Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bereshit 5767/October 21, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



In the Garden of Eden


Prof. Daniel Sperber


President, Institute for Advanced Torah Studies


It is widely known that the stories of the Jewish Bible have worked their way into other religions – not only Christianity and Islam but also other faiths as well.  In this article we shall examine several of the iconographic elements in the picture presented below – an illustration of the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake, as found in a Moslem manuscript dating to 1307 (Edinburgh University Library, Arabic no. 161, p. 146.)  The manuscript is Al-Bironi’s work on chronological systems in the world, and the picture is indicative of an interesting mix of influences from a variety of different traditions.  Examples of Christian influence on Islamic artistic representations of biblical themes are certainly well-known. [1]

The principal iconographic source is Christian, as is evident from halos on each of the three figures, drawn in the form of saints (or angels).  The hand positions follow well-known patterns appearing in Byzantine Christian illuminated manuscripts.  The snake appears here as a handsome old man, since the direct source of this illustration is the Christian depiction of Adam, Eve and G-d together in the Garden of Eden, except that here the figure of G-d became melded with the snake.  

It is noteworthy that the old man/snake holds in his hands a pomegranate, not the apple we are accustomed to seeing.   The artist incorporated in his painting a Zoroastrian legend about the first Man and Woman being tempted.   According to this legend, the couple Mesha and Meshina lived happily in the world for fifty years, without having need of food or drink, and without pain or sorrow.   At that point Ahriman, an evil spirit, appeared and persuaded them to eat the fruit of the tree, a pomegranate tree.   In order to persuade them, he himself ate of its fruit and immediately became a fine-looking young man.

In the painting we see Ahriman holding the pomegranate out to Eve.  In the next scene (in ancient art often a single picture portrays several scenes or stages in a story), we see Eve holding the fruit, except that now it is an apple, the fruit familiar to us from the Jewish/Christian traditions. [2]   Thus, this single illustration contains a variety of motifs drawn from different religious traditions. [3]

[1] Thomas W. Arnold, The Old and New Testament in Muslim Religious Art, London 1932, pp. 1-16.

[2] On the apple, see what I wrote in Minhagei Yisrael, Part 6, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 151-152, note 31.

[3] Cf. Arnold, ibid., pp. 21-22.