A word about my general approach: it might best be described, at least initially, as a kind of highly speculative, existential, literary-theological brainstorming in which no idea is too bad to publicly display in order to see what, if anything, sticks. The translation is Robert Alter’s.
Here are some thought and notes and questions:
1. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, to the east, and He placed there the human he had fashioned.”
God shows up here as farmer/gardener. He plants the garden without any mention of hands-off voice-commanding or mediating figures. He just plain plants the garden. The earlier implication in vs. 5 was that the ground was naked and plant-less because (1) God had not caused rain to fall, but also because (2) “there was no human to till the soil,” as if humans were needed in order for the garden to get planted in the first place. There’s no mention of that here, though. Humans get created first, then the garden gets planted (so there is a sequential priority), but humans get the role of tenders rather than planters.
God plants “a garden in Eden, to the east.” Eden does not appear to be co-existensive with the world. It may not even be the case that the “garden” is co-extensive with Eden. Translations vary, but the general drift seems to be that, like nesting dolls of increasing size, the human is put in the garden, the garden is put in Eden, and Eden is put in the east (of the world). We’ll come back to this more when we talk about the rivers.
Note: Some might read this as a boon for the whole “no death before the fall” problem (there could have been death outside the garden in the north, south, and west of the world!), but in my view that whole “problem” is a pseudo-problem anyway, generated by a too-contemporary reading of what’s going in these early chapters of Genesis. So I’m neither worried about this problem nor find this to be a potential “solution” to that problem.
But I am very interested how this contextualizing of the human in the garden in the world hints at a much bigger picture just off stage.
God “places” or “puts” the human in the garden. In some ways, this final business of “placing” the human puts the “da” in his “sein” and completes God’s work of fashioning a human being (or dasein). To be human is not just to have been inflated by the divine breath, but to have been “there’d” by God into a particular place. To be human is have this “there” circulating through your lungs, your eyes, your ears, your hands, your blood, your nerves, etc. The “there’ing” is essential to this circulation that is a human way of being. I’m tempted to anticipate and suggest that death (spiritual and physical) has to do with a failure of our ability to “here” ourselves (wherever our “here” is). More later.
2. ”And the Lord God caused to sprout from the soil every tree lovely to look at and good for food . . .”
Is it the case that the garden consisted entirely of trees? They’re the only plant mentioned at any rate. Perhaps trees function metonymically here for all the Eden-grade plants. But also, is it the case that the garden consisted entirely of trees that were lovely to look at and good for food? Is this “and” meant to be serial (the garden had some trees that were and lovely and some that were good for food) or are all the trees both lovely and good to eat?
Note that an aesthetic value is embedded by God at a root level in the creation of the garden itself: the trees are lovely to look at. Aesthetic concerns are not here peripheral or supernumerary or an after-thought thrown in for final effect. In fact, being “lovely to look at” is given priority here over the edibility-function of the fruit insofar as it is listed first. Edibility is what’s tacked on as the handmaiden of aesthetics.
Also, what do we make of the fact that eating is part of the plan from the beginning, that consumption is also embedded by God at a root level in the creation of the garden? There’s no eating without death. Maybe only poor little apples and pears find themselves on the chopping block here with bunnies and people living happily in perpetuity, but still that’s a far cry from a static and benign garden where everyone and everything gets along and lasts forever. Stuff is getting eaten here. And, moreover, God intends for it to get eaten.
We can probably induce Jim to say more about this, but coming to grips with the role of food and teeth and digestion in this story strikes me as central to understanding the entire narrative.
3. “. . . and the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge, good and evil.”
I don’t know what all to say about these trees. Consult your commentaries, people!
From Alter’s (and the NRSV’s) translation, the text technically only locates the tree of life in the “midst” of the garden. Talk about the tree of knowledge is then tacked on imprecisely to that initial description (as is the following description of the tree of knowledge as “good and evil”). Are both trees in the middle/midst? Or just the tree of life? Is “midst” here the same thing as “middle”?
The New Interpreter’s Bible notes the “awkward syntax” of this section and offers a couple of suggestions in light of them: (1) this may suggest that stories with two different trees have here been combined into a single story, or (2) this may suggest (as some think) that “only one tree is intended (‘the tree of life, namely, the tree of knowledge’).” The first is intriguing, though I don’t know what we’d do with it. The second is even more intriguing, but seems unlikely in light of the way the text later seems to clearly distinguish between the two (“They’ve eaten the one, station a flaming sword to keep them from the other!”).
Okay: tree of life, then. What kind of life? Are we talking quantity here? Quality? If so, what kind of quality? What distinguished the tree of life’s kind of life from the already given breath of life’s kind of life? What does it mean that you have to eat the tree (or its fruit at least) in order to have that life that the tree bears? Does this tree of life gel very well with Lehi’s tree of life? I’m hesitant to see the relationship as straightforward.
What about the tree of knowledge then? The NIB commentary sees the expression “good and evil” as idiomatic, as an expression in which the words do not have their normal meanings. They argue that the NIV translates the same phrase in Genesis 24:50 as meaning something more like “one way or another.” In that case, we’d have something like: “the tree of knowledge, one way or another!” Which, to be honest, I kind of like.
Further, what kind of knowledge are we are talking about here? I don’t even know where to start in laying out the potential candidates. The one thing we seem to know from later on is that this knowledge has somehow to do with becoming more like the gods.
The NIB suggests that, functionally, the tree of knowledge, coupled with the command to not eat it, marks the limit of creatureliness. The idea is that being a creat(ed)ture depends on the imposition of some limit to one’s createdness.
It’s also worth noting that the NIB really poo-poos the idea that the tree of knowledge has anything to do with sex: “Any meaning assigned to the tree must recognize that it has to do with a ‘knowledge’ that God has. This makes it unlikely that it has to do with sexual knowledge/experience . . . or knowledge of/experience with sin or wickedness.” Though, to be fair, my conception of God may be much more plastic on this point than the NIB’s.
4. “Now a river runs out of Eden to water the garden and from there splits off into four streams. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is goodly, bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. And the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through all the land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, the one that goes to the east of Ashur. And the fourth river is Euphrates.”
A couple of final notes about the river(s).
The river flows out of Eden. It binds the garden and Eden to the rest of the world. When it splits into four rivers, some of the river names are associated with recognizable locations in the Middle-East, and some of them use names we don’t know anything about. This splitting of names into the identifiable and unidentifiable also (1) hints that the world we know about and can name is not the entire world, even as (2) it identifies concrete geographical linkage between the world we can name and Eden.
The NIB says: “Moreover, the worlds out beyond Eden already have names, suggesting that they were believed to be inhabited (which would coincide with the fuller population in chap. 4).” This localization of Eden and the concomitant “there-ing” of the garden in relation to the rest of the off-stage but hinted at world is important, I think, in relation to what was said before.
Finally, we’re told that the river “waters the garden.” Here, the river does the watering, not the rain from the sky or the water welling up, pre-garden, from the earth. What do you make of this shift? Neither earth nor sky but river?