The Garden in Ancient Context (RJS)

I picked up a fascinating book a few weeks ago – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) . This is the first of a five volume set brought to my attention through a post on Pete Enns’s blog with, as usual for him, a nice pithy title Learn about the Cultural Background to the Bible (with pictures and everything). I’ve been dipping into the background material for Genesis and Leviticus of late, and fear that the other four volumes on the Old Testament will soon join my library as well to suck up even more of my time. The books are moderately expensive, but Zondervan is beginning to release commentaries on individual books in paperback. John Walton’s background commentary on Genesis was released last month.

Walton has a nice discussion of background relevant to creation in Genesis 1 and the Garden in Genesis 2. Much of this material puts a new perspective on the interpretation of Genesis 1-3. The cultural context embedded in the text we have is foreign to 21st century experience. Consider, for example, Genesis 2:8-10 (ESV).

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 spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.

Comparative studies suggest that the Hebrew word “Eden” links to an Aramaic word that means “to enrich, make abundant.”  The garden is well watered and beautiful, adjacent to Eden from where the water flows.

The garden adjoins God’s residence in the same way that a garden of a palace adjoins the palace. Eden is the source of the waters and the residence of God. The text describes a situation that was well known in the ancient world: a sacred spot featuring a spring with an adjoining well-watered park, stocked with specimens of trees and animals. (p. 28)

It is interesting that Sennacherib (See 2 Kings 19, 2 Chron. 32 and Isaiah 36-37) constructed well watered gardens of exotic trees and plants in Nineveh and elsewhere (Encylopedia Britannica). Walton has a featured discussion on Garden Parks in the Ancient Near East.

The word “garden” here should not make us think of vegetables or even necessarily flowers. Public gardens or a “country garden” convey the idea more accurately as indicating a park with careful landscaping, pools, watercourses and paths winding among fruit trees and shade trees. Such arboretums, sometimes even containing animals of various sorts, were a common feature of palace complexes in the ancient world.

Temple complexes also sometimes featured gardens that symbolized the fertility provided for by the deity. (p. 29)

An image of an ancient garden from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal is included in the book and can be seen online from the British Museum. Walton notes references to such gardens dating from ca. 1100 BC to ca. 700 BC. The tree of life also has counterparts in Ancient Near Eastern culture from the the Gilgamesh epic, the Story of Adapa, and from art work and cylinder seals (although Walton is cautious in interpreting some of the images).

In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, a place watered through God’s abundance, next to the residence of God. They were in a sacred space where, as N.T. Wright often says, Gods space and Man’s space interlocked and interacted. They listened to the serpent and moved from a position of communion with God, provided for from God’s abundance to a place of toil and trial, death and decay.

The serpent is an interesting image as well. Walton points out (pp. 33-34) that a snake steals a magic plant that will rejuvenate him from Gilgamesh in the Gilgamesh Epic. In the Story of Adapa a serpent is “the guardian of the demons who live in the netherworld.” “In Egypt, the serpent was associated with both death and wisdom.”  And … “Even when not related to a god, the serpent represented wisdom (occult), fertility, health, chaos, and immortality, and was often worshiped. The snake god Apophis was considered the enemy of order.

The story told in Genesis 2-3 uses images well understood by the people of the day, the Ancient Near Eastern Israelite audience for whom and to whom the book was initially written. Books like this well illustrated background commentary help us to understand the context and thus to better understand the intent and the meaning.

Does this context shed light on Genesis 2-3?

How does it change your understanding of the message that the original author intended?

Does it make sense for us to refer back to a literal Eden and a crafty snake?

Is it possible, more likely even, that a divine message is conveyed in a context and form familiar to the original audience?

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  • Justin Borger

    Not sure this is really all that surprising. There were many flood myths in the ancient world because there was an actual flood. Perhaps there were also a variety of snake myths because there was also a historic event in which a crafty serpent was involved, the memory of which lingered throughout the ancient world.

  • Scott Berkhimer

    Justin, that’s no different thsn saying that there are many Bigfoot stories because there’s an actual Bigfoot.

  • Rick

    Isn’t there?

  • Phil Miller

    The problem is that in many cases, these other myths pre-date the
    Biblical accounts as far as we can tell. So it seems like the influence is
    going the opposite direction that you’d want it to go.

  • Justin Borger

    I’d like to see the dates and sources of which you speak, Phil. At any rate, they don’t predate the events (flood, Adam and Eve) themselves.

  • Phil Miller

    Well, most scholars date the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, at least several centuries prior to the Genesis account. But it makes sense if the Genesis account was compiled during the Babylonian captivity that the Israelite account would be essentially a rebuttal to that account. Instead of God creating through violence – killing other gods and using their remains to create land and so forth – Yahweh, the true God creates simply through speaking things into existence.

    This really shouldn’t be shocking. This is like what Christ did with the Gospel. The term evangelion pre-dates Christ. It was a term the Caesars used to explain what the Roman empire was doing as it conquered lands. Christ takes the term though and says, nope, that’s not really good news – the Kingdom of God is what the real Gospel is all about.

    So this sort of re-telling and re-framing of pagan or secular myths is something that it seems God likes to do.

  • James G.

    Or like saying that there must be a giant squid because there are so many stories. Then again, that one, after a couple of centuries of debate, was proven real recently by deep sea observation.

    Justin’s point is one of evidence, but hypothesis, and one an open mind should at least consider.

  • James G.

    Maybe, maybe not. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is generally a logical fallacy, so just because those stories came earlier, one can not necessarily conclude they are the source or cause of the latter stories.

