The Garden of Eden, and the coming of Eve >>back home

The story of Eden is to be understood historically. It is not 'myth' in the popular sense. It is early human history abridged and explained, and takes us behind the scenes into the spiritual realm where human life finds its real significance.

Man is the fully self‑conscious animal, placed under the moral obligation of obedience to his Maker. By himself the man is incomplete; he needs a companion. So he was given woman to share his life in the most fundamental of human bonds. Together they threw off the yoke of obedience. They thereby lost what they were created to enjoy ‑ fellowship with God their Maker. They were driven from His presence and death became an inevitability.

No incident in the Bible (except perhaps the story of Noah's Ark) excites ridicule, gentle or otherwise as the case may be, so readily as the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden. However, the laughter is loudest where the understanding is least; to‑day, the story of Eden is held in the greatest respect by many scholars of repute, even when they do not hold conservative evangelical views 1. We shall devote two or three chapters to it, and conclude this one with a consideration of the Bible's particular approach to the problem of affirming Creation as an act of God initiating history.


We have met this problem before, and we shall meet it again. How do we interpret the story? Do we regard it as myth, like the story of Orpheus and Eurydice? Do we read it as the story of Everyman in his moral experience? To do either, to be sure, would not be to take a contemptuously dismissive view of it, for while 'myth' (in popular parlance) can be a synonym for falsehood or sheer invention, it can also stand (in more scholarly circles) for the expression of serious thought, and as such is worthy of considerable interest. However, the fault with the view that the story of Eden is myth is twofold. First, myth and revelation (with which we are contrasting it) have entirely different functions. The function of revelation is to teach men to live in accordance with the will of God and to His glory 2; that of creation myth has been to make things comprehensible and to maintain them as man would have them be 3. Second, while myth may powerfully express and illustrate a great truth it cannot establish it. It lacks authority, precisely that which is the foremost characteristic of revelation. On which side of this great divide ‑ revelation or myth ‑ the Genesis account stands is illustrated by a well‑known incident. Jesus was being questioned about divorce. He replied by basing his teaching on the story of the Garden of Eden: For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife . . What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder (Mark 10.7,9). The accent on both function and authority is crystal‑clear, pin‑pointing the narrative (in the estimation of Jesus) as divine revelation. Clearly, to him it was not 'myth' (as commonly understood), however elevated or profound. It was God disclosing truth, His account of things, to man.

It is the same with Paul. He is grappling with the age‑old problems of human sin, suffering and death; how could these terrible realities have achieved such a stranglehold over human lives? His answer is firmly in terms of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden. That was where man's slavery began, logically and historically. They were no more 'mythical' figures to him than were Moses or Christ 4. It has often been remarked that whatever may be said of other religions, biblical religion is rooted in real history, real geography, real events, real men and real women 5. It is the most concrete and materialist of all faiths. That is why it makes the best sense, biblically, to read the story of Eden as real history. That is what I shall do.

But granting that the Fall was historical, and a happening of fundamental significance in the early history of mankind, it does not follow that the secular anthropologist or historian will find himself confronted at this point with a striking and inexplicable discontinuity. Scripture gives us no inescapable grounds for supposing such a thing. Everywhere in the Bible the great ethical and spiritual crises of humanity are such that their inner nature is hidden from secular eyes, and stands revealed only to faith 6. Thus the Bible tells us that the Lord called Abraham to leave his country and go to another; and Abraham packed his bags and went (Gen.12.1,4). In this small piece of the recorded drama there are two 'acts': the final one, which could in principle have been video‑recorded in full (Abraham packing his bags), and the opening one, which couldn't (his receiving God's call to obey). Such 'two‑part' events as this occur in all the great dramas of biblical history: the commissioning of Moses, the call of Elijah, Israel's exile to Babylon, the conversion of Paul, and supremely the birth and passion of Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover these events, so momentous in the biblical story of man's redemption, pass into history unspectacularly at their climax: Jesus was born in simple circumstances, lived as a carpenter, and was crucified as a common malefactor, almost unnoticed by the Graeco‑Roman world 7. In every case, there are certain aspects of the drama which could have been caught (if we may be allowed the 'thought experiment') on a video‑recorder; but other aspects would as inevitably be impossible to capture (cf. Paul's confession in 2Cor.12.1‑4).

