A Flaccid Interpretation of Eden – By Joseph Ryan Kelly

Joseph Ryan Kelly on Ziony Zevit’s What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?

Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, Yale University Press, 2013, 400pp., $30
Ziony Zevit, What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden?, Yale University Press, 2013, 400pp., $30

The baculum, or os penis, is a bone in the penis of many mammals that aids in maintaining stiffness during sexual intercourse. Humans, curiously enough, are one of only three primate species bereft of os penis. Because our ancestors were once ossifically endowed, scientists pursue an explanation for this evolutionary development in human sexuality. One explanation exists that is unlikely to persuade biologists, although it might turn the heads of a few creationists. According to Ziony Zevit, author of What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden, God removes Adam’s baculum and from it constructs a woman. Zevit insists the “bone and flesh” out of which God constructs a woman is not the proverbial rib of Adam but is, quite literally, his boner.

Western culture has long embraced the supposedly biblical image of God creating Eve from Adam’s rib. Paintings often portray Eve as emerging from Adam’s side while he slumbers on the ground. Zevit is less interested in reception history than in discovering what really happened in Eden. Such an inquiry naturally sounds suspect to those who prefer visiting a natural history museum to Kentucky’s Bible-inspired Creation Museum. But Zevit is not as literal-minded in his interpretive pursuits as young-earth curators. Eden exists for him as a literary — not a literal — garden. What really happened, according to Zevit, is what took place in the minds of those who first shared in this story. Cherubs and flaming swords do not restrict access to this garden. Its way is guarded by the distance of time and culture, and only those who wield the tools of philology and historical criticism shall gain access.

Zevit traces the rib interpretation, so familiar to Western culture, back to Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew ṣela, ambiguously signifying either “rib” or “side.” Translations into other languages eventually remove this ambiguity and firmly ensconce the rib interpretation. Despite its antiquity, early Jewish interpreters do not appear familiar with this interpretation. For them, the ṣela signifies Adam’s tail — explaining why humans possess a coccyx or tailbone — or it otherwise functions as a synonym of a more common and general Hebrew word for “bone.” Zevit’s philological investigation compels him to discard Adam’s rib as one of Eden’s many counterfeit artifacts.

Why then identify the ṣela with Adam’s alleged penile bone, especially if the evidence suggests the term is semantically indistinct? Zevit believes the text functions here as an etiology, a mythological story that explains the origins of features of the male anatomy, features that ancient readers would have found curious. He considers the site where God “closed the flesh” after removing Adam’s ṣela an interpretive clue and crux, identifying this site with the urogenital groove that runs along the underside of the penis and scrotum. Zevit’s interpretation turns on what is traditionally considered an insignificant detail in the text. While nudity has always been a feature in the Garden of Eden, the penis has never stood out so prominently in the story.

Novel interpretations like this one occur from time to time throughout Zevit’s re-reading of the second, third, and fourth chapters of Genesis. He maintains that Eden was a real location in the Armenian highlands somewhere west of Lake Van (Eastern Turkey), the most northern corner of the inhabited world known to ancient Israelites. Adam was not created from dust, light in color, dry, and loosely compacted. God formed him from apar, a “clod” which, like humans, is rich in constitution and ruddy in complexion. Following the transgression of the divine command — or the “oblique instruction,” as Zevit prefers for the grammatical informality of the command — God’s curses transform neither the bodies of the individuals involved nor their environment. Rather, as performative speech acts, they transform somewhat negatively how the serpent, “Hawwa” (Zevit refers to Eve by her Hebrew name), and Adam perceive an element of their lives.

"The Creation of Eve." Palatine Chapel, Palermo. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“The Creation of Eve.” Palatine Chapel, Palermo. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Zevit just out to present novel, if philologically and historically sound, interpretations of the Garden of Eden? I asked myself this question with increasing frequency as I found it more and more difficult to hold together in my mind’s eye the picture of Eden Zevit was painting. What themes tie together a far northern location for Eden, creation out of clod, ossifical castration, and curses functioning as performative speech acts? This cacophony of novel (and sometimes not-so-novel) interpretations does not resolve harmoniously — at least not into the familiar narrative of sin and death that characterizes Western culture’s tradition of a fall. Zevit’s narrative becomes clear only near the end of the book. Forget sin and death; this is a story about human nature, the acquisition of knowledge, and ethical self-awareness. A story not about loss, but gain. Not a decline, but a rise.

