Adam and Eve, Bible Archaeology

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  • The story of Adam and Eve is part of the Creation Story in Genesis 1-4.  

  • The description of the rivers in Genesis seems to establish the Garden of Eden in the Fertile Crescent, but there are many different theories about its possible location.    

  • Stories about the origin of mankind (Genesis is only one of them) can be traced back many thousands of years. 

Idyllic scene with trees, animals and birds A desert landscape in Jordan
The Ideal: a peaceful garden The Reality

Seal with naked man and woman

In 1932 E. A. Speiser of the University Museum of Pennsylvania discovered a seal near the bottom of the Tepe Gawra Mound twelve miles from Nineveh. He estimated that the seal came from about 3500 B.C.

The seal from the Tepe Gawra Mound showing a naked man and a naked woman followed by a serpent. It shows a naked man and a naked woman, both bent over as if they were oppressed or downcast. Behind them, partly broken, is a serpent (see drawing in upper left of image).
The seal is small, only about one inch in diameter, engraved on stone, and now held in the University Museum in Philadelphia.

As Speiser pointed out, the image on the seal is strongly suggestive of the Adam and Eve story.

The Serpent

A large menacing green snake coiled on a tree branch

Snakes or serpents appear throughout ancient mythology - from Adam and Eve, the Greek myth of Medusa, to Australian Aboriginal stories of the Rainbow Serpent. This popularity makes it difficult to ascribe any one set of symbols to the snake.

In the Bible, it is used figuratively to represent Assyrians (Isaiah 14:29), Babylonians (Jeruemiah 8:17), the enemies of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:33), all evil people (Psalms 58:4), and even the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus' time (Matthew 23:33).  In Isaiah 27:1 the serpent is spoken of in a mythological context, as 'Leviathan the fleeing serpent' who represents the enemies of the Lord who will be destroyed. 

Statue of bare-breasted snake goddess or priestess, Minoan Crete

Statue of bare-breasted snake goddess or priestess, 
Minoan Crete

Yet in Exodus the brazen serpent is a symbol of healing, and this may be closer to general usage in the ancient Near East at large. Despite the fact that they could inflict a painful, even fatal bite, snakes seem to have been part of many ancient religious ceremonies. The statue of the Snake Goddess or priestess (see right) in ancient Crete is an example.

There is no way of knowing the symbolism behind the statue of a bare-breasted woman grasping a snake in either hand. It may allude to the fact that snakes shed their skin each year, and the discarded skin suggested that the snake had moved on to a new life - hence the idea of resurrection, or of life after death.

What it and many other examples show is that the snake was important in Near Eastern religions other than Judaism. For this reason it may have been a symbol used by enemies of the Jewish people - and so something associated with evil.

The Garden of Eden

Nothing seemed more beautiful to desert nomads than a lush green garden. It meant beauty, life, serenity, and above all plenty of water. It also meant prosperity - the name 'Eden' comes from a Hebrew word meaning 'to be fruitful or plentiful', and the gardens of the Persians were called 'paradeisoi'.

Gardens were well-known in the ancient world, but they were usually reserved for the rich. Great effort was needed to build and maintain them. The point of the story in Genesis is that God gave the garden to Adam and Eve without them having to expend any effort at all. It represented Nature as it was meant to be, in a time before Sin entered the world.

Pond in a garden, fragment of a wall painting of an ancient Egyptian garden, from the Tomb of Nebamun, 1400BC.

Fragment of a wall painting of an ancient Egyptian garden, from the Tomb of Nebamun, 1400BC

The motif of a paradise-like garden with lush vegetation is present in much of the ancient Near Eastern literature, especially in Sumerian mythology. In the Genesis story, Eden seems to be located near the Persian Gulf, perhaps at Bahrein, which is also the location of the mythical garden called Dilmun, in the Sumerian myth.

Diagram showing reconstruction of ancient hydralic pump

Reconstruction of ancient hydralic pump. 
Great effort was needed to lift water to artificial gardens; in the Genesis story God freely gave the Garden to humans without any effort on their part

There are some ninety references to gardens in the Bible.

Murals show that Egypt had ornamental pools planted with water lilies in their gardens, for decoration rather than swimming. 

But the Babylonians easily outdid them. A large part of Babylon in the days of Israel's enemy Nebuchadnezzar II was covered with parks and gardens. The Hanging Gardens, one of the wonders of the ancient world, had terraced gardens held high on great stone arches above the city buildings, and watered hydraulically from the Euphrates.



Catacomb mural of Adam, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge

Catacomb mural of Adam, Eve and the Tree of Knowledge

In ancient times, people believed that God had made every type of plant and tree for a particular purpose. Each plant was useful in some way. It was up to humans to discover what benefit they could derive from the plant, and then use it wisely.

Part of this belief came from practical experience: trial and error showed people that native plants could be used to mitigate illness, stimulate or calm the senses, heal wounds, make food more tasty, etc. Part came from their trust in God.

The idea may have sprung from the story of the two trees in the Garden of Eden: 

  • the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and

  • the Tree of Life.

Each of these sacred trees had a particular purpose.

The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge made humans aware of the difference between good and evil: only after Adam and Eve had eaten it did they notice their own nakedness, and see it as undesirable. The fruit, by the way, was unlikely to have been an apple. It was more likely to have been a pomegranate, an ancient symbol of fertility and plenty.

Ancient floor mosaic of the Tree of Life, 8th century

Floor mosaic of the Tree of Life, 
from the 8th century palace of 
the Caliph Hisham, near Jericho

The Tree of Life was a common theme in the ancient Near East. In the Gilgamesh epic, Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that eating a plant from the bottom of the sea will make him young again. In Egypt the Pharaoh ate from a Tree of Life to sustain him after death. In Sumer, there was a tree of life in the mythic land of Dilmun. The Tree of Life in the Genesis story represents the potential for eternal life, which Adam and Eve cannot have.

These are stories that explain why things are the way they are:

  • why humans die

  • why childbirth hurts

  • why snakes crawl on the ground

  • why work is necessary.

This greenstone cylinder seal (below) dates from about 2200-2100BC, and is from Mesopotamia. It shows a tree, two human figures and what seems to be two serpents, one on either side of the figures. The scene may be loosely related to the Old Testament story of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, without actually depicting that scene.
The seal shows a seated woman opposite a seated man who may be a god. There is a date palm or a tree between them, and this and the snakes may symbolize fertility. The scene is common on seals from this period, and may relate to mythic stories or religious ceremonies of the period.

Greenstone cylinder seal from Mesopotamia, with clay imprint of the seal

Greenstone cylinder seal from Mesopotamia, with clay imprint of the seal

Woodcut of impression from greenstone cylinder seal from Mesopotamia

Woodcut of a Mesopotamian seal, showing the figures in more detail.

Photograph of an ancient tree

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Map of the area around Bahrain, which is suggested as the location of the Garden of Eden

Bahrain is one of the suggested locations for the Garden of Eden


See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible



Adam - Old Testament  - Archaeology of The Bible; Bible  Study Resource 
Adam and Eve, the Serpent and the Garden of Eden, Tree of Knowledge and of Life

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