You are on page 1of 3


Out of Eden
Two authors seek to tackle the meaning of our biblical
origin story – and the results are mixed By Tibor Krausz

IN THE Bible’s myth of creation, God starts proportion with their obedience to His will. Eve,” Bruce Feiler, a best-selling author,
off by reversing the natural order of things. Fealty to the Almighty’s will brings pros- acts more like a miniaturist. He zeroes in on
Rather than having the first woman give perity; rejection of it warrants divine ret- a single aspect of the Genesis tale, portray-
birth to the first man, the Creator fashions ribution. Always and unerringly. And it all ing Adam and Eve as the protagonists of the
Eve from Adam. Stranger still is the fact started with Adam and Eve. world’s first literary romance. They were a
that Eve is a mere afterthought in His cre- At its core the Bible is simply the epic tale loving couple who can teach us a lot about
ation, introduced into it only on behalf of of humanity’s willful defiance of God’s will devotion, forbearance and spousal commit-
Adam to ease his loneliness and serve him and the Creator’s constant attempts to steer ment, Feiler says.
as his “helpmeet” in the Garden of Eden. His profligate creations back onto the right A bit New Agey, that? Indeed. The author
Eve’s creation proves to be a mistake. A path, at times through munificence, at other of several popular books on the Hebrew
wily serpent with the gift of the gab con- times through fire and brimstone. The bibli- Bible, Feiler offers up insights such as this:
vinces her to eat from the forbidden fruit cal idea of our built-in recalcitrance culmi- “The only thing more forceful than hate is
on the tree of the knowledge of good and nated in a whole new religion, Christianity, love.” And this: “Loneliness is a key part
evil. Eat she does and coaxes Adam into when the apostle Paul, who primarily laid of unhappiness; togetherness is a key ingre-
doing the same. Their divine progenitor the new faith’s theological foundations, dient to happiness.” Adam and Eve, Feiler
isn’t amused. He sentences the couple and pronounced the salvific sacrifice of Jesus on posits, were “made for each other” and their
all their future offspring – all of us – to a the cross to have been atonement for Adam immediate descendants, too, “went looking
life of toil and misery with inevitable death and Eve’s primal disobedience. for their match.” Perhaps. Yet he seems to
at the end of it. We’re barely into the Good Science has long debunked the notion that forget that by necessity they did so incestu-
Book’s first few verses and our kind is off humans were created fully formed as a pair ously, seeing as there were no other humans
to a bad start. of adults one day some 6,000 years ago. around yet on Earth apart from the first man
Or maybe not. It’s these sinfully attained Yet the story of Adam and Eve continues and woman’s family – which somewhat
godlike powers of knowledge that enable us to fascinate Jews, Christians and Muslims mars the image he’s trying to convey of
to view the world with the divine powers the world over. Millions of believers gain wholesome lovey-dovey idyll at the dawn
of reason, even if this ability came at the comfort from the idea that we can trace our of history.
cost of eternal life. We’ve gained some and lineage back to a single couple who were Feiler also shows a predilection for howl-
we’ve lost some. Yet viewing the creation created in God’s own image. Our actual ers. “[T]he first time a human speaks in
myth as factual cosmogony, as many of the origins – we’ve evolved from single-celled the Bible,” he informs us, is when Adam
faithful are wont to do, is missing the point. organisms through an endless series of evo- first sees Eve and famously declares her
The Bible’s human origin story is concerned lutionary trial and error – tend to hold far “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”
much less with logic and biological reality less romantic appeal. (Genesis 2:23). Yet just a few verses prior
than with morality and religious etiology. In two new books, two Jewish-American Adam already bestowed names on all liv-
Its main concern is to explain why the world authors set themselves the task of unravel- ing creatures, which he presumably did by
is the way it is. Why are we born to die? ling the continuing hold of the Bible’s or- verbalizing. Overall, Feiler’s focus is on
Why do women suffer in childbirth? Why igin story on the popular imagination. In placing Eve back into her rightful place at
do we have to labor hard for a living? And, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve,” Ste- the heart (literally and figuratively) of the
curiously, in a just-so tale of sorts, why do phen Greenblatt, a Jewish-American promi- biblical Creation to rescue the Genesis sto-
snakes crawl on their belly? nent literary historian, treats his subject like ry from its traditional role as a foundation-
As the biblical authors saw it, these facts a muralist. He paints on a large canvas to al document of male chauvinism. That’s a
of life were punishments for the disobedi- sketch a grand pointillist portrait of Adam praiseworthy goal, even if, in its service, the
ence of history’s first couple, who defied and Eve as seen through the eyes of numer- author occasionally arm-twists the text into
God and threw a wrench into His handi- ous exegetes, historians, writers and artists tortured readings.
