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I have often heard the claim that a plain reading of Genesis clearly points to a young earth and special creation. What I have found, though, is that such readings are not internally consistent. I have already pointed to the firmament in Genesis 1 as an example of something that is not taken literally by literalists (with the “waters above” it and the placement of the luminaries beneath it.” In this post, I hope to look at Genesis 2-3 and show that literalists are not reading it literally enough either.

1.  Skipping the potentially problematic “in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” the first point I want to make centers around the four rivers that spring from the river flowing out of Eden.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tirgris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (2:10-14, New Revised Standard Version)

Notice the present tense. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, the present tense indicates a reality that is still true at the time of the telling of the story. These four rivers were flowing at the beginning of the world, and they are still flowing in the post-deluvian world of Moses or whoever is penning these words. How is this possible after a world-wide flood? A catastrophe powerful enough to create the grand canyon would surely completely rearrange the river beds, right? And notice verse 10, which seems to indicate that Eden still exists. How could it not have been destroyed by the deluge? The only explanation I can come up with is that this story stood on its own in its original form and did not presuppose a flood. That, or it was written by someone living before the flood.

The NIV and many other versions translates verse 10 as “A river…flowed from Eden.” So I asked myself why the discrepancy between the NRSV and NIV and others. offers this footnote:

The Hebrew active participle may be translated here as indicating past durative action, “was flowing,” or as a present durative, “flows.” Since this river was the source of the rivers mentioned in vv. 11-14, which appear to describe a situation contemporary with the narrator, it is preferable to translate the participle in v. 10 with the present tense. This suggests that Eden and its orchard still existed in the narrator’s time. According to ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was taken to the Garden of Eden, where his presence insulated the garden from the destructive waters of Noah’s flood. See Jub. 4:23-24.

Even if one argues for a past tense in verse 10, the NIV, KJV, NKJV, and ASV (which use the past tense in verse 10) translate the tenses of verses 11-14 as present . (The ESV still uses a past tense.) I do not know how to read Hebrew, so I cannot speak definitively on the subject, but my impression is that the rivers are contemporary to the speaker, which is problematic.

2.  My second point concerns the naming of the animals in verse 18. Saying that it is not good for the man to be alone, God resolves, “I will make him a helper as his partner.” The next verse is controversial or not so controversial, depending on which translation you use. Mine, the NRSV, reads, “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (2:19). This translation creates a definite conflict with the creation order of Genesis 1, in which animals precede humans. Now, I do understand that many translations render the verb as “had formed,” but I find it difficult to believe that this choice was influenced by anything other than to maintain proper order of creation. Again, I have no knowledge of Hebrew, but the preceding verse seems to support the NRSV. God says that he will make the man a helper, and so he makes animals and birds to bring before him. None of them are suitable, and therefore God makes woman. Again, from

To harmonize the order of events with the chronology of chapter one, some translate the prefixed verb form with vav (ו) consecutive as a past perfect (“had formed,” cf. NIV) here. (In chapter one the creation of the animals preceded the creation of man; here the animals are created after the man.) However, it is unlikely that the Hebrew construction can be translated in this way in the middle of this pericope, for the criteria for unmarked temporal overlay are not present here.

3.  The third problem I see with the so-called plain reading of Genesis 2-3 involves the serpent. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (3:1) The serpent will be identified with Satan later in the Bible, but nowhere in these chapters is any sort of connection like that made, and indeed, it seems like this chapter is identifying him solely as a creature. Chapter 3:1 makes it explicit that he is an animal, albeit a clever one, and the curse placed on the serpent to crawl on its belly and eat dust all its life seems to indicate that the animal bears culpability. This does not seem fair if the serpent was just a poor animal who happened to be possessed by Satan. Instead, this story emphasizes the craftiness of the animal (3:1) by way of explanation of its ability to deceive. Ironically, a literal reading of Genesis 3 seems to bring about a contradiction with later scripture identifying him with Satan; seeing the chapter figuratively or allegorically allows for an interpretation of the snake as the devil.

4.  A final problem to point out has more to do with the traditional literalist idea that man would have lived forever had he not fallen. After the man and the woman eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever–” (3:22). God then expels Adam and Eve from the garden and places a guard of cherubim before the tree of life. Note that they are not expelled as a punishment of disobedience but to keep them from living forever. I can only conclude that eternal life was not inherent in the original pair; rather, it was dependent on eating from the tree of life. In other words, death seems to have been the default destination of the human composition and had to be reversed by a special intervention.

Genesis 2-3 is one of the most important sections of the Bible, full of truth and meaning. But a stiff, literal reading creates problems of consistency and distracts from the primary message. What do you think? Can one maintain a consistent literal reading of Genesis 2-3? Can one maintain a figurative reading and still have an orthodox faith?

The following is Part 3 in a series outlining and reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1B: Genesis 2

Turning his attention to the creation of mankind in Genesis 2, Sarna uses the same technique for interpretation as he did for Genesis 1: he draws attention to its similarities to other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) myths and then notes how the author/editor of Genesis uses contrast to make a bold statement about the God of the Hebrews.

Sarna begins by pointing out that the word which many translations render as “dust” in Gen. 2:7 is commonly used in Hebrew as a synonym for “clay.” (Cf. Gen. 11:3, Lev. 14:41, Job 10:9, and 27:16.) Also, the verb which is translated as “formed” in Gen. 2:7-8 is the same word that the Hebrew word for “potter” comes from. The image, according to Sarna, is one of God shaping man out of clay like a potter molds a vessel, a common motif in the ancient Near East. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, one of the characters, Enkidu, is formed from clay by the goddess Aruru; another Babylonian myth relates how the first men were made from clay; and in an Egyptian painting, the god Khnum is shown at a potter’s wheel forming men.

Again, warns Sarna, the important thing is not the similarities with other myths but the differences, and again, what makes the Hebrew myth unique is the high view of man. (Keep in mind that in the Enuma Elish, man was made from the blood of a demon in order to be the gods’ slaves.) Here, in Genesis 2, after all the divine commands of Genesis 1, God gets down on his hands and knees and gives special attention to this final work of creation. Man alone gets the divine breathe. He is not subjected to slavery, but is given every tree, except one, to eat from. And of course, he is given the divine image and placed over all of creation. He is still subject to God, though, for he was fashioned from him. “Through the ingenious employment of a common mythological motif,” Sarna concludes, “the Hebrew writer has subtly and effectively succeeded, not just in combating mythological notions, but also in conveying, all at once, both a sense of man’s glory and freedom and the feeling of his inescapable dependence upon God.”

Sarna next considers the Garden of Eden. First, he says that there must have already existed “a popular Hebrew story about a ‘Garden of God.’” He cites two passages in Ezekiel which seem to refer to other stories about Eden. In the first—chapter 28:11-19—the king of Tyre is said to have lived in the garden as a glorious, bejeweled being who walked among the “stones of fire” with a cherub guarding him, but because of his violence and pride, God cast him from his mountain and a cherub drove him out “from among the stones of fire.” In the second story—chapter 31:8-9 and 16-18—God reminds Egypt that Assyria was once a mighty cedar whom all the trees of Eden envied, but he cut it down because of its pride and sent it to Sheol, where the trees of Eden also reside, to their great comfort. Sarna says that hints of this original story are also contained in Genesis 2 itself.

“The language and style contain several classical features of rhythm, phraseology and parallelistic structure characteristic of Hebrew poetry. The use of the definite article with the first mention of ‘the tree of life,’ ‘the tree of knowledge’ (2:9), ‘the cherubim and the fiery, ever-turning sword’ (3:24), indicates an allusion already well-known to the reader.”

