by frankbeswick

The garden of Eden is an alluring and enduring myth, but what is the reality behind it.

We use the term Eden to represent a state of happiness,plenty and peace, which the first humans were said to have enjoyed before they erred by eating the forbidden fruit. Many people sought to find the location of the garden of Eden, and there are in the Middle East people who will show you the supposed site, but of course nothing remains and there is no evidence that there was ever an idyllic place where people said it was. But there are those who have attempted,equally unsuccessfully, to recreate the original Eden in a remote corner of Earth. So what is the truth of it all?

Image courtesy of 25621

Fatu Hiva

In 1937 the great Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his young wife, Liv, decamped to the Polynesian island of Fatu Hiva ostensibly with the academic purpose of studying anthropology, but with every intention of dropping out of the twentieth century and replicating the ideal life as it was lived by the first humans. Eden was to be  restored, not for  all, but for those two at least. Realizing that there were people on Fatu Hiva, they went to a remote and uninhabited valley where fruit grew on untended trees unpicked by the absent natives to enjoy their idyllic existence. But it did not last. Soon they were contending with mosquitoes bearing elephantiasis tics and inhabitants who were less than friendly. Eventually they had to be evacuated and never returned to paradise. 

Heyerdahl was to write that there was no return to  Eden, we cannot go back to  the original state of humans, if indeed there ever was an idyllic existence for humans. What  went wrong? Simple. They went into Eden with the whole of human history behind them, whereas the first people lacked  any history. They also had neighbours, who also had personalities and histories. And of critical importance, they carried their western minds and language with them. So the original state of pristine innocence could not be restored. It is gone. There is no  return, only a forwards journey. 

But the absence of Eden has not stopped people searching for it, poring through the biblical text to seek where it was  tracing the four rivers that ran from it, and coming to differing conclusions. In the seventeenth century a Franciscan priest explored the beautiful land of Sri Lanka, convinced that Eden could only be in a place as beautiful as that, but to no avail. Others have sought it in the Middle East, which is the home of the bible text. For some it  was engulfed at the Flood, but for others it is in a valley, now empty of habitation, above Tabriz in Iran. One thing is sure, it is not there to be found. 

But note, the Bible never says "the Garden of Eden" but says that God planted a garden in Edin, a term which means the Plain. Edin and the garden are conceptually distinct, but in Jewish thought the two  become conflated and linked to the garden [paradise] of delight. The garden was said to be in the East,Mesopotamia or Iran. The term plain suggests Mesopotamia [Iraq] but matters are not clear. But it seems that Eden is both a historical place vaguely remembered by the Hebrews and recorded by Bible writers and a myth. It may have become conflated with the myth of Dilmun, an imaginary island where  nobody died. By about 900 BC when the Bible account was written the stories had been mixed together and given a Jewish theme,the result being the story of Adam and Eve,a pair of terms that means the man and the woman/mother. 

The Bible Narrative

To understand the first books of the Bible, from Genesis down to Second Samuel imagine four diferently-coloured strands which are  woven together, then divided horizontally into nine to make the books that we know  today. The Adam and Eve story is taken from the earliest source, known as the J source [though the six days of creation comes from the later P source.  We know not whether J [the Yahwist source because it uses the name Yahweh/Jahweh for God] was an oral or written source, but it stems from the time of David or Solomon, maybe about 910 BC, but don't bank on dates being reliable. The source creator took the myths of the Middle East and reinterpreted them in the light of Israel's faith. It was a creative rendering of myth to fit it into a religious scheme.

The myth of Eden dealt with problems. Into the Hebrews' folk memory of being somewhere pleasant from which they were dispossessed the writer blended the question of the origin of suffering, of why did a good deity allow childbirth pains, why are men dominant over women and why does man have to perform grindingly hard labour. In fact, Feinberg, in Who Wrote the Bible,,believed that this source came from a female story teller or at least from stories told by females.

We need to understand the myth in terms of the conflict between the Hebrew faith and the idolatry of the Canaanites that had permeated Israel. For the exponents of the Hebrew God idolatry was the cause of suffering. One pagan goddess,Astoreth [Astarte] was worshiped under sacred trees.One form of the name, Asherah is associated quite often in the Hebrew Bible with sacred poles or trees. So it is possible  that the tree of  knowledge of Good and Evil is an allusion to the Asherah, and therefore the religious message is that worshiping the Asherah leads to disaster. The wisdom that comes from God is all good, but the wisdom that comes from the tree of knowledge is a mixture of good and evil, not true wisdom at all.

Identifying the serpent with the Devil is not the correct interpretation, for the earliest Hebrews knew nought of the Devil. The serpent was a symbol of pagan wisdom, but this wisdom as understood by the Canaaanites differed from the wisdom of the God of Israel. so following the pagan paths is shown to lead to suffering.The suffering was the expulsion from Eden. 

The story aims to put the blame for evil on humans rather than God. We must note that while Adam attempts to shunt the blame onto Eve, God is having none of it and blames them both.Note also that an apple is never mentioned.

There is no mention of the term original sin, which is a Christian rather than a Jewish concept. What we see in the story of humanity from Adam to the flood is not the effects of a single sin, but an accumulation of sin leading up to Noah. Original sin was a theological  concept developed to explain humanity's moral weakness, its inability to be truly spiritual.   

The Influence of Eden

Eden is gone, but its power is in its absence. We all long to dwell in Eden, a world where nature is benign and gives its abundant fruits. But we err in thinking that life in Eden is enjoyable without work,for Eden was never seen as idleness. Adam and Eve were regarded as stewards of the world, not exploiters of the beasts in it, but as tenders. Moreover, the first couple were to be stewards  according to the plans of the owner. God, who wanted only good in the world. In effect, the vision of Eden is of a sacred Earth managed respectfully according to God's will and in which his presence is manifested. The Bible saw it as a place where God could and would walk with humans. 

If we want to recreate vestiges of the dream of Eden we cannot do so with the philosophy of the industrial society that regards the Earth as a non-sacred, profane place ripe for exploitation, where waste is dumped and many places turned ugly with it. To recreate something of Eden our journey through life must be sensitive and delicate, not with the heavy tread of the exploiter, but with the soft and gentle touch of ones who care for what they see. We have to return to envisioning the Earth as sacred. The Christian vision is that the Earth should be beautiful and fruitful, a home for humans and a place that does honour to the creator.  

The text in Genesis which says be masters of the Earth has been mistranslated and misread to support greedy exploitation, for the word means not to be plunderers  but stewards, who take care of the world. So at this point so early in the Bible we find a statement that favours environmentalism. 

The word paradise means a garden, and it is significant that we speak of heaven as paradise. But the mediaeval monks used to aim to replicate paradise on Earth. If you look at the advertisement for the book Shoots Out of Eden [above] you will see a monastic garden called a paradise garden, which is near the monastery church and was meant to be a place of beauty which was a reflection of the beauty of Eden, a place where nature was as it should be and where people can walk and meditate, inspired by beautiful flowers, the sounds of birds and insects and scents. 

In the secular world the vision of Eden remains powerful. There is in Cornwall, Britain the Eden project, a magnificent set of biomes that replicate flora from across the different regions of the world. I have visited it once and loved the experience, and would recommend it to anyone. Its name is a testimony to the evocative power of the word Eden. It enchants and draws us with a golden vision of a world that is sacred, where humans and nature are in harmony. Every gardener is or should be aiming to catch a splinter of the radiance or Eden,myth though it is, and let it shine in his/her patch.

The Eden Project

The Eden Project
The Eden Project
Updated: 05/16/2017, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/09/2022

There are ash trees with some resistance to the fungus. There is hope.

Talking of Styal. When I was in my teens my brother [Tony] and I used to take the two younger children to Styal, where we would enjoy the woods. Happy days!

DerdriuMarriner on 03/08/2022

Thank you for the answer to my question about American chestnut tree resistance and general tree resistance. I found the answer on Veronica's A Walk Out in Styal Cheshire, where the question should have been posed, instead of here.

It's sad about ash trees.

frankbeswick on 07/08/2017

I think that the rivers in the Eden story are real rivers and are found in the Iran/Turkey region.

[For my response to your other question I will go to the article on Styal. ]

DerdriuMarriner on 07/08/2017

frankbeswick, What is your interpretation of the identity and whereabouts of the Gihon and Pishon rivers?
In another direction, I noticed your reference to ashes in one of the comment boxes to Veronica's article on Styal. Researchers here tend to say that the American chestnut might have recovered if the trees had been given the chance, as they were in Italy, to heal themselves. Do you think that's possible with the resistant specimens that you mention?

frankbeswick on 05/18/2017

Man's weak condition is really what original sin is about. As spiritual beings we aim for the highest states of being, but as physical beings we struggle to sustain moral standards. Thus we don't need to inherit a sin or stain of sin, our weak nature explains our propensity to fall.

You are right that the apple is not literally true, for the Bible does not specify what the fruit was.

frankbeswick on 05/18/2017

Eden may have been a remembered place seen through the mists of time through rose coloured spectacles and heavily mythologized. We need to remember that Hebrews were a social class of pastoral nomads who dwelt on the fringes of the cities,and many of them may have been people dispossessed over the years and reduced to wandering, maybe holding memories of their ancestral homes.

blackspanielgallery on 05/18/2017

Frank, I have been under the impression that Eden might have been a physical place, but perhaps not. A state of mind might better describe it. In fact, we cannot be certain Adam and Eve were referenced to a single pair, And the apple is not to be taken literally. Those who take the Bible literally would say it has to be exactly as described, but the significant issue is man was created, and the human condition is weak and sinful.

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