It is unfortunate that Zevit’s chosen path of discovering what really happened in the Garden of Eden elides other interpretive paths explored in Western culture. He focuses exclusively on philology and historical criticism as tools of discovery, but during the Enlightenment a number of philosophers could not regard as purely sinful humankind’s acquisition of knowledge. They too cast aside notions of a fall. Immanuel Kant, for example, saw humankind’s pursuit as a positive step for the development of humankind, even if human actions introduced evil into the world. The first human couple discovers the freedom that constitutes the foundation of human morality. This freedom and capacity for moral discernment is fundamental to Kant’s deontological moral philosophy centered on the categorical imperative.

Philosophers of the twentieth century continued to acknowledge the merits and necessity of human freedom, although they were less enthusiastic about its implications. The circumstances of their own day — world wars and the threat of mutually assured destruction — made it increasingly difficult to remain generally optimistic about human freedom. What they discover in the Garden of Eden is not the origins of sin but an explanation of human sinfulness. The fall is less an experience in history and more the culmination of the creation of humankind.

Acknowledging that “knowledge is not foolproof,” Zevit’s interpretation otherwise lacks the sobering dimensions of this twentieth century philosophical interpretation. The Garden story is a “positive and optimistic one.” Immediately following the events in the Garden, human knowledge leads to the development of urban centers, pastoral nomadism, musical instruments, forged metal tools, and manufactured materials. Where other scholars tend to see an embedded critique of Mesopotamian civilization, Zevit sees only the human capacity to create knowledge. These implicit elements of critique aside, the flood and the confusion of languages at Babel explicitly reveal a darker side of human freedom. Readers of the biblical text, like philosophers of the twentieth century, are justified in recognizing that human freedom has its tragic consequences.

Has Zevit pulled back the curtain on these early chapters of Genesis? While his use of philology and historical criticism forces us to reconsider interpretations often taken for granted, his approach does not produce confident conclusions. Does God really create Hawwa, Eve, out of Adam’s penile bone? Genesis 2:21 describes God removing one of Adam’s ribs or ṣelaot. To incorporate this detail into his interpretation, Zevit translates the term ṣela as “lateral bone.” Imagining the baculum as belonging to a category of lateral bones strikes me as a specious argument. But perhaps more pressing is the way this proposed etiology differs from other etiologies involving humans in the Hebrew Bible. Elsewhere, biblical texts use past events to explain cultural institutions or customs.

When God creates Hawwa and gives her to Adam, the text establishes the precedent for familial institutions. “Therefore a man shall leave [Zevit: strengthen/support/help] his father and mother and cling to his woman/wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). However one interprets what the man is doing, this etiology explains the origins of familial structures in the ancient world. Later in Genesis, the patriarch Jacob wrestles with a man until daybreak. Jacob’s hip is wounded by the man, and the text explains: “Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle” (Genesis 32:32). The narrator traces the origins of this dietary tradition to the narrative about Jacob’s wrestling bout at the Jabbok.

What Zevit is proposing is altogether different. By removing Adam’s baculum and closing up the flesh, God forever changes physical features of the male anatomy. The eighteenth century French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck thought organisms could transmit to their offspring characteristics they acquire during their lifetime. However interesting Zevit’s Lamarckian interpretation may be, it seems atypical among biblical etiologies, if not anachronistic. Do other etiologies in the Bible betray a belief in the inheritance of acquired traits? One does not readily come to mind. Moreover, it seems counterintuitive that Israelites would have believed one could inherit acquired characteristics given the regularity with which they circumcised male penises. Though not a coup de grâce, this thought raises a pressing question about an already tenuous interpretation.

The challenge of interpreting enigmatic details like this one exemplifies the problem inherent in trusting that the tools of our academic disciplines will guide us to some supposed real meaning of the biblical text. Claims about the authentic meaning of any biblical text function best as a marketing strategy — a means of attracting a broad customer base for discussions about textual and sometimes historical interpretation that may otherwise fail to produce intrigue among the general public.

I appreciate that Zevit has produced a book discouraging scholars and the general public from taking for granted the interpretation of this classic biblical text. However, I question the value of perpetuating the misconception that the object of interpretation is to discover the one real meaning of a text. If a text contained only one truly authentic meaning, it seems reasonable to assume such interpretations would have long since been realized. That scholars like Zevit continue to use the tools of their disciplines to construct different plausible historical interpretations of biblical texts should indicate not the inadequacy of their tools, but rather the inadequacy of such a limited understanding of textual meaning. Despite the interesting insights Zevit derives from his imaginative interpretation of Genesis 2-3 — or rather because of them — we are no closer to discovering what really happened in the Garden of Eden.