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D'var Torah: Bereshit

In ancient times (even before computers), there were no such things as literary genres as we know them today. There were no mystery novels, no romance novels, no novels of any kind. There wasn’t even a distinction between fiction and non-fiction. All stories were transmitted orally, and tended to be about one of two things: origins—why things are as they are—or the exploits of heroes. You can see how the first category could give rise to belief systems (or the belief systems gave rise to these stories, a chicken-or-egg dilemma). These stories are called “etiological” because they explain origins while also serving as a kind of teaching tool. And the other kind of story, the hero tale, was told to either entertain the listener or to glorify past rulers, who would frequently be the subject of such tales—or likely for both purposes.

The Torah is the direct recipient of both of these kinds of storytelling. Its pages, especially in Genesis, are filled with examples of both the etiological story and the hero story. The very first truly ancient story in the Torah is that of the Garden of Eden. Even though the story of the creation precedes it, the creation account in Chapter 1 is post-exilic1 and thus is much more recent than the Garden of Eden story that follows. The Eden story seems to attempt to answer one of the most fundamental questions possible: “Why is there evil? Did God create it?” To modern readers this story appears to be an allegory that tries to explain, like the story of Pandora’s Box (which is similarly ancient), how evil entered the world. The premise seems to be that evil is a human product, a function of having free will, a part of man’s nature when he was formed. But what about its intended audience—the proto-Hebrews of some 3000 years ago—what did they think this story was about?

The Eden story has truly ancient roots. Its Hebrew style is extremely ancient and is strongly evocative of ancient poetry—the rhythm and parallelism characteristic of ancient Hebrew poetry are still present in the prose.2 The narration is both playful and aural. So it appears that the Torah’s version is an adaptation of a very old poetic tale. In it we find motifs that appear in other ancient middle-eastern stories; for example, the themes of sexual awareness, wisdom, and a paradise of nature are all found in a single passage of the Gilgamesh Epic. Also in Gilgamesh, the hero is robbed of the chance to eat from a plant that would make him like a god—by a snake. The Eden story was powerfully influenced by Mesopotamian cultures, including that of the mysterious non-Semitic Sumerians. This is clearly demonstrated in the Book of Ezekiel (Ch. 28) which gives details about Eden that are not present in the Genesis story and shows that the prophet had access in Babylonia to other traditions about the legendary place.

That this story was originally told as an oral tale is very evident in its heavy use of puns. The Eden pericope, in terms of word-play, is the densest in the entire Bible. For example, in just three verses (Gen. 2:11–14) there are four puns involving all of the rivers that flow out of Eden. Gichon and “belly” share the same root, pointing to the snake’s fate later on. Pishon is a play on “nefesh”; the man who in Gen. 2:7 becomes a living being. In this case the root letters are anagrams of each other—a rhetorical construction known as metathesis. The other two rivers are similarly treated. These word-play devices work particularly well in Hebrew because its words are all constructed from three-consonant roots. To a listener, such word-plays would have been immediately apparent.

Now comes a story-teller’s delight. In Gen. 2:18 God figures out that Adam is lonesome and determines to make a “fitting helper” for him. Imagine all the creatures God makes and then parades before Adam, who tells God their names: God: “How about this one?” Adam: “No, that’s a lion.” “OK, how about this?” “No, that’s an orang-utan. Too ugly.” “This one?” “No, aardvark. Too weird.” “Well, how about this?” “Manatee. Not my type.” Notice Adam’s elation in Gen. 2:23: Zot ha-pa'am! “This one at last!” God finally got it right. Imagine the fun a story-teller would have with those verses.

This brings us to the part about Eve and the snake. This is certainly an etiological tale, but what origins does it purport to explain? There is a branch of biblical research called “form criticism”3 that seeks to discern the elements of stories that are present in cognate cultures. Critics, looking at the Adam-and-Eve pericope, point out that stories about gaining forbidden knowledge resulting in bad consequences abound in ancient texts: consider Prometheus, Pandora, and the Gilgamesh Epic. Thus the story’s tree-of-knowledge device that explains how humans obtained intelligence could have been told to explain why childbirth is painful. People could see that human babies’ heads were proportionately so much larger than that of any other baby animal and guessed that the difference in head sizes resulted from humankinds’ intelligence. The story could also explain the very hard work that agriculture entailed, thus recognizing the cultural shift from a hunter-gatherer existence to one based on agriculture. As I said, these stories have truly ancient roots.

