Punning, or “paranomasia,” is a common feature of many languages. Deliberate puns can be found in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Mesopotamian texts, and yet modern writers often consider puns to be among the lowest uses of language. In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, for example, the punster Dr. Cottard is a scoundrel of a dinner guest who simply can’t help himself, always grasping at the lowest-hanging fruit of double meanings for the sake of cheap jokes. For others, however, the pun can be a clever and compelling way to evoke multiple associations without being explicit. But, of course, puns are often “lost in translation” because they depend upon an intimate understanding of language and usage.
The writer of the Garden of Eden story—often identified as the “Yahwist” or “J” source—was something of a punster. Perhaps the most famous wordplay in the story is the association between “Adam” and “adamah” (Hebrew for “ground” or “earth”) in
In the Garden of Eden story, the name “Adam” is originally not really a name at all. The Hebrew noun adam means “human,” and throughout the Eden narrative it carries the definite article—“the human” (Hebrew, ha-adam). According to
The use of language in the Garden of Eden story is elegantly playful. As the story begins, there is “no one” or “no human” (Hebrew, adam ayin) to “till the ground” (Hebrew, la-avod et ha-adamah), so God fashions one from the adamah itself (
By the end of the story, after the famous transgression by both the woman and the man, God admonishes the serpent, the woman, and the man, telling the latter, “Cursed is the adamah because of you” (