DW | Old Testament
2.4 - The Yahwist Creation Story (Chap 2:4 - 3:1)
After the solemn tones of the Priestly creation narrative, the reader notices a definite change in mood in the J story. Where the P account moves toward the creation of humanity as its climax, the J writer begins with God's creation of man and builds the account by creating a world for his new creature. J represents, actually, two stories. The first is the story of how God created one human being, but observed that he needed companions. The second story tells how God gave humans care over the Garden of Eden and made everything perfect for them.
As in Genesis 1, many elements are drawn from common myths of the Ancient Near East. The Tree of Life is well known by the Babylonians as a symbol of long life, or even immortality. The Paradise Garden in the East was known from Sumerian poems. The mystical power of the great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, was praised in many Babylonian hymns. A human becoming like God in wisdom after eating food reserved for gods was similar to a Mesopotamian myth, called the Legend of Adapa.
The theology of the J account used all these elements from pagan myths to give a very Israelite message:
Yahweh begins Creation with the human species and then fashions a world that they are to cultivate and tend, and makes animals for them to rule over, and then establishes marriage and human community of two sexes to complement one another.
Though the J account was quite different in style from that of P, the Priestly editors found no difficulty incorporating the two together.
The two sources of creation are to be read in tandem, with the cosmocentric approach provided by Genesis 1 and the anthropocentric approach (as observed by man) presented in Genesis 2. This is the essence of ancient Israelite religion; the two working in sync together, the melding of the world of man, in unique relationship with each other.
Genesis chapter 3 is the story of the Fall of Man, the story of the Garden of Eden. The Yahwist creates a masterpiece of psychological insight as he presents the first couple with the temptation to be like God. The serpent in the tree hints that great things are possible and plays upon Eve's vanity. Both man and woman fall readily, despite their clear recognition that God had forbidden them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They are not pictured as innocent babes in the woods, but as free adults, and so the sin is even greater.
In true artistic manner, J has Yahweh hear out the defense of each in turn, and then in reverse order address the serpent, the woman, and the man with the consequences of their actions. It is a dramatic scene which declares that the causes of sin and shame are rooted in human pride and disobedience, that humans are free to decide but must bear the consequences, and that we are not gods and must live now in a certain distance from God outside his Garden. But God remains tenderly concerned to make them adequate clothes even as he expels them from the hopes of immortality.
We have seen, in our Ancient Near East series, how in the Legend of Adapa the hero loses his chance for immortality. The famous Babylonian story of Gilgamesh also explores this theme. The hero conquers all kinds of hurdles but he cannot pass the final test needed for immortality: to simply stay awake.
Most likely the J author was familiar with such stories, but he carefully avoids the position so often assumed by the pagan myths – that the gods purposely kept humans from immortality so there would be no threat against the divine order. J asserts that we ourselves are to blame. God offered the gift, and if it did not turn out to be so, the reason can be found in human choice.
The Garden of Eden account is how man gained knowledge, or the ability to obtain knowledge, and that is a trait which distinguishes man from the animal kingdom. Far from being the Fall of Man, one could argue that we are dealing with the Rise of Man. However, keep in mind that man still violated God's command. By doing so, the author of Genesis 2-3 introduces us to the concept of free will, a dominant motif in the Bible and in Judaism in general. The most significant factor is the choice between obeying God or one's own desires. It is the human struggle from the first couple until now.
Besides these important themes of immortality and human sin, J addresses a host of other interesting questions about human life that the ancients had. Genesis 2-3 explains why snakes crawl on the ground, why women have pain in childbirth, why people have to work for a living, why we wear clothes, why the sexes are different, why people are ashamed when naked, why we die, and why men and women feel sexual attraction to one another. We call these etiological stories because they explain the reasons for current names and customs. The ancient Israelites delighted in them as part of the tradition.
One further note before moving on, the snake in Genesis 3 is mainly a later Christian interpretation of Satan that is not present in a surface reading of the chapter. The snake is only described as 'the shrewdest of all wild beasts.” The snake was certainly evil, but the actual Satan figure only becomes clearer during late Jewish theology, from which it passed into Christian belief. We'll discuss the origin of evil in a later episode.
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