What I want to do now is to point out how the Adam-and-Eve story is structured in terms of how it would have sounded to its ancient listeners (my interpretation, of course: I couldn’t get my time machine working to get first-hand evidence). Remember that the Torah has no chapters or any punctuation so any modern divisions of text are in themselves a kind of interpretation, so ignore the division between chapter 2 and 3—it doesn’t exist in the original. The first word-play I’d like to show you occurs in Gen. 2:25 and Gen. 3:1. The word for “naked,” arumim, (a plural noun meaning “naked ones”) is immediately followed by the description of the snake as “crafty,” arum. In this word-play the listener is invited to infer that nakedness leads to temptation. The words have the identical root but some say they are from different stems, although a clear relationship between the two uses of arum can be seen by looking at other words that share the same root: “discover,” “uncover,” and “that which makes bare” are related to “subtle,” “sly,” or “crafty,” especially when you consider that ancient Hebrew makes no use of abstract concepts. Most Hebrew words originally expressed a definite concept. Translations are all based upon abstract interpretations of words that were conceptually definite in the original. For example: “honor” is an abstract idea. The Hebrew for “honor” is kavod. But kavod literally means “heavy.” And the root of baruch, “to bless,” means “knee.” You can see how a definite concept can become an abstract idea.

Now let’s consider the overall structure of our pericope. One of the techniques of oral storytelling that unifies the story’s structure is the use of repetition; here the major repetition involves the act of eating. Eating gives sustenance and thus allows life. Eve’s name, as we will see later on, is related to the word for “life,” and we’ll see how the story comes to link these ideas. The repetitions begin with God’s instructions to Adam at Gen. 2:16, with twenty uses of some form of “to eat” all the way to the end of the chapter. Let’s look at some verses in detail, starting with 3:14.

14 Then the Lord God said to the serpent [nachash], “Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all cattle and all the wild beasts: on your belly [gachon] shall you crawl and dust [afer, dry soil] shall you eat all the days of your life.

nachash: reverse the letters and substitute a tav for chet (these were phonetically similar in ancient Hebrew) and you get satan.
arur (atah) mi-kol cha’it. The snake is cursed (are you) above all other animals...” In Gen. 3:1 it says arum mi-kol cha’it. The snake is “crafty above all other animals...” Being “crafty” resulted in becoming “cursed.”
afer literally means “loose, dry soil.” In Gen. 2:7 God formed the man ha-adom afar mi-adomah from the afer, soil, of the ground.

It would appear that the snake is also able to exercise free will, and is thus unlike any other “beast,” all of which God declared as “good.” Was the snake left over from the original chaos? This is implied elsewhere in the Tanakh as well as in various ancient mythologies4 while later commentators also had their opinions: A midrash in in the Talmud says the snake desired the woman so he plotted to kill the man and take the woman5 while Philo wrote that the snake is symbolic of man’s surrender to pleasure (as allegory).6

15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall [most texts read] bruise (or crush) your head, and you shall strike at their heel.”

enmity is ‘evah; woman is ‘ishah. This is yet another word-play: there’s only one consonant difference between the words. Furthermore, enemy is ‘oyev, having the same root as ‘evah. Job’s name is Iyyob, who is the object of enmity—of the adversary, ha-satan. Some regard the snake as Satan.
...between your offspring and hers: between the progeny of the snake and the ultimate descendent of the woman: Jesus. This verse is known to Christian theologians as the proto evangelium, the first gospel.
...bruise your head...strike their heel. y’shuf-cha rosh “strike your head”; t’shufeh-nu ‘akaiv “strike their heel.” The word shaf literally means “to strike so as to leave a mark or bruise.”

The snake was a fertility symbol in Canaan and a royal protective emblem in Egypt. Rejecting such pagan symbols was important to the Torah’s authors and could have been reinforced by a natural aversion to reptiles. Snakes alone among all other land creatures have no legs. This implied to some interpreters that snakes were punished for something this one did. Later commentators also weighed in with their viewpoints: Rashi said, based on the Talmud, that the snake had feet but they were removed as punishment, while Ibn Ezra held that the snake became cursed with a short life.

16 And to the woman He said, “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

This is the explanation for why the societies of the middle east were patriarchal and why males dominated females. Ibn Ezra said that “urge” really means “obedience.”

17 To Adam He said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life:”

The word “toil,” b’eetzahvon, is the same word in Hebrew as “pangs” and “pain” in vs. 16, ‘eetz’vonaikh and b’etzev.
...ate of the tree...” The tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” is a merism, a term that describes a global concept: here, the “knowledge of all things” or “wisdom.” In the pagan world, divinity was usually symbolized by immortality (ref. Gilgamesh). In the Bible and in some other ancient middle-eastern cultures, divinity was equated to wisdom.

18 “Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field;”

In comparison to the lushness of the vegetation in Eden. This is to explain why weeds grow so readily in cultivated areas. Also. it was originally believed that since the food of the gods was meat, people should eat no meat. The Torah changed that idea after the Noah episode.

