Echoes of Eden: Genesis 2-3 and Symbolism of the Eden Garden in Biblical Hebrew Literature

By Levison, John R. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Echoes of Eden: Genesis 2-3 and Symbolism of the Eden Garden in Biblical Hebrew Literature


Levison, John R., Journal of Biblical Literature


Echoes of Eden: Genesis 2-3 and Symbolism of the Eden Garden in Biblical Hebrew Literature, by T. Stordalen. CBET 25. Leuven: Peeters, 2000. Pp. 582. EUR45.00.

Echoes of Eden is a difficult read, though its payoff is access to enormous spadework and assiduous analysis. With Echoes of Eden T. Stordalen intends to stem the tide of neglect that he claims characterizes contemporary scholarship on the Eden narrative in Gen 2-3. The dyke is formidable-582 pages consisting of five parts, sixteen chapters, several appendices, a sixty-seven page bibliography, and twenty pages of indices.

In the first part, Stordalen demonstrates that this is no garden-variety study. He wends his way through numerous semantic and literary categories: lexeme; syntagmatic field; metaphor; simile; metonymic names; allegory; allusion; intertextuality; myth; Bildfeld; and communicative competence. The gist of his methodology rests on the premise that texts exhibit conventional sorts of symbolism that were understood by their implied readers. Stordalen is concerned to provide a comprehensive perspective for interpreting Gen 2-3 and other biblical writings by connecting texts-biblical and ancient Near Eastern-that share these symbolic conventions; he rejects a "text-genetic" approach, preferring instead to detect "cognitive resonance between one appearance of a concept (e.g. 'garden') and the use of that concept in a different context" (p. 29).

The purpose of part 2 is "to map the symbolic significance [a la Geertz] of a garden as it may have appeared to a biblical audience" (p. 35). More simply put, Stordalen analyzes various aspects of gardens in ancient Near Eastern literature. In ch. 4 he discusses symbolic gardens, such as royal gardens (pp. 94-102), and in ch. 5 gardens as settings for death and love (pp. 105-11) and cultic activity, including the Jerusalem temple as garden (pp. 111-36). Chapter 6 comprises in part a refutation of Widengren's view that the temple grove was the garden of paradise; instead, contends Stordalen, in ancient Near Eastern mythic stories gardens symbolize a numinous border between divine and human realms, a mythic place of divine activity-both beneficent and malevolent-in the human realm. Chapter 7 deals with the symbolic significance of trees and vineyards, particularly the trees of Lebanon.

In part 3 Stordalen narrows the focus of his study to Gen 2-3 and shifts his methodological perspective from "story signification" (part 2) to "story narration." Chapter 8, "Points of Departure," is essential to this shift; it is here that Stordalen stakes his claim, in two ways, to Eden. First, Stordalen contends that Gen 2-3 is "a coherent literary composition, applying a number of highly symbolic items, popular etymologies with symbolic intent, cast in a certain ironic mode" (p. 473). In other words, though comprised by literary sources, the narrative ought to be studied with an eye toward its literary coherence. Second, this narrative is postexilic and sapiential; it ought to be read primarily in the context of early Persian and, to a lesser extent, late Babylonian priestly and prophetic literature (p. 212).

Having established the postexilic and sapiential character of this relatively coherent narrative, Stordalen undertakes in ch. 9 a selective but serious analysis of the literary features of Gen 2-3 (e.g., the narrator is not omniscient); with the resulting conclusion that the fundamental conflict of Gen 2-3 is that life is a blessing, but life and knowledge together comprise too near an approach to divinity. He then turns in ch. 10-the most fascinating and compelling in the book-specifically to Eden. Eden, which is to be understood as a symbol of blessing (pp. 256-61), is a very old garden created "from the beginning" (mqdm in Gen 2:8 does not mean "in the east" [pp. 261-70]). In the ideologically construed map of antiquity, represented by Gen 2:10-14, Eden is located at the earth's rim on the other side of the cosmic ocean at the numinous boundary between the divine and human realms. …

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