Virtually everyone knows the story of the Garden of Eden. We learned it in Sunday school, or from our parents.
We know from this story that Satan persuaded the first woman, named Eve, to eat an apple, which Jehovah had forbidden. We know that Eve then seduced the first man, Adam, into doing the same.
Except none of that is true.
I’m not saying it’s false in the sense that, “that’s just a myth, so it never happened” – that’s a different discussion. I’m saying it’s not in the story. No apple is ever mentioned. Neither is Satan. There’s no reference to the woman seducing Adam, and she didn’t receive the name “Eve” until after this all went down. Also, the divine presence in the story is Elohim, not Jehovah. Most of what we thought we knew about this story, it turns out, is a mixture of commentary and assumption that we simply accept as fact because it’s become part of our popular culture.
A god by any other name ...
How did it get that way?
When the story was written, the deity credited with creation was named Elohim – a Canaanite word meaning “the gods.” Plural. That, however, didn’t square with the worship of the Hebrew god Jehovah (singular), in Judeo-Christian tradition that became dominant later on. The name Jehovah, or Yahweh, doesn’t even appear in the Book of Genesis, which was written in its earliest form before this deity was widely worshipped.
When the worship of Yahweh became not only dominant, but exclusive, something had to be done to reflect that. The creation story was already so widely known that it couldn’t simply be erased from the public consciousness. So, it was reinterpreted. “Elohim” was suppressed, and the word itself was passed off as just another name for Jehovah. Both are translated as simply “God” in our Bibles, even though they’re entirely different words.
As to the apple, it’s never named as such in Genesis. The text only mentions “fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden.” There weren’t even any apples growing in the Middle East at the dawn of civilization (the first were cultivated in Kazakhstan, far to the northeast).
Bruce Wayne is Tony Stark
This brings us to the serpent, a central player in the little drama. The snake is never named as “Satan” in the story. This Satan first appears in the Book of Job, and is applied to a figure who is not a tempter, but an accuser.
In fact, satan (lowercase) is not a name at all; it literally means “the accuser,” and appears in 10 out of 12 Old Testament references as “the satan.” It could have been applied to one figure in one place and an entirely different figure somewhere else. To assume that “the satan” referred to the same individual every time it occurs would be the equivalent of inferring that “the actor” always referred to, say, Bill Murray. Or that every reference to “the painter” meant Picasso.
How thorough has this transformation from general accuser to specific person been? If you were sitting behind me at my computer as I write this, you’d know: Every time I lowercase the word “satan,” my software responds with a squiggly red underline, indicating that I’ve got it “wrong.” The word, in the opinion of Microsoft Word, should always be capitalized as a proper noun!
It is only in the Book of Revelation, written thousands of years after the folktale that served as the basis for the Eden story, that “Satan” is referred to as “that ancient serpent.”
The satan was further identified with another character, Lucifer, which meant “light-bringer” and was just another name for the planet Venus, the morning star. According to the Book of Isaiah, however, Lucifer had “fallen from heaven” to “weaken the nations.” The author had, perhaps, heard a reference to Venus descending toward the horizon (falling) and/or appearing to fade as the sun rose. He then equated that with a moral failing or fall.
(For more on this, see my book Forged in Ancient Fires: Myth and Meaning in Western Lore.)
It’s not hard to see how this Lucifer became conflated with the serpent, who had himself fallen in the Eden story when he was cursed to crawl on his belly and eat dust. The serpent was also a light-bringer, in the sense that he promised enlightenment to the woman if she were to eat the fruit: “You will be like the Elohim, knowing good and evil.”
But equating the serpent with Lucifer and, hence, Lucifer with the satan, is like saying Batman and Iron Man are the same character. Both are genius billionaires who disguise themselves in fancy suits decked out with loads of techno-gadgets, then go around playing vigilante to fight the bad guys in comic books. Never mind that one’s named Bruce Wayne and the other is Tony Stark. Such minor details are as easily overcome as the difference between Lucifer and Satan, or Yahweh and Elohim.
None of what I’ve written here would be surprising if we’d read the story itself before we heard the modern commentary. If we had never known about the story before, had never attended a Sunday school class and knew nothing about the rest of the Bible, we would have no basis for ever even guessing that the serpent was “Satan” or that the fruit was an apple. If we encountered the word Elohim for the first time, without any modern context, we might look it up and find that it meant “the gods.” If we read a separate passage about Yahweh in Exodus, we’d assume it was a different figure.
But we see what we expect to see, because someone has pointed us in that direction. We see gospel truth, when the author intended something else entirely. The story of Eden is, at the heart of it, a fable meant to convey a moral lesson and knowledge about how the universe came to be the way it is. Such stories are called etiological or origin stories; more recently, they’ve been referred to as just-so stories.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a number of them at the turn of the 20th century. Many of the titles are similar:
How the Camel Got His Hump
How the Leopard Got His Spots
How the Elephant Got His Trunk
The Eden account is based in part on just such a story. You might title it, How the Snake Got His Slither. The story offers an explanation, however fanciful, for why the serpent doesn’t have legs and crawls in the dust. It didn’t adapt to thrive in its environment. It was cursed! The tale also purports to explain why people wear clothes (they became ashamed of being naked after eating the fruit), why women experience pain in childbirth, and why the earth in the ancient Near East was hard to cultivate (more curses, which can be fixed by anesthesia and irrigation, respectively).
You can’t fight city hall
In addition to an etiological story, however, the Eden account served as a cautionary tale. The moral of the story, translated into modern terms, would be “You can’t fight City Hall.” (Secondarily, to paraphrase heavyweight champ Joe Louis, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”) The conclusion is that all the knowledge in the world won’t help you if you find yourself fighting against the gods. Only obedience, not wisdom, will save you. This wasn’t an uncommon theme in the ancient world: The story of Zeus punishing Prometheus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to humanity is a parallel example.
The moral of the story isn’t spiritual and enlightened, but pragmatic and a cynical. It also served those in power well, as they could use it to keep their subjects in line.
But because our culture is so steeped in the false context created for the original story by the priests of Yahweh, by the author of Revelation, by Sunday school teachers and others, we don’t see any of this unless we look at the story with fresh eyes – and dare to challenge the cognitive dissonance that arises when we do so.
Admitting we misunderstood something as basic as the story of our own creation can be a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s a bright side to that realization. We get to create our own awareness and, as a result, our own destiny. That’s a happy ending in my book.