Sarna notes that the motif of the “garden of God” runs in other Near Eastern cultures, and he points to the Sumerian legend of the island of Dilmun. Here, all the animals live in harmony, and all sickness and death are absent. Of particular interest is the fact that because the island had no natural source of fresh water, the sun god Utu brought up a stream out of the earth in order to cause the garden to grow. This of course calls to mind Genesis 2:5-6:

…the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground, but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground… (The New Oxford Annotated Bible. All subsequent quotes are also from this source.)

Sarna notes that the writer of Genesis 2 sought to de-mythologize the stories in and outside of Hebrew culture about the garden of God. He never refers to it by the mythological sounding appellation “garden of God,” as it is called in other portions of scripture. Also, the writer of Genesis 2 makes no mention of any jewels or “stones of fire.” One may recall that the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:13 was covered with

“every precious stone […], carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, turquoise, and emerald; and worked in gold were [his] settings and [his] engravings.”

The writer of Genesis 2, however, does mention in verse 11 that one of the branches of Eden’s river flows “around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.” It is interesting to note, too, that the Epic of Gilgamesh speaks of a garden where jewels grow on trees. Understanding verse 11 as the writer’s attempt at naturalizing the mythological versions of the garden of God makes sense of a rather random reference to Havilah.

Central to the description of the Garden of Eden are the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. The former is a common motif in the surrounding Near Eastern cultures and ritual, one which occurs in Babylonian mythology in conjunction with “the water of life” that irrigates the “plant of life.” Perhaps the writer of Genesis 2 had this in mind when he described the river of verse 10 that branches into four directions. Again, the author seems intent on de-mythologizing the stories by identifying two of these rivers as the Tigris and the Euphrates, which are placed firmly in the minds of the inhabitants of the Near East. Furthermore, the writer removes all magic or independence from the two trees: he writes in verse 9 that it was God who caused them to grow, and the two humans do not gain any special powers over God but must still subject themselves to his authority.

Sarna says that the most startling break with the other stories is the lack of interest in the tree of life, which is mentioned only twice in chapters two and three. The entire focus is on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which has no other parallel in ANE mythology. When all the other cultures were focusing on the quest for eternal life (cf. Gilgamesh’s quest for the vine of life), Genesis 2 was focusing on “the actual relationships between man and God, the tension between the plans of God and the free-will of man.”

The ideas of this section of Understanding Genesis fascinate me to no end. I am drawn to the variety of stories being told in the ANE and the commonality of their motifs and images. I had never noticed the descriptions in Ezekiel or made the connection that they might be one of several stories about the garden of God. Sarna’s strategy of interpretation—emphasizing the differences of Genesis 1-3 from the surrounding ANE stories and understanding what the writer is trying to tell us about God—seems to me to bring the most meaning to the Bible’s first chapters. I know that many people are uncomfortable and often hostile to labeling the first stories of the scriptures as mythology, but this comes from the faulty tendency to understand myth as synonymous to lies or fairy tales rather than vehicles for communicating some of the most basic truths of life. After all, if God can communicate through parables, why can he not also communicate through myth, especially through mythology the original audience would have been very familiar with?

One of my critiques of Sarna’s coverage of Genesis 2 is his poor explanation of the significance of demythologizing the stories of the garden of God. His entire organization depends on this explanation, but he leaves to his readers what the writer of Genesis 2 is trying to accomplish by it. Perhaps, like in Genesis 1, he is denying the existence and power of the pagan gods, but this explanation seems to be lacking. Just why is it so important that the garden exist in the real world? Could it be to emphasize that man’s struggle between his own will and God’s is ever-present in this life? Sarna would have done well to give his own take on this question.

My last critique is a disappointment in Sarna’s lack of comment on the naming of the animals and the creation of Eve. I understand that to do so would break the continuity of his thought, but the effect is that there is a gaping hole in our understanding of Genesis 2. Many pages could have been written and many themes could have been drawn out by a great scholar and teacher like Nahum Sarna.

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