Was There Really a Garden of Eden?
DO YOU know the story of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden? It is familiar to people around the world. Why not read it for yourself? You will find it at Genesis 1:26–3:24. Here is the gist of the story:
Jehovah Goda forms a man from the dust, names him Adam, and settles him in a garden in a region called Eden. God himself planted this garden. It is well-watered and abundant with beautiful fruit-bearing trees. At its center is “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.” God forbids humans to eat from this tree, stating that disobedience will result in death. In time, Jehovah makes a companion for Adam—the woman Eve—forming her from one of Adam’s ribs. God gives them the job of caring for the garden and tells them to multiply and fill the earth.
When Eve is alone, a serpent speaks to her, tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit by claiming that God has lied to her and is withholding something good, something that will make her godlike. She gives in and eats the forbidden fruit. Later, Adam joins her in disobeying God. Jehovah responds by pronouncing sentence on Adam, Eve, and the serpent. After the humans are expelled from the paradisaic garden, the angels block the entrance.
Among scholars, intellectuals, and historians, it was once popular to attest that the events recorded in the Bible book of Genesis were true and historical. These days, skepticism about all such matters is more in fashion. But what is the basis for the doubts about the Genesis account of Adam, Eve, and the garden of Eden? Let us examine four common objections.
1. Was the garden of Eden a real place?
Why is there doubt on this score? Philosophy may have played a role. For centuries, theologians speculated that God’s garden was still in existence somewhere. However, the church was influenced by such Greek philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, who held that nothing on the earth could be perfect. Only heaven could contain perfection. Therefore, theologians reasoned, the original Paradise had to be closer to heaven.b Some said that the garden sat atop an extremely high mountain that reached just above the confines of this degraded planet; others, that it was at the North Pole or the South Pole; still others, that it was on or near the moon. Not surprisingly, the whole concept of Eden took on an aura of fantasy. Some modern-day scholars dismiss the geography of Eden as nonsense, asserting that no such place ever existed.
However, the Bible does not portray the garden that way. At Genesis 2:8-14, we learn a number of specifics about that place. It was located in the eastern part of the region called Eden. It was watered by a river that became the source for four rivers. Each of the four is named, and a brief description about its course provided. These details have long tantalized scholars, many of whom have scoured this Bible passage for clues to the present-day location of this ancient site. However, they have come up with innumerable contradictory opinions. Does this mean that the physical description of Eden, its garden, and its rivers is false or mythical?
Consider: The events in the garden of Eden account unfolded some 6,000 years ago. They were put into writing, evidently by Moses, who may have made use of oral accounts or perhaps even preexisting documents. Still, Moses was writing about 2,500 years after the events described. Eden was already ancient history. Now, is it possible for such landmarks as rivers to change over the course of dozens of centuries? The earth’s crust is dynamic, ever in motion. The region that likely included Eden is an earthquake belt—one that now accounts for about 17 percent of the world’s largest quakes. In such areas, change is the rule rather than the exception. What is more, the Flood of Noah’s day may have altered the topography in ways that we simply cannot know today.c
Here, though, are a few facts that we do know: The Genesis account speaks of the garden as a real place. Two of the four rivers mentioned in the account—the Euphrates and the Tigris, or Hiddekel—flow today, and some of their source waters are very close together. The account even names the lands through which those rivers flowed and specifies the natural resources well-known in the area. To the people of ancient Israel, the original audience who read this record, these details were informative.
Do myths and fairy tales work that way? Or do they tend to omit specifics that could readily be verified or denied? “Once upon a time in a faraway land” is a way to begin a fairy tale. History, though, tends to include relevant details, as the Eden account does.
2. Is it really believable that God formed Adam from dust and Eve from one of Adam’s ribs?
Modern science has confirmed that the human body is composed of various elements—such as hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon—all of which are found in the earth’s crust. But how were those elements assembled into a living creature?
Many scientists theorize that life arose on its own, starting with very simple forms that gradually, over millions of years, became more and more complex. However, the term “simple” can be misleading, for all living things—even microscopic single-celled organisms—are incredibly complex. There is no proof that any kind of life has ever arisen by chance or ever could. Rather, all living things bear unmistakable evidence of design by an intelligence far greater than our own.d—Romans 1:20.
Can you imagine listening to a great symphony or admiring a brilliant painting or marveling at an achievement of technology and then insisting that these works had no maker? Of course not! But such masterpieces do not even begin to approach the complexity, beauty, or ingenuity of the design of the human body. How could we imagine that it had no Creator? Furthermore, the Genesis account explains that of all life on earth, only humans were made in the image of God. (Genesis 1:26) Fittingly, only humans on earth are capable of reflecting God’s creative drive, at times producing impressive works of music, art, and technology. Should it surprise us that God is far better at creating than we are?
As to creating the woman by using a rib from the man, where is the difficulty in that?e God could have used other means, but his manner of making the woman had beautiful significance. He wanted the man and the woman to marry and to form a close bond, as if they were “one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) Is not the way man and woman can complement each other, forming a stable and mutually nourishing bond, powerful evidence of a wise and loving Creator?