    Just this morning a friend told a story of riding a Brahma bull like a pony when he was a child. I have that same story in my childhood. While I’m younger and my experience came later, I assure you, I did not crib his story, nor did his experience create mine. Similar stories, containing identical elements, completely unrelated. It happens.

  • Guest

    You’re right that this is not very surprising. That was my original point above. Nothing new here. However, the reason why this is it not very surprising is because the events (the act of creation, the episode with the snake, the flood etc.), which predate both the biblical accounts and the cognate literature, actually happened.

  • Phil Miller

    You’re trying to make me say something I’m not saying.

    My point isn’t about the historicity of the events. My point is about the purpose of the Biblical accounts. The way I see it, often times the Biblical accounts of these event is meant to subvert the “given” account of the surrounding culture. Whether the events actually happened or not, or if they happened as recorded, is a secondary concern. The point is that Yahweh is the one true God over and above the false gods of Babylon, Egypt, or wherever.

  • wolfeevolution

    I had heard of the “temple imagery” involved in the creation accounts; knowing about this has helped me rethink what it means that we are created “in God’s image” (i.e., as earthly representatives of God the King) and that God “rested” on the seventh day (i.e., He was enthroned to rule over creation). The piece of the puzzle you’ve presented here about temple gardens was new to me, though, and it beautifully complements and confirms this critical shift in my perspective on the passage. Thank you!

  • Justin Borger

    How can the historicity of the events be beside the point if the point is that Yahweh is the one TRUE God over above FALSE gods?

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t really understand the question. What I’m saying is the point of the creation narratives in Genesis is that God is the Creator. The details surrounding all that entails are not really the point. In a sense, we don’t need to know how it all happened. We just need to know He did it.

  • AHH

    I think Prof. Walton and other OT experts would say that we must recognize that these stories in the Ancient Near East worked in such a way that what “actually happened” (in our modern western sense) was irrelevant. The points were deeper, about meaning and God and humanity, and as props in the stories they used these ideas (snakes, gardens, floods) that were floating around in the culture.
    We are abusing Scripture if we try to impose our modern questions about “what actually happened” on passages (like early Genesis) where that simply wasn’t what the inspired writers were trying to convey.

  • Matthew Davis

    I think it is really interesting that the narrative here describes a relationship between YHWH and the man that is different from others in ANE, one according the man a measure of trust. The man has distinguished responsibilities, is given a suitable partner through some divine anesthetic-induced surgery, etc. The man and the woman seem delighted and dignified, lacking nothing (save for a fear of evil or exploitation), having nothing to hide or hide from.

    Now comes the omen, the charmer, the seed of brazen idolatry, the “wisdom” of all those nuances of ba’al.

  • attytjj466

    Genesis 1-3 is not addressing the how question per se, but the who, why, what questions concerning the meaning, significance and implications of the Creator God, His acts of creation and human origins. It is rich and full with theology, but it is not seeking to explain the mechanics of creation. That is a more recent concern that arose during the enlightenment, but not with the ancients.

  • John Warren

    Why is the question of whether or not they happened a secondary concern? Isn’t our God the God of truth? The narrative sure sounds like a story I’m supposed to believe in, and not just a story that conveys deeper truths. Why should I believe the deeper truths if I can’t trust the basic ones?

  • John Warren

    Then why didn’t He just tell us that He did it and leave out the details?

  • John Warren

    How do you know that “what actually happened” wasn’t what the inspired writers were trying to convey? I don’t believe that’s just a modern question. Ancient people cared as much as we do.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Actually there were at least 2 floods, possibly many more: The major flooding event (probably several consecutive ones) is the flooding of the Black Sea after the Bosporus was pierced. The other was a likely event flooding the upper Persian Gulf, after the drainage of Lake Agassiz, the massive glacial lake covering today the upper Midwest as well as part of the Canadian prairie provinces. There were likely a number of major events towards the end of the previous Ice age, which incidentally coincided with the dawn of civilization in the Near East. But the term “major” does not imply “global”

  • AHH

    For what ancient people “cared about” and what they were trying to convey in telling such stories, I think the best we can do is trust those like Prof. Walton who have a good understanding of these cultures (I daresay better than anybody who has commented on this thread, certainly including me).

    To assume that people in other times and places thought about things in the same way as modern Americans is often a mistake. We don’t even have to go back to ancient cultures for that insight; even a comparison to, for example, current Chinese culture will do. The title of a recent book (maybe reviewed here?) was Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes and it made many such good points.

  • attytjj466

    The text seems more concerned with addressing how creation did not occur, not through violence or sex between gods, etc. Who and what are God and what are not gods : Sun, animals, the great sea, man himself, etc. A polemic against the other ANE creation myths of the dominant surrounding cultures. In that regard this text was most revolutionary, and still is on so many levels, but not on the level of the mechanics of the how of creation. So it is the text itself that tells me that.

  • Lars

    Well, it’d be a heck of a lot more boring for one thing! That said, I too have a hard time coming to grips with divinely-inspired artistic license. There are so many details that you have to think they matter. But do they? In no sense am I a biblical scholar but, to me, these stories have a feel of working backwards. (Why does it hurt so much to have a baby? Why do other tribes speak differently than ours? Will it ever stop raining!? Why are we here and why do we die?) Plus, if the serpent was so crafty, why not have A&E partake first from the freely edible Tree of Life? And how might THAT have altered the rest of the story!

    Perhaps many Christians are fine just knowing God created everything but other readers want to know how, and more importantly, why God did that, and the Genesis creation account as written seems to be little more than a series of ‘best guesses’.


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