It is important to realize that just where the separating line lies between these two 'acts' is not always easy to determine. Abraham had an experience of great horror and darkness, prophetic of the history of his race (Gen.15.7ff). He was partly awake and partly asleep, and within this visitation, God spoke and made a definite, factual covenant with him. If we may again indulge in a 'thought experiment', what would we see in a video recording of it all? It's very hard to imagine. Paul heard the voice from heaven clearly; his companions didn't (Acts 9.4ff; 22.7ff; 26.14ff). What would we observe now on a video of that? Jesus heard a voice, the crowd just said it thundered, or made guesses about an angel (John 12.27ff). I mention these instances because they illustrate the way the Bible routinely reports things; it views them whole, in their totality, the public and the private together; and the two are often quite hard to disentangle in the sense we are discussing. I think this has an important bearing on the way we should read the story of the Fall, or of the other dramas mentioned, such as the call of Abraham. It implies that key elements of each will almost certainly be out of reach to the secular historian, for they have left no trace on what corresponds to the video tape. Knowledge about them is available only by divine revelation 8. In saying this there is one qualification which must be made, illustrated especially by the accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus (Matt.12.39f; Acts 17.31). The New Testament takes the view that there is sufficient evidence publicly available to convince any open‑minded enquirer about this 9. The same is no doubt true of the main subject of this essay (Rom.1.18‑20). We shall return to this subject briefly at the end of this chapter.


The biblical writers record many miraculous happenings, but they cannot be said to be avid for miracle; they don't invoke them at every opportunity. Indeed, the careful reader must often get the impression that the opposite is the case 10. The reason is a fundamental one. The teaching of the Bible is that God is as truly present in the ordinary as He is in the extraordinary; the difference is that he isn't so obviously or significantly present. Feeding the birds is as certainly a divine activity as feeding the five thousand 11. Jesus rebuked those who except they see signs and wonders will not believe.12, and regarded it as a sign of maturer faith to believe his plain‑word 13. The conclusion therefore to which the Bible is leading us is that we should recognize the hand of God in everything, and not just in the unusual or extraordinary 14. Once we have grasped this great biblical principle and it has become part of our thinking we shall not be over‑eager to attribute specifically miraculous status to things which the Bible tells us God did, or does, even when they are one‑off events 15.

The creation narrative changes at Genesis 2.4 from what might be called the general to the particular. It was inevitable that it should do so in view of the purpose of Scripture, to direct conduct rather than to satisfy curiosity. This requires that man and his life should occupy the centre of the stage, and from now on they do. We prepare to enter the domain of human history. The change‑over is effected analogously to that in a well‑presented natural history exhibit. The background of the latter is a pictorial representation of sky, hills and desert scrub; as we move forward this changes into real elements of plant, rock and soil surrounding the animal, a desert antelope say, on display. The transition between the pictured background (which gives a helpful impression, but isn't meant to be unimaginatively scrutinized) and the real foreground (which may be understood literally, as it were) isn't by any means a sudden one. It is part of the skill of the arranger not to hide it, but to make it unobtrusive. This helps the didactic purpose of the exhibit. So the change is made, I believe, from the 'pictorial' meta‑historical days 16 of Gen. 1 to the common human days of chapter 4 onwards. A similar thing happens in the first chapter of John's Gospel, where we begin in eternity and end in common time, with something of both in between.

God formed man of the dust of the ground, a pre‑scientific insight which we now know to be physically true, for man's body (here the subject) contains only the chemical elements found in inorganic nature. 'Forming' signifies a material process in space‑time; it is significant that 'create' is not the word used 17. To 'form' implies no particular mode of manipulation of the dust, for the word 18 is used of processes as diverse as growth in the womb and fabrication by woodworking. Where the forming took place is not said, but the natural sense of the passage would suggest that it was not in the Garden. Man was placed there, after he was formed 19. Eden is evidently to be understood from its association with well‑known topographical features, to be a real geographical region, though the data given do not make it possible to decide an exact location. Within this region the Lord God planted a garden, an area designed to be both beautiful and productive. Here grew trees for man's higher satisfaction, his nourishment, his health (see the reference to the tree of life in Revelation 22.2), and importantly, his moral and spiritual discipline (the forbidden tree) 20. Nothing here is scientifically absurd, philosophically inept or humanistically trivial; rather, scholarly commentators agree that everything is profound, theologically and psychologically. With the rest of the description of man's life in the Garden it constitutes a commentary on that universally‑respected verdict of Deut.8.3 and Matt.4.4, that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Of course, the biblical writer does not expect us to understand the statement that 'the Lord God planted a garden' as

implying a physical activity on the part of the Deity observable as such 21, nor is it at all likely that he expected his readers to interpret the language about the 'cherubim' and the 'flaming sword' as plain statements of what could be video‑recorded. The 'forbidden tree' is almost certainly symbolic of a prohibition about which for reasons of brevity and timelessness the writer chose not to be more particular 22; this important matter is discussed more fully in Appendix V. These are not difficult things to appreciate; they employ literary devices common and indeed inevitable in all great literature dealing with profound matters (compare for instance Ps.75.8, Jer.25.15f and John 18.11b). Of course the anthropologist, the student of civilization, and the secular historian all have their own, quite distinctive ways of speaking of these things, and none has a right to quarrel with another on this account unless the other claims exclusive validity for his own viewpoint (as Richard Dawkins and others appear to do for theirs). The Bible's specific function is different from all others; it is to take us behind the seen into the realm of the unseen 23, and it does this with consummate skill and artistry1. It discloses that however tightly observable events link up with one another in an apparently unbroken nexus of cause and effect, the whole drama of existence has an Author who is writing it even as it unfolds. As Jesus taught us, God daily makes His sun rise, sends His rain, and clothes the grass of the field 24. Nothing shows up more plainly the intellectual poverty of some destructive criticism than to casually dismiss such language as this (common to Genesis and to the New Testament) as simply 'the Hebrew way of looking at things'. As we noted earlier, the Bible teaches that natural events are as much God's doing as those we choose to call supernatural. Accordingly, the narrative we are considering does not necessarily imply that the events it describes are what many would call 'miraculous'. To insist that it does is to deny the majestic sweep of the biblical emphasis on God's all‑embracing sovereignty. For "He holds the whole wide world in His hands"; the roll of dice as well as the fall of the sparrow are subject to His will (Ps.104.27‑29, etc.)25. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered Jesus bid us remember 26; the most trivial circumstances of His people's lives are watched‑over and ordered by God's all‑embracing providence. This may well be a biblical doctrine the reader feels he cannot accept. No matter; its importance at the moment lies in the light it sheds on the assertion that was made earlier; that the Bible teaches that common events are just as much God's doing as those we call miraculous, the only difference being that they are less obviously so. Because of this a specific biblical statement attributing a happening to God cannot, ipso facto, be taken as asserting its miraculous nature. Unless the Bible is more explicit, the happening may well fit into the category the Victorian scientists called 'uniformitarian' 27. Recognition of this is highly important if we are to avoid arguing at cross‑purposes.

The account we are given of man's origin in the second chapter of Genesis indicates that human life as we know it began in connection with agriculture; the man was set in a garden to till it and keep it 28.  This is an emphasis with a distinctly modern ring. However, in fulfilment of his mandate to replenish the earth and subdue it, his activity was not, it would appear, confined to the Garden, for the riches of the surrounding region are noted pointedly in Gen.2.11,12. This suggests a concern with technology and art (as furnished from outside) as well. The bringing of the animals to Adam for naming was also highly significant. It was his initiation into dominion over them by way of knowledge and reflection. For thought, in the sense of acquiring real understanding, is helpless without words; it has no tools with which to discuss things with fellow‑men. So it has first to develop a language; and the first component of language is the noun or name. It is a very superficial and mistaken view to think that this noble and dignified chapter is merely purveying a pretty story. The opening words of John's Gospel (In the beginning was the Word) are a pregnant statement about Jesus Christ as God and Creator. The metaphor they employ (logos, the Word) derives its value from something near to our familiar experience: that words constitute the basis of specifically shared human knowledge. Adam was no more exercising himself in pleasantries when he named the animals than is today's electron microscopist when he names the organelles he finds in his micrographs, or today's nuclear physicist the elementary particles in his bubble chamber. To those men of science who know the Bible it is the same God who brought the animals to Adam who still, in a manner fundamentally no different, brings these less commonplace, more esoteric objects to the attention of themselves and their scientific colleagues. This is one implication of what the Scriptures are saying at this point: God is the Teacher who instructs men and women about matters on the scientific and everyday level as well as about things on the moral and spiritual 29.