work. This is the Bible’s very first theolog- down through the centuries. The result is an Adam and Eve’s story is tersely told in the
ical theme and it remains dominant for the often fascinating if, at times, overly discur- Bible without much detail, and its enduring
rest of the book. The fortunes of humanity sive work. power has lain largely in its flexibility to
– and especially of the Jews, whom God In “The First Love Story: A Journey interpretation that Feiler himself exploits.
elects as his chosen – rise and fall in direct Through the Tangled Lives of Adam and You can read almost anything into it. It’s a


palimpsest whereupon ever newer readings ery of the Americas spurred believers into
can be imposed almost at will. For centuries trying to divine plausible explanations for
commentators have duly used the story as the existence of these new worlds and their
an urtext for their preferences and prejudic- multitudes of hitherto unknown peoples
es. They’ve blamed Adam and Eve for our whereof the Bible had nothing to say. The
unquenchable thirst for knowledge, which presumed bodily perfection of the human
they saw as the primary cause of unbelief. couple that God himself created inspired
They’ve blamed the first couple for our Renaissance artists to try and depict Adam
penchant for lust, which they saw as leading and Eve as the embodiments of male and
to a godless state of mind. They’ve blamed female beauty at its most sublime.
the seductive daughters of Eve for the tra- Such flights of fancy may well have been
vails of the sons of Adam. diverting but ultimately pointless, for the
Others have sought to tease esoteric story of Adam and Eve, as we now know,
wisdom out of the ancient text. “Ascetics, has no basis in historical reality. It holds
brooding on the temptations of the flesh, few real clues to a primordial state of hu-
studied the verses for hints of alternative man existence – save for a possible com-
ways that the first humans might have in- munal memory enshrined in the narrative
tended to reproduce,” Greenblatt writes. that bore witness to a painful bygone transi-
“Physicians pondered the possible health tion from carefree hunting and gathering in The First Love Story A Journey Through
benefits of a vegetarian diet of the kind our nature’s bounty to settled farming whereby the Tangled Lives of Adam and Eve
people now had to grow their food “by the Bruce Feiler
species enjoyed in the Garden. Linguists
Penguin Publishing Group 2017
tried to determine the language that Adam sweat of [their] brow” (Genesis 3:19).
306 pages; $16.78 Hardcover
and Eve spoke and to detect the traces of it Aware of the Creation story’s flaws and
that might be left.” contradictions, exegetes like the Hellenistic
Yet others, including prominent rabbis, Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria chose
proffered competing claims: that Adam was to view it as a wellspring of allegory where theology at length, which the author does
a giant; that he was born already circum- seemingly mundane occurrences signified in two whole chapters while adding lit-
cised; that he was a hermaphrodite (as per profound spiritual insights. Taking the text lit- tle beyond what you can learn in a fresh-
Genesis 5:2, which they took to mean that erally just posed too many waxing questions. man’s course on the subject. Elsewhere in
God created the first human both male and Ultimately, however, these ancient mythicists the book, meanwhile, Greenblatt gallops
female in a single body). Still other exegetes lost out to literalists like Augustine. through the centuries. A short tour of human
argued that Adam and Eve were unsurpass- origins pieced painstakingly together by pa-
ably beautiful; others that they were skeletal CHANNELING THE apostle Paul, the leontologists from various bone fragments
beings, reduced to such a pitiful state by the 5th-century bishop of Hippo formulated (a piece of cranium unearthed here, a tibia
gravity of their crime. the repugnant idea of “original sin” that he discovered there) is followed by backward
One early Christian Gnostic text, written read into the story of Adam and Eve. In so glances at the Babylon Exile, which gave
in Coptic on one of the papyrus codices, doing, he did more than most to shackle the rise to the Torah as a unified text with its
which were unearthed in Egypt in 1945 from Western spirit to the yoke of endless mental universalist message of a previously tribal
a clay jar buried in the desert, portrayed the self-flagellation for a “crime” committed deity, Yahweh, now ruling supreme over all
snake of Eden as a Promethean liberator of only in a fictitious account of humanity’s the nations of the world.
