Americans, it is history.

    How about debunking it because of the implications that it has for Paul and the author of 1 Timothy?

    Romans 5:
    12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

    1 Corinthians 15:22,45:
    22for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ… 45Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

    1 Timothy 2:12-14:
    12I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.

    • Kerry

      John K, you are correct. I know many christians that would love to throw away the OT with it Odyssey like myth stories, and genocide, rape, and incredible miracles, but the whole of Christianity is based on the Garden of Eden narrative…original sin concept. They can thank Apostle Paul for making that case! They can also think him for the misogyny teachings of the church these last 2000 years. All in all the entire teaching is pitiful and pathetic. I should know…it took me 50 years to get free!

      • Greg G.

        The priests who wrote the P source may have tried to get rid of the J and E sources. The J and E stories had a god who interacted with humans directly. The P story eliminated those and all the direct sacrificing to make Elohim more remote and the only way to reach him was by sacrificing at the Temple, which was probably their primary motive.

        I think Paul gets a bad rap on misogyny. The worst of it comes from forged letters. Many think the 1 Corinthian misogyny verses are interpolated. In Galatians 3:28, he wrote

        There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

        I’ve read that about 40% of his personal greetings are to women. He doesn’t seem to be opposed to them in the church.

        • Kerry

          I have no issue with your statement on forged letters, unfortunately, christians do not accept that possibility. Furthermore, they have used the passages that are harsh on women to push for that particular doctrine by cherry picking out the verses they want to emphasize. Paul is a curious person actually. He seems to not know of the Gospels, and they seem to not know of him.He makes it clear that this is HIS gospel message and it was not revealed to him by anyone.

          It seems that the growth in his particular churches came after he had a vision that circumcision was no longer required. I should think that was a very popular concept. His Faith alone doctrine really flies in the face of the works message elsewhere, again permitting christians for the last 2000 years to select those verses they wish to emphasize, and establish their own sects. One would think that the all powerful, all knowing god would understand what great difficulty this would cause to his church, and would have made is inspired inerrant word a bit more clear.

        • Greg G.

          I have no issue with your statement on forged letters, unfortunately, christians do not accept that possibility. Furthermore, they have used the passages that are harsh on women to push for that particular doctrine by cherry picking out the verses they want to emphasize. Paul is a curious person actually. He seems to not know of the Gospels, and they seem to not know of him.He makes it clear that this is HIS gospel message and it was not revealed to him by anyone.

          I think the Gospels took some of Paul’s writings and put them in Jesus’ mouth. Compare the argument Paul and Peter had in Galatians 2 with Mark 7:1-19. If that had actually happened, Peter would have agreed with Paul but even Barnabas was swayed by Peter. Mark also used “Abba, Father” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”, which both are used in Galatians. The only three disciples that play a major role in Mark are the ones mentioned in Galatians. Mark has James and John wanting to sit on either hand of Jesus when he comes into glory and Galatians says they were “reputed to be pillars”. Peter promises to be faithful but then does not when asked about Jesus while, in Galatians, he eats with the Gentiles until some Jews sent by James arrive. It seems Mark incorporated the personalities portrayed by Paul in Galatians.

          It seems that the growth in his particular churches came after he had a vision that circumcision was no longer required. I should think that was a very popular concept. His Faith alone doctrine really flies in the face of the works message elsewhere, again permitting christians for the last 2000 years to select those verses they wish to emphasize, and establish their own sects. One would think that the all powerful, all knowing god would understand what great difficulty this would cause to his church, and would have made is inspired inerrant word a bit more clear.

          I’ve been comparing the Epistle of James with Galatians. It seems to me that James is refuting Galatians point by point. Paul uses scripture for support and examples and James does the same to counter his points. Paul quotes a part of Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and follows Rabbi Hillel’s philosophy of that filling the whole law. James counters that is a good start but insists that if you break one part of the law, you have broken the whole law. Paul is quite sarcastic, especially about circumcision where, in 5:12, he wished “they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” Paul doesn’t seem to like the Jerusalem church as they seem to be discrediting him and his teaching. Paul spends two chapters discrediting them and justifying himself.

