The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 2–3

Tryggve N. D. Mettinger Amer Oriental Society, Winona Lake, IN December 1, 2007
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This work seeks to answer two questions: What is the theme of the narrative in Genesis 2–3? And “Did the poet use a preliterary story about the first man in Eden and develop this material into something new?” Mettinger does not believe one should subject the Eden narrative to “critical surgery”—a phrase repeatedly employed throughout the work to refer to source criticism. Instead he says the final product must be the starting point for any legitimate study (p. 12). Mettinger maintains that the seeming “contradictions” or “problems” can be better explained through narrative criticism, which his work attempts to do.

In his first few chapters he analyzes the Eden narrative as a literary unit. He examines the unifying elements in the story, its time and location, the scenes and the overall plot, characters, point of view and voice, and the narrator of the story (chap. 2). He then studies the theme of the narrative (chap. 3) as well as the genre and function of the story (chap. 4). Mettinger then discusses what he feels to be the tradition behind the Eden narrative, and he examines where this tradition appears elsewhere in the Old Testament as well as how they interrelate (chap. 5). He then takes what he considers are the primary themes of the story and compares them to related ancient Near Eastern material (chap. 6).

Mettinger says the story is about a divine test (p. 64), and the overall theme is that of disobedience and its consequences (p. 57). Humankind, in its quest for wisdom, unwittingly forfeited immortality. This, of course, is heavily dependent on Mettinger’s understanding of the two trees in the garden as literary symbols (representing wisdom and immortality, p. 97). The idea of humankind’s search for wisdom and immortality fits well, he says, into the “conceptual premises” of the Persian period of history (ca. 530–330 B.C.), which, he attempts to demonstrate, allows for comparisons to the Mesopotamian myths Adapa and Gilgamesh (p. 132). This late dating of the story also allows him to make comparisons to later postexilic biblical texts, such as Ezekiel, which he speculates must have shared a common source that he refers to as the “Adamic myth” (p. 97).

Mettinger defines the genre of the Eden narrative as myth. The message (or “thesis”) that the genre communicates is this: “Obedience to the commandment leads to life, disobedience to death. All evil—death and the human condition at large—is seen as being due to this ultimate sin, disobedience to the divine commandment” (p. 57). The story has socio-functional significance, as well, urging the audience to comply with a chosen set of values or norms—specifically, according to Mettinger, that of deuteronomistic covenant theology (p. 71).

This monograph offers a readable, up-to-date summary of scholarship on Genesis 2–3. Mettinger, professor emeritus at Lund University, Sweden, is understandably more familiar with European Continental biblical scholarship than are many North American scholars and students, and his book represents a helpful summary of many Continental ideas related to early Genesis and also literary theory. When he disagrees with other scholars, he does so in a respectful and gentle manner, supporting his own positions clearly. He includes a helpful summary at the end of each chapter and sometimes at the ends of sections as well. He also has helpful material in the back of the book: author index, Scripture index, ancient source index, and also a literary terms index.

However, Mettinger operates on certain assumptions that are untenable. For his assumed late (Persian) dating of the text, he offers little justification and even less discussion, even though this assumption factors heavily in a number of his arguments (most notably in chaps. 5 and 6). This leaves his discussion of the supposed relationship to Ezekiel an exercise in circular reasoning—one must first assume a late date in order to appreciate many of his comparative conclusions, and the date and conclusions seem to validate each other. Also the Edenic relationship to deuteronomistic theology could just as easily indicate the deuteronomist’s dependence on the Genesis material (p. 134).

Further a late date reduces his comparisons with ancient Near Eastern material to an exercise in special pleading. The two works to which he specifically compares the Eden story were first written in the Old Babylonian period (early second millennium B.C.). Both have earlier fragmentary antecedents and certainly even more ancient oral traditions (traceable to the third millennium B.C.). Though the standardized Gilgamesh epic dates to the seventh century B.C., it seems much more likely that a late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1200 B.C.) audience would have encountered these and other ancient Near Eastern traditions—much closer to their likely “heyday,” so to speak. Mettinger comes close to confessing as much (pp. 109, 122), though it never becomes an issue because of the proposed existence of his “Adamic myth,” a much older source on which both the Ezekiel passage and the Eden narrative depend. He extricates the Eden narrative from the rest of Genesis 1–11, virtually ignoring the story’s immediate context and relationship to the surrounding chapters. This move conveniently allows him to dissociate that narrative from other relevant ancient Near Eastern material, which, taken together, would make earlier “conceptual premises” for the Eden story much more plausible.

Mettinger’s work is not a commentary of the Eden story, nor does it claim to be. Rather it is a literary and religio-historical study. Helpful commentaries include C. John Collins, Genesis 1–4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2006). Meanwhile, readers may find that the work of John Walton, in Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), further illuminates Mettinger’s “conceptual premises.” Readers may note that Mettinger seems to be at times doing nothing more than summarizing T. Stordalen’s tome Echoes of Eden (Leuven: Peeters, 2000). Anyone who has waded through Stordalen’s work will count this as no small blessing, for Mettinger has dealt extensively with Stordalen in a number of important areas.

—Daniel D. Lowery and David K. Lowery

July 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2009 vol. 166 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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