humanity who opened the eyes of Adam and origins – as rival contemporary Christian We encounter, briefly, the 19th-century
Eve to the possibilities of knowledge that exegetes like Pelagius, soon branded her- German scholar Julius Wellhausen, who pi-
their jealous creator had hidden from them. etics, recognized. A pagan philosopher oneered the seminal work of biblical schol-
This was deemed a heretical notion by the turned devout Christian, Augustine was a arship known as the documentary hypoth-
Church, yet such probing commentaries gifted but petty and self-absorbed man who esis, before we drop in on the autodidact
touched a raw nerve: How were Adam and took the Genesis account literally in almost Victorian Assyriologist George Smith, who
Eve to know they would sin by eating from all its details. As he saw it, we’re all born deciphered the Babylonian creation myth
the forbidden fruit of good and evil before miserable sinners in the vein of Adam des- “Enuma Elish” from hitherto unintelligible
they could know what was good and what tined for hellfire after death. Only faith in wedge-shaped marks on ancient cuneiform
was evil? And why did God place that tree Jesus, a new Adam, can liberate us from tablets. It’s all fine escapism, relayed with
in Eden at all if He didn’t want his creations this fate. As if. stylistic verve, even if we may not always
to eat from it? Augustine has had a vast influence on come away with revelatory new insights.
And so it went. The Creation account’s Western thought, yet anyone passably ed- The gist of these detours boils down to
inherent contradictions vexed theologians. ucated already knows that. Thus it’s ques- this: The anonymous authors of the Torah
The possible location of Eden exercised the tionable that it’s worth Greenblatt’s while may have fashioned the story of Adam and
imagination of cartographers. The discov- to recount Augustine’s conversion and Eve in response to the Babylonian creation


myth with its patricidal deities who conjured like have got lost on quite a few readers.
up the world from a shapeless void through Instead, time-honored misogyny has drawn
murder, mayhem and incestuous intercourse. heavily on the Adam and Eve story. In rab-
It was a case of literary one-upmanship binic Judaism conjugal procreation has been
whereby the Hebrew authors adopted as- seen as a divinely mandated duty enshrined
pects of their captors’ cosmogony but funda- in the Genesis command to “be fruitful and
mentally reshaped them: unlike Babylonian multiply.” Not so in normative Christian
divinities, Yahweh came to be portrayed as a thought, influenced as it was by lifelong cel-
singular creative force who needed no help ibates in the Church who fulminated against
from fellow gods or goddesses to bring the the crimes of carnal desire that Eve suppos-
world into being. He was an all-powerful edly introduced into the world through her
creator who made the universe, and man in wanton concupiscence and which now irre-
it, at will. The Torah’s authors literally wrote deemably tainted all her daughters. The me-
all other gods out of existence. dieval witch hunts were inspired by just such
Yet the Hebrew god’s newfound singulari- vile notions.