Furthermore, modern geneticists have acknowledged that all humans likely descended from only one male and one female. Really, then, is the Genesis account far-fetched?
3. The tree of knowledge and the tree of life seem mythical.
Actually, the Genesis account does not teach that these trees had any peculiar or supernatural powers of their own. Rather, they were actual trees that Jehovah invested with symbolic meaning.
Do not humans do something similar at times? For instance, a judge may warn against the crime of acting in contempt of court. It is not the furniture, fixtures, and walls of the courtroom itself that the judge wants to protect from disrespect but the system of justice that the court represents. Various monarchs too have used the scepter and the crown as symbols of their sovereign authority.
What, then, did the two trees symbolize? Many complex theories have been put forward. The genuine answer, while simple, is quite profound. The tree of the knowledge of good and bad represented a privilege that is God’s province alone—the right to determine what is good and what is bad. (Jeremiah 10:23) No wonder it was a crime to steal from that tree! The tree of life, on the other hand, represented a gift that only God can bestow—everlasting life.—Romans 6:23.
4. A serpent that talks seems to belong to fairy-tale lore.
Granted, this aspect of the Genesis narrative can be puzzling, especially if we do not take the rest of the Bible into account. However, the Scriptures gradually clear up this intriguing mystery.
Who or what made that serpent appear to talk? The people of ancient Israel knew of other factors that shed much light on the role of that snake. For example, they knew that although animals do not talk, a spirit person can make an animal appear to speak. Moses also wrote the account about Balaam; God sent an angel to make Balaam’s donkey talk like a man.—Numbers 22:26-31; 2 Peter 2:15, 16.
Can other spirits, including those who are God’s enemies, perform miracles? Moses had seen the magic-practicing priests of Egypt duplicate some of God’s miracles, such as making a staff appear to turn into a snake. The power to perform feats like that could come only from God’s enemies in the spirit realm.—Exodus 7:8-12.
Evidently Moses was also the inspired writer of the book of Job. That book taught much about God’s chief enemy, Satan, who lyingly challenged the integrity of all of Jehovah’s servants. (Job 1:6-11; 2:4, 5) Did the Israelites of old thus reason that Satan had manipulated the serpent in Eden, making it appear to talk and deceive Eve into breaking her integrity to God? It seems likely.
Was Satan the force behind the serpent? Jesus later referred to Satan as “a liar and the father of the lie.” (John 8:44) “The father of the lie” would be the author of the first lie ever told, would he not? The first lie is found in the serpent’s words to Eve. Contradicting God’s warning that eating the forbidden fruit would end in death, the serpent said: “You positively will not die.” (Genesis 3:4) Clearly, Jesus knew that Satan had manipulated the serpent. The Revelation that Jesus gave to the apostle John settles the matter, calling Satan “the original serpent.”—Revelation 1:1; 12:9.
Is it really far-fetched to believe that a powerful spirit person could manipulate a serpent, making it appear to talk? Even humans, though far less powerful than spirits, can perform baffling tricks of ventriloquism and create convincing special effects.
The Most Compelling Evidence
Would you not agree that the skepticism about the Genesis account has little real basis? On the other hand, there is powerful evidence that the account is true history.
For example, Jesus Christ is called “the faithful and true witness.” (Revelation 3:14) Being a perfect man, he never lied, never misrepresented the truth in any way. What is more, he taught that he had existed long before his life as a man on earth—in fact, he had lived alongside his Father, Jehovah, “before the world was.” (John 17:5) So he was alive when life on earth began. What is the testimony of this most reliable of all witnesses?
Jesus spoke of Adam and Eve as real people. He referred to their marriage when explaining Jehovah’s standard of monogamy. (Matthew 19:3-6) If they never existed and the garden in which they lived was a mere myth, then either Jesus was deceived or he was a liar. Neither conclusion is feasible! Jesus had been in heaven, watching as the tragedy unfolded in the garden. What evidence could be more convincing than that?
In reality, disbelief in the Genesis account undermines faith in Jesus. Such disbelief also makes it impossible to understand some of the Bible’s greatest themes and most reassuring promises. Let us see how that is so.
a In the Bible, Jehovah is the personal name of God.
b The notion is unscriptural. The Bible teaches that all of God’s work is perfect; corruption comes from another source. (Deuteronomy 32:4, 5) When Jehovah finished his creation of the earth, he pronounced all that he had made “very good.”—Genesis 1:31.
c The Deluge, an act of God, evidently wiped out all traces of the garden of Eden itself. Ezekiel 31:18 suggests that “the trees of Eden” were already long out of existence by the seventh century B.C.E. So all those who searched for a still-existing garden of Eden in later times were misguided.
d See the brochure The Origin of Life—Five Questions Worth Asking, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
e Interestingly, modern medical science has found that the rib has an unusual capacity to heal. Unlike other bones, it can grow back if its membrane of connective tissue is left intact.