The Mythology of Eden

The location of the garden of Eden is seen often seen as an unsolvable mystery. Growing up, various Christian pastors and teachers told me Eden was made invisible after Adam and Eve were exiled from it, or that it was wiped out in the flood, never to be seen again. I never found answers like this satisfying. The obvious point to be made is that Genesis says none of these things; the way back in to paradise is blocked by a cherub, not hidden or destroyed. Yet another point to be raised is, why does Genesis provide the names of known regions and rivers if the author didn’t have some semblance of idea where Eden was supposed to be?

The scientific fact of evolution is also increasingly accepted in our modern world, including within the religious communities that turn to the Bible for purpose and meaning. If the human species is the current stage of a process that has been happening for millions of years, what are we to make of the story that Adam and Eve were the first humans, directly created by God? A common response is to hand-wave the story as ‘allegory’. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, the story of Adam and Eve is true, but not literally or historically. It’s meant to communicate a theological truth, a statement about human morality. More specifically, the tale may even be allegorical for Israel’s own exile to Babylon.

These explanations can be tempting, but I think at a certain point they become too convenient, working from an underlying assumption that Genesis as literature is utterly unique, which really isn’t the case. There are many ancient texts like Genesis, all seeking to answer the same array of questions: Where did humanity come from? Why are there two sexes? How did evil emerge in the world? Why are humans mortal? And amid all these questions being answered in episodic narratives, each text also asks and answers questions pertaining to the region the text came from (where did that mountain come from, what made these salt pillars, what is our reef so rocky, etc.). Genesis is not exceptional here.

The best way to explore where the story of Adam and Eve came from is to look to the world of Israel’s neighbors.

The Location of Eden

To begin with, the Hebrew word ʿêden is usually identified as meaning ‘pleasant’ or ‘pleasure’. The story of Gen 2 being symbolic to some degree, it would make sense for the name of a paradise, Eden, to describe its quality as ‘pleasant’. However, the garden is located within Eden; the garden is not Eden itself. Instead, ʿêden may come from the Sumerian edin or Akkadian edinu, which refers to a dry plain or steppe, ‘especially one between two rivers’.1 This might explain why Gen 2.5 specifies that the land is arid in its beginning state; the garden is special because it has brought life to the lifeless steppe.

Gen 2 says that the garden was located in the east side of Eden, and four rivers flowed out of the garden: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. Gen 2 carefully tells us that the Pishon runs around a land named Havilah, the Gihon around a land named Cush, and the Tigris runs east of Assyria. No information is given in Gen 2 on the Euphrates’ location, but we already know it is just south of the Tigris. At the end of Gen 3, the first man and woman are exiled east of the garden, forever blocked from eating the fruit that will grant them eternal life.

Assyria covered most of what is now Iraq, with its western borders reaching into Syria and Lebanon, just where the Tigris and Euphrates run north into Turkey. Assyria’s south-eastern edge touches the Persian Gulf, near where the Tigris and Euphrates join together. Cush is said to be on Egypt’s southern border (Ezek 29.10), so it is traditionally translated as ‘Ethiopia’ (though it would be located in modern Sudan). It is also mentioned that Assyria’s power extended as far as Cush (Psa 87.4; Isa 11.11; 37.8-9). The Book of Esther portrays Persia’s domain as spanning all the way from India to Cush, which conforms with the historical Achaemenid Empire’s rule extending as far as modern Sudan.

Havilah is mentioned only sparingly in the Bible. Gen 10 attempts to organize the world into seventy nations descended from Noah’s three sons. Broadly speaking, Japheth’s nations settled to the north (relative to Israel), Ham’s to the south, and Shem’s centrally and to the east. Yet, the chapter offers conflicting information on where Havilah came from: at first it says Havilah came from Cush (10.7), but it later includes Havilah as an offshoot from Shem, along with Asshur (Assyria), Lud (Lydia), and Aram (Syria; 10.21-29). Havilah is later described as between Egypt and Assyria (Gen 25.18), and the Amalekites, encountered by the Israelites when moving from Egypt toward Canaan, reside in Havilah (1 Sam 15.7).

In Isa 37, King Hezekiah of Judah is told King Tirhakah of Cush (Taharqa, pharaoh of Egypt and king of Kush) had begun waging war on Assyria, while Assyria was in the process of laying siege to Jerusalem. Intending to keep the Judeans afraid of Assyria’s might, the Assyrian emissary lists out regions Assyria has already conquered. All of the regions were in the north, and mentioned right in the middle are ‘the people of Eden’. Amos 1.5 also mentions a region called Bêṯ ʿEden, possibly corresponding to Bit Adini, near the Euphrates.

Ezekiel 26-28 contains a lament for the powerful city-kingdom Tyre, located in Lebanon. A major component of Ezekiel’s criticism of Tyre concerns the city’s trade, which the prophet accuses as being a source of violence and exploitation. After referencing Eden as one of the nearby regions Tyre has traded with (27.23; all the other locations in this verse are in or near Assyria), Ezekiel condemns Tyre’s king in particular for his self-deification (28.2), the perversion of his wisdom (28.3-4,12,17), and the violence of his trade to make himself beautiful (28.5-7,16). Ezekiel compares the king’s wisdom, wealth, and beauty to a man decorated in God’s garden in Eden, protected by a guardian cherub (28.13-14). When the king’s evil is recognized, the cherub exiles him from the garden-mountain (28.16), which strongly suggests Ezekiel was borrowing from a myth similar to the one in Gen 2-3.

Throughout Ezekiel’s many prophecies against Israel, Judah, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Egypt, or Gog, a location called ‘Eden’ only comes up when he has something to say about Tyre or Assyria. (In Ezekiel’s time Tyre was an independent city-kingdom. Before this, Tyre was under the rule of Assyria.) Ezekiel 31, a prophecy against Egypt, uses the fall of Assyria as an example for Egypt to pay attention to. The warning is delivered as a parable, where each nation is a tree in a forest.

Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds.

Ezekiel carries on with this metaphor of Assyria as ‘the tallest cedar in Lebanon’ for a bit. All the trees of the forest were envious of Assyria, and even the ‘cedars in the garden of God could not rival it […] no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty’. Assyria was ‘the envy of all the trees of Eden that were in the garden of God’. The prophecy ends with God cutting down the Assyria-tree and casting it into the world of the dead.

I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the Pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that were well watered, were consoled in the world below.

Ezekiel directly identifies ‘the trees of Eden’ with ‘the choice and best of Lebanon’. They are one and the same. The specificity of the Tigris and Euphrates in Gen 2, and the repeated associations with Assyria, suggests Eden was identified with a region covering northern Lebanon and western Assyria. The setting of Gen 2 is a blend of the northern Levant and western Mesopotamia, the heavy mythologizing having skewed the geography into something not wholly recognizable.

The First Man and Woman

Gen 2 begins with Yahweh surveying the steppe and creating the first man. While many English translations follow the traditional convention of naming him ‘Adam’, the Hebrew text actually calls him hā-ʾadam, ‘the man’. The man had no name until a different author wrote the genealogy found in Gen 5, changing hā-ʾadam into a proper noun, ‘Adam’. Ancient Hebrew has other words that mean ‘man’, but in a literal sense ʾadam is not one of them. Rather, ʾadam is a pun on the word ‘ground’, ʾadamāh. It may be a bit unconventional, but translating hā-ʾadam in Gen 2.7 as ‘the earthling’ may best convey the wordplay happening in Hebrew.

Yahweh God formed the earthling from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living soul.

In tablet six of the Babylonian creation myth Enûma Eliš, humans are made from the blood of a slain god. In the Creation of Man by the Mother Goddess, another Babylonian creation myth, this blood is, in fact, mixed with clay.

Let one god be slain, and let the gods be purified by immersion in his flesh and his blood. Let Nintu mix clay, god and man, let them together be smeared with clay.2

The goddess Nintu proceeds to mold the blood-and-clay into the shape of seven women and seven men, the first of humanity. The root of the word ‘man’, ʾadam, is a verb (also ʾadam) meaning ‘to make red’, closely related to the word for ‘blood’, dam. It may be the story told in Gen 2 partly borrowed from these Babylonian myths, and ʾadam evolved from dam, a lingering reference to an older version of the story. Some scholars point to other words used in Gen 2.7. The verb ‘formed’, yaṣar, is frequently used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the molding of clay. Likewise, the ‘dust’, ʿapar, also often refers to clay (especially dry clay).3 The text might then be rendered:

Yahweh God molded the earthling from the clay of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living soul.

Unknown artist, The Temptation of Adam and Eve.
(Source: The Walters Art Museum.)

There are a few words for ‘man’ in Hebrew that could have been chosen, but ʾadam was selected. Likewise, there are a few words meaning ‘earth, land, ground’, a few meaning ‘formed, made, created’, and a few meaning ‘dust, dirt, clay’. Yet the language found in Gen 2 contains highly deliberate wordplay and convenient parallels to other creation myths. It would otherwise be a tremendous coincidence for there to be such a specific matrix of words that make a pun (ʾadamah, ʾadam), suggest a creation from clay (yaṣar, ʿapar), and relate to ‘blood’ as a material used in creating humans (ʾadam, dam).

The first woman also contains a high degree of overlap with neighboring myth. In Gen 2, the man is shown to be deficient in a way: he is alone. Yahweh causes the man to fall asleep, and while the man is unconscious Yahweh takes a ‘rib’ from the man’s side and ‘builds’ the first woman. Near the end of Gen 3, the man gives the woman a name, ‘Eve’ (ḥawwah), which means ‘giver of life’, from the verb ‘to live’.

For a long time, it was popularly thought women have an extra pair of ribs than men. The now-common awareness that this falsehood is rooted in interpretations of Gen 2 has led some translations to say Eve was made from Adam’s ‘side’, not his ‘rib’.

Within the narrative of Gen 2, the choice of the rib is somewhat arbitrary; nevertheless, it is specifically a rib. The woman’s name and the body part she is ‘built’ from are remnants of the much older Sumerian myth Enki and Ninhursag, the story of the gods living in paradise. When the god Enki suffers a series of bodily ailments, the goddess Ninhursag gives birth to children, each one corresponding to the body part they are meant to heal.

‘My brother, what hurts you?’

‘My rib hurts me.’

‘I have caused Ninti to be born for you.’4

Ninti’s name is a pun. The Sumerian word nin means ‘lady’, while ti is a homonym meaning both ‘life’ and ‘rib’. The full word ninti means ‘lady of the rib’ and ‘lady who gives life’; she gives life to Enki by healing his rib.5 Over many centuries these Mesopotamian origin myths were retold and remixed and rearranged. The only traces of Ninti to make it into Genesis were Eve’s name and her association with the rib. Not even the pun of ninti on the word ti remains; it was lost when the story was brought into Hebrew, the same way the pun of ʾadam on ʾadamāh was lost when brought into English.

The Loss of Paradise

The specific story as told in Gen 2-3 is not found in other ancient mythologies, but many of its components are. We’ve seen the man molded from clay and the life-giving woman of the rib, and we’ve also located (in broad strokes) the location of the paradise they began their lives in. Now to put those two things together, and see how the man and woman lost their paradise.

In Hesiod’s Theogony and The Works and Days, the first woman is created at Zeus’ command in retaliation for humanity receiving fire from the god Prometheus. After the woman, Pandora, is given to mankind, she is tempted to open a forbidden jar. Before this, mankind was without pain, illness, work, or death. When Pandora opens the jar, she releases all the evils into the world.

This Greek myth is far removed from the world of Genesis, but it shows how pervasive the broader tropes were in the Indo-European part of the world.

Returning to the Sumerian Enki and Ninhursag, this story does take place in a paradise, called Dilmun. Like Eden, Dilmun refers to a real part of the world (the land just southwest of the Persian Gulf), but this origin story has mythologized it heavily. Dilmun is a land and city devoid of sickness and death, where fresh water and fertile land were given by the gods. Enki impregnates a series of goddesses descended from Ninhursag. When he has sex with the last one, instead of Enki impregnating her, Ninhursag creates eight plants. When Enki eats the eight plants, Ninhursag curses him with mortality.

Akkadian cylinder seal, depicting a god worshiped by a woman, originally interpreted incorrectly as Adam and Eve.
(Source: The British Museum.)

The Gilgamesh epic features the titular hero seeking out immortality after the death of his friend. When Gilgamesh finally retrieves the plant that will make him young, he suspects the plant may be a ruse, and delays eating it. When his attention is turned away from the plant, a snake eats it. The snake is made young again (an etiology for snakes shedding their skins), and Gilgamesh forever loses his chance at eternal life. The Gilgamesh epic doesn’t take place in an idyllic age of humanity’s youth, but the major overlap with Gen 2-3 is undeniable: a snake robs the protagonist of his chance to eat a plant that grants immortality.

Another Mesopotamian story has a close relationship to the others. In the story of Adapa, from nearly a full millennium before Genesis, the titular priest breaks the south wind while he is fishing. When the gods hear of this act, they summon Adapa for an explanation. The god Ea sends Adapa to the gods, but warns him not to eat the bread or drink the water offered to him. After Adapa explains why he broke the south wind, he is offered the bread and water, but refuses them. The chief god laughs at him:

‘Come now, Adapa! Why did you neither eat nor drink? You shall not have eternal life! Ah, perverse mankind!’6

As with the Eden myth, this man was deceived regarding a certain food (though here he is told not to eat it) and so robbed of his chance at immortality. Yahweh’s use of the first-person plural in Gen 3.22 also hints at the presence of other gods, further evidence that Israel’s monotheistic religion evolved from a polytheistic one. As Israel monotheized, the presence of other gods in the Eden myth may have been suppressed.

Conclusion

There are many more layers to these stories that could be examined, but I think the point is sufficiently made. We have a rough idea of where Eden was ‘supposed’ to be, and we have a broad idea of where Adam and Eve ‘came’ from. Several anachronistic details in the Book of Genesis show it was written during or after the Babylonian exile, and it is apparent how many elements in Gen 2-3 are found in other stories from centuries earlier. This does not mean the story in Gen 2-3 was deliberately copying those older legends. It is more likely Genesis was drawing from a well of common tropes that had existed for centuries, and were easily shuffled around.

I plan to continue looking at the following stories in Gen 4-11 in a future article.


1 Arthur George, Elena George, The Mythology of Eden, 115.

2 Adapted from E.A. Speiser, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ed. James Pritchard), 100.

3 Philip King, Jeremiah, 173

4 S.N. Kramer, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 41.

5 Samuel Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 147.

6 E.A. Speiser, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 101-102.