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929 Project: Genesis 3 – who dumped whom?

July 17, 2018

This series is coordinated with the 929 project, as explained in this post.  A table of abbreviations and acronyms used is available here.


Consider the start of Genesis 3:24 on the expulsion of humans from Eden:

ויגרש את האדם

So he drove out the man […] (KJV)

I want to present a passage from Daniel Matt’s remarkable Zohar translation (Zoh. 1:297-298) or a passage at 1:53b.  Here is the Zoharic Aramaic (with the Biblical text italicized):

ויגרש את האדם. א”ר אלעזר לא ידענא מאן עבד תרוכין למאן, אי קב”ה עבד תרוכין לאדם אי לא. אבל מלה אתהפך, ויגרש את, דייקא. ומאן גרש את. האדם. האדם ודאי גרש את. ובגין דא כתיב וישלחהו יי’ אלהים מגן עדן. אמאי וישלחהו. בגין דגרש אדם את כדקאמרן

Below, I give Matt’s translation of this passage and a portion of  Matt’s notes and commentary – the full commentary can be read here.  I have slightly modified Matt’s text for consistency with this series of blog posts.  The text of the translation is in black and the commentary is in red.

He drove out את האדם (et ha-adam), Adam

Literally, He drove out the human.  The preceding verse reads similarly:  LORD God expelled him from the Garden of Eden.  The apparent redundancy stimulates the following mystical midrash.

Rabbi El’azar said, “We do not know who divorced whom:  if the blessed Holy One divorced Adam, or not.

Several midrashim interpret the biblical word ויגרש (vaygaresh), He drove out, in the sense of גרושים (geirushin), “divorce.”  [See Matt original for references.]  From midrashic sources: “He drove out Adam.  This teaches that the blessed Holy One divorced him like a wife.”  “This teaches that he was divorced like a wife divorced from her husband because of some indecency.”

Adam’s harmonious and intimate relationship with God is ruined by sin.  Rabbi El’azar adopts this midrashic view but reassigns the roles.

But the word is transposed:  He drove out את (Et) – precisely!

Grammatically, the accusative particle את (et) has no ascertainable independent sense, but Nachum of Gimzo and his disciple Rabbi Akiva taught that when et appears in a biblical verse, it amplifies the original meaning.  See BT Pesachim 22b, Chagigah 12a.

Here, as often in the Zohar, את (et) becomes a name of Shekhinah [an aspect of God], who comprises the totality of divine speech, the entire alphabet from א (alef) to ת (tav).  See Zohar 1:29b, 1:247a, 2:90a, 2:135b, and the Christian parallel in Revelation 1:8:  “I am alpha and omega.”

Who drove out EtAdam.  Adam actually drove out Et!  Consequently it is written:  LORD God expelled him from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:23).  Why did He expel him?  Because Adam drove out Et, as we have explained.

By dividing the biblical sentence, He drove out את (et) Adam, into two units, Rabbi El’azar transforms its meaning.  The first unit consists of:  He drove out את (et).  The second unit identifies the subject of the sentence, which is shockingly not God, but Adam.

In the Zohar, the exact nature of Adam’s sin is a tightly guarded secret; the biblical account of the Garden story is seen as hiding the true meaning.  See Zohar Chadash (Midrash ha-Ne’lam) where Rabbi Shim’on recounts a conversation he had with Adam while selecting his future site in Paradise:  “Adam … was sitting next to me, speaking with me, and he asked that his sin not be revealed to the whole world beyond what the Torah had recounted.  It is concealed in that tree in the Garden of Eden.”  The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil symbolizes Shekhinah.  […]

Adam’s sin has driven Shekhinah from the Garden and dissolved her union with Tif’eret [another aspect of God], so She finds Herself abandoned in a no-man’s-land.  Meanwhile, as a result of his sin, Adam is banished from the Garden.  Wandering outside, he finds Shekhinah, and together they go into exile.  See Zohar 3:114a-115b, and 1:237a:  “Come and see the secret of the world:  Adam was caught in his own sin, inflicting death upon himself and the whole world, causing that tree with which he sinned to be divorced, driven away with him, driven away with his children forever, as is written:  He drove out את (et) Adam.

In this interview Matt puts an interesting spin on this Zoharic passage:

We all know the famous story near the beginning of Genesis about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It’s clear that God expels Adam and Eve from the garden. But the Zohar asks a startling question: Who threw whom out of the Garden? Through a very artistic and radical reading of the text, the Zohar suggests that Adam expelled God from the Garden! This seems impossible or heretical. But one way to understand this is that in some sense we’re still in the Garden — we just don’t realize it because we’ve lost touch with the spiritual dimension of life. The challenge is to reconnect with the divine reality that we have banished from our lives, to welcome God back in.


Also worth reading are a number of other interesting commentaries on this passage.  I particularly enjoyed this brief article which discusses Hebrew terms in Genesis 3 and ends with a fascinating explanation of the etymology of the English world “checkmate.” 

I also enjoyed this article by Shawna Dolansky that discusses a legend from the medieval The Alphabet of Ben Sira that Lilith was the first wife of Adam, but Adam and Lilith divorced over an argument about who was allowed to adopt the superior position during intercourse.

(NB this blog entry was posted on July 29, 2018, and backdated to July 17, for reasons explained here.)


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