All modern concepts of the Garden of Eden stem from a few verses in the biblical Book of Genesis, none of which is entirely free from ambiguity. The ancient Hebraic documents, from which the early part of the Book was compiled, contained simple and basic writing with very few vowels, and none of the modifying inflections which, later, gave flexibility to the language. The absence of vowels lead to this ambiguity; which is why, even today, after millenia of scholarship, no-one knows how the name of God was pronounced. As a result, our Churches vary in their interpretation of YHWH (Yod He Vov He) between the sounds of Yahweh and those of Jehovah — and these are only two of the possibilities.
All modern concepts of the Garden of Eden stem from a few verses in the biblical Book of Genesis (public domain image)
The Problem with Paronomasia
Another source of ambiguity lies in the fact that early Middle Eastern languages leant heavily on paronomasia to give variety to simple phrases — a form of punning which allowed several different meanings to be given to a single set of symbols. In speech, it is probable that slight inflections of tone differentiated between meanings, but in the written word there is no such indication to help us; and modern students of the Bible, like their predecessors, have to guess at the meanings of many words from the angle of their own preconceived notions of the context.
In all three of the basic, ancient Middle Eastern languages —Hebrew, Sumerian and Babylonian – a scholar with a secular bias would produce a different translation of the same text from that produced by a scholar with a religious bias. This may be very easily illustrated.
The quintessence of the first five chapters of the Book of Genesis may be summarized in four well-known quotations:
GEN 1: 1 ‘In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’
1: 26 ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves . . .”
2: 8 ‘Yahweh God planted a Garden in Eden which is in the east… ’
5: 24 ‘Enoch walked with God. Then he vanished because God took him.’
These four widely-used quotations are taken from the Jerusalem Bible, first published in 1966 from deeply researched and modernized translations by the Dominican Biblical School in Jerusalem. We consider this magnificent work to be the most authorative and scholarly of all the modern translations . . . and yet these simple phrases, which hold the fundamentals of present-day Jewish and Christian teaching, are beset with traps of which the average Church member knows nothing. We shall open our bag of doubts by discussing three of them.
Bartolomeu Rubio, The Lord Reprimanding Adam and Eve, ca. 1362 (Sharon Mollerus / flickr)
God or Gods?
In the first three verses, the English term ‘God’ is taken from the Hebrew term = elohim; while, in the fourth, this term is expanded to = ha elohim, in which ha is the Hebrew equivalent of ‘the’. The problem, here, lies in the fact that elohim is the plural form of el. And, if el originally meant ‘god’, then elohim should mean ‘gods’; and ha elohim should mean ‘the gods’.
This plurality is emphasized in our second quotation in which the English singular and plural are strangely mixed. ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves . . .” ‘. The Jerusalem Bible attempts to extricate itself from a very difficult situation by appending a footnote:
It is possible that this plural form implies a discussion between God and his heavenly court (the angels) . . . Alternatively, the plural expresses the majesty and fulness of God’s being: the common name for God in Hebrew is Elohim, a plural form. Thus the way is prepared for the interpretation of the Fathers who saw in this text a hint of the Trinity.
Many Gods, or God and his heavenly court? ‘Angel of the Revelation’ by William Blake (public domain)
With all respect to the Jerusalem Bible’s editors, we find this statement as eclectic a piece of reasoning as we have ever met. In essence, what these editors are saying is: ‘The common name for God in Hebrew is ELOHIM — a plural form.’
Whereas, what they really mean is: ‘The common name for ELOHIM in English is God — a singular form.’
And what if the Hebrew is correct and the English is wrong, as we suspect may be the case. In a situation such as this it would not be unreasonable to choose the Hebrew original as the more likely solution rather than the later translation.
It is true that elsewhere in this chapter of Genesis the pronouns referring to the Deity are singular, but this is not unusual in early Middle Eastern languages where the plural is frequently implied. But nearly always, and there are over thirty cases, the noun is in the plural — Elohim. The odd exceptions are where it was necessary to refer to specific singular entities such as El Shaddai, El Roi or El Elyon.
The Shining Ones
In the early definitive chapters of Genesis, as we have them in biblical form — something is clearly wrong.
The singular — EL — is a very ancient word with a long, etymological history; and it has a common origin with many other ancient words in other languages — all with a common significant meaning.
