Eden and the Fall

Aug. 1, 2021 by Rev. Jacques Nel

Reading Scripture with integrity begins with allowing the ancient text to speak for itself.

Where is evil coming from? Evil is coming from our own wrongful desires (James 4:1-3). Evil is coming from a talking serpent and a tree with forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8 - 3:24). Our reading of this text can be either too figurative or too literal. Figurative interpretations may arise from a desire to accommodate a modern worldview. What the author(s) of Genesis could have understood as actual historical or geographical realities (Eve created from Adam’s rib or the location of Eden) may not be so for us. Adam simply means man or coming from the red earth. It need not be a specific person, but was probably understood so by the author. Eve means life. Literal interpretations may again flow from not understanding how the author is weaving together different types of literature. He effortlessly jumps from portraying what was perceived to be actual history to speaking in parables and symbols; living in a garden to eating from a tree described as good and evil.

I don’t think the author of Genesis believed that God would banish us from his presence merely for eating the wrong fruit. That is a bit harsh coming from the God who is love (1 John 4:8). Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of all of Scripture. It is more than just knowing the right grammar or the literal meaning of the words. When Jesus says: “I am the vine and you are the branches”, he does not mean we are branches growing from his side. Was the tree of good and evil then an actual tree? It seems from the description of the tree itself, that the author is not saying so. The tree of life is not an actual tree either (Revelation 22:2). The serpent sounds demonic, like the father of the lie, saying: “Did God really say?” Can a serpent speak while hiding in a tree that is not an actual tree? No, and the author certainly knew that. The tree was not meant to be a literal tree. We should allow the text to speak for itself.

In trying to match details of an ancient text with our understanding of the world, we may lose its meaning. Meanings in a text are best understood in terms of the world within which the text was written. Historical, archaeological, and geographical realities must be accounted for. Our aim is to learn from the text. Once done, modern science can come into play. What we have in the first chapters of Genesis, happened in a prehistoric time of which there are no written records. We are not always sure when the narrative is meant to be understood as actual history or not.

Writing history in the ancient world was done very differently from how it is done now. Details were made to fit the big picture. The big picture mattered, not the details. The structure of Genesis revolves around genealogies. Whether they are historically accurate or not doesn’t seem to matter. If Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, did Cain marry his sister? I doubt if the author of Genesis wants us to believe that. Cain founded a city (Genesis 4:17). How can you do that if the only other people on the planet are your brothers and sisters? How many people are needed to build a city? The answer is, certainly more than your brothers and sisters.

Clearly the historical details were not the main focus of the author of Genesis. It was the big picture. Cain farmed the land. Agriculture and a settled existence led to the building of the first cities. The cities of Sumer were known for violence and constant warfare. Cain’s descendant, Lamech, boasted to his wives how he would take revenge seventy times seven. Lamech was a violent man, and because of the violence, God sends a flood to destroy all those descended from Cain. Noah and his family survived in a boat. Noah is the son of the other righteous Lamech (ninth in descent from Adam). There are two Lamech’s in Genesis and two Enoch’s, the son of Cain and the other an ancestor of Noah. That is the big picture.

Some are Righteous and serve God while others are not, paying the price. This grand theme of Genesis echoes throughout Scripture. With all our attention to historical and scientific details, we may still not get the big picture right. What started with God, creating order out of chaos, became eating from a forbidden tree. From that followed the incident with Cain and Abel, Lamech’s violence, and then the chaos of the flood. Noah is saved and the blessing or order is restored with Abraham.

Genesis 1-11 is often compared to what is known as mythical time in the memory of a people. To the aboriginal people of Australia it is known as the dream time. For the Romans it went back to Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of Mars, the god of war. Myths can be either true or false, so the term is best avoided here. The first chapters of the book of Genesis are uniquely difficult to interpret. Compared to the surrounding ancient cultures of that time, its author demonstrated superior theological insights. These insights are divinely inspired. This inspiration did not happen in a mechanical way, as if God was speaking through the author like we would be typing on a keyboard.

The divine words became flesh. It was spoken/written within the limited scientific and historical understandings of its author. That does not matter. It is the big picture that matters. Are you Cain or Noah?

A garden with all kinds of trees


The Lord God planted a garden (גן pronounced gan in Hebrew) in the east, in Eden (Genesis 2:8). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuaginta) the Hebrew word gan is translated with the word paradeisos πᾰρᾰ́δισος. This word goes back to an older Persian word, meaning a walled garden. It carried connotations with it, that is not of necessity in the Hebrew text. The text is not saying the garden was a paradise. It is not saying the garden was somewhere in Persia either. It is saying the garden was in the east and it says it twice. The Hebrew word Eden is derived from the Akkadian edinu 𒉌𒋾𒈝 which in turn comes from the even earlier Sumerian word Eden, meaning plain (or plain in the east). This was an obvious reference to the land between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, known to us as modern day Iraq. Earlier it was known as Mesopotamia, which is Greek for the land between the rivers.

The word Eden can also relate to the Hebrew root adan עָדַן (meaning joy, pleasure or luxury). Eden was associated with an idyllic life in God’s presence in the distant past. Work was indeed easier before the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic era. Working the land required hard intensive labour for long hours. Banned from the garden, Adam was now cursed to toil the land with pain (Genesis 3:16-17). We cannot of necessity assume that Eden was thought of as a perfect paradise. It was certainly remembered as idyllic. Creation was good (Genesis 1). Good need not mean perfect. In a perfect world we might not feel any need for God.

Four rivers

After informing us that the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden, the author gives us a geographical description of where this garden was located. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden, and from there it divided; it had four headstreams. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (Genesis 2:10-11). Havilah is mostly understood as a reference to Arabia, or Chawilah in Hebrew meaning ‘sand-land.’ There are no big rivers at present in Arabia. The Hebrew word nahar (river) is at times used to describe the sea (Jonah 2:3). Concluding from this that the Pishon is a reference to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf (encircling Arabia) is stretching it a bit.

Using remote sensing, geologists discovered a dry riverbed in Arabia. It runs for over 850 kilometers. In places it is over 5 kilometers wide. It is at present covered with desert sands, which made it invisible for so long. It is called the Kuwait river and the last time water flowed there was between 5,000 and 11,000 years ago. The existence of this dry riverbed was confirmed by penetrating radar images taken from onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1994. If this dry riverbed was indeed the Pishon, it is a remarkable confirmation of what we read in Genesis.

The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush (Genesis 2:13). Cush was a reference to upper Egypt and what is now Sudan. The Gihon then had to be the entire Nile River system. This would mean that the garden was somehow connected with the entire fertile crescent, stretching from Egypt to Iraq. That does not square with locating the garden in Eden (the plain in the east) and the Mesopotamian setting of the third and fourth rivers.

The Kassites (from the word kussu) took control of Babylon after the fall of Hammurabi’s rule, sometime around 1,600 BC. For the next 300 years plus, central Mesopotamia was known as C(K)ush. If the Gihon winded through the entire land of (this) Cush, then it was a river in Mesopotamia. The name of the third river is the Tigris. The fourth river is the Euphrates (Genesis 2:14). This is a clear reference to what was the ancient land of Mesopotamia and what is now modern Iraq. This agrees with Genesis 2:8: That God planted a garden in the east, in Eden. This mention of a garden in the east, where God puts the man that He had formed (Genesis 2:8) agrees with the latest insights from paleo anthropology. The first modern humans migrated out of East Africa into the fertile crescent, 120,000 years ago. From there we spread across the globe. Is what is written in Genesis, the dim memory of that?

The author of Genesis presents us with what was then considered to be a literal fact, namely the location of Eden. If it was the intention of the author of Genesis, to share with his readers what he considered to be historical facts, that Adam and Eve were the first two people on this planet and their son Cain built a city, we must respect that. There is a possibility that the author was not so concerned about historical events, and that the story is on an altogether different level.

