Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden (The Ancient Near Eastern Motifs behind)

Genesis opens with the story of God's having planted a garden in the East called Eden. He evidently places two trees within this garden, one is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the other is the Tree of Life. God then stations the Cherubim (winged sphinxes) to deny access to the tree by man. This brief article will explore the Ancient Near Eastern motifs and concepts lying behind Genesis' portrayal of the events.
Humanist scholars understand that the Hebrews did not create their concepts in isolation, they drew from and were influenced by the religious concepts of their day. My research suggests that the Sumeriologist Samuel Noah Kramer was correct, the Sumerians had in their literature, two millennia earlier, anticipated many of the motifs and concerns appearing the in the Hebrew Bible, especially the book of Genesis.
"The literature created by the Sumerians left its deep impress on the Hebrews, and one of the thrilling aspects of reconstructing and translating Sumerian belles-letteres consists in tracing resemblances and parallels between Sumerian and Biblical literary motifs. To be sure, the Sumerians could not have influenced the Hebrews directly, for they had ceased to exist long before the Hebrew people came into existence. But there is little doubt that the Sumerians had deeply influenced the Canaanites, who preceeded the Hebrews in the land that later came to known as Palestine, and their neighbors, such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Hurrians and Arameans." (pp.143-4, "The First Biblical Parallels," Samuel Noah Kramer. History Begins at Sumer, Twenty-Seven 'Firsts' in Man's Recorded History. Garden City, New York. Doubleday Anchor Books.[1956] 1959, pbk.)
One gets the notion from Genesis's narrator that by "eating a fruit" one can "obtain knowledge." This concept appears in Sumerian myths. Kramer has noted that Enki, the god of Wisdom, desires "TO KNOW" about several plants in his wife's garden. His assistant does the actual picking of the plants and presents them to Enki for eating. Later, Enki's enraged wife, Ninhursag, learns what has happened. Having eaten of her plants without her permission, she curses her husband with death. Enki becomes deathly sick and feels the pain of death beginning in his various body parts. Eventually a fox is successful in persuading Ninhursag to relent, and heal Enki. She asks him what part of his body "hurts" and then makes either a god or goddess to heal that part. 
Note  the parallels to Adam and Eve. Adam does not pick the fruit, another does. A wife is seen as bringing about the downfall of her husband and his impending death for eating forbidden fruit. The important concept, however, is that the god "of Wisdom," before eating each plant, asks "What is this ?" then he "obtains knowledge by eating" the plant. Note also that both Adam and Enki eat of a Tree-
"Enki in the marshlands looks about, looks about, he says to his messenger Isimud: "Of the plants their fate I would decree, their 'heart' I would know; What, pray is this (plant) ? What, pray, is this (plant) ?" His messenger Isimud answers: "My king, the tree-plant," he says to him; He cuts it down for him, he (Enki) eats it." (p.148, Kramer)
Another Sumerian myth about "the Queen of Heaven," Inanna, has her speaking to her brother, Utu the sun-god, to the effect that she has no knowledge about love and sex, she requests that he accompany her in a descent to the earth, to the mountains, where she will eat the various plants there. It is only after having eaten these assorted, un-named plants that Inanna now possesses knowledge about love and sex in order to perform her wifely functions (in hymns she is "the bride" of Dumuzi and the goddess of Love and of Sex).
Inanna speaking to Utu-
"I am unfamiliar with womanly matters...I am unfamiliar with womanly matters, with sexual intercourse...kissing...Whatever exists in the mountains, let us eat that. Whatever exists in the hills, let us eat that. In the mountains of herbs, in the mountains of cedars, the mountains of cypresses, whatever exists in the mountains, let us eat that. After the herbs have been eaten, after the cedars have been eaten, put your hand in my hand, and then escort me to my house...Escort me to my mother-in-law, to Ninsumun..." ("A shir-namshub to Utu" [Utu F], The Electronic Texts Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University, England;
Professor Leick, alluding to the above verses, also understands that Genesis' motif of knowledge being obtained by eating a fruit is indebted to earlier Sumerian myths :
"Inanna and Utu is a mythical incident in a Sumerian hymn (BM 23631), which explains how Inanna came to be the goddess of sexual love. The goddess asks her brother Utu to help her go down to the kur where various plants and trees are growing. She wants to eat them in order to know the secrets of sexuality of which she is yet deprived: 'What concerns women, (namely) man, I do not know. What concerns women: love-making I do not know.' Utu seems to comply and Inanna tastes of the fruit (the same motif is also employed in Enki and Ninhursag and of course in Genesis I) which brings her knowledge." (p. 91. "Inanna and Utu."  Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London. Routledge. 1991)
We see now, that eating does impart knowledge in the Sumerian texts.
The Sumerians and later Babylonians and Assyrians all had a concern about the Who, What, Why, Where, When and How of Man.  They wanted to know how did man come to be created by the gods ? What was man's purpose in life ?  Why did he experience death ? Was there ever a time that he had a chance for obtaining immortality ? What happened after death ?
