Having looked at whether David really existed
, and whether God may have had a wife
, BBC2's Francesca Stavrakopoulou moves back in time to tackle the question of Adam, Eve and the Garden of Eden.
Or does she? Because at the heart of the final instalment of this series is Stavrakopoulou's hypothesis that the original Eden story had nothing to do with creation but actually referred to the Jerusalem temple and its fall at the hands of the Babylonian Empire.
I must admit that even having studied this passage quite a bit in my younger days this was not a theory I'd heard before. Perhaps because quite so much debate rages as to whether or not the passage should be really literally, or whether it's all disproved by science, that the origins of the story rarely get a look in.
The programme opens with a couple of talking heads, one a fundamentalist, the other a moderate, but we quickly move on to Stavrakopoulou's theory that "Eden was a real place built by human hands".
Travelling to the British Museum
she is able to demonstrate, from the stone reliefs that hang on the walls in the museum's ancient near east section, what gardens in that place and time were like. A few other pieces of evidence to show that gardens were a combination of the natural and the human-made.
There's a brief foray into the understanding of Eden in Islam. Eden isn't on earth, it's heaven. Initially this might seem like a bit of a tangent, but the programme uses it to drive home the point that in the ancient near east gardens such as these were seen as places where heaven touched earth, and that the prevalent understanding of Paradise was that of a man made garden.
But not just any old garden Stavrakopoulou tells us, "Eden was a garden built by humans for their god". It was a place on earth where God could come and be. A garden where God could walk around.
If that's starting to sound familiar then the next part of the programme ratchets up the links still further. The only person traditionally allowed access to these gardens was the king. The king was considered to be a mediator between the gods and men, he was allowed into the garden to tend it and this is, of course, the role we find Adam take in Genesis 2. The conclusion? "Adam was originally a king too".
It's at this point that the first other biblical expert is consulted - Nicholas Wyatt of Edinburgh University's School of Divinity. Wyatt looks at Ezekiel 28
casting a fresh light on verses 13-19, which are sometimes applied to Satan rather than a human figure. It's argued that Ezekiel 28:13-14 locates Eden on the holy mount of God, which is understood as Mount Zion, where the Jerusalem temple was located. The links here are a little tenuous and the correct interpretation of this passage lacks any sense of consensus, so it's a shame that the argument here is skipped over rather quickly rather than being buttressed by further evidence.
In similarly brief fashion it's argued that the search of the whereabouts of Eden shouldn't be determined by the location of the River Tigris and the River Euphrates, but the River Gihon. This Stavrakopoulou tells us is in Jerusalem, where the water "bubbles up like a spring". The trouble is that, yet again, there is a wide divergence of views as to where the the Gihon is with numerous locations from Mesopotamia to Ethiopia being cited. I suspect that the way Stavrakopoulou is mapping out her argument is not the same route which lead her to the destination in the first place, which is probably fair enough. This is, after all, a mainstream television programme, on at a peak time. Whilst I would liked to have seen these things fleshed out a little more, there was only an hour available.
Stavrakopoulou's destination turns out, as it happens, to be the ancient Jerusalem Temple. The cherubs marked the outside of both Eden and the temple. 1 Kings describes the horticultural theme in the temple's decoration, evoking thoughts of a garden where heaven might touch earth. Solomon's temple was "both mythical and real".
Of course Stavrakopoulou would debate whether or not the first temple in Jerusalem was, in fact Solomon's, and there's a little blurring of the evidence here. We're told that the original temple was burnt, but it's also implied that it's this temple, rather than the one of the returning exiles and Herod the great, which stands in ruins today. But that's a minor quibble.
It's at this point that some of the scholars from previous episodes re-appear, namely Herbert Niehr, Judith Hadley and Walter Moberly, because the film turns to the question of why the Eden narrative includes a vilified serpent and a woman. Stavrakopoulou ties this into some of the theories discussed in the previous programme. Originally the temple was used for several kinds of worship, and among them, she goes on to say, snake-worship.
Such a proposal sounds controversial, but is, of course, largely based on the Bible. It's not until the reign of Hezekiah that we read of Moses' bronze snake being smashed because the people were worshipping it (2 Kings 18:4). The portrayal of the snake as the villain in the story of the Garden of Eden was a smear campaign to discredit such serpents worshippers.
A similar campaign is also suggested to explain Eve's presence. At various points in the Bible we find wives blamed for their husband's failings (Solomon and Ahab are cited). Perhaps whichever king it was that is being portrayed by the original story (Jehoiachin presumably) was being accused of being unduly influenced by his wife. This casts an interesting light on Eve's initial absence from creation in the second Genesis creation account, but casts a shadow across the treatment of women in the three monotheistic faiths.
So the thrust of Stavrakopoulou's argument seems to be that the story should never have been altered and inserted after Genesis' opening creation account. Rescuing it from this alien context may upset those of monotheistic faith, but it "allows us to engage with the real passions and the anxieties of people from long ago". The documentary concludes on a political note, if Jerusalem is where heaven touched earth and God came down "is it any wonder that no-one wants to give it up?"
Of the three films in the series, I think this was my favourite, perhaps because the theory was sufficiently new to me that I not only found it interesting, but also wasn't able to find as many disagreements as others found. That said, those of us that reject a more literal interpretation of the story, don't feel that connection with its historicity. What the story came to mean is of far more significance that its historical referent, and, to be honest, it's strange that the programme is more captivated by the kernel from which this impressive tree grew, than the plant itself.
However, I suspect that Stavrakopoulou just doesn't see the plant as being particularly impressive. Once or twice she suggests that it's this story that has caused Christianity (and perhaps the other monotheistic faiths) to take a negative view of humanity. Yet rather than the story creating our belief in the fallenness of humankind, its the other way around. The story resonates for us, and presumably whoever it was that ripped it from its supposed historical context, precisely because
it reflects the fallenness we see as inherent in humanity.
That's not to deny that there's good in humanity as well. Indeed the coupling of the Eden story with Genesis 1 creates wonderful balance: we are made in the image of God and animated by his spirit, and yet we also bring evil into his world. If Eden is heaven on earth, then its understandable why we yearn for it so, and why the Bible ends with a glorious re-imaging of Eden housing a renewed Jerusalem.
Labels: Bible's Buried Secrets, Satan