Formed from the dust and built from a rib can be archetypal claims, and not claims about material origins. It can be about God’s intimate role as Creator, and not so much the mechanisms used or the time it took. Should that be the case, the perceived conflict between Science and Scripture is even more overblown than we realize. Unfortunately, it is not possible to show conclusively that there is a right and a wrong way to read the text of Genesis. I personally prefer the view that this text is alive with different meanings on many levels. It speaks in a timeless manner enriching our self- understanding.

Certainly, whoever wrote Genesis, did not know that humans were hunter gatherers for thousands of years, then nomads herding animals, and at long last farmers building the first cities. Anatomically modern humans emerged over a hundred thousand years ago, while the earliest cities were built in Anatolia, between ten and twelve thousand years ago. All of that, the author of Genesis squeezes into two generations (Adam/Cain). I am okay with that. Denying it would-be a fraud. Allow this ancient scripture to belong to the time in which it was written. That is how we acknowledge that the Word became flesh. Doing so, you will hear the soft whisper of God’s voice in the evening breeze (Genesis 3:8).

“You may eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). A tree of the knowledge of good and evil has everything to do with a deeper spiritual meaning, if words are what they mean. It has nothing to do with fruit trees or the fruit you buy in the shop. If you eat too much of that fruit, it will give you a stomach-ache, but you will not die. When God says of the tree of good and evil: “if you eat of it, you will surely die,” it can be that the author was thinking of spiritual death and not physical death. At some stage in our collective history or in our individual lives, we lost our innocence. Sinning we could now see that there is good and evil. Not being God, we were unable to steer away from evil towards the good alone.

Adam and Eve had to leave Eden. This event is perpetuated throughout the generations. It became the doctrine of original sin. In Adam we have all sinned (Romans 5:12-21). How did that happen? How did we go from order to chaos? It was the abundance of God; that you may eat from all the trees in the garden. In a sense all of Eden was given to all humans and that’s the whole world, if we are going to read Genesis chapter one with chapter two. What God made with such ease in six short days by merely speaking the word, it was good. It was designed to create a living space.

In Babylon humans had to make a living space for the gods or else! This was now the reverse. It was a fresh perspective. The sun and the moon were created, to be a light for the day and a light for the night. Dry land was separated from water, so that humans created on the sixth day could live. (Genesis 1:1-19). The sea was teeming with fish (fifth day) and the land with animals on the sixth day (Genesis 2:20-25). Plants were made as food for the animals to eat (Genesis 2:29). The days or billions of years in which this was done, that makes no difference. The Creator is not bound by time. A billion years is but a moment, to the One who is the Alpha and the Omega.

Getting stuck in all sorts of time-scale arguments, it clouded the sun. As a result, we lost the meaning of; let there be light and there was light. We lost sight, of how precious this order out of chaos is. Creating our own order, we bombed the flesh of those made in the Imago Dei. We poisoned the fish that swim in the ocean. We slaughtered the animals that live on the land. We pollute the air. Somehow, we miss what this is all about. It is about order out of chaos, light from darkness. It is not about the days that can so easily be billions of years.

What God made is good and we are not God. We will not be able to do a better job. On the seventh day God rested (Genesis 2:2-3) We are told to do the same. The reason being, that in six days God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in it and on the seventh day He rested (Exodus 20:8-11). It is done. We were created to find rest (an eternal Sabbath) in God and His works. Made in His image, we were created to sit forever at our Father’s table. We were made for fellowship with our Father. The human heart remains restless, until it finds rest in God (St. Augustine). Unfortunately, the youngest son said to his father; give me my inheritance. Lucifer the bright morning star, wanted to ascend above the heavens (Isaiah 14:12) not wanting to rest in God. I saw Satan fall like a bolt of lightning from the sky (Luke 10:18) The Fall is wanting to take on infinity. It is wanting to usurp God. It is wanting to be like God. From the tower of Babel to the devil, the beast and the false prophet getting thrown in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10).