All of these issues are addressed in Genesis, but not to the satisfaction of some moderns. We must remind ourseves of the adage that a composition reflects the age in which it was composed. I have suggested elsewhere that Genesis is a composition of the 6th century BCE (the Exile), but incorporating some pre-exilic notions preserved in Sumerian (3rd millennia BCE) as well as Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian religious literature of the 9th-6th centuries BCE.
Now to address the questions of Who, What, Why, Where, When and How.
The Mesopotamians understood man had been created to be a servant or slave to the gods, to work the earth as an agriculturalist (Adam is an agriculturalist), making and clearing drainage ditches, growing and harvesting food, and then presenting it to the gods to eat via sacrifices. In making man, the lesser gods obtained fredom from their earthly labors (their toil being taken over by man), they entered into "the resting" of the greater gods.
Man's purpose in life then, was to serve the gods, to keep their bellies full.
According to the Adapa myth, Man, in the form of Adapa, a priest serving Enki at Eridu in southern Mesopotamia, had an opportunity once, to obtain immortality by consuming food and drink offered to him by Anu in heaven. Being forewarned by his god, Enki, not to eat anything in heaven or he would surely die, Adapa passed up the chance at immortality. Because of his obedience to his god, he lost out on immortality for himself and mankind. Enki is portrayed as "giving man (Adapa) wisdom and knowledge, but denying him immortality," for he wants man to serve him. The Hebrews evidently transformed this motif into man "disobeying his God" and eating the forbidden fruit, thus loosing a chance at immortality.
Heidel, on Adapa-
"He had given him wisdom, (but) he had not given him eternal life." (p.148, "The Adapa Legend," Alexander Heidel. The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. [1942, 1951], 1993. ISBN 0-226-32399-4 pbk)
It is of note that no "fruit tree" appears as a motif in the Adapa Legend. But, we must allow the Hebrews some artistic freedom, in reformating and transforming the earlier concepts and motifs into a new story with a different understanding of the relationship between Man, God and the Cosmos, as noted by Lambert who made the following observation:
"The authors of ancient cosmologies were essentially compilers. Their originality was expressed in new combinations of old themes, and in new twists to old ideas."
(p.107, W.G. Lambert, "A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis," [1965], in Richard S. Hess & David T. Tsumra, Editors. I Studied Inscriptions From Before the Flood. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 1994)
Sandars on Tammuz and Ningishzida (Gizzida) as heavenly tree constellations or stars :
"Unlike Utnapishtim, the Babylonian Noah, who won eternal life for himself through his obedience to a god, in Adapa mankind was given the chance of eternal life and lost it through obedience to a god...Of the two lesser gods, Tammuz and Gizzida, who stand at the east gate of heaven, Tammuz has descended from Dumuzi, and Gizzida was a god of healing sometimes connected with the underworld. Gizzida was called Lord of the Tree of Truth, as Dumuzi-Tammuz was Lord of the Tree of Life -trees that were stars planted in heaven." (p. 167. "Introduction to Adapa: the Man." N. K. Sandars. Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia. London. Penguin Books. 1971. Paperback)
Is it possible that Genesis' two trees planted in the Garden of Eden, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, may be reflections of Tammuz and Ningishzida as two heavenly trees (they being vegetation deities) ?  Did the "east gate" of Anu's heaven, guarded by Tammuz and Ningishzida come to be transformed into Eden "in the east," and the two gods became associated with the Cherubim, the two winged sphinxes
frequently portrayed with sacred trees in Canaanite and Phoenician art
forms of the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587 BCE) ?

The Sumerians saw the gods as capricious, vain, and needing their super-egos to be constantly flattered with bombastic hymns of praise, and soothing music to ease their hearts. 
The Hebrews evidently had no problem with portraying Yahweh-Elohim as justified in denying immortality for man because he ate of a tree forbidden to him (the Tree of Knowledge). Some Moderns today struggle with the notion of a God denying man immortality because of his attaining knowledge of Good and Evil (he being portrayed as childlike and naive in the scenario).
The Hebrews, evidently, understood that man was different from all other creatures, he had a sense of right and wrong, or sin, nakedness was wrong. The animals devoured each other and were naked, they had no sense of justice or shame.  How to explain man possessing these unique qualities ? They explained it by transforming the Sumerian myths about knowledge being obtained by eating, into a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, giving man knowledge about right and wrong.
Some scholars have speculated that the Tree of Knowledge was a Fig Tree because shortly after eating of the tree, Adam and Eve sew clothes or aprons for themselves of fig leaves, realizing that they are naked (Genesis 3:7).
In Psalm 92 the righteous are likened to a palmtree or cedar planted in Yahweh's sanctuary. Cedars don't bear fruit to nourish men, but date-palms do, perhaps the date-palm is envisioned, it lives for hundreds of years and is an important food source in oasis villages.
