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April 09, 2004

The Sword of Empiricism

Well, it looks like nothing is going to be wagered on the outcome, but I am now at the last hurdle in my attempt to convince a skeptical jury of my peers of the merits of my wack thesis on Adam and Eve -- to wit, that not only is it a true story, allegorically speaking, but that it is also empirically connected to the events to which it refers, in time as well as space, in fact as well as metaphorically.

The first piece of evidence I would like to introduce is the nameEden itself. The garden, let us recall, was planted "eastward in Eden." I once looked up the derivation of the word Eden in a religious encyclopedia of some scholarly repute [1], and read that the name was thought to be derived from a Sumero-Akkadian word, edinu, signifying "wilderness" or, more specifically, "wild land not under cultivation." Let me point out that this hypothesized derivation of the name agrees well with the interpretation of the story I am trying to establish. . .

For in the land between the rivers which was Mesopotamia, there were basically two kinds of land; one kind was the land that was cultivated for agriculture, upon which independent horticultural villages (and later subjugated peasant villages) made their living. Everywhere else was land that was not under cultivation, over which hunters-gatherers roamed (and later, herder-pastoralists) subsisting off of the fat of the land. It is a well-documented archeological fact, that in the first half of the 4th millennium BCE, when the first walled cities and political states began to appear in Mesopotamia, there were still examples of hunting-and-gathering societies existing in the uncultivated countryside, in plain sight for everyone to see. [2] It would make sense, therefore, that if an observer with a gift for metaphor were on the scene at the time of the first conquest, and had wanted to convey the essence of what happened in a form that would be understood by the common folk of the time, he might have chosen the phrase "garden of Eden" to designate the world of leisure and equality that was being swept away in the maelstrom of change. In any event, the name Eden is not only consistent with, but highly suggestive of, the possible Mesopotamian origins of this story.

The second piece of evidence I want to adduce is an exceedingly curious sentence that occurs near the middle of the story, right after Eve has been created from Adam?s rib to be his helpmate and companion. It reads, "And therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave (literally "adhere") to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." Does anyone notice what is odd about this? It would seem to suggest the custom of matrilocal residence, in which the husband leaves his family to go live with his wife, instead of the other way around. This is a custom that is virtually unknown in complex societies anywhere in the word, and certainly nowhere in the Middle East. It was however quite common -- indeed characteristic -- in early horticultural societies as they existed all over the world in the days before conquest and servitude.[3] After conquest, by a kind of compensatory development, matrilocalism gave way to its opposite, patrilocalism (along with patrilinialism and, of course, patriarchy itself) among both the lower and the upper classes, in every civilization for which we have records. The reference to matrilocalism, therefore, is to an obvious historical anachronism; it attests to its author's familiarity with a vanishing but once widespread way of life that existed right up to the moment when history began. As such, it is an additional indication of the early historical origin of the story, in the late Neolithic period, before the patriarchal transformation of society had blotted out all memory of earlier customs.

An interesting historical side light: the earliest known word for "freedom" in any language is the Sumerian word amargi, which meant originally, "return to the mother." [4] Could this derivation have something to do with the fact that early horticultural societies are precisely the ones that are associated with the so-called "mother goddesses" so beloved in feminist anthropology? There can be little doubt that the status of women was unusually high in just these societies, higher probably than at any other form of society before modern times. This elevated status was a reflection of the importance which the women's work had in the horticultural economy, relative to the contribution of the males. To understand why, it helps to keep in mind that hunting and gathering, not horticulture, was the preferred means of subsistence in pre-historical times. Almost the whole world was given over to hunting and gathering, with agriculture being practiced only on the fringes of that world, to which the least successful and weakest bands had been pushed by their inability to compete with stronger and more able groups, in competition for the most desirable territories, where fruit and game were plentiful. In other words, the men in these horticultural societies were relative failures in their age-old role of defenders of the tribe and the bringers home of meat, which means their prestige and status would have suffered accordingly; by contrast the womenfolk were the saviors of the day, with the art of the hoe being their exclusive preserve. (Later, after conquest, men enter the fields for the first time, behind the plow, which also makes its appearance.) Matriarchy itself may never have existed in any society, in fact almost certainly did not, but it nevertheless remains true that the late Neolithic period was the time of maximum equality between the sexes, until modern times. This circumstance, of course, is well-reflected in the story, in Adam's rib, companionate marriage, one flesh, and all the rest of it, and is indicative of its time of origin.

The third piece of evidence I would like us to consider concerns the serpent that appears in the story and tempts Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In my metaphorical riff on Adam and Eve which I presented in the Chattanooga public library, I said that the invention of agriculture was a result of the female discovery that "by dropping a seed in a hole in the ground, a plant would grow" and that this was symbolized in the story by the serpent, ?that lives in a hole in the ground," and tempts the woman with the tree of knowledge. As fetching as this image might be to the untutored imagination of a child, I am conscious that a more skeptical adult reaction might be to question whether such a fanciful leap in the imagination can be justified. I mean, after all, what do we really know about serpent symbolism in the ancient Near East?

