Eden: Hebrew Bible Back Row 2

Many readers will remember my Back Row series on the Doctrine and Covenants. I wanted to continue writing about the scriptures connected with Sunday School, but the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is far more complex than the Doctrine and Covenants, and I’m just an interested amateur. So I’m calling in reinforcements. This week, I’m joined by Kiskilili from Zelophehad’s Daughters, as well as Ronan, John C., and Kristine all from BCC. (Because the documents are all complicated and in some ways different, this series will focus on Hebrew Bible texts discussed in Sunday School, with Pearl of Great Price and JST texts referred to when they are of interest for the Hebrew Bible but not placed at the center of attention.)

JNS: This week’s Back Row discussion focuses on Genesis 2-3, the Hebrew Bible reading for the fourth Sunday School lesson this year.  Here, we’re asked to talk about one of the most-interpreted narratives in human history, the Adam and Eve narrative.  To get things started on the right note, I’d like to make the popular point that the narrative is about Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

This is a useful point in terms of thinking about the probable history of the text.  Adam and Eve are both based on Hebrew words, and thus fit nicely with the hypothesis that the Hebrew Bible was originally written by Israelite authors, during perhaps the monarchic or exilic periods, who spoke Hebrew.  If, by contrast, the narrative had told of Adam and Steve, we’d have a very different situation.  Steve is of course a nickname or diminutive of the name Steven, which comes from the Greek Στεφανος, a male name meaning crown.  Hence, finding this name in the opening chapters of the Hebrew Bible would force us to consider a range of surprising authorship hypotheses: the composer of the narrative may have spoken Greek, or at least known Greeks, and therefore would appear to be either a very great world traveler or not an Israelite from the usually-proposed times and places.

Things get worse, however, if we stick strictly to Steve in place of Steven.  After all, Steve is a distinctly English name.  So we are forced much later and into very different linguistic waters.  The name Steven was popularized in the British isles by the Normans, so the date of composition would come well into the Common Era.  Furthermore, the short form in English seems to be much more recent, perhaps not more than 100 years old.  Hence, if the Bible were to tell us the narrative of Adam and Steve, we would be forced to consider the possibility that the first chapters of Genesis were composed by a 20th-century English speaker.

That important preliminary out of the way, what strikes you about these famous chapters?  A few points strike me as potentially worth thinking through.  What are the attitudes regarding agriculture versus a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in this text?  What is the presumed relationship here between people and other animals?  And, of course, sexuality permeates the story.  What are the text’s views on human sexuality and especially on women?

RJH: The Eden story could take us the rest of our lives to decode. Jeff Bradshaw and I have spent some time playing around in the narrative and its theology and we have a paper coming out on it soon. There are all kinds of questions we try to answer, the most fundamentally Mormon one of which is this:

God — according to Mormon belief — clearly wants Adam and Eve to partake of the fruit, so what does that make the serpent? A hero or a dupe? Jeff and I have our own answer to that question but I won’t give any more away right now…!

Also interesting is, as you say, the relationship between humans and animals. It’s been pointed out, of course, that Adam bears some resemblance in this regard to the Enkidu character of the Gilgamesh Epic. They are also brought to civilisation through the ministry of a woman.

All of these are interesting and entertaining points but I would say that the greatest value of the Adam and Eve text is made quite explicit by the LDS temple drama: we are all Adam and Eve, subject to their temptations and invited to their same salvation. That the narrative serves such a didactic purpose in Mormonism can be seen in how the drama has been reinterpreted to better reflect our view of men and women in the church today. It’s literally an anachronism in the best sense of that word.

JNS: Ronan, yes, Mormons broadly regard the Adam/Eve story as an Everyman morality play that represents the situation and eventually the desired behavior of each individual.  This creates a serious interpretive tension between specificity and universality.  When we read Adam and Eve as symbols of all humans, we are of course forced to marginalize large segments of the narrative.  None of us are the first humans, personally created from the mud or someone’s rib by YHWH.  None of us has a remembered past in an idyllic garden from which we were expelled because we ate the wrong thing.  At the level of personality traits, the very spare narrative nonetheless gives some specificity to both Adam and Eve, thereby distinguishing them from others.  Adam is a little bit of a weasel, blaming Eve for the pair’s joint predicament, whereas Eve is much more direct, both with the serpent and with YHWH.  All of these details, which the text provides, become symbols or irrelevant context when Adam and Eve are universalized.

Underlying the universalization is another assumption, which seems to me as if it should be brought forward and perhaps questioned: that there is a single type or pattern that every life should follow.  If we all ought to be Adam and Eve, then there must be at least some minimal life script that everyone is supposed to learn to accept — or possibly two life scripts, one for men and one for women.  Yet other than at the most abstract level, it is really not clear that this is either plausible or desirable.  Unpacking that sentence will proceed in two stages.

First, at the most abstract level, we should certainly all be “good,” i.e., accept something like the categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, and perhaps the saving blood of Jesus Christ.  It seems hard to push the identification of humanity with Adam/Eve much past this, because…

Second, the implausibility of the claim that there should be a more detailed universal life script comes from hugely divergent life circumstances and innate (biological and, perhaps spiritual — whatever that means) capacities.  Should, as an extreme example, “feral” children who grow up without any adult mentoring or exposure to the corpus of human culture and ideas be held responsible for their failure to get married, to attend church, to pay tithing or taxes, etc.?  For children born with serious brain damage, Mormon tradition holds that moral and spiritual expectations are correspondingly diminished.  Yet such individuals are as much Eve/Adam analogues as the rest of us in the symbolic equation, which means that the symbolism is necessarily constrained.

I think we lose a lot when the universal analogy takes over our reading of the Adam and Eve narrative completely.  The story deserves to be read as being about two specific individuals acting in fantastic situations, as well as about broader themes in the same way that any story is.

John C.: While I agree with Ronan that the primary purpose of the Adam/Eve/Garden narrative is to present a kind of symbolic paradigm into which we can insert ourselves, I think that JNS is correct to caution us regarding abstracting the story away from its content.  At its heart, it is the story of two people and their interaction with the divine and the earthly.  It is worth noting that the notion of a fall is unique to Christianity; Jewish readings of the Adam and Eve narrative tend to treat the principles as children, misled but not culpably guilty.  There is no place to fall from and no place to rise up to without a Savior.  In fact, I think that reading Adam and Eve as children, prompted by impulse and a desire to assert autonomy, is a better reading than assuming Eve (or Adam) have a clue what is going on.  2 Nephi supports this, I think.  While I imagine that the desire to establish Eve as a role model prompts the current trend of seeing her as a clear-eyed pragmatist who accepts the bad to achieve the good, there is nothing in the text or out of it that demands that reading and I wonder if we engage in eisegesis when we attempt it.

The one thing that can be said with certainty about the Pentateuch and the stories found therein is that they were important to (or, at least, valued by) the folks who wrote them down.  So we could attempt to recreate those Pre-Modern-Era Jews who passed the stories down and eventually wrote them down for their own children.  For them, I would imagine that the Adam and Eve story was used primarily to explain how God created a perfect world and how we wound up in the one that we have.  Everything in the Primordial History (Gen 1-11) really serves this purpose; getting us from there to here.  So the mistakes of Adam and Eve in the Garden mean that you have to work in order to get your food and that women suffer in childbirth.

Finally, there is a canard floating around Mormonism regarding the potential meaning of Gen 3:16.  Nitsav has written fairly definitively on the subject and I would recommend that everyone review his blog post regarding it (http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2007/08/playing-fast-and-loose/).  No matter what anyone tells you, there is no reason (short of wishful thinking) to assume that this verse should be translated “he shall rule with thee.”  All the rest of the Hebrew Bible supports the reading “he shall rule over you” and it is the best.  That said, the meaning of the verse is made somewhat ambiguous by its virtual repetition between Cain and the devil (or whatever it is that is lying at the door) in Gen 4:7.  If Cain rules over sin, then how does that affect how we should read Gen 3:16?  If sins desire is toward Cain, what does it mean that the woman’s desire is toward her husband?  Textual and (seeming) chronological proximity may indicate that these two passages should influence each other, but the tendency (within and without the Church) has been to read them separately.  Together it seems to me that simply noting that women are to obey men does damage to the passages likely original intent, which may be to suggest that those sorts of simple lessons can be as evil as they are good.

JNS: I agree that there’s really nothing in the text to support some contemporary Mormon readings in which Eve was acting with wisdom and deliberation.  Indeed, if she had the capacity to do this, wouldn’t the story fundamentally disintegrate?  The pivotal moment in the story is the one in which the snake convinces Eve to eat the fruit because, if she does so, she will know good from evil.  So she eats the fruit, according to Genesis, because it looks delicious and could give her wisdom.  This makes little if any narrative sense if she already has wisdom; the detail that the fruit’s appearance comes first in her list of motives implies the child-like mentality for which John is arguing.

Another Mormon interpretation of the story for which there’s little if any basis in the Genesis text is the idea of the fortunate fall.  In the Bible account, the results of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the fruit are curses, exile, and divine anger.  In particular, the common idea that Adam and Eve would have been unable to have children if they hadn’t been expelled from the Garden of Eden is somewhat at right angles to the text.  Note Eve’s curse, given here in the NRSV translation:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”  (Genesis 3:16)

The key word here is increase.  This wording, as well as the alternatives offered in the other translations I’ve looked at, logically implies change from a baseline.  If childbirth were impossible in the Garden of Eden, then there is no baseline.  The correct wording in this case would be something like, “I will cause you to have great pain in childbearing…”  Instead, the actual curse is worded so as to require that the concept of childbirth in Eden is possible so that there is a baseline level of suffering that God can ratchet up.

Kiskilili: Regarding Adam and Steve: At least Steve has three consonants/radicals, and thus could plausibly be fit into a Semitic paradigm! Adam and, say, Alexander, would present significantly more problems.

I think we’ve absorbed the Enlightenment perspective of the story that prizes the acquisition of knowledge—thus, the Fall is positive, and so Eve is to be extolled for her role in bringing it about—without thinking through the implications for the story as a whole or the way it’s narrated in any of our sacred texts. The result is (to my mind) an incoherent, amalgamated reading. (But perhaps RJH’s article will elucidate all!) (As a sidenote, the term “Fall” as a way of accounting for the story in a broader theological system dates only to Augustine—and the Book of Mormon—and is a specifically Christian framing of the narrative.)

Determining what the “baseline” situation is, to which God’s curses serve as a contrast, is a little difficult. The word translated “increase” in Hebrew is the factitive of a basic form meaning “to be great/many.” While it could imply a contrast to an earlier situation, it need not; personally I think the Jewish Publication Society has the right idea in translating the passage “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing.”

In this same vein: God curses Eve with subordination to Adam; does this imply they had an egalitarian relationship in the Garden? On the one hand, Eve has freedom to act without consulting her husband, which is arguably the problematic situation leading to the introduction of mortality for which God’s curse of Eve serves as damage control (i.e., women have to be kept on a tight leash or they’ll cause all sorts of trouble). On the other hand, Eve is created as Adam’s adjunct and God seemingly already observes the hierarchy, addressing Adam first, even before Eve has been cursed. As the author of 1 Timothy writes, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (2:13-14, NRSV). Each of these aetiologies for women’s subordination has some justification in the text in Genesis, but I don’t see how they work in tandem. The story over-explains Eve’s subordination.

Should Adam and Eve be read as archetypes? As JNS has pointed out, the very specifics in the story militate against a universalized reading. At the same time, that’s how our liturgy treats it: as an account in mythic time in which we all participate. “Symbolic” readings are often appealed to in an effort to ameliorate instances of female subordination in the modern Church. Indeed, if Eve was nothing more than a single individual woman in the distant past, why should any of us be obligated to take on her curse? Suffering for my own sins will be plenty, thank you. But if Eve is the archetypal female, the universal extension of her curse becomes more comprehensible: something problematic in female nature–in which all of us with two X chromosomes, as exemplified by Eve, participate–necessitates our subjugation. Even aside from the problems in grafting the particulars of the story onto the lives of disparate individuals, the archetypal view of Eve naturally gives rise to an even more misogynistic reading than the literal Eve! (Either that or God’s justice is entirely opaque, which may well be the case.)

On the opposition between agriculture and hunter-gatherer lifestyles: the Neolithic Revolution, the shift to agriculture, was apparently a public health disaster that forced people to work considerably harder, abbreviated their lifespans, and compromised their health. It may also have resulted in a drop in women’s status. Something of this could be encoded in the story.

RJH has pointed to a faint echo of this story in the Mesopotamian Gilgameš epic in the creation and civilization of Enkīdu; another can be seen in the snake, who in Gilgameš steals the plant which would have given the hero eternal life, and thus is able to shed its skin indefinitely. In both stories a snake plays a role in bringing about the loss of a life-giving plant. (There’s no reason in Genesis itself to suppose the snake is a devil.) Another echo might be found in Adapa, in which eternal life and wisdom are apparently set in opposition, and what may separate humans from gods is that humans are only able to have one at a time.  And it’s possible that the name of the Garden itself is ultimately a loanword from Sumerian, in which “eden” means steppe or pristine land outside civilization.

John C.: I would also add that reading Adam and Eve as children mitigates against seeing them as symbolic for all of us.  Aside from some hypothetical notion that we are children of God, we approach those symbols as adults (indeed, you have to be an adult to appreciate them).  This may be why we read so many of our own constructs into the Adam and Eve narrative.  I don’t have a problem with seeing Adam and Eve as symbolic everypeople, but doing so may operate against the original purpose of the passage.

Fortunate fall or no, it is also clear that the curses given to Adam and Eve are not equal and attempts to read them as such are possibly counter-productive.  Women are cursed in a way that is specific to them; the curse on Adam is applied equally to both genders really.  Further, the curse on Adam is taken away following Noah’s flood (see Gen 8:20-21); in fact it appears that it was for this cause that Noah was sent to earth (see Gen 5:28-29).  Noah’s flood has much more to do with explaining how the Israelites came to engage in agriculture as it does some notion of baptizing the earth.

JNS: Regarding the birth pains, this is why I love talking with people who actually know something!  There’s another, more subtle way of possibly making the same point: the curse is about making birth painful, not about the introduction of birth per se.  God could have said: “Eve, you will now have to give birth because of this decision,” but he didn’t.

I love the points about snakes stealing precious plants in other myths from the ancient Near East.  Taking this line of thought another step, how common is the mythic theme of the lost paradise that we see in Genesis 2-3?  I know of at least some creation myths that move in the opposite direction — i.e., people were put initially in much worse circumstances until a god or hero changed things.  Are both of these tropes common?  What does it do to the Western tradition that we have developed with an origin myth that starts with a lost paradise, rather than the transcendence of an original disaster of some kind?

Kristine: I have no historical, theological, or ancient mythological contribution to make, I’m afraid.  But if I were teaching, I’d start here:  http://www.bartelby.com/269/41.html

and end here:


Sucking darkness into swollen lobes,
It rides the cane over in its plumpness.
She wants it–enough to thread a careful hand
Through the thorns, etching a ragged red
Rivulet on the wrist and pricking tiny
Rubies where she wavers until her fingers
Lightly pluck it–thumb-pad pierced by a point
In the process.  She pulls the berry back
Through close-woven briars; it stains startled
Fingers pinching at the pull of a thorny
Anchor.  She plunks it inot her wet mouth.
Delicious.  More desirable than the first
Death she ate.  Yet long after her tongue
Forgets the sweet, her throbbing thumb remembers
The pain, and still hungry, into the tangle
She flinches, sighing, “Oh, Eden, Eden.”

–Penny Allen

And I would work in as much of this as I possibly could.

And, JNS, these are a partial response to your final question–we have elegies, instead of epics.  (Thank God!)

Kiskilili: The Mark Twain is fabulous!

The question about lost paradise in mythology is an interesting one. I wish my familiarity with world mythology were anything other than scattershot! Hesiod portrays a progressive (though not unilateral) deterioration of the relationship between gods and humans and of the lot of humans, and he also has a woman unleash ills and suffering on the world at a discrete moment, so there are interesting parallels there. Although in the Bible paradise is lost at a particular moment, we see some long-term deterioration as well, for example in the early mingling of gods and humans in Genesis 6:1-4 (apparently not possible later) and in the abbreviation of the human life span.

Mesopotamian texts depict a similar curtailing of human life expectancