And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:8-9)
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 2:2-7)
So what is the backstory on what happens in these passages? Did the Hebrews create this story out of whole cloth or was there a similar story in other cultures with which they would have come in contact? And what was the purpose of this story in Genesis?
Let’s start with the tales of the Sumerians. The Sumerian civilization was the first literate civilization. Early evidence of their civilization from approximately 3,500 BCE predates any reference to Hebrews or Israelites in the region by over 2,000 years. Because the Sumerians and subsequently the Akkadians and the Babylonians ruled over large stretches of the Middle East, its history, culture, and stories were known throughout the region. In addition, the Hebrews were exiled in Babylonia for four decades in 587 BCE.
The location of many cities of the Sumerians was in the desert, much of present day Iraq. Thus, it is not unusual that their myths attributed great powers to water and the vegetation it could provide. (You can read the original Sumerian myth here.) For example, Enki, one of the early gods of the Sumerians, was believed to have lived in a place near an aquifer and was called the “Sweet Waters God.” He lived in Dilmun, “the pure clean and bright land of the living, the garden of the Great Gods and Earthly paradise, located eastward in Eden.”
Ninhursag was a female goddess, perhaps serving alone prior to her sacred marriage to Enki. In the story, she feels the waters of Enki within her and asks him to tend to her earthly body and provide waters for it. He responds willingly and creates waters and streams which allow great vegetation to grow. She leaves for the winter to prepare for the spring and all it brings to the earth.
Unfortunately, Enki gets a bit carried away with the young goddesses that he and Ninhursag have created. When Ninhursag returns she advises these young goddesses to stay clear of Enki. She tells one of them, Uttu, who is disappointed that Enki no longer cares for her, to take the seed of Enki (read sperm) and plant them in the ground. From these eight seeds all the plants of the earth grow. She also tells Uttu to remember that all relationships of love should be reciprocal. I can’t help but wonder if this would have been the mythology I had grown up with rather than the Bible which treats all women as property. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a strong compassionate woman goddess as a model versus an angry misogynist male god?
When these plants grow, he eats the eight plants, one of which is a “tree plant,” and becomes ill. Ninhursag, the ever faithful wife, comes to the rescue and cures Enki. It is when he complains of his eighth pain, that of his rib, that she responds with the incantation “to the goddess Ninti, the Lady of the Rib and the One who makes Live, I have given birth for you to set your rib free.” What is interesting here is the fact that the Sumerian word “ti” means both “rib” and “life.” In Genesis, the word Eve means life but the Hebrew word for rib is different, thus missing the pun in the Sumerian version.
Once he is cured, he is stronger than ever and kisses his beloved Ninhursag. He realizes it is Ninhursag that he truly loves and they live happily ever after.
While they are many similarities to the Genesis story just in this myth, there are other associations that are just as important. In many ancient cultures, the mother goddess, who was worshipped prior to and then in conjunction with male deities in a pantheon, was associated with a serpent. This serpent was the symbol of “rebirth, rejuvenation, rebirth, healing as well as service and wisdom.” In some Mesopotamian art, this goddess is portrayed with a female body and the head of a serpent.
What is significant in the worship of female goddesses was the association with nature. This divine female was seen as both bringing forth life and taking life back to its womb, the earth, upon death. The tree, with its roots in the ground and its branches above symbolized this cycle of birth from the earth and return to the earth upon death. In the Old Testament, the word Asherah, stands both for the Canaanite goddess of the same name and the pillar or tree where she was worshipped in nature. In this aspect, she is similar to all the previous earth goddesses in many cultures.
The transformation of the role of the tree of life in Genesis is significant because it is the symbol of the goddess turned on its head. Instead of representing both life and death in an endless cycle, the tree brings upon mankind its destruction. God is now the creator and the symbol for the goddess, the tree, accompanied by the serpent, becomes the path for sin. To no one’s surprise, the woman, Eve, becomes the first of mankind tempted by the fruit of this tree.
Karen Garst, The Faithless Feminist