"The righteous flourish like a palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD, they flourish in the courts of God. They still bring forth fruit in old age, they are full of sap and green..."
(Ps 92:12-14 RSV)
In Ancient Near Eastern art forms a "sacred tree" appears flanked by two winged sphinxes, said creatures being determined by Humanist scholars to be the source of the Hebrew Cherubim. In Phoenician art forms they guard a stylized Lotus Tree, drawing from Egyptian motifs. In Egypt the Lotus was associated with a restoration of a good spiritual life after death in the Egyptian paradise. The blossom recedes into the water at night, but with daylight it rises up out of the water in full bloom, only to recede again when night approaches. The dead are frequently shown with a Lotus blossom held near their nose, to show they too will arise from death.
The Assyrians on the other hand tended to show a stylized Palm Tree with an intricate vine lacework about it, sometimes with winged sphinxes. The biblical motif of the righteous being likened to a palm suggests a borrowing of Assyrian motifs.
Conservative scholarship has provided, I suspect, the correct insights as to the reason for God's portrayal, the Hebrews wanted to transform the capricious, fickle gods into a Loving, Caring God, who wanted only the best for Man, his pinnacle of creation. So Genesis is a polemic against the Babylonian concepts of the gods and their despising man. They made man to serve them in toil and fear, to obtain their rest from labor. Genesis sees God in a completely different light, as noted by Wenham:
"Viewed with respect to its negatives, Gen 1:1-2:3 is a polemic against the mythico-religious concepts of the ancient Orient...The concept of man here is markedly different from standard Near Eastern mythology: man was not created as the lackey of the gods to keep them supplied with food; he was God's representative and ruler on earth, endowed by his creator with an abundant supply of food and expected to rest every seventh day from his labors. Finally, the seventh day is not a day of ill omen as in Mesopotamia, but a day of blessing and sanctity on which normal work is laid aside.
In contradicting the usual ideas of its time, Gen 1 is also setting out a positive alternative. It offers a picture of God, the world, and's true nature. He is the apex of the created order: the whole narrative moves toward the creation of man. Everything is made for man's benefit..." (p.37, Vol. 1, "Explanation," Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15   [Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols.], Word Books, Waco, Texas 1987, ISBN 0-8499-0200-2)
Egyptian motifs portrayed the righteous dead enjoying eternal life, which was sustained by a
Tree of Life and a Spring of Life
(or Water of Life), rather like the New Testament Book of Revelation's notion that the righteous dead will be sustained by Trees of Life and Water of Life. Revelation portrays God's throne as a source of a stream of life-giving freshwater, whereas earlier (ca. 2nd millenium BCE) Mesopotamian art shows the god Enki seated upon a throne decorated with pots, from each of which, pour two streams of life-giving water to mankind (He being a god of Wisdom [He gave wisdom to mankind in the person of Adapa, but denied him and consequently, mankind, immortality, just like Yahweh did to Adam], his throne being the source of the freshwaters which sustain the living).

Revelation 22:1-2 (RSV)
"Then he showed me the river of  the water of life, bright as crystal flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its tweleve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."
It is my understanding that the Hebrews were attempting to explain how man came to be different from the beasts, possessing a sense of justice or right and wrong and shame. They transformed the Ancient Near Eastern Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian motifs and concepts into a new story about the relationship between God, Man and the Cosmos.
They had two trees, one of Life and immortality, and one of knowledge. The concept of knowledge being attained via eating appears to be Mesopotamian (ultimately, Sumerian), so too the notion of eating a fruit to attain immortality (the Adapa and the South Wind myth).
The surprise is that the Egyptian Lotus (combined with the Papyrus into a Sacred Tree of the Syro-Canaanite art forms), symbolic of Eternal Life, came to be transformed by the Phoenicians and Canaanites into a Tree of Life, who's iconography became a part of the Temple at Jerusalem (cf. the so-called Iron Age II "proto-aeolic" pillars). Egyptian solar imagery (Lotuses and Papyrus plants) and Mesopotamian beliefs (sacred Palm Trees) are apparently fused and behind Genesis' Two Trees.
Bibliography :
Alexander Heidel. The Babylonian Genesis. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. [1942, 1951], 1993.
Samuel Noah Kramer. History Begins at Sumer, Twenty-Seven 'Firsts' in Man's Recorded History. Garden City, New York. Doubleday Anchor Books.[1956] 1959.
W.G. Lambert, "A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis," [1965], in Richard S. Hess & David T. Tsumra, Editors, I Studied Inscriptions From Before the Flood. Winona Lake, Indiana, Eisenbrauns, 1994.
Gwendolyn Leick. A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. London. Routledge. 1991.
N. K. Sandars. Poems of Heaven and Hell From Ancient Mesopotamia. London. Penguin Books. 1971.
Gordon J. Wenham. Genesis 1-15   [Word Biblical Commentary, 2 vols.], Word Books. Waco, Texas 1987.
("A shir-namshub to Utu" [Utu F], The Electronic Texts Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University, England;


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