          When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, they would have publicized it to give other cities contemplating rebellion second thoughts. This would have stirred interest in Jerusalem but, lacking the internet, the most common things they could read about it would have been Paul’s letters. The Jerusalem Christians would have been decimated. That may have led to a revival of Christianity, a resurrection, even.

  • Frank Key

    It’s always interesting to present facts like these to the literal, inerrant crowd and watch their reactions. Most of them have never heard of the J and P sources but still dismiss such talk as the work of the devil and hastily move on to their version of the true message God is wanting to reveal to us. Somehow, they make use of all the contradictions in their narrative and scratch their heads in wonder at why the skeptic isn’t swayed.

  • Garter

    Other things that are confusing about the story
    God says ‘let us make mankind in our own image’. Then he makes them male and female. Who is this us? Some helpful angels? The trinity? A goddess who was later removed from the bible?
    God walks through the garden of Eden and can’t find Adam and Eve. he has to call out to them.

    There’s a tree of life and if you eat it, you become like god. God’s powers can’t be that amazing, if you can get them from a fruit tree.

    God seems almost afraid at the idea humans might gain his power.

    The snake is told that it will eat dust all the days of its’ life, yet snakes are all predators and don’t eat dust. And if the snake is Satan (a much later Christian interpretation), well, he doesn’t eat dust either. As far as I know, he doesn’t need to eat at all.

    Then there’s the unfairness of all women being cursed with painful childbirth and all men being cursed with hard labour for something that happened before they were born and which they had no control over. Why couldn’t Cain and Abel get a spell in Eden? God is a lazy designer, who makes two prototypes and then trashes the whole project when they don’t work exactly as he wanted.

    • RichardSRussell

      The curse of painful childbirth is so distinctively human that even the male chauvinists who wrote the Bible couldn’t help noticing it. And it takes another year before they’re even vaguely ambulatory. Conversely, recall pictures you’ve seen of newborn foals, calves, and fawns struggling to their feet within minutes of birth.

      It’s a testament to our one great survival characteristic, the big honkin’ brains that give us our evolutionary edge. They’re so big that, if they got any bigger, they’d split the mothers wide open during delivery. Having reached the point of diminished returns on brain growth in utero, nature outsourced the rest of the process to post-partum development, which is why humans have such a tremendously long period of youth — typically longer than the entire lifespans of fellow mammals like dogs and cats.

      How much of any of this, do you suppose, came to our attention as a result of prayer, inspiration, ancient writings, or divine visitations?

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        Kind of a random aside, but Belgian Blue cattle are double muscled. They have some mutant gene that makes them twice as beefy–they look like Superman would look if he were a cow.

        Problem is, how do you get the baby out with all those muscles?? In the wild, this mutation would produce no offspring, but with C-sections, the breed continues today.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      The “us” is obviously the pantheon of deities in early Jewish thinking, though Christians imagine that this is the Trinity. If you search “polytheism,” I’ve written more.

      God’s powers can’t be that amazing, if you can get them from a fruit tree.

      :-)

  • Greg G.

    Putting Genesis 1 & 2 together reminds me of the old Reese Cup commercials. “Hey, you got your cosmic deity in my local god narrative!” “No, you got your local god in my cosmic deity story!”

    Combining an all-powerful god with one that interacts on a personal level was a big deal, even if it came about by accident.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      “Two great tastes that taste great together!”

