The other night on The History Channel, I watched “Mysteries of the Garden of Eden,” an episode of their Decoding the Past series, where scholars speculated about the location of the Garden of Eden. In The Bible, Eden is a place, and the garden is located within Eden. Over the centuries some people have considered the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as just a fictional metaphor about how life began, but other folk believe The Book of Genesis is the literal word of God. I think the truth falls somewhere in the middle, in the delicious realm of speculation.
To the Christian mind, and the Jew and Muslim, the early chapters of Genesis are about the beginning of all time, the Earth and the first people. It is very hard to date The Bible, with scholars arguing between 1446-300 BCE. If you look a this timeline of the Levant, you’ll see that puts The Bible being written from the late Bronze Age throughout the Iron Age. That’s well along in the story of human history. Also, some fundamentalists like to believe that The Bible traces the origin of time to what some call Chalcolithic Age (4500 – 3300 BCE), which cuts out a whole lot of time that science knows about before then. The above mentioned TV documentary suggests Eden existed in the Stone Age during the Neolithic period.
Let’s say The Bible was written down in 1000 BCE, can those writers really know anything about a place that existed in 6000 BCE? Just how good is oral storytelling? And why is the story about Eden remembered and considered so important? By then the myth of Eden would be several times older than our myths about Atlantis. The cradles of civilization are far older than The Bible, and many of the stories in The Book of Genesis were retold from early civilizations and their religions, thousands of years older the writers of The Bible.
Anyone who wants to understand the story of The Garden of Eden needs to study ancient civilizations, which I haven’t, but wished I had the time to do. I’m fascinated by the idea of cultural memory and maybe even the woo-woo idea of the collective unconscious. Since The Bible has been written down, and especially since it’s been printed, the idea of The Garden of Eden has solidified in minds of western culture. We can never escape the power of that myth. Not only does it haunt us, but also it corrupts the very fabric of reality.
I believe one way to deprogram ourselves of the memes of the Garden of Eden, a kind of mental virus, is by achieving understanding of the original intent of the storytellers of the fable. We know that civilized mankind existed for thousands of years before the writers of The Book of Genesis. We know The Book of Genesis is the opening story to explain the foundation of a nation and religion. If some scholars are right, Eden is quite a distance from Israel, so why include it?
Eden is mentioned outside of The Bible in other texts, including travel stories with directions. Here is the Biblical quote from the extensive BibleGateway.com – using the English Standard translation of The Book of Genesis 2:10-14:
10A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of(A) Havilah, where there is gold. 12And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14And the name of the third river is the(B) Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
If you have any love of history and archeology, these are some yummy clues. Ever since I was a young atheist kid, I wondered if the Garden of Eden story had anything to do with mankind’s shift from being a roaming hunting and gather animal to settling down and taking up farming and developing technology. Could these Genesis stories come from our deepest cultural memories? We know that The Bible is old, but not that old, but we also know that the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and even serpent and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil come from religions a thousand years older than the people who wrote The Bible. How far back do these stories go?
Anthropologists are used to collecting stories from primitive people. They have even gone back decades later to hear the same stories told again by the same storyteller and find it repeated word for word. How old is the story of the Garden of Eden? Scientifically we know early man develop agriculture between Tigris and Euphrates long before writing. But could the farming man remember being a hunting man? And were the authors of The Book of Genesis philosophical enough to think about the change? If they were, that’s a major conceptual idea to explore.
Even more astounding is another clue that the Decoding the Past show presented that was totally new to me. I’ve always thought the story of the flood was the silliest story in The Bible. At best I thought it was an incredibly overblown account of one flooded valley. Flood stories are common in other ancient religious texts, so like the Garden of Eden, there might be some truth to it too. Here’s where the show blew me away. They proposed a theory that the Biblical flood is a description of flood waters from when the last ice age melted and greatly raised the world’s sea levels, like the Persian Gulf, and caused many valleys to be flooded by glacier melt. This was around 6,000-7,000 years ago, they reported.
Before this melt, water levels were far lower, and because of this, the scholars on the show speculated that the Garden of Eden was located under the northern most area of the Persian Gulf, where the Tigris and Euphrates did meet with two ancient rivers that no longer exist in modern times. This fits with Genesis retelling ancient religious stories from Babylon and Sumer.
Now I’m really puzzled. How did the Genesis authors get the stories of these floods. And did people then really remember and speculate about the transformation of man from hunters to farmers? If global warming really slams us, and it destroys modern civilization, will people six thousand years from now talk about a time when men went to the Moon?
We think of The Bible as the foundation of Western civilization, but it appears the beginning of The Bible is actually about one, two or more civilizations earlier, and thousands of years older. How were those stories maintained?
And does the Garden of Eden story go back even further? Were those stories even ancient to the Sumerians? If I was a scholar of ancient man and history I might know the answer to this. And if I live long enough I hope to read all this history, but for now I can speculate. If Eden was a real place, and world-wide flooding did happen, how much else of the story is real? Adam and Eve?
We know it’s silly to think of the absolute first man and woman, evolution teaches something far different that makes more sense. But could Adam and Eve be a man an woman that quit a nomadic tribe to settle down to farming? No, that’s stretching things too far too. But I can imagine early storytellers picturing a time when unclothed people lived in a garden paradise and God took care of them. Is there a chance that hunting and gather man left stories to be passed down to settled farming man, and then town building man? Or were there still plenty of people still living in nature they could observe and contrast with their new civilized life?
I can also imagine these storytellers speculating about how people learn to think for themselves and started farming. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden – a big deal was made about that. When we were animals, we were all naked. Did Adam and Eve invent fashion, another attribute of civilization like pottery making, when they decided they needed to wear clothes? The writers of Genesis could have heard about tribes of men and women who went naked, so it wouldn’t take cultural memory back 10,000 years to invent this aspect of the story.
See, it’s so easy to imagine Adam and Eve acquiring knowledge that they were no longer animals and they had to cover themselves, had to leave the Garden of Eden to farm, herd animals, build houses, and like they say, the rest is history, because history starts after we realized we were no longer animals and started writing about it. It’s a shame those ancient storytellers didn’t remember being apes, because it would have defused the whole controversy over evolution.
I wonder if there is any cultural memory of the Neanderthal man? That would mean information had been passed down from Paleolithic times through Neolithic times into Bronze Age. That’s expecting way too much of oral communication. Or does it?
The easiest solution to imagine is the writers of Genesis wanted a beginning to their story and they just made up the creation in seven days, and then imagined God creating Adam and Eve, and then God getting mad at the couple and kicking them out of Eden because they didn’t obey the rules. The whole Old Testament is all about God constantly grumping about the Israelites not minding his commands. I can even imagine those writers thinking, “Hey, these other religions have Adam and Eve, a serpent, a Tree of Knowledge, we’d better have them too, in our story.”
Yet, wouldn’t it be wonderfully far out if the Genesis authors had known about an ancient distant land where people had decided to stop living like the animals, dress themselves, build houses, grow food, and then several generations later get wiped out by a flood. I wonder how they would have changed their story if they had also known about the concept of global warming. Or maybe that’s why so many Christians today adamantly refuse to believe in our global warming, because biblical teaching tells them God won’t flood the world twice.
For tens of thousands of years all people had to explain reality was oral storytelling. And then for several thousand years they had scrolls and priests. For the past five hundred years we’ve had books. For the last two hundred years we’ve had science. And for the last twenty, we’ve had the Internet. The communication of information is getting better all the time. The Book of Genesis is a fascinating aspect to the Bible, because it’s about information before the invention of scrolls, a time when men passed on oral stories from generation to generation. It’s a murky era to us now, hard to even believe, but can you imagine living in a time of verbal networking?
JWH – 8/6/9