It is in the Garden of Eden that Adam appears as the fully self‑conscious animal. Whether or not the other animals have rudimentary self‑consciousness is a moot point 30, but self‑consciousness is of the very essence of human nature. It is noteworthy that in Gen. 1 when God had created the first animals He blessed them saying, "Be fruitful and multiply"; but when he had created man and woman God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful."31 The personal address, implying the ability to comprehend, is surely significant. But the matter goes much further in Gen. 2, where God lays a moral obligation on the man of which the animals know nothing: 'You may freely eat of every tree . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat' 32. The idea of moral obligation, of duty, presupposes that man knows himself as himself, which the lower animals do not. In no other sphere, surely, does self‑consciousness play such an important part as in this.

Before we pass on to consider the creation of woman there is another very significant element of biblical teaching to note. Nowhere else in the Bible is there such a concise statement of the constitution of human nature as in Gen.2.7. The description of man's creation is continuous, with two movements: the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nesama) of life; and man became a living soul RV, being NIV(nepes) . Man, in other words, is not a soul imprisoned in a body, but a complex unity. He is an 'animated' or 'inspirited' body 33. This view is remarkable by comparison with other ancient teaching, which denigrated the body. Again, it has a modern ring 34.

In the Garden man also became conscious of an incompleteness in himself. As he got to know the animals it became apparent that there was no 'partner' (REB), no helper 'opposite to' him among them, no colleague as we might say today. In these terms the Bible emphasizes first, that man has a demanding work to do ('helper' highlights this); and second, that woman has a complementary part to play in it. Replenishing the earth, subduing it, and exercising a dominion under God over the animal creation are no doubt all part of this task, which is given as a joint enterprise (Gen.1.28). It should hardly be necessary to add that with attention in this passage focused on the task the designation 'helper' for woman no more implies inferiority than it implies divinity (compare e.g. Ps.146.5, where in a common usage, the word is the same). Delivered from the curse, Scripture sees husband and wife as co‑workers (sunergoi, Rom.l6.3) and co‑heirs (sunkleronomoi, 1 Pet.3.7).

The description of the creation of woman is sometimes taken quite literally. To those who regard the whole story as a myth this presents no difficulty. Those who regard it as history, as I do, face a problem. Many interpret it as a 'miracle' (not as creation ex nihilo, but of an actual rib or side of Adam being 'built into' 35 his Eve), the deep sleep being sent to Adam so that he should feel no pain. This apparently was Calvin's view. It leaves one with the difficulty that one miracle suggests another: why couldn't the operation have been painless without the deep sleep? Wouldn't Adam have learned more, and been more deeply impressed, if he had observed it all, as some commentators suggest may have been the case? (Cassuto 36)

I believe myself that there is a better understanding of the narrative. From what has been said earlier about miracle it would appear that it is sounder exegesis not to invoke this category (in its common meaning) unless the biblical data positively indicate it. Flying to it too readily undermines its dignity; it cheapens it. What alternative is there available then to explain the appearing of woman on the scene consistent with the characteristic didactic style of the Bible?

A legitimate one, I believe, is that God used the medium of a vivid dream to convey divine instruction on a vastly important matter, perennially misunderstood: the relationship of man and woman as He wills it. Genesis itself has frequent instances of such dreams (and there are several in the New Testament too). It was to impress on the man the true status of the companion he was to be given as wife. This, not anaesthesia, was the reason for the deep, God‑sent sleep. Dreams can be very graphic and expressive, and their memory very persistent and powerful. They can in fact, have a life‑long influence as many could probably testify. Dreams are often associated with deeply‑felt longings and take the form of idealized fulfilments of them 37. Things can happen in dreams which are vivid enough but which cannot be adequately described in words. However, the dreamer awakes with his mind very deeply affected, and directed. Two examples of this from Genesis itself may throw further light on the coming of Eve. The first is the great revelation given to Abraham about the future of his descendants (see Gen. 15, especially v.12). The second is the escape of Jacob from the crafty Laban (Gen. 30.37‑43 and 31.6‑13), where (if I read the story aright) Jacob's own artful strategy of the peeled rods (the fiction of 'xenogenesis') is by‑passed by God's providential ordering of the flock's breeding behaviour, and His indicating His purpose to Jacob in a dream.