  • MNb

    40% of the Americans think the Adam and Eva story literally happened? Wow, how did the USA ever become the most powerful country in the world with that level of ignorance? When I was about 10 I was already smarter as I realized the implication of incest.
    As a European I am more interested in the metaphorical meaning though, especially the concept of original sin. So I hope you’ll dedicate an article to this in the near future, as a follow up so to say. I think we shouldn’t let get the liberal christians get away with the story either.
    It seems to me – I’m not sure – that when those liberal christians try to combine original sin with evolution theory the sneak in some literalism as well. Paradise is something like blissful ignorance; god gave homo sapiens consciousness, who used it to develop knowledge and sometimes to do evil. Hence original sin.
    Alas I don’t know any American liberal christian who interpreted the kicking out of paradise story. Still I would like to know what your take is.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the suggestion. I’d be at a loss, though, with how to proceed. The Bible says that guilt passes down through generations, and it says the opposite, though everyone today would think that the idea is ridiculous. But original sin still taints all of us and damns us to hell. “We’re made sick and commanded to be well,” as Hitchens put it.

      I can’t imagine that this would be news to liberal Christians … and yet they still believe.

      I do get occasional comments from such Christians. They’re roughly of the sort, “Ha! You missed me!” OK, for a post arguing against the literal interpretation of scripture, I agree. But for all the posts here? I would like to make them at least feel more in the hot seat, though I’m not holding my breath for much change.

  • MNb

    Some nitpicking: EOL studio, responsible for Goldfinger, is in London, which as far as I know is not a neighborhood of Hollywood.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks!

  • Brian Westley

    The A&E story also has this flaw: Adam and Eve disobeyed god and ate the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil — which means before they ate it, they didn’t know that disobeying god was something not good.

  • Tommykey69

    Regarding the Bond reference, I think the worst was Moonraker. In that movie, the bad guys would try to kill Bond in very convoluted ways, and when that failed, they would just take him prisoner.

  • Machintelligence

    If Goldfinger were serious about eliminating Bond (he’s not—it’s Hollywood), he would have just shot him.

    At least they got it right in the spaghetti westerns.

  • Retro

    Hey Bob, you need to do a post on the latest Nik Wallenda skywalk.
    How many really bad things happened around the world during the twenty or so minutes while Jesus was busy helping Nik Wallenda cross the Grand Canyon?

    I’d respect Nik a lot more if he simply prayed for focus and relaxation, but praying for God to calm the winds is a perfect example of what’s wrong with religion in America today.

    I bet Nik sure feels silly for wasting all that time practicing. How much time was wasted engineering the skywalk when all that was really needed was to simply ask Jesus to calm the winds?

    During the next skywalk event, I sincerely hope that Jesus won’t be too busy finding Joel Osteen a parking spot at Starbucks. What should Jesus do then? Should Jesus calm the winds for Nik’s journey, or should Jesus assist Joel’s journey for some java?

    Maybe now that all the hype has died down, Jesus can get back to work healing sick children, protecting the weak and innocent, and other worthwhile deeds that would seem more suitable for an omnipotent deity to be doing.

    • Retro

      If they leave the wire set up, maybe someone could break the world record for crossing the same gorge without the need for any supernatural assistance.

      Maybe, just maybe, if everyone prays real hard, then Maybe Jesus could appear and cross that gorge (with or without a wire).

      Now THAT would be worth watching!!!

    • busterggi

      That was one annoying display of prayer. Also note that Wallenda was absolutely terrified – he did not trust Jesus enough to simply stroll across as a believer would.
      Also quite an example of how heaven is pure hell if, as believers say, once there you are there, you have to praise god for all eternity or else.

  • GregPeterson

    My son is in law school, and after seeing it referred to on an episode of “The Good Wife,” I discussed with him the “attractive nuisance doctrine” vis-a-vis the Garden of Eden. Read this from Wikipedia and see if it doesn’t apply:

    “In the law of torts, the attractive nuisance doctrine states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by a hazardous object or condition on the land that is likely to attract children who are unable to appreciate the risk posed by the object or condition. The doctrine has been applied to hold landowners liable for injuries caused by abandoned cars, piles of lumber or sand, trampolines, and swimming pools. However, it can be applied to virtually anything on the property of the landowner.”
    Who wants to join me in a class action?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Quite relevant! Thanks for bringing that up.

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