19 “By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the adomah (ground)—for from it you were taken. For afer (dust) you are, and to afer you shall return.”

This pun was mentioned earlier: Adam, adom, is made from the adomah (ground). The moral is that the man, who aspired to be like God, is reminded that he was fashioned from afer, the soil of the earth.

Is it unfair for us to be punished for Adam and Eve’s sin? Some interpreters believed that we were punished, despite its unfairness. Others believed that we didn’t inherit their sins, but their sinfulness. In some basic way we are just like Adam and Eve. The idea of “original sin” was at first a viewpoint of one Jewish sect of the early first century CE.7 But in mainstream Judaism, dealing with this sinfulness idea resulted in the desire to overcome any inherent human sinfulness by following the laws—leading to the desire to codify those laws, eventually resulting in the Mishnah, whereas original sin became a fundamental doctrine of Christianity.

20 The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.

The name Eve (Chavah) is phonetically related to the Hebrew word for “life” (chaya) and might even be an ancient version of the word (in ancient Hebrew the vav and yod sometimes interchanged). The word chavah is found in other Semitic languages where it is a synonym for—snake!

21 And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

A midrash says God made the clothes out of “garments of light.”8 Skin = or, this word is spelled with an ayin. Light = or, spelled with an alef. Another midrash says the clothes were made of snake-skin.9

22 And the Lord God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the soil from which he was taken.

In vs. 22, yishlach, stretch (put out) his hand; in vs. 23, yishalchay-hu, banished (put out) him from the garden. Identical verb, different conjugation. They put out their hand to take the fruit; thus they will be put out of the garden.

24 He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.

Eden never was a “paradise.” The Hebrew word gan means “enclosed garden.” It was first translated into Greek as “paradise” in the Septuagint10 and the word eventually achieved its current meaning in the Middle Ages. Ever-turning sword: this is a clear reference to Mesopotamian traditions. So are the cherubim and the tree of life.

I hope that this excursion through Chapters 2 and 3 has demonstrated that the Eden story is more than a simple children’s tale. There are many issues that become apparent by examining the Hebrew original—nuances of the story that are, as the movie title goes, “lost in translation.” Before I stop, I’d like to point out one small element of the story about Eve’s so-called tempting of Adam to eat the forbidden fruit: The Etz Chaim translation of Gen. 3:6, among a number of other translations, is faulty; it leaves out a critical detail. Our translation reads, “She took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” The Hebrew of the second sentence of the verse actually says, vatitain (and she gave) gam-l’ishah (also to her husband) imah (with her, beside her) vayo’chal (and he ate). According to the clear meaning of the Hebrew, Adam was with Eve the entire time! Kind of changes the story, doesn’t it? There’s no time to go into the theological implications that the actual Hebrew engenders. That’s a story element that truly got lost in translation.

Shabbat shalom.

October 2010


1. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, this chapter was written by an author or authors associated with the Temple priests sometime during the 6th–5th centuries bce.

2. Sarna, Nahum, 1966. Understanding Genesis, New York: Schocken Books, p. 24.

3. Form criticism is a method of biblical criticism that classifies units of scripture by literary pattern (such as parables, legends, and etiological tales) and that attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission. Form criticism seeks to determine a unit’s original form and the historical context of the literary tradition. Form criticism operates on the premise that most biblical text is derived from oral traditions.

4. Cf. Isaiah 27:1, 51:10; Job 26:12–13. Also, Sumerian, Ugaritic, and other Babylonian mythologies (e.g., the Enuma Elish) and Egyptian mythologies (e.g., Books of Overthrowing Apep, Book of the Dead) have such themes.

5. Gen. Rabbah 18:6; BT Sotah 9b.

6. Philo, Allegorical Interpretation II, XVIII.

7. There were at least 24 Jewish sects in Judaea in the first century ce. This belief was held by at least one of them, a sect that espoused messianic and apocalyptic views.

8. Gen. Rabbah 20:12; Zohar, Bereshith 1, 36b (Soncino)

9. Targum (pseudo) Yonatan. Also found in Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer, chapter 20.

10. “Paradise” has a complicated etymology. The Avestan (Old Persian) term meaning “wall around an enclosure, park,” pairidaeza, became, in Persian, pardes, meaning the park and its wall, and this word became adopted into Hebrew as “orchard, garden.” Meanwhile, the Old Persian word was adopted into Greek as paradeisos and was used not to refer to the wall around the park but to the park within (despite the word’s meaning based on peri, “around,” and deis, “to form”). When the Septuagint was written, it used paradeisos to translate both pardes and the more classic Hebrew word for garden, gan. From there it eventually made its way into Old English, and since the word was used to refer to an idyllic garden where Adam did not need to work for his livelihood, the word came to mean more than what it described: thus, a paradise.

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