Though it is hardly relevant to my main thesis I am tempted to comment on the Bible's teaching about one of the most important but misinterpreted elements of human life, the right relationship between man and woman, if there is such a thing ‑ or is this relationship changeable, subject to human re‑design in each generation? The Bible's teaching was well, if quaintly, re‑stated by the old puritan Matthew Henry in 1710: "Woman was made out of a rib of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to top him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved." Further, he says, there was clearly a progression in creation. "If man is the head, she is the crown. . . The man was dust refined, but the woman was dust double‑refined, one remove further from the earth" 38. This sort of account, however unfashionable now, expresses the Bible's divinely‑ordained pattern for the sexes, one which I believe a great many thinking men and women would still agree could not be bettered. Adam was established in the headship, but with such a balance and delicacy that there was neither grounds for feminism, nor excuse for male chauvinism. This biblical teaching is surely one to which true men and women, unsubjugated by any transient spirit of the age, can still readily subscribe.


The main purpose of Genesis 2 is to answer certain perennial questions each generation will inevitably repeat: Who am I? How did I get here? What rules should I live by? and, What happens after death? These are questions which are basic to men and women of all civilizations and cultures, primitive and advanced alike. There is logic therefore in the Bible setting out for all future ages the answers in the sort of timeless user‑friendly style Genesis employs. Some of the issues this raises will have to wait for further consideration; but I would like to summarize here the way I myself understand certain statements which touch the present interest. First, man was 'formed' (the word is not 'created') from common earthy materials (from this comes the name 'Adam'). There is no reason to doubt that the 'forming' was a process occupying time (i.e. it was not instantaneous), and was similar in this respect to growth of the embryo in the womb (see Jer.1.5; Ps.139.13‑16).The animals had been formed similarly (Gen.2.19). But man received in addition a spiritual 'inbreathing' (unrecordable no doubt by our imaginary video) by which he became uniquely a living being with a moral and spiritual nature. From the place where he had been formed (which might possibly have been in Africa) he was then moved eastward (Gen.2.8; cf. Abram in Gen.12.1) to an area in the region of modern Iraq, well suited to agriculture. He then began human life as an agriculturalist. Here he was given a woman as wife; and if we may indulge speculation in a way suggested by the later story of Isaac and Rebekah, she may quite well have been a member of the very same stock as himself, and have undergone the same God‑given experience. But the Bible gives us no superfluous data on this; it is here conjectured as simply running true to form. But the dream which informed him of his wife conveyed to him one of the 'words' by which he was to live 39. So the record in Gen.2 ends, and we shall have to pick it up again in later scriptures.

Postscript for Scientists

Introducing the idea of video‑recording is a way of trying to bring alive an important consideration. The claim of the physical sciences to universal recognition rests on the fact that their ultimate foundations rest on evidence which is accessible, in principle, at will, to man as man; that is, to everyone who has at least the two principal physical senses of sight and hearing. But this characteristic applies also to what can be caught on video 40. What this means in the present context is that only such things as a video‑recorder can pick up have any place in physical science. This of necessity rules out any inbuilt purpose, however all‑embracingly the latter may be involved 41. Whenever information is of an inwardly personal nature, it has to be classified logically as revelation; the necessary characteristic of being accessible at will required for scientific evidence is not met (see chapter II, note 31).


1     Thus von Rad, op.cit.,p.25 "As regards the creative genius of the              Yahwist's narrative there is only admiration. Someone has justly called the artistic mastery in this narrative one of the greatest accomplishments of all times in the history of thought". [The Yahwist is the name given by critical scholars to the presumed author of the story of Eden].

