John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

(Mis)Translations That Matter: Eden Narrative edition

J. Elliott LeinComment

Think you know the Bible's Creation story pretty well? What if I told you it doesn't include people named either Adam or Eve, that it doesn't position women as secondary, and God doesn't use any ribs in the process?

I prepared a reading for our church's Adult Formation class on the Eden Narrative (Genesis 2:4b-3:24) and I now have plenty more content for another round of “Mistranslations That Matter.” I used Everett Fox's amazing translation as the foundation of the text, then made changes based on commentaries and looking carefully at the underlying Hebrew in consideration of what I wanted to emphasize. What came out was 1) a pretty decent little retelling (IMHO) that attempts to honor the original Hebrew words and feel as much as possible, and 2) a new list of commonly mistranslated words! Here we go...

In the context of the Bible, this is the second creation story that follows the first one in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. It is traditionally thought to be written earlier, but some now consider it to be later. Regardless, it has a unique perspective and purpose that differs from the first account. Bear that in mind as you read, and look for the (mis)translation lists after each of the seven scenes in the story!

SCENE 1: The Forming of Humankind

At the time of YHWH, God’s making of land and skies,
no shrub of the field was yet on the land,
no grasses of the field had yet sprouted,
for YHWH, God, had not made it rain upon the land
and there was no earthling to till the earth—
but a flow would well up from the earth
and water the whole surface of the earth;
YHWH, God, sculpted the earthling from the dust of the earth,
he blew into its nostrils the breath of life,
and the earthling became a living soul.

  • YHWH, God: The Tetragrammaton, the unique and unpronounceable Hebrew name for God, is used in this second creation story along with the generic elohiym for gods or God. This is in contrast to the first story where only Elohiym is used, and is one of the reasons that the two are seen to come from different communities and time periods.

  • land and skies: “earth and heaven” is switched in order from the first story. They can also be translated land and skies with equal accuracy, which allowed me to use earth for h’adamah.

  • earthling to till the earth: the h’adam is the generic word for human/humankind, and comes directly from the world for soil/earth h’adamah. Following Phyllis Trible, the creature can be understood as an “un-sexed being” at this stage, which is found also in other early origin stories and Plato. I use “earthling” for h’adam until differentiated in verse 2:23 and then use “human.” “Adam” is not used as a proper name except briefly in the genealogy in Genesis chapter 5 (by a different author).

  • living soul: Often translated “living being,” the Hebrew here is the word for both being and soul (nephesh). Unlike in Greek thought, the Hebrews did not see the mind/soul and body as separate entities, but as a unified whole. Breath + body = soul.

SCENE 2: The Planting of the Garden

YHWH, God, planted a Garden of Pleasure in days of old,
and placed there the earthling whom he had formed.
YHWH, God, caused to spring up from the soil
every kind of tree that was pleasing to the sight
and good for food,
and the Tree of Life in the center of the Garden,
and the Tree of the Discerning of Good and Bad.

• • •

YHWH, God, took the human and placed him
in the Garden of Pleasure,
to work it and to watch it.
YHWH, God, commanded the human, saying,
 “From every tree of the Garden you may eat—yes, eat!
but from the Tree of the Discerning of Good and Bad
you must not eat!
For on the day that you eat from it, you shall die—yes, die!”

  • Garden of Pleasure: the name eden denotes fertility, and has connotations of luxuriance and bliss, paradise. A place where humans walked in perfect harmony with the divine and all creation.

  • in days of old: the phrase “in the east” can also be translated temporally rather than geographically, as it is elsewhere in the Bible (see “from of old” in Micah 5:2).

  • center of the Garden: using “center” rather than “midst” aids in understanding the specific location. This likely applies to both trees, a common structure, which could lead to some confusion!

  • Discerning of Good and Bad: this “knowing” can also be discerning, choosing among. What to do with it—wisdom. Could be a merism describing everything between “good and bad.” “Bad” is equally valid a translation as “evil,” and was chosen for the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh.

  • on the day that you eat: can be understood as conditional “if” rather than referring to an actual day. A threat of death as consequence rather than a formal death sentence

SCENE 3: Forming Human Relationships

Now YHWH, God, said,
 “It is not good that the earthling is alone;
I will make a mighty-helper corresponding to it.”

So YHWH, God, formed from the earth
every living-thing of the field and
every bird of the heavens,
and brought each to the earthling to see what it would call it;
whatever the earthling called each living creature
that became its name.
The earthling called-out names
for every herd-animal
and for the birds of the heavens
and for every living-thing of the field,
but for the earthling,
there could be found none corresponding to it.

