What Happened in Eden? Alternative Translation Tells a Very Different Story
All modern 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 millenia 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.
All modern concepts of the Garden of Eden stem from a few verses in the biblical Book of Genesis (public domain image)
The Problem with Paronomasia
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 modern 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 summarized in four well-known quotations:
GEN 1: 1 ‘In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’
1: 26 ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves . . .”
2: 8 ‘Yahweh God planted a Garden in Eden which is in the east... ’
5: 24 ‘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 modernized 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-day 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.
Bartolomeu Rubio, The Lord Reprimanding Adam and Eve, ca. 1362 ( Sharon Mollerus / flickr )
God or Gods?
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 emphasized 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 fulness 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.
Many Gods, or God and his heavenly court? ‘Angel of the Revelation’ by William Blake ( public domain )
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.’