The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve

by Stephen Greenblatt, Bodley Head, £25

The story of Adam and Eve is one that everyone knows. Even without ever having picked up a Bible, the man on the Clapham omnibus knows the outline of the tale. This may be because it occupies the first few pages of the Bible, after the story of the seven-day creation, and thus has been read by those who got no further than Genesis, Chapter Three. But it is just as likely that the story resonates because it is so true: not true historically, but true in that it explains something about the human condition we all share. It is the first truly existential novel in miniature.

Back in the day when I studied the Scriptures, we were told that the story was the product of something called the “Solomonic Enlightenment”; it dated from the time of the wise king, and was all of a piece with the other examples of Wisdom literature such as the Book of Proverbs, while at the same time having its roots in various Babylonian myths, which are its ultimate sources.

Stephen Greenblatt, perhaps more up to date, places the emergence of Adam and Eve in Jewish consciousness after the Babylonian Exile. In so doing, he gives it another layer of meaning, for it becomes impossible to think of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden without also thinking of the Hebrew slaves lamenting their lot by the rivers of Babylon. But you don’t have to be Hebrew, or a slave, or an exile, to understand the story of Adam and Eve: you just have to be human.

Greenblatt’s excellent book surveys the history of the story through the ages. He writes very well about the Babylonian sources, traditionally a dry as dust subject, killed stone dead by so many scriptural scholars, but here brought wonderfully to life. He also writes superlatively well about Milton’s treatment of the subject. Indeed, it is hard to envisage a better introduction to Paradise Lost than what one reads here.

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