So YHWH, God, cast a deep sleep upon the earthling so it slept,
he took one of its sides and closed up the flesh there.
And YHWH, God, built up the side that he had taken from the
earthling into a woman;
and he brought her to the earthling.

The earthling said,
 “This one at last
is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman,
for from Man was she taken.”

Hence a man leaves his father and mother
and clings to his woman,
so that they become one flesh.

  • mighty-helper: the Hebrew ezer is used throughout the Bible for strength coming to aid, usually God for people. The connotation is not “assistant,” which is what the KJV “helpmeet” sounds like, but at minimum an equal in strength and power.
  • corresponding to it: The emphasis is on similarity. God is searching for one the human can relate to on exactly the same level, which cannot be fulfilled apparently by either God or any other species on earth.
  • one of its sides: t’zela means the side of a building or mountain elsewhere in Scripture, not rib. The KJV introduced this error by reading one meaning from ambiguous Greek/Latin words in earlier translations which could have been understood either way.
  • Woman/Man: The isha “woman” is named as distinct before the ish “man” is. Since marriage relationships aren’t made explicit in Scripture (and marriage itself was not known as a sacred bond until the Council of Trent in 1563), I use the clearer Woman/Man rather than Wife/Husband.

SCENE 4: The Test

Now the two of them, the human and his woman, were nude,
yet they were not ashamed.
Now the snake was more shrewd
than all the living-things of the field
that Yhwh, God, had made.

It said to the woman:
“Even though God said:
‘You are not to eat from any of the trees in the Garden...’”
The woman said to the snake:
“From the fruit of the trees in the Garden we may eat—
 but from the fruit of the tree
that is in the center of the Garden God has said:
‘You are not to eat from it
and you are not to touch it,
lest you die.’”
The snake said to the woman:
“Die? You will not die!
Rather, God knows
that on the day that you eat from it,
your eyes will be opened
and you will become like gods,
discerning good and bad.”

The woman saw that the tree was good for eating
and that it was beautiful to the eyes,
and the tree was desirable for wisdom.
She took from its fruit and ate
and gave also to her man beside her,
and he ate.

The eyes of the two of them were opened
and they knew then that they were nude.
They sewed fig leaves together
and made themselves loincloths.

  • nude/shrewd: Dr. Fox cleverly surfaces the rhyming wordplay of the Hebrew behind these paired descriptions.
  • snake: a fellow creation of God’s, but seemingly in conflict with him, the serpent is crafty, disloyal, and lying—more of a trickster than “Satan.” Tricksters can be devices that raise consciousness in stories!
  • and you are not to touch it: the woman adds an additional layer of instruction to what God told the earthling.
  • eating/beautiful/wisdom: three growing levels of awareness by the woman of the benefits of the tree.
  • fruit: note not an apple, though traditional.

SCENE 5: The Hearing

Now they heard the sound of YHWH, God, 
walking about in the Garden
at the breezy-time of the day.
And the human and his woman hid themselves
from the face of YHWH, God, 
amid the trees of the Garden.

YHWH, God, called to the human and said to him: 
“Where are you?”
He said: 
“I heard the sound of you in the Garden
and I was afraid, 
because I am nude, 
and so I hid myself.”
He said: 
“Who told you that you are nude? 
From the tree about which I command you not to eat,
have you eaten?”

The human said: 
“The woman whom you gave to be beside me, 
she gave me from the tree, 
and so I ate.”

YHWH, God, said to the woman: 
“What is this that you have done?”
The woman said: 
“The snake enticed me, 
and so I ate.”

  • Where are you?: is an appeal to one’s responsibility, not just location. Think of God inquiring after Samuel in the temple.

SCENE 6: The Sentencing

YHWH, God, said to the snake: 
“Because you have done this, 
damned be you from all the animals
and from all the living-things of the field! 
Upon your belly shall you walk and dust shall you eat, 
all the days of your life. 
I put enmity between you and the woman, 
between your seed and her seed: 
they will bruise you on the head, 
you will bruise them in the heel.”

To the woman he said: 
“I will multiply—multiply!—your pain
from your pregnancy, 
with pains shall you bear children. 
Toward your man will be your lust, 
yet he will rule over you.”

