Creation in Genesis 2: 4b – 4: 26
As is well known, traditionally these verses of Genesis have been understood as giving details left unattended in the sketchy presentation of creation in chapter one. This way of reading also assumes that the whole of the Pentateuch was written by Moses in the XV century B.C.E. Such reading is still defended by fundamentalists, but cannot stand before the evidence in the text. For more than two centuries biblical scholars have reached a broad consensus and identified in the text sources which were edited to form the extant Pentateuch. This editorial work was carried out by priests of the Second Temple between 450 – 400 B.C.E. The literary sources uses by the editors contained different versions of the same events as well as narratives peculiar to one tradition. In Genesis, Exodus and Numbers the editors were primarily dependent on two sources, while a third one less extensively used can also be identified in sections of the text. To identify these sources scholars study the vocabulary, the name given to God and to significant places, the literary style, the identity of the actors, the theological point of view, the metaphors used to describe the relationship of God with Israel, etc.
The editors used their sources mostly in two ways. Sometimes they placed one after the other repeating the same event from two points of view, as is the case with creation. Other times, two or three sources are interlaced into one running narrative, as is the case with the flood. A notable and concise example of the presence of three versions of the same event is found in Moses’ three ascents to Mount Sinai in Ex. 24: 9-17. In vv. 9-11, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders climb to the top of the mount where they are met by God. They all sit down to eat and drink and no calamity falls on those celebrating a festal banquet with God. In vv. 12-13, Moses and Joshua rise and ascend the mountain. Aaron and Hur are left in charge of the affairs of the people below. In vv. 14-17, Moses climbs Mount Sinai alone and spends six days seeing nothing while enveloped in a cloud. On the seventh day the glory of God comes down on the mount and calls Moses while he still sees nothing. At the foot of the mountain the people see a consuming fire at the top of the mount. It does not require much intelligence to see that vv. 9-11 come from the same source as Gen. 2: 4b – 4: 26, and that vv. 14-17 belong together with the source that gave us Gen. 1: 1 – 2: 4a and continues in chapter 5.
In my last column, about Creation in the Wisdom Literature, I pointed out that Gen. 2: 5 uses a formula that is also used by the author of the Enuma Elish and the author of Prov. 8: 22-31. This formula by itself announces that what follows is an independent story of creation. Actually, to describe it as a story of creation is somewhat of an overstatement. The story takes into account a very small area of the earth surface. The earth as a whole and the starry heavens are not considered. The visual angle is minimal, parochial.
Attention is concentrated on the creation of man, and the way in which God attends to his needs. In this story the creation of the male human is told first. The trees of the garden were already there for the benefit of man. Animals are created for the benefit of man. It could even be said that man helps in their creation because by naming them he assigns peculiar characteristics to each. Woman is created to supply a need of man. In other words, this story reflects a patriarchal, androcentric society.[i]
In this story God is identified by a proper name, YHVH (Yahve, Jehova,). God’s ways are quite normal and familiar. God seems to be comfortable walking on earth and doing things human beings often do. God kneads mud and gives it a human form. Not only are humans made with mud but all beasts of the field and all birds of the air are also made from mud. God opens the thoracic cavity of man in order to extract a rib and closes it. Before the creation of man God had planted a garden “in Eden, to the East”. This is an immanent God who does not need help from wisdom, the word or an angel as assisting agents, master workmen, or artificers of creation. This God does what needs to be done personally: kneads mud, cuts ribs, plants trees and walks around the garden searching for disobedient creatures.
In Eden there was a river that watered the garden. It had four branches. The descriptions given to the branches make it possible to identify two of them as the Tigris and the Nile. One is called the Euphrates. The other, called, Pison, could be the Orontes. The two named first in the text flow into the Mediterranean and the last two into the Persian Gulf. That is, creation is limited to what we know as the Fertile Crescent of the Near East.
YHVH, who planted a garden and watered it with a river with four branches, gets characterized not only by getting dirty with mud and blood but also by lack of foreknowledge. God faces problems not anticipated and has to experiment with various options. Apparently, God is not omniscient. When God discovers that it is not good for man to be alone, God tries to solve the problem creating animals that could be with him. When God discovers that none of the animals is the company that man needs, God decides to create Woman to be the corresponding counterpart. Now Man and Woman can, cleaving together, become “one flesh”. In this way the race of mortal human beings could be perpetuated. The God we meet here is quite anthropomorphically limited.
All the trees planted in the Garden of Eden were “pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Besides these, God also planted two special trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. While all other trees, as suppliers of beauty and fruit, provided for the nourishment of man, woman and the animals, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil fulfilled special functions. Their presence in the garden was specifically only for the benefit of human beings. One was the source of life, and the other the assessor of obedience. They were the links that kept human beings subjected to their Creator. Before the creation of the animals and of woman, God introduced man into the garden to cultivate it and informed him that he could eat of all the trees freely except the fruit of the tree of knowledge. That is, when the only things in existence were the garden with its trees, the river that watered it with its four branches and the man, God injected a commandment that tells the purpose for which man was created. He had been created to obey God’s command. The day man would eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God tells Adam, “you will die.”
This text tells me that the human beings created by God were, by nature, mortal. They would live as long as they had access to the tree of life. But this access was conditioned on their obedience. If they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge they would irremediably die on account of their mortal nature. This reading is corroborated by the climax of the story. The penalty for having eaten the forbidden fruit is not death. It is denial of access to the tree of life. Not able to eat of this fruit, their lives continued their normal course and eventually died.
In this story the tree of life and the tree of knowledge fulfill the function of the temple in other stories of creation. It is intentional to state that these trees were “at the center of the garden” (2: 9). These trees were Eden’s umbilical cord. By means of these trees Adam and Eve were in contact with the source of life as long as they carried on the purpose for which they had been created. Their obedience to the divine commandment kept them alive and “clothed in innocence”. Of course, this condition can only be recognized by those who have already lost it and feel guilty.
In truth, the story of Gen. 2: 4b – 4: 26 does not deal with the physical or functional reality of creation. Its interest is to consider the nature and the condition of human beings. Its perspective is anthropocentric. Its content emphasizes a change in the relation between God and human beings. The centrality of a commandment that establishes obedience makes clear that human beings were created with the freedom to disobey. Thus, repeatedly God has to put in place plan B.
As I said already, according to this story human being depended on the fruit of the three of life to live. This tells us that in themselves they were mortal. That death is a possibility does not make their death necessary. A hypothetical question worthy of consideration is: If Adam and Eve had been created immortal, would it have been necessary to plant the tree of life at the center of the garden? I think the answer is NO. By disobeying they did not loose the immortality they did not have. They lost access to the tree of life on which their living depended.
This is also demonstrated by the temptation offered by the serpent. Gods, obviously, are immortal. By offering them to become like gods who know good and evil, the serpent offered to transform them to the being of immortal gods. In other words, the temptation consisted in reaching out to become something they were not, immortal beings. The temptation was to escape the condition of mortal beings in which they had been created. Saying this I am not taking into account science or the history of Christian doctrines. I am only reading the text of Gen. 2-3. Centuries later it was decided that The Fall consisted in the loss of immortality and that creation had been ex nihilo and ab initio temporis. These notions aroused to answer questions raised by later generations. According to the story, what was lost was the tree of life, not immortality. Before creation there already existed a desert with little humidity, and both human beings and animals came from the dust of that primordial desert, not “from nothing”. How God planted the garden, we are not told.
Human beings have within themselves a sense of guilt. The knowledge of innate culpability also appears in other stories of creation. For example, in the Enuma Elish human beings receive life from the blood of Kingu. He is identified as the leader of the rebellion against Tiamat and Apsu. Kingu is “the guilty one” and human beings received their life from his blood. In this way the sense of guilt that all humans carry in themselves is accounted for in that story. The notion that life is in the blood is also found in the Bible, as well as that one must die and shed his blood to give life to others.
This story takes a monumental theological step forward by abandoning the notion that human life, or the matter with which human beings were made, was derived from gods who have been killed. The Pentateuch distinguishes itself by taking such a step forward. Here Adam is mud shaped in the form of a human body, and he receives life by the breath (spirit) of God. The materiality of God’s living breath is not at the level of the blood of a dead god, and no death takes place in order to bring about new life. Here Behemoth, Leviathan, the dragon or the primordial ocean do not appear. This difference is what the Fathers of the Church in the first centuries of our era tried to affirm by declaring that creation had been ex nihilo and ab initio temporis (it did not take place in time, when according to other creation stories the battles to conquer chaos took place).
The tree of life and the tree of knowledge at the center of the garden are the temple of Eden. They made possible and maintained the pleasant and beautiful life human beings who carried out the purpose of their creation enjoyed. It is indeed quite appropriate that trees should be the temple of a cosmos that is just a garden. While in other stories humans are created to make possible the leisure of the gods by serving them, offering sacrifices of blood that nourish them, in this account humans were created to obey YHVH. In Eden YHVH issued the first commandment: “Do not attempt to be more than what I created you to be. If you pretend to be more, you will cease being”
It is amazing that the first death among human beings was not a death that resulted from the unavailability of the tree of life. It was a death caused by the murder of Abel. Here we find ourselves again before an unforeseen event. The story alerts us with strident cries that there is something in humans that brings about tragic consequences and makes for life “East of Eden,” without access to the tree of life, to be not quite good. Chapter 4 gives us the genealogy of Cain up to the introduction of music, metallurgy and cities. It ends with Lamech, the second assassin. Once again, God has to implement plan B, and as a result Adam and Eve have a son who takes the place of Abel, Seth.
As mortal beings we humans have a paradox at our core, both the elusive divine breath that gave us life and the desire to be more than what our vocation allows. As a consequence, lacking access to the tree of life we become assassins who take the life of others. Considering the nature and the condition of human beings, the authors of this narrative place before us a mirror in which to see ourselves and feel an urge to reflect. As theology, this narrative has relevance for all human beings at all times. Although we have become aware that we share our world with other living beings and we have to live in peace with our neighbors, we continue to live in an anthropocentric, envious symbolic universe. As a consequence, there are many moments in our lives when we need an anthropomorphic God always predisposed to punish our disobedience as well as to seek another way (plan B) to accomplish God’s purposes.
[i] I know quite well and I agree with a feminist hermeneutic of the text. By reading the text in its historical context I am not in any way suggesting that in the XXI century we should live in a patriarchal, androcentric culture or society.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3037