I once asked myself this very question, and went off in search of an answer. Through some sleuthing among junior faculty in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago, I learned of a book written on this very topic by a young researcher at a small college in Alabama called Sanford (not to be confused with Stanford in California). When I got back to Chattanooga, I drove down to Sanford and duly got my hands on a copy of the book in the college library. It turned out to be a very straightforward and competent survey of all the archeological evidence then existing, as regards serpent-symbolism in ancient Mesopotamia.[4]

There were three distinct periods in the stratigraphic record, according to Prof. Joines, who was the author of the study. During the most recent period, which covered the 1st and 2nd millenniums BCE, the serpent was a symbol of health. It was this meaning of the figure of the serpent, for example, which lies behind the modern symbol of the medical profession, the caduceus, which consists of a serpent coiled around a staff; the caduceus itself dates from 5th century Greece, but is thought to derive from Mesopotamian sources which form part of the cultural background of ancient Greek civilization. (Other examples of Mesopotamian influence in Greek culture, if I am not mistaken, would include such things as the seven day week, the hexadecimal measuring system, and the pyramidal form of the Greek pantheon of gods, but don't hold me to this.)

The next most recent tradition in serpent symbolism in Mesopotamia, according to Prof. Joines, was predominant during much of the 3rd millennium BCE and treated the serpent as a symbol of life and immortality. This certainly makes sense as a precursor to the symbol of health and medicine: if you want to live forever, it is only a matter of time before you start seeing doctors. It also fits the widely documented interest in questions of life and immortality that were current in Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium. In the story of Gilgamesh, for example, the hero, who's fame rests on his reputation as a great "builder of cities," goes off in search of the secret of immortality (in this he seems to have something in common with our own Randall Parker). It also brings to mind, I must confess, references to life and immortality that occur in the story of Adam and Eve itself (eat of the fruit, and "ye shall become as gods, and live forever") which might cause one to whether the story might betray 3rd as well as 4th millennium influences? I have no ready answer to this.

But, be that as it may, our Alabama scholar reported a yet a third layer of meaning for the serpent in the cultural debris of Mesopotamian archeology. At the very bottom of the pit, as it were, in layers that could be dated to the 4th millennium BCE, the serpent was functioning as something quite different -- but also something that archeologists and anthropologists are far more familiar with, from sites all around the world. It was a straightforward fertility symbol.

What kind of fertility symbol? Well, like all fertility symbols in early horticultural societies, it had a dual reference. On the one hand, it was a symbol of you-know-what, as it relates to human fertility and the congress of the male and the female of our species for the purpose of procreation. In that capacity it can also function as a symbol of the man, which helps explain the significance of the serpent's curses in Genesis: "on thy belly shalt thy go, and it will bruise thy head and his heel, and I will put an enmity between her seed and thy seed" In a general way, these curses are suggestive of the new spirit of alienation and inequality that now permeates society, which pits the high against the low, and which henceforth will divide the sexes, to say nothing of different and very unequal classes of men.

But, like every fertility symbol in a horticultural society, this one also has an unmistakable agricultural reference. It is a symbol of the fertility of the fields -- and I would merely note that, given the relatively open and dry character of the Mesopotamian countryside, where vegetation does not thickly cover the ground, snakes do in fact live in holes along the river banks, as I once observed myself near the small town of Hit, on the banks of the Euphrates, in present-day Iraq. (I was there while bumming with a friend across the Middle East -- this was 1963, when Americans were virtually untouchable in that part of the world, even when traveling alone and no matter how outrageous their behavior; needless to say, me and my friend wouldn?t last five minutes in today's environment, particularly when I consider some of the things I did -- I was so ignorant and na´ve -- which, looking back, cause me shame and remorse even now, but that's another story.) Here is how Joines summarized the connection between serpents and agriculture:

Serpents live in the ground, near water, in the very locals where vegetation thrives; moreover, like much vegetation, serpents hibernate (i.e., disappear) during the winter months and reappear in the spring, often sporting bright new skins as a result of molting.

So, I submit, my interpretation of the serpent in the story as tempting Eve with the practice of agriculture, is not only fetching, but justified, based on a solid body of archeological evidence which serves to further establish both the place and the time of the narrative: namely, in Mesopotamia, in the 4th millennium BCE.

At this point, if I were a more conservative person, I might rest my case. Indeed, I probably should rest my case and quit while I am ahead. But there is one last small detail in the story, that, while slight, I would like bring to everyone?s attention, as a final, possibly corroborating bit of evidence, even as I beg my readers to understand that, in case I am not successful with this final argument, they will be generous enough to grant that I have already made my case pretty much, to at least a reasonable degree of probability. Or to put it another way: while each of the three pieces of internal evidence I have sighted above are, when considered in isolation, not fully determinative, when they are they are considered together, as an ensemble, they give some real plausibility to my claim that the original composition of the story is linked, in both time and place, to the site of the first conquests in history. The only thing missing is a direct reference to conquest itself.

