Eden by Dexter Callender

Biblical Eden’s rich and complex fabric of interwoven themes and images, which reflects the Bible’s broader cultural context, grips the imagination with fundamental questions of time, narrative, and human experience.

What does the Eden narrative signify?

The Sumerian word edin, “steppe, plain,” and the Sumerian Dilmun myth suggest to some that biblical Eden was a place in southern Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic opens with the gods digging the irrigation canals of the steppe and plain, including the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, before passing the work on to humans, whom they created for this purpose. Similarly, in Genesis the garden is planted in Eden by the Lord, who placed the first man in it to work and to keep it. Ezekiel calls Eden the “garden of God” (Ezek 28:13; also Isa 51:3), and its subterranean water source in Genesis reflects other ancient Near Eastern descriptions of the divine abode. The garden oasis was an important symbol of life in the arid climate of the ancient Near East (see Joel 2:3), and its association with the temple, the “house” of the Lord, presents the image of Eden as a model for the human encounter with divinity (see Ezek 47:1-12; Zech 14:8).

Life, death, knowledge, motive, power, identity, and sexuality are among the principal ideas and images in this biblical story of origins. Christian tradition understands the Eden story as the basis for the doctrine of “original sin.” (Though Judaism sees no notion of original sin in it.) Other biblical texts suggest that “knowledge of good and evil” can signify moral, sexual, comprehensive, or mature knowledge. Some believe the story commemorates a major cultural development: the transition to agriculture. The philosopher Immanuel Kant saw in the narrative human development from animal instinct to free choice, reason, and their consequences. Others find a more existential description of human alienation from God, the separation from our initial encounter with the world as a value-free state of consciousness.

Eden is called “paradise,” a word derived from the Persian pardes (a walled park or garden), which found its way into Greek as paradeisos; this, in turn, was used by the Greek translators of Genesis to translate the Hebrew word gan, “garden.” Rabbinic interpreters used PARDES as an acronym for the four interpretive levels (corresponding to each of the four consonants, p, r, d, and s) of biblical literature, from the plain sense to the mystical—the deepest level of meaning, which reestablishes direct contact with the divine.

Who is the talking serpent?

The enigmatic, secret-revealing serpent and its relationship to the Lord reflect a diverse and ambiguous array of traditions associated with life, death, and the disclosure of divine secrets. Many students of the Eden narrative are familiar with the Gilgamesh epic’s tale of a serpent snatching the plant of eternal life from Gilgamesh. The serpent in Gen 3, who is ambiguously called “crafty” or “clever” (also a play on the Hebrew term for nakedness), reveals the Lord’s true, but hidden, motive for prohibiting consumption from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In another Mesopotamian myth, the primal human Adapa misses the opportunity for eternal life when Enki, god of wisdom, tricks him out of eating the food and water of eternal life offered by the god Anu. Likewise, in the Mesopotamian flood narrative, Enki reveals the secret plan of the gods to humans, angering the high god Enlil.

The Hebrew Bible portrays serpents and serpentine creatures both positively and negatively (see, for example, Num 21:6-9). Flying serpents represent danger (Isa 14:29, Isa 30:6), but they are also associated with the heavenly court (Isa 6:2-7). Similarly, the divine being ha-Satan, “the adversary,” in Job 1-2 and Zech 3:1-2 is a member of the heavenly court who participates with the Lord in the administration of disaster and judgment (see Num 22:22; 1Chr 21:1). In later traditions, the serpentine “dragon,” associated with the sea and precosmic chaos (see Ps 74:13-14; Isa 27:1-2; Job 3:8) and Eve’s claim of having been deceived (Gen 3:13) combine to connect the serpent of Eden with Satan (Rev 12:9-10, Rev 20:2, Rev 10; John 8:44; 2Cor 11:3).

Dexter Callender, "Eden", n.p. [cited 20 Mar 2018]. Online:


Dexter Callender

Dexter Callender
Associate Professor, University of Miami

Dexter Callender is associate professor of religion at the University of Miami, Florida. He is the author of Adam in Myth and History (Eisenbrauns, 2001). He specializes in myth theory and ancient Near Eastern literature and history.

Eden is the location of a primordial garden, from which humans were expelled for gaining the knowledge of good and evil.

Did you know…?

  • “Eden” may be related to the Sumerian word edin, “plain, steppe” (Akkadian edinu).
  • The tree of the knowledge of good and evil may signify moral, sexual, comprehensive, or mature knowledge.
  • The serpent is “crafty” or “clever”—in Hebrew a play on words related to nakedness.
  • The serpent’s revelation of the Lord’s motives was apparently true.
  • Nowhere in the Eden narrative is the serpent called Satan or the devil.
  • Although Mesopotamian Enki, the god of wisdom, acts in ways that have been compared to the serpent in Genesis, in the Eden-like Sumerian Dilmun myth he is featured as the creator deity. Enki’s domain is Apsu, the fresh-water deep that nourishes the earth, and he is typically depicted with watercourses shooting forth from his shoulders.
  • A variant tradition of the Eden narrative appears in Ezekiel 28, where the king of Tyre is likened to one of the inhabitants of Eden. There is debate over whether this figure was the first human or a divine being.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

An ancient Mesopotamian text which includes stories of creation and flood that parallel Biblical accounts.

A copper-mining country mentioned in ancient Mesopotamian texts, probably located near the Persian Gulf.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A major German philosopher from the 18th century who emphasized the role of reason in constructing beliefs about ethics and the nature of the world.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

The Christian idea that humanity is inherently sinful because of Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden, found in the very first chapters of the Bible.

The first major civilization of ancient Mesopotamia, arising in the fifth millennium B.C.E. and lasting through the early second millennium B.C.E.; the Sumerians invented the first writing system, cuneiform.

Ezek 28:13

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Isa 51:3

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Joel 2:3

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Ezek 47:1-12

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Zech 14:8

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In Mesopotamian myth, the first of the ancient sages, a human-fish hybrid who bypassed a chance at immortality.

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

The Mesopotamian god of water and wisdom.

Sumerian god who decrees the fates of men and grants kingship.

A Mesopotamian king from ~2500 B.C.E.; he became the hero of a major epic poem and was addressed as a deity in later religious texts.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Gen 3

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Num 21:6-9

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Isa 14:29

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Isa 30:6

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Isa 6:2-7

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Job 1-2

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Zech 3:1-2

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Num 22:22

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1Chr 21:1

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Ps 74:13-14

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Isa 27:1-2

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Job 3:8

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Gen 3:13

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Rev 12:9-10

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Rev 20:2

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Rev 10

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John 8:44

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2Cor 11:3

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The Mesopotamian language, written on cuneiform, that was used by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

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