2       Deut.29.29; Matt.4.4; 9.13; Rom.15.1‑4; 1Cor.4.6; 2Tim.3.14‑17

3     We are thinking here of the myths of Creation and Origin: "the           primary function of the myth is to maintain the stability of the present state; it is this that is common to the whole vast circle of stories about the creation or origin of the world and of human                       beings". C.Westermann, GENESIS 1‑11, (SPCK, 1984); "the recital . . . has the power to establish and ensure the continuity of human life". R.Pettazonni, quoted by Westermann, loc.cit.

4       Rom.5.14,15

5     See e.g. Luke 3.1f; 1Cor.15.1‑8; Ga1.4.4; Acts 7.17; Luke 24.39; Josh.4.21ff; etc.

6       Matt.13.11‑15; 16.17; John 1.10; Acts 13.27

7       Gen.12.1ff; Exod.3.1ff; 1Cor.2.7ff

8     Luke 10.21‑24

9     See Matt.12.38ff; Acts 2.24; 17.29ff; 1Cor.15

10   Mark 7.24ff,32ff; 8.22ff; Luke 5.14; 8.51,56; contra Rev.13.13‑15

11  Matt.6.26; John 6.14 with 14.10; Psalm 104

12  John 4.48

13  John 10.37,38; 14.11; contrast Matt.16.4; John 6.30.

14  Job 2.10; Ps.147.7‑9,15‑18; Prov.16.33; Rom.8.28

15  As for instance the death of Herod (Acts 12.23)

16  'meta' is used here in the sort of sense it has in 'metaphysical'

17  cf. Job 10.8; Pss.33.6; 119.73; 148.5; Jer.18.1‑6; 2Pet.3.4f for the

      use of these words. God's hands 'form' or 'fashion', His word

      'creates'. (Pss.33.6; 119.73 use also the unspecific term 'make'.

18  Heb. Yasar. The word is used in Jer.1.5; Isa.44.10.

19      Gen.2.8,15. Robert Ardrey (see his opening, AFRICAN GENESIS) has

      been hasty here! Biblical Adam may well have originated in Africa.

20  Gen.2.9. See further, Chap. IX

21  cf. Ezek.36.36f

22  Brevity is the soul of more than wit; cf. Prov.9.16b,17; 30.20 for parallels.

23      Gen.41.25f; Dan.2.28f; 2Cor.4.16‑18; Heb.11.27

24 Matt.5.45; 6.30

25Prov.16.33; Matt.10.29 (RSV,NIV,NEB); Compare the Anglican collects (BCP) for the 8th Sunday after Trinity and the 2nd after Epiphany; see also Eph.1.11 and Rom.8.28.

26      Matt.10.30

27  See, for instance, S. J. Gould's essay on 'Uniformity and Catastrophe' in EVER SINCE DARWIN (Penguin, 1980)

28   cf. Prov.12.11 where the same word (abad, till) is used. Of course, it implies technology.

29        Isa.28.23‑29

30   See W. H. Thorpe, ANIMAL NATURE AND HUMAN NATURE (Methuen, 1974)

31        Gen.1.22,28

32        Gen.2.16,17

33  Nepes is variously rendered 'creature', 'soul', 'being', 'person'; nesama ('breath') seems to be the endowment of mankind uniquely in the Bible. With one possible exception (Gen.7.22) it is never used of the animals. Joshua 11.14 seems to confirm the distinction.

34  The significance given here to the body makes it theologically quite unacceptable to deny (as it is fashionable today) that the body of Jesus had a share in the glory of the Resurrection. (cf. Rev.5.6)

35   Heb., literal

36   Other reasons have been suggested for the deep sleep: aesthetic ‑ it sustains the beauty of the story (Cassuto, op. cit.); and theological ‑ it would have been inappropriate for men to watch the Creator at work (von Rad, op. cit.).

37   Isa.29.8

38   Matthew Henry, A COMMENTARY ON THE HOLY BIBLE (1710)

39   Deut.8.3

40   The video‑recorder has certain of the senses unrepresented ‑ taste, smell and so on ‑ but in principle their data could be recognised by special instrumentation and the information passed to the video.

41   I well remember as an undergraduate at Imperial College, London hearing a fellow student studying an amoeba under the microscope for the first time being rebuked by the supervisor for saying it was "trying to get out of the field of view"!