So, at the risk of weakening my argument, I would like to go out on a limb and examine the very last sentence in the tale. It reads: "And so he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." What I want to dwell on is not the derivation of the word Cherumbim (which means literally "those who are grasped," although "those who grasp, or seize [power? grain?]" would make more sense. Neither am I going to try to do anything with "the tree of life" (grain? bread? the staff of life?), though it is an arresting image. Rather, what fascinates me here is the reference to the "flaming sword" that guards the way to the tree of life.

Some dozen or so years ago, while working on a project around the house, I was thinking about this flaming sword, and it occurred to me that the metal copper, when it is raw and new, is extremely shiny and bright red, like fire, especially when glinting in the sunlight. (I happened to have been working with some at the time.) Well, since, according to my theory, the action in the story takes place in the age before bronze (which in Mesopotamia wasn't introduced until hundreds of years later) it occurred to me that maybe the original conquerors fell upon their victims with copper weapons. I wrote to Prof. Robert McAdams, then at the Smithsonian in D.C., to ask his opinion on the matter. I guess I should explain that I had previously met with Prof. McAdams years before at the U. of Chicago, on the same trip I mentioned above, and in fact had gotten him to critique the first draft of my legal brief on Adam and Eve for errors of fact. At the time he had an office in the Oriental Institute there, and was a recognized authority on early Mesopotamia; I am sure he thought my case bizarre, but he was kind enough to read and criticize my manuscript.*

Anyway, Prof. McAdams wrote back saying there was no evidence that he knew of, for their being swords in Mesopotamia at this period, whether made of copper or anything else. The use of copper was known, and even copper battle axes had been found, but no copper swords. At this point I went back to my Hebrew lexicon and looked up the word "sword" as it occurs in the story. I discovered that the Hebrew word is cherib, whose literal meaning is not "sword" exactly, but rather the much more general, "destroying weapon." Battle axe, in fact, would fit the description perfectly. And so, on the basis of this finding, I would like to conclude this series of posts with a prediction. The prediction, which is straight-forward and falsifiable, is this: that when the archeologists finally start digging in Iraq again (and let us hope it is sooner rather than later) and the first Ubaid burials are uncovered at the Halaf-Ubaid cultural boundary, that Childe?s hypothesis will be confirmed. Weapons will be found in the graves: weapons made of copper, battle axes to be precise, which will not only establish Childe?s hypothesis, but also the one I am trying to establish here: that the true subject of the story of Adam and Eve is the first conquest in history.

*Prof. McAdams response to my brief, in so many words (I think I even have his marked up copy around somewhere), was that while I seemed to have most of my facts right, my argument was not convincing from his professional point of view. Why not? Because no references to Adam and Eve had ever turned up in any of the cuneiform manuscripts that had survived from the period. I mentioned, but did not press, my answer to that: Of course no references had been found. This, after all, is a putative folktale -- an allegory -- which, if true, would have belonged to the illiterate peasantry at the bottom of the social heap, whose interests would have been to keep it a secret from their rulers and masters. Anyway, I was grateful this distinguished man had taken the time to give me a hearing, and I still feel that way 25 years later.

[1] See the article "Eden, garden of" in The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible (Abington Press, 1962)
[2]See Robert McAdam's essay in Upon This Foundation: The Ubaid Reconsidered, edited by Elizabeth F. Henrickson and Ingolf Thuesen, The Carsten Nieburh Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen, 1989, pp. 441-446.

[3] See, e.g., Kathleen Gough's article, "Variations in Residence" in Matrilineal Kinship edited by Schneider and Gough (University of California Press, 1962). After noting that "it would be very unlikely, if not impossible, for matrilineal descent groups to develop except out of prior matrilocal residence," Prof. Gough goes on to generalize: "World distribution [of primitive matrilineal societies] suggests that matrilineal descent is most commonly found in predominantly cultivating societies which lack the plow, important large domesticates, or extensive irrigation works." In other words, it is found in horticultural societies of the type we are discussing.

[4] Samuel Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago, 1963) p.79.

[5]See Serpent Symbolism in the Old Testament by Karen Randolph Joines, Haddonfield House (New Jersey 1974) pp.109ff. Specifically, Joines cites data found on cylinder seals and painted sherds taken from StrataVII and VIII at Tepe Gawra, as reported be E. A. Speiser in Excavations at Tepe Gawra, Volume I, Philadelphia, 1935, to wit: Plate LXXVI:7, 12-13; Plate LXXI: 149; Plate LXXV:208: Plate LVII, 20, 21, 24-27, 30; Plate LVIII:32; Plate LVIII: 33, 38: Plate XLVI:b; Plate XXVIII:a3; Plate CLXX: 179.

Posted by lukelea at 09:45 PM