Only God can face the terror of infinity. Not even God’s creation is infinite. The multiverse where all possibilities are realized, I personally find that repugnant. God rested on the seventh day after he made everything in six days. It was done. In modern cosmological terms, space and time has no edge. There is no beginning and there is no wall where it stops, so you can ask: What was before and what lies beyond? Like the earth, it has no boundary. You can travel forever around the earth, without ever falling over the edge. The surface area of the earth is finite, yet you can travel an infinite number of miles over it. Space and time are the same. It is finite, yet you can travel forever through it. Standing at the equator, the lines of longitude appear to merge at the pole. At the pole the horizon is the same distance than it is at the equator. Space and time are not infinite categories. Space and time are created entities. What is beyond, that is unspeakable. It is the realm of God, who alone is the Alpha and the Omega. Of the tree in the middle of the garden, you shall not eat. In the middle of Eden, were both the tree of life and the tree of good and evil (Genesis 2:10). That had everything to do with God. God, who alone can handle the terror of infinity.

Did God really say?


We cannot deal with the infinite. Not in a spatial, temporal or a moral sense. Wanting to do so, is wanting to be God. It is departing on a journey, where we will never find any rest. It is entering through the gates of hell. It is refusing to rest on the seventh day. Also, Genesis 1:1-3 is not saying; in the beginning there was nothing. It says the earth was formless (tohu) and empty (wabohu) and darkness was over the face of the deep (Leningrad or St. Petersburg Codex dating to the early 11th century) More than a thousand years before that, in Dead Sea Scroll commentaries on this text, it is noted that Genesis is somewhat ambiguous on this point. We do believe in creatio ex nihilo but yes, there was chaos! What is no surprise to see, it is that the master of chaos entered the discussion at this junction.

In ancient times serpents were as mysterious as the Leviathan from the abyss. The serpent was craftier than all the other animals and now asked the woman. Did God really say you must not eat from any trees in the garden? (Genesis 3:1). God never said that! God said you may eat from all the trees in the garden, only of the tree in the middle of the garden you may not eat. This attempt to portray our lives with God as dull, boring and limited, it fails miserably. The father of the lie, the dragon, that serpent of old (Revelation 20:2) is persistent, utilizing every possible angle (Revelation 12:10-18). Some modern translations regrettably left out the Greek word for serpent (ofis), which is in the original manuscript of the Apocalypse of John. The amazingly rich ancient Greek vocabulary for snakes (serpents?) is beyond the scope of this essay.

A serpent is not a snake. A serpent walks on all fours. But this serpent was about to make the transition to sailing on the stomach (Genesis 3:14). Snakes were once lizards. Millions of years ago they had legs, now they sail and slither on the ground. Our reptilian brain (our primeval brain or basal ganglia) is associated with our baser desires (violence, lust, greed) and Paul urges us to crucify the old nature and become more Christlike. The Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin speculated about our ever upward journey (Cosmo-Geo-Bio-Homo-Christo Genesis) towards the Omega point, which is God. Surely, someone wanted to put an end to all of that. The serpent said to the woman. When you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Wanting to be like God, that was the trap. The woman seeing that the fruit was desirable, ate of it and she also gave it to her husband to eat (Genesis 3:4-6). Desire did it all.

Someone used to joke about Adam and Eve, eating themselves out of the garden of Eden. But this was no joke. So, used to pain, do we still feel the loss of Eden? It was a tremendous loss. There was now placed before the gates of Eden an angel (cherubim) with a flaming flickering sword. The tree of life was now forbidden territory (Genesis 3:24). The woman was told that her husband will rule over her. The man was told, because of you the ground is cursed. Work from now on meant toiling all the days of your life (Genesis 3:16-21) It is all vanity (Ecclesiastes). Cain killed his brother Abel, whose name means mist or vapor. His life had no meaning, it was cut off way to soon. After the Fall, Adam and Eve were hiding in the garden from God, like the cockroaches in a kitchen, disappearing under the cupboards when someone switch on the lights at night. We’ve been running away from God ever since.