ty came with a heavy theological price. Now For many pious Christians, Adam and Eve
that Yahweh was not only the only true god made for a cautionary tale about lust and so
but the only existing god, the problem of abstinence was seen as a prime virtue. Tor-
evil arose. If evil was not caused by malev- mented ascetics battling their demons of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
olent deities, this singular allegedly benev- fleshly temptation were held up as exempla- Stephen Greenblatt
olent, omniscient and omnipotent divinity ry servants of Jesus, himself a reported cel- W.W. Norton 2017
432 pages; $15.21 Hardcover
must have been responsible for it. The ques- ibate. As it was with Adam and Jesus, so it
tion was why? The Hebrew authors’ answer was with Eve and the Virgin Mary: one was
was that God meted out divine punishments a sinful creature who caused our downfall, the classless egalitarianism of Eden. They
to us, often in the form of genocide, for our the other was a sexually unsullied paragon of cultivated commonly owned land together
sins. Whatever befell us was just deserts for virtue who saved us sinners from ourselves. and held communion au naturel in the style
our actions. We had no one to blame but “This elaborate counterpoint helped launch of Adam and Eve. They were soon chased
ourselves. This theme already dominates over the centuries an astonishing array of away by local landowners who looked
the story of Noah and the Flood, in which images: drawings, book illuminations, sculp- askance at this unusual social experiment.
humanity comes a cropper for its iniquity. tures, frescoes, and paintings,” Greenblatt Centuries later, a German physician and
writes. “On the left side of the great elev- her dreamy lover, a schoolteacher, hatched
IN THE process, though, logic is violated. enth-century bronze doors at Hildesheim, a scheme to leave their spouses and relocate
“[D]oing away with multiple gods introduces Eve nurses Cain, while on the right Mary to a small volcanic island in the Galapagos
certain problems, starting with the notion of nurses Jesus.” where they could prance around in the nude
an all-powerful, all-knowing god who none- Many such comparisons had distinct an- and live like Adam and Eve in Paradise. This
theless repents what he has himself created,” tisemitic undertones with the sinful Eve they did in 1929 but not before the doctor
Greenblatt points out. “Did the wise maker standing in for Jews, the enemies of true be- had replaced his teeth with steel dentures for
not anticipate what his creatures would do? lievers. In our age, it’s Islamic fundamental- greater durability in the face of the wear and
[And] how could such wickedness have aris- ists who obsess over their ideals of female tear brought on by the avid vegetarian’s pen-
en from creatures made in God’s image?” purity and seek to shield Muslim women chant for prolonged mastication.
There have been answers to such questions, from the male gaze lest men be tempted into Soon news of their adventure spread and
mostly centering on the issue of free will, sinful acts as Adam once was. It’s also they other escapists began showing up on the is-
but they all sound rather forced – the futile who are more likely to see Jews as congeni- land. They included a temperamental fabulist
attempts of rabbis, priests and theologians to tally malevolent beings who are the descen- who claimed to be an Austrian baroness and
square a philosophical circle. dants not of Adam and Eve but of “apes and arrived with three of her lovers. “[W]ithin
Literalism can kill – literally. Much of pigs,” as the Quran has it. two years,” Feiler writes, “two people were
religious eschatology in the monotheistic Here and there, in both books, come de- dead and two more people” – the “baroness”
religions derives its raison d’être from the lightful nuggets about zealots and eccen- and one of her lovers – “were missing in what
spiritual quest to “repair” the world by re- trics who not only took Adam and Eve’s is widely regarded as a double homicide.”
turning it – if necessary through the cleans- story literally but decided to act it out. Hell, the latter-day Adam and Eve wan-
ing agents of destruction and extreme vio- Shortly after the English Civil War, Green- nabes learned to their cost, really is other
lence – to a pure and godly state of being blatt writes, a band of Protestant radicals people. Did they unwittingly discover a
that allegedly infused the world before the who called themselves “the Diggers” and subversive message hiding in plain sight in
Fall. Feiler’s thesis that the story of Adam followed a charismatic tailor turned cow- the Bible?: that, all told, it might have been
and Eve is primarily meant to teach us about herd launched a proto-socialist commune better if in creating people God had left it at
marital obligations, gender equality and the in Surrey, where they sought to recapture the first two.  