The Truth About Genesis

Is Rosh Hashanah for real? Biblical adventurer Bruce Feiler sifts through the clues that speak to the historical accuracy of the Jewish New Year.

Adam and Eve are having a Da Vinci Code moment.

This week, Dan Brown gave Genesis a star turn in his latest thriller. This weekend, Jews around the world are celebrating the New Year with rituals that invoke the first book of Moses. And next month, synagogues across the country will begin re-reading the opening book of the Torah.

The Bible is not sui generis—it speaks with a Mesopotamian accent.

It’s the busy season for the first book of the Bible, but is all the hubbub justified? Is Genesis real? Did the Garden of Eden exist? How about Abraham?

A century and a half of biblical archaeology has produced absolutely no evidence that any of the events in the Five Books of Moses ever happened. The only extra-biblical support for events in the Torah is a passing mention of the “Israel” in an Egyptian stelae around 1200 BC.

But just because archeologists haven’t unearthed a chiseled “Noah Slept Here” sign doesn’t mean we can’t make some inferences as to the accuracy of Genesis. In fact, the first book of the Bible has left quite a few fingerprints across the Middle East. In honor of the season, The Daily Beast presents a one-time airing of Genesis: CSI.

Creation Jews are celebrating the arrival of year 5770, a number that comes from the Bible’s suggestion that Creation occurred in the early fourth century BC. Scientists, of course, believe the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Traditionalists, or Young Earth Creationists as they’re called, explain the difference by suggesting the “days” in Creation last far longer than 24 hours.

But even people who believe the story is mythical can learn from what archaeologists have uncovered about Genesis. For starters, while the stories seem removed from time and place, they’re actually rooted in a particular time—the second and third millennium BC—and a particular place—Mesopotamia. Specifically, Genesis draws on the Mesopotamian obsession with water, an outgrowth of the importance of rivers in the Cradle of Civilization.

The Babylonian creation story bears striking similarities to the one in Genesis. The world is presented as a watery chaos (the sea monster Tiamat), which then splits to create heaven and earth. Tiamat then creates light, the heavens, dry land, animals, and man. Afterward, he rests.

The parallels are unavoidable and suggest that the Bible is not sui generis. It speaks with a Mesopotamian accent.

The Garden of Eden In the story of Adam and Eve, the tree of life, the snake, and the making of humans from clay were also drawn from Mesopotamian traditions. The name Eve is derived from a Sumerian pun on the word for rib.

Also, the Bible clearly places the Garden of Eden “eastward,” near the Mesopotamian empire of Sumer. Genesis says the Garden is located at the confluence of four rivers. Two we don’t know, but one is the Tigris; the other, the Euphrates. These two rivers come together today in southern Iraq, just north of Basra. (The town of Qurnah has, as a tourist attraction, a small, walled garden with three living olive trees and one dead one.)

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As for the tree of life, many Jews believe the tradition of eating apples on Rosh Hashanah comes from Eve’s eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. But Genesis doesn’t use the word for apple; it says simply “fruit.” Early Jews suggested it was a fig, pomegranate, citron, or even tomato. It was Christians who introduced the apple, perhaps because the wordplay in Latin between apple ( malus) and evil ( malum).

Abraham The Bible says Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldeans 20 generations after Adam and Eve. This dating suggests Abraham would have lived approximately 4,000 years ago, around 2,000 BC. Ur was the capital of ancient Sumer, which would place Abraham, too, in lower Mesopotamia before he begins his epic trek up the Tigris-Euphrates valley to southern Turkey. From there he heads south to the Promised Land.

Why such close ties with Mesopotamia? A number of possibilities (beyond the obvious, which is that they actually happened that way). One, everybody in the region knew these stories, so biblical scribes wanted familiarity. Two, the stories were oral traditions that were born in the region. And three, by making the stories familiar, biblical scribes emphasized their one big difference: Mesopotamia had multiple Gods; the Bible only one.

Finally, the centerpiece of the Jewish New Year is the reading of Genesis 22, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son. (In a reminder of the shared heritage of Abraham, Muslims also celebrated this story this month, during Ramadan.) The text says Abraham carried the fire and a knife. True? Fire was actually carried in hollowed out branches in which an ember was placed. And in the Middle Bronze Age, Abraham could have had a knife (though flint seems more likely).

As to the big question: Were children actually sacrificed in the Ancient Near East at the time? Absolutely. Even the Torah denounces the practice. Once again, the Bible is rooting itself in the traditions of the region, while introducing a larger message of morality, which helps explain why these stories are still thriving, thousands of years later.

Genesis may or may not have been real back then, but look around: It’s certainly alive today. Just ask Robert Langdon.

Bruce Feiler is the author of Walking the Bible and Abraham and the host of Walking the Bible on PBS. His new book, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story, is being published next month.