rethinking gan eden

So, okay—I’m no biblical scholar. And my language skills need a major overhaul. And my ex- pushed me into it. And so I’ve found myself for over a year now caught in the seemingly gentlest of hands, those of Reb Sonja of Bozeman (in the old sense of “Reb So-and-So of Someplace odd and inexplicable”). And we’re still in Bireishit, over a year later, and I should accept at least a little blame because I can’t keep my mouth shut. There are just too many questions pouring out.

I thought humanity was placed in Gan Eden and given this perfect place—this land of abundance with no labor, beauty with no darkness, leisure with no analysis of consequences. Compared of course to the Babylonian version of the creation of humanity—in which it is abundantly clear from the beginning that the gods, especially Marduk who by then was boss king of the Assembly of Gods, created humans for their labor. To serve the gods by building the great city of Babylon in Marduk’s honor. And maintaining it thereafter—vassals of the gods forever.

Where it says in Bireishit “and there was no man to work the earth” I pictured the trees producing on their own—a self-maintaining managerial system just like James Lovelock described it, and exactly like Asimov’s Gaia. “And god made grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to look at and good to eat including the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge…” I mean that sounds good, doesn’t it, (if you’re vegan)? But no. There was a catch. And I caught it for the very first time this past Wednesday morning in Reb Sonja’s Biblical Hebrew class a few lines further down:

“And God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it…” To work it! Avodah. From Day 1 —avadim hayinu, hayinu... And now the Passover refrain won’t leave my head. Translated each spring as “we were slaves…” in Egypt and we blame the Egyptians and celebrate our escape, right? But it turns out—just like with the birth of humanity in Babylon—we were slaves already. Right from the beginning of time. Avadim hayinu ba-gan eden and we didn’t like it that time either. Now maybe you understood this all along, and it’s just me who missed it—and by god, I’m almost 80 years old in a few years—and what an idiot I’ve been thinking our version of the tale, while not perfect, was an improvement on the Babylonian creation story on this one point. See Marduk there having a laugh? There has never been a primordial paradise without labor. Rod Serling could have written this parable, put it on the tube, and we’d still be nodding and smiling at it as if we ourselves were free.

Ach, there’s one more piece of this paradigmatic shakeup. And that’s that my hero, A. D. Gordon (inherited hero from my father) seen in this light is no labor hero at all—he’s a dupe of the gods reminding us that true spirituality can only be achieved through our labor in the soil of the earth itself. I think Marduk sent him.

Photo: Mira at the Temple of Ishtar, Babylon (Iraq 1990)