Not that the serpent was going to have the last word. The Lord God said to the serpent. I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. He will strike your head and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:14-15). That is the Gospel that we proclaim. The genealogy that runs from Eve to Abraham and all the way to Jesus. You need not worry about the details, just go and proclaim this Gospel. They conquered him through the blood of the lamb and the word of their witness (Revelation 12:11). That is now the beast and the false prophet and the dragon, who was thrown down on the earth and went off to wage war against the woman and her offspring (Revelation 12:4 and 17). Reading the first and the last book of the Bible, it should be done through the same lenses at the same time. Scripture has many layers. From Eve to Mary to the church. The woman flew on the two wings of an Eagle, away from the serpent into the dessert where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time (Revelation 12:14).

The Greek word (ofis) can mean a snake or a serpent. The serpent is the dragon, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9). The dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore (Revelation 12:18) and I saw a beast rising from the sea (Revelation 13:1). That had to be the final temptation which was also the first temptation. The temptation to power. The wanting to be like God. In this case it was the Emperor of Rome, referring to himself on the silver Denarii coins as God. In Eden the serpent said to the woman, when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God. No, their eyes were not opened. They were not changed to be like God. They had to flee from God. Banned from Eden, we wrote a tale of darkness like no other. While God made order out of chaos, we wreaked havoc on ourselves and others. I have now become death, a destroyer of worlds! Robert Oppenheimer said that, quoting from Hindu scripture after seeing the detonation of the first atomic bomb. That is how we went from Eden to the Fall.

When the Psalmist says the earth is founded on pillars (Psalm 75:3) no one in his or her right mind will think this is so. Why then insists that the days in Genesis must be literal days for us? That God created us over a longer period of time and that we evolved, to my mind the science of this cannot be disputed. Was the Fall then a specific moment in this history and when was that moment? Considering the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture (John Calvin) I prefer to think of the Fall, as something that happened in a moments time and throughout this history. We are all Adam! We are all Eve! There was once this place called Eden.

Did God really say? Doubting that God is speaking to us through these ancient scriptures, it is now ingrained into the modern mindset. The sciences of Biology and Psychology are the trusted voices, when trying to discern what it means to be human. A literal reading of scripture, bringing it into conflict with some of the findings of modern science, was not of much help in this situation. Strangely enough, I’ve never doubted these ancient scriptures. Neither did I have any problems with science. I was always aware that it is not easy to enter into the thought world of the author(s) of Genesis. It was a world very different from ours, ignorant of modern science. But a reductionist study of the material world (that is what science is) is certainly not the only route to understanding. It is wisdom that we lack and only an extremely arrogant person will think, ours is the only time with insight. That we never discovered anything more that the laws of Physics and the Chemistry of atoms? That there never was a revelation coming from God. Based on what can anyone say such a thing?

I believe in the story of Eden and the Fall, with all my heart and mind. Like my heart jumped in my throat, when I saw a palaeolithic stone age knife lying on the desert floor! I knew it was for real. That we are old and that our stories are old, how else can it be? That God made it all by speaking the word and that we messed it up, that is for sure! At the heart of this story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, lies our unwillingness to be humble. Instead of a deep joy that we can eat from all the trees in the garden, we want to be in control of it all. Instead of resting on the Sabbath at our Fathers table, we stormed the gates of infinity. Wanting to be like God, it was and is our downfall in every age.

Most theologians agree, regardless of whether Adam and Eve were historical people, they are archetypes or prototypes of us all. Just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam is also a type of the one to come (Romans 5:12-14). We are not meant to storm the gates of infinity: Do not say in your heart, who will ascend into heaven that is to bring Christ down. The words are near you in your heart and on your lips, that is the faith that we proclaim (Romans 10:6-8). We are called to a Sabbath rest, but then that Sabbath is only a shadow of the reality that is Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17) We rest in Christ, who is our only comfort in life and death. Saved by grace, allow yourself to be carried to the Omega Point, don’t ever try to get there on your own. You may eat of all the trees but of the tree of good and evil in the middle of the garden, you may not eat. If you eat of this tree, you will surely die. Who can doubt this, that the story of Eden and the Fall is our story?

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