The Garden of Eden in Ancient Context

9780310255727Over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, regular contributor, RJS, recently posted about what looks to be an interesting book – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary).

The point of RJS’s post, and referencing the book, is to note the parallel nature between the early Genesis accounts in Christian Scripture and that of other accounts that existed within the ancient near eastern context.

Sounds boring to some, but for me, it’s fascinating.

Why?

There are 3 fascinations for me: a) it shows how Genesis speaks into the ancient context into which it was written, b) it gives Genesis somewhat of a polemical tone, correcting some misconceptions of the divine and c) noting the multiple origins’ accounts of the ancient world, and the similar nature of quite a few details, I think it bodes well to conclude that we are dealing in some sense with tangible events of the past.

But why would I conclude such?

First off, let me say that, to note the similar parallels between other pagan accounts and the Bible should not necessarily lead us to question the veracity of the biblical account found in Genesis. Rather, it allows the biblical narrative to sit within its ancient narrative context and asks us to explore, and embrace, the questions and important points of their day, rather than our day.

By doing this, I believe it will then allow us to take a step back from pressing certain questions into the narrative of Scripture: How long did it really take to create everything (6 days, 6000 years, billions of years, etc)? Are Scripture and science compatible or Are creation and evolution compatible? Were Adam and Eve factually historical people? Etc, etc.

From what I can tell from engaging with Old Testament scholarship, the biblical origins’ accounts were completed well after many other accounts that existed in the ancient times – such as the famous The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, etc. And just to clarify – this isn’t saying other events took place before what is described in Genesis. Rather, it is saying that these other accounts were written down before the Genesis account was completed.

The implication is that the author/compiler of Genesis was most likely drawing on these other accounts. Hence why some details are very similar.

And I don’t believe this casts any negative light upon the biblical narrative – to note such similarities or to conclude those who shaped Scripture were drawing upon other well-known accounts. As I mentioned near the beginning of my post here, I think there are many positives to come from this: a) it speaks into the ancient context into which it was written, b) it gives it a polemical feel, correcting some misconceptions of the divine and c) noting the multiple similar accounts, I believe we can conclude these are in some way tangible events.

Now, at the same time, there are differing details between Genesis and other ancient accounts. For starters, instead of one god creating through violence by the killing of other gods and using their remains to create land (as in Enuma Elish), we have the biblical God creating through his spoken word, bringing peace and order in the midst of the waters of chaos (formless and empty). And whereas the pagan gods had their image enshrined in stone and wood statues, the God of Genesis is imaged through the pinnacle of his creation, humanity. Quite different, I must say!

But, going back to RJS’s post, let me quote a few interesting paragraphs, which speak to the parallel nature of Genesis and other accounts of the day:

In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, a place watered through God’s abundance, next to the residence of God. They were in a sacred space where, as N.T. Wright often says, Gods space and Man’s space interlocked and interacted. They listened to the serpent and moved from a position of communion with God, provided for from God’s abundance to a place of toil and trial, death and decay.

The serpent is an interesting image as well. Walton points out (pp. 33-34) that a snake steals a magic plant that will rejuvenate him from Gilgamesh in the Gilgamesh Epic. In the Story of Adapa a serpent is “the guardian of the demons who live in the netherworld.” “In Egypt, the serpent was associated with both death and wisdom.”  And … “Even when not related to a god, the serpent represented wisdom (occult), fertility, health, chaos, and immortality, and was often worshiped. The snake god Apophis was considered the enemy of order.

The story told in Genesis 2-3 uses images well understood by the people of the day, the Ancient Near Eastern Israelite audience for whom and to whom the book was initially written. Books like this well illustrated background commentary help us to understand the context and thus to better understand the intent and the meaning.

Do you see the relationship between the creation narratives of Scripture and other ancient near eastern accounts?

Again, let us not fear that this somehow denigrates the God-breathed truth of Scripture. But let’s celebrate that our God always makes himself known within a real, historical context to a real, historical community of people. This doesn’t mean that the ancients were asking the same questions as us, nor that they had the same requirements for what is considered God’s truth being communicated within history. They had their own questions and their own methods. This is what makes God’s revelation so real and ‘earthy’, kind of like his ultimate revelation in the divine Son, Jesus.

And, while we will never be able to fully step into the ancients’ shoes in order to understand the worldview in which Scripture was penned, we still have many adequate tools to help us in our quest. And as we faithfully utilise these tools (as best we can), we will unearth more of the richness of Scripture.

For those interested, here is a little more in a short essay (5 pages) written by Dr Joseph Lam, faculty member of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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One thought on “The Garden of Eden in Ancient Context

  1. Makes sense that the other ancient creation stories would have similarities. They were all oral histories passed down by their ancient tribes until someone had the thought and ability to transcribe them. Like any oral traditional, changes occur with time (like a game of telephone). I CHOOSE to believe that God ensured that the Spirit and character of God were preserved in the story as written by Moses. The details may not be exact, but that’s OK. Seeing the similarities with other accounts shows us that other people’s knew of these events from their ancestors and also wrote them down. Seeing the difference shows us the things that God wanted to make sure were portrayed accurately, especially those having to do with His character.

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