To the human he said: 
“Because you have hearkened to the voice of your woman
and have eaten from the tree
about which I commanded you, 
saying: ‘You are not to eat from it!’ 
Damned be the soil on your account, 
with painstaking-labor shall you eat from it, 
all the days of your life. 
Thorn and sting-shrub let it spring up for you, 
when you seek to eat the plants of the field! 
By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread, 
until you return to the earth, 
for from it you were taken. 
For you are dust, 
and to dust shall you return.”

  • damned: the serpent and the ground alone are cursed.
  • you are dust to dust shall you return: kept from the Tree of Life, humans return to the humus they came from.

SCENE 7: Explusion and Life

The human called his woman’s name: Havva, “Life-giver!”, 
for she became the mother of all the living.

Now YHWH, God, made the human and his woman
coats of skins and clothed them.
YHWH, God, said: 
“Here, the human has become like one of us, 
in discerning good and bad. 
So now, lest he stretch forth his hand
and take also from the Tree of Life
and eat and live throughout the ages...!”

So YHWH, God, sent him away from the Garden of Pleasure, 
to work the earth from which he had been taken.
He drove the human out and caused to him dwell, 
eastward of the Garden of Pleasure, 
the winged-sphinxes
and the flashing, ever-turning sword
to watch over the way to the Tree of Life.

  • Havva: the human follows God by being a name-giver. Here he names the woman “Life Giver,” also reflecting God’s role. This is traditionally and incorrectly transliterated “Eve.”


As a further bonus, here are some notes I included for our talk:

The Traditional Interpretation

The traditional Christian interpretation which most of us learned growing up in the church is that this story narrates a literal event (“the Fall”) in the past through which sin and death entered the world and the resulting curse and separation from God has been passed down through the generations (“Original Sin”). However:

  • Original Sin has never been a doctrine in Judaism, so Jesus would not have thought of the world in this way.
  • It was first discussed in the 2nd century by St. Ireneaus and St. Augustine (~400 CE) was the most prominent interpretor and popularizer of the doctrine. Very low opinion of women, taught that sin came through sex.
  • Augustine’s doctrine was based on a poor translation of Romans (could not read either Hebrew or Greek).
  • While there are verses describing God cursing three or four generations for a father’s sin in the Torah, Ezekiel 18 insists that each generation has a chance to change.

Other Ways of Interpreting

Some consider this as a vision of childhood transitioning to the contradictions and pains of adolescence and childhood. Others see this as a fable describing the emergence of human consciousness from animal origins: by gaining an awareness of time and our egos, we enter into suffering and death in a new way than pre-conscious beings. Consequences exist for the kind of beings we are.

Consider alternative symbols: wisdom is always personified as a woman; woman providing the fruit of wisdom to man; Eden as a symbolic “womb” (which requires a woman to take the fruit); couple exercising will to leave. Notice that the serpent talks to the woman who considers and decides, while the man is standing there and merely takes and eats!

A Selection of Recent Varied Interpretations*

  • “Therefore, humans now have knowledge but no longer live in Paradise: a trade-off” (Gunkel 1910)
  • Text addresses question: “Why is the human being, though created by God, a being limited by death, suffering, toil, and sin?” (Westermann 1976)
  • “explains sin, a model of what happens whenever man disobeys God.” (Gordon Wenham 1987)
  • “the possibility of an extension of human existence beyond the limits set for it by God at creation. Human hubris and consequences are thematic focus.”
  • (Gerhard von Rad 1961) 
  • “Story that tells of reason for present human predicament of shortcomings and damaged relationships; the root of evil is human endeavor to form one’s own existence autonomously.” (Odil Hannes Steck 1970) 
  • “Trees show the two themes are knowledge and immortality; God is the one who comes out with a slightly shaky moral record. A story about how immortality was almost gained, but lost. God didn’t want to share.” (James Barr 1993) 
  • “fundamental conflict of the story is between Life and Knowledge. Impossibility of having both knowledge and life.” (Stordalen 2000) 
  • “Human maturation: before birth (2:4b-6), childhood (2:7-25), adolescence (3:1-7), maturity (3:8-24). Knowledge is sign of maturity.” (Ellen van Wolde 1989)
  • “Life and Death is the subject. Interpretation is a love story gone awry: Eros created (2:4b-7), development of Eros (2:7-24), Eros contaminated (2:25-3:7), disintegration of Eros (3:8-24).” (Phyllis Trible 1985)
  • Choice as the major element in human existence” (Fox)

* To show how modern interpreters see many meanings in the text (a sign of powerful Scripture), I took this sample list from The Eden Narrative by Mettinger.