The Sumerian EL meant ‘brightness’ or ‘shining’;
the Akkadian ILU meant ‘the bright one’;
the Babylonian ELLU meant ‘the shining one’;
the Old Welsh ELLYL meant ‘a shining being’;
the Old Irish AILLIL meant ‘shining’;
the English ELF means ‘a shining being’ — from the Anglo-Saxon AELF;
the Old Cornish EL meant ‘an angel’.
All these terms indicate SHINING or BRIGHTNESS; and, consequently, it is our thesis that the Hebrew EL needs to be translated, in the first place, not as ‘God, but as THE SHINING ONE. And the plural ELOHIM, a contraction of HA ELOHIM, responsible for so much activity in the early part of Genesis, requires translation as THE SHINING ONES.
If we apply this translation, the four quintessential quotations become:
‘In the Beginning, the Shining Ones created the heavens and the earth.’
The Shining Ones said, “Let us make man in our image, in the likeness of ourselves . . .” ‘
‘Yahweh (The Leader of) the Shining Ones planted a Garden in Eden which is in the east…’
‘Enoch walked with the Shining Ones. Then he disappeared because the Shining Ones took him away.’
The Old Testament does not tell us specifically who, or what, these Shining Ones were. But, fortunately, the ancient Sumerian records do, and also certain alternative Hebrew documents which are not well understood by biblical scholars.
Who were the Shining Ones? “The Shepherds and the angel” (1879) by Carl Bloch. (public domain)
Heavens or Highlands?
Another trap that we must mention here, lies in the Hebrew word which had been translated as ‘the heavens’. This was ha’shemim, a plural form indicating ‘the skies’. Like the Sumerian term an, which could be used for ‘skies’, or for ‘high places, the Hebraic shem could also mean the ‘heights’. And SHM was also the root of a word meaning ‘plant’ or ‘vegetation. In the context of the Garden in Eden, and the descriptions of this which will follow, we believe that ha’shemim originally meant ‘the Highlands’ — and ‘the planted Highlands, at that.
Similarly, ha’ares which the Jerusalem Bible translates as ‘the earth, is capable of being translated as ‘the ground’ or ‘the land’. In comparison with ha’shemim, we believe it should have meant ‘the Lowlands’.
To Look with Pleasure
The most important problem in these translations, however, after the elucidation of elohim, lies in the Hebrew word bara which is translated as ‘created’; and there would be no reason to challenge this if it were not for the parallel Sumerian, and alternative Hebraic versions which are to follow.
The term bara is only used for ‘created’ in the sense of a creation by God. Otherwise, it can mean such things as ‘cut down timber, ‘clear ground’ or ‘fatten oneself’. And if elohim does not mean ‘God’, but ‘the Shining Ones’, we ought to look at alternatives. The phrase in the first quotation could have meant — ‘the Shining Ones cleared the ground (or felled timber) in the Highlands and the Lowlands’ . . . because, according to the Sumerian record, that is exactly what they did. But there is another interesting alternative.
In Hebrew, the letter ‘B’ at the beginning of a word is frequently proclitic — that is, it appears to be an integral part of the word, but is really a form of modifying prefix; the actual word starts at the letter immediately after the initial ‘B’. In its power to modify, it can indicate pleasure in verbs of perception, or seeing — and RA is the root of the Hebrew word ‘to see.
Consequently, it would be perfectly justified, in the circumstances, to transcribe , not as bara, but as bera’a. The latter would mean ‘looked at with pleasure’. Such an interpretation would alter the first quotation to: ‘In the beginning, the Shining Ones looked [down] with pleasure on the Highlands and the Lowlands’.
If the Sumerian account is to be believed, that is exactly what these Shining Ones would have done, because they are recorded as having descended onto the top of a commandingly-high mountain — from where they would have been able to see the land in which they were ultimately to settle.
Top image: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter, Vatican Museum (faungg’s photos / flickr)
This article is an extract from the chapter ‘Eastward in Eden’ in the book ‘The Genius of The Few: The Story of Those who Founded the Garden in Eden’ by Christian O’Brien and Barbara Joy O’Brien.
To learn more, or to purchase the book, visit www.goldenageproject.org.uk
By Christian O’Brien and Barbara Joy O’Brien