All modem concepts of the Garden of Eden stem from a few verses in the biblical Book of Genesis, none of which is entirely free from ambiguity. The ancient Hebraic documents, from which the early part of the Book was compiled, contained simple and basic writing with very few vowels, and none of the modifying inflections, which later, gave flexibility to the language. The absence of vowels lead to this ambiguity; which is why, even today, after millennia of scholarship, no-one knows how the name of God was pronounced. As a result, our Churches vary in their interpretation of YHWH (Yod He Vov He) between the sounds of Yahweh and those of Jehovah - and these are only two of the possibilities.
Another source of ambiguity lies in the fact that early Middle Eastern languages leant heavily on paronomasia to give variety to simple phrases - a form of punning, which allowed several different meanings to be given, to a single set of symbols. In speech, it is probable that slight inflections of tone differentiated between meanings, but in the written word, there is no such indication to help us; and modem students of the Bible, like their predecessors, have to guess at the meanings of many words from the angle of their own preconceived notions of the context.
In all three of the basic, ancient Middle Eastern languages - Hebrew, Sumerian and Babylonian - a scholar with a secular bias would produce a different translation of the same text from that produced by a scholar with a religious bias. This may be very easily illustrated.
The quintessence of the first five chapters of the Book of Genesis may be summarised in four well-known quotations:
In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth:
'God said, "Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves"
'Yahweh God planted a Garden in Eden which is in the east . . :
'Enoch walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him:
These four widely-used quotations are taken from the Jerusalem Bible, first published in 1966 from deeply researched and modernised translations by the Dominican Biblical School in Jerusalem. We consider this magnificent work to be the most authorative and scholarly of all the modern translations ... and yet these simple phrases, which hold the fundamentals of present ay Jewish and Christian teaching, are beset with traps of which the average Church member knows nothing. We shall open our bag of doubts by discussing three of them.
In the first three verses, the English term 'God' is taken from the Hebrew term
= elohim; while, in the fourth, this term is expanded to
= ha elohim, in which ha is the Hebrew equivalent of 'the'.
The problem, here, lies in the fact that elohim is the plural form of el. And, if el originally meant 'god: then elohim should mean 'gods'; and ha elohim should mean 'the gods'.
This plurality is emphasised in our second quotation in which the English singular and plural are strangely mixed. 'God said, "Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves...."
The Jerusalem Bible attempts to extricate itself from a very difficult situation by appending a footnote:
It is possible that this plural form implies a discussion between God and his heavenly court (the angels) ... Alternatively, the plural expresses the majesty and fullness of God's being: the common name for God in Hebrew is Elohim, a plural form. Thus the way is prepared for the interpretation of the Fathers who saw in this text a hint of the Trinity.
With all respect to the Jerusalem Bible's editors, we find this statement as eclectic a piece of reasoning as we have ever met. In essence, what these editors are saying is: The common name for God in Hebrew is ELOHIM - a plural form:
Whereas, what they really mean is: The common name for ELOHIM in English is God - a singular form.
And what if the Hebrew is correct and the English is wrong, as we suspect may be the case. In a situation such as this it would not be unreasonable to choose the Hebrew original as the more likely solution rather than the later translation. It is true that elsewhere in this chapter of Genesis the pronouns referring to the Deity are singular, but this is not unusual in early Middle Eastern languages where the plural is frequently implied. But nearly always, and there are over thirty cases, the noun is in the plural - Elohim. The odd exceptions are where it was necessary to refer to specific singular entities such as EI Shaddai, EI Roi or EI Elyon.
In the early definitive chapters of Genesis, as we have them in biblical form - something is clearly wrong.
meant brightness' or 'shining';
meant 'the bright one';
meant 'the shining one';
meant 'a shining being';
means 'a shining being' - from the Anglo-Saxon AELF;
meant 'an angel'.
the Babylonian the Old Welsh the Old Irish
ELLU ELLYL AILLIL
The singular - El - is a very ancient word with a long, etymological history; and it has a common origin with many other ancient words and languages ? all with a common significant meaning. the Old Cornish
All these terms indicate SHINING or BRIGHTNESS; and, consequently, it is our thesis that the Hebrew El needs to be translated, in the first place, not as 'God', but as THE SHINING ONE. And the plural ELOHIM, a contraction of HA ELOHIM, responsible for so much activity in the early part of Genesis, requires translation as THE SHINING ONES.
If we apply this translation, the four quintessential quotations become:
'In the Beginning, the Shining Ones created the heavens and the earth:
'The Shining Ones said, "Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves . . :"
'Yahweh (The Leader of) the Shining Ones planted a Garden in Eden which is in the east .. :
'Enoch walked with the Shining Ones. Then he disappeared because the Shining Ones took him away:
The Old Testament does not tell us specifically who, or what, these Shining Ones were. But, fortunately, the ancient Sumerian records do, and also certain alternative Hebrew documents which are not well understood by biblical scholars. This confirmatory evidence will appear in later chapters. Another trap that we must mention here, lies in the Hebrew word which had been translated as 'the heavens'. This was ha'shemim, a plural form indicating 'the skies'. Like the Sumerian term an, which could be used for 'skies: or for 'high places: the Hebraic shem could also mean the 'heights'. And SHM was also the root of a word meaning 'plant' or 'vegetation'. In the context of the Garden in Eden, and the descriptions of this, which will follow, we believe that ha'shemim originally meant 'the Highlands' - and 'the planted Highlands', at that.
Similarly, ha'ares which the Jerusalem Bible translates as 'the earth', is capable of being translated as 'the ground' or 'the land'. In comparison with ha'shemim, we believe it should have meant 'the Lowlands'.
The most important problem in these translations, however, after the elucidation of elohim, lies in the Hebrew word bara which is translated as 'created'; and there would be no reason to challenge this if it were not for the parallel Sumerian, and alternative Hebraic, versions which are to follow.
The term bara is only used for 'created' in the sense of a creation by God. Otherwise, it can mean such things as 'cut down timber: 'clear ground' or 'fatten oneself. And if elohim does not mean 'God: but 'the Shining Ones', we ought to look at alternatives. The phrase in the first quotation could have meant - 'the Shining Ones cleared the ground (or felled timber) in the Highlands and the Lowlands' ... because, according to the Sumerian record, that is exactly what they did. But there is another interesting alternative.
In Hebrew, the letter 'B' at the beginning of a word is frequently proclitic - that is, it appears to be an integral part of the word, but is really a form of modifying prefix; the actual word starts at the letter immediately after the initial 'B'. In its power to modify, it can indicate pleasure in verbs of perception, or seeing - and RA is the root of the Hebrew word 'to see'.
Consequently, it would be perfectly justified, in the circumstances, to transcribe , not as bara, but as beraa. The latter would mean looked at with pleasure'. Such an interpretation would alter the first quotation to: 'In the beginning, the Shining Ones looked [down] with pleasure on the Highlands and the Lowlands:
If the Sumerian account is to be believed, that is exactly what these Shining Ones would have done, because they are recorded as having descended onto the top of a commandingly-high mountain - from where they would have been able to see the land in which they were ultimately to settle.
The final problem in these quotations, lies in the third one where the normal elohim is elaborated to YAHWEH EIDHIM. The term YHWH has greatly puzzled Hebrew scholars, and no satisfactory solution has been found for it - at least, not in a religious context. The matter comes to a head in the following passages which precede the Exodus.
[EX 3:1-2 TH VB] Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the Priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush:
The Presence in the bush is described as malak Yahweh, literally a messenger of Yahweh, or angel. But the angel describes himself thus:
[3:6] 'I am; he said 'the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Here, we have a prime example of the difficulties that ensue when the plural term elohim is translated as 'God'. This was an el, a Shining One, an Angel - who was saying, in effect, 'I am the Shining One whom your father knew - and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob as well:
The narrative continues with Moses being pressed to accept a mission to rescue the Israelites from the bondage of the Pharaoh in Egypt, which he was greatly reluctant to do.
[EX 3:13-14 TH VB] Moses said to God, When I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you;' and they ask me 'What is his name?" what shall I say to them?' And God said to Moses, 'Ehyeh - Asher - Ehyeh: He continued, Thus shall you say to the Israelites, Ehyeh sent me to you: The meaning of the Hebrew phrase Ehyeh - Asher - Ehyeh is accepted as being uncertain, having been variously translated as 'I am that I am'; 'I am who I am'; '1 will be what I will be'. By itself, Ehyeh is thought to mean 'I am' or 'I will be'; and, further, that in the third person, Ehyeh changes to Yahweh - or 'he is'. But this is scholarly speculation.
One alternative, which we should like to put forward, is that the term asher does not mean 'who or 'that: in this context; but is cognate with the Sumerian ash meaning 'perfect' or 'one'. Then the full phrase would mean 'I am the perfect one' or perhaps, more likely, 'I am the first [of the Elohim]'. This would be compatible with later claims of 'I am Alpha and Omega - the First and the Last: The term Yahweh might then be an epithet rather than a name, indicating 'He is the first' or The Leader'.
Under this interpretation, which is the one that best fits the Sumerian and alternative Hebraic evidence, there would have been a group of Beings on Earth whose physical characteristics were such that men of two cultures, Semitic and Sumerian, referred to them as 'the Shining Ones'; and the chief among the group, in Hebraic terms, was Yahweh - the Lord.
The emphasis with which it has been found necessary to invest the term elohim, arises from the realisation that to place God (an expression defining the Supreme Deity) in a cultivated plantation, or garden, and to have Him supervising a man in his ploughing, must in the lowest degree be lese majeste, and in the highest pure blasphemy. And yet this is what the Churches have done for centuries. But to record that a group of 'shining beings', who appeared to the indigenous people to have 'god-like qualities', were responsible for making the plantations, and for recruiting local men to do the labouring work, brings a far more rational atmosphere into an emotive arena.
The evidence for this rationalisation is admittedly circumstantial, and there would be no justification for bringing it into serious discussion if the interpretation rested solely on the Genesis text. Fortunately, it is fully supported, in far greater detail, in both the ancient Sumerian literature and in parallel Hebraic documents.
But, before turning to this confirmatory evidence, there is some point in examining the full text of the Genesis passage which refers to the plantations in the Garden. The translation, which we prefer is that given in the Jewish Torah because its scholars worked in the mainstream of Hebraic tradition. That these scholars were also those most likely to be affected by rabbinical interpretation has to be accepted; but, in the event, the relevant Torah passages only differ in minor degree from their equivalents in the Jerusalem Bible.
[GEN 2:4-6 TH VB] ... When the lord God [Yahweh Elohim] made [wrought] earth and heaven - no shrub of the field being yet in the earth and no grains having yet sprouted, because the lord God [Yahweh Elohim] had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth.
This passage is of particular importance because it marks the beginning of an older section of the Old Testament record. The very first chapter of Genesis, and the first four and a half verses of chapter two, were compiled from the Priestly Code, the main body of which was put together in Babylonia in the later part.of the sixth century Be. Half way through chapter 2:4, the authonty changes to the older strata of the Judaic document which is believed to have been compiled in about 850 BC.
Two changes are immediately apparent. First, the expression Elohim is expanded to Yahweh Elohim. This implies that the older document refers to the Being who became westernised as 'God: in the phrase Yahweh Elohim which, in our view, should. be translated as 'Leader of the Shining Ones', or 'Lord of the Shining Ones'. When the Creation story in chapter one was compiled, during the Exile in Babylonia, the term Yahweh was dropped, leaving Elohim on its own - this probably accounts for the pronouns being largely in the singular. It is possible that the later redactor had some suspicion that the chapter referred to the reconstruction of Eden rather than to the whole World, but still had reservations about crediting this to one person.
The second change is more important. In the younger document of the first chapter, the term hara is used which, as we have shown, could have meant 'created: but was more likely to have been bera'a meaning looked with pleasure upon'. In the passage quoted above, from the older document, hara does not appear - it is replaced by = ashweth meaning 'wrought: as in the working of iron. This word means 'formed by work or labour: and implies the careful and piecemeal construction of plantations in the Highlands and the Lowlands, rather than the instantaneous creation of the first chapter. And this is far more in keeping with our conception of the enterprise in Eden.
The passage continues by stating that the Lord of the Shining Ones 'had not sent rain upon the earth ... but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth ....
The word 'flow' has been taken from the Hebrew ad or ed which has been translated, alternatively, as 'mist: 'cloud' or 'fountain'. But it also has the very simple meaning of 'surface water'; and Ball, who was the expert of his time in the study of Genesis, was convinced that the ultimate source of the term was the Sumerian de, the archaic form of which:
clearly indicated the 'irrigation of a field. Its unequivocal meaning was 'to water' and 'irrigation'.
Even today, country gardens in the Middle East tend to be more practical than ornamental, and the cultivation of food crops is their primary concern.
The passage continues beyond our quotation with the 'formation of man by Yahweh Elohim, and that incident has no place here. It is described far more competently in Sumerian and Akkadian sources. The chapter then reverts to descriptive material.
[GEN 2:8 TH VB] The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed. And from the ground, the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad. A river issues from Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.
The Garden in Eden was an irrigated area of cultivation containing grain fields, and a section of orchard; and other trees to shade the crops from the hot sun. This is emphasised by the reference to the need for it to be tilled, or ploughed.
It should be borne in mind that the Garden was not 'of Eden', a phrase which has been euphemistically adopted, but 'in Eden, and located in the eastern part of Eden. It was possible, therefore, for a river to issue from Eden to water the Garden; and, on reaching the garden, to divide into four branches for the purpose of irrigation. The allegorical allusion to names such as Pison, Gehon, Hiddekel and Euphrates, and the countries through which each ran, can safely be taken to be a later embellishment.
Eden was that broad district of the Near East in which the Garden was located: the Jerusalem Bible states that 'Eden is a geographical name but the place cannot be identified: As far as the Book of Genesis is concerned, that statement is true; but other sources are more specific and, later, we shall suggest a location - and even point out the village which still bears the name of Ehdin.
But for now we shall leave the laconic passages of Genesis and turn to the far more rewarding, alternative, accounts which bring to life the Garden in Eden - and the Shining Ones who constructed it.
We shall make a start, in this enterprise of discovery, with the Sumerian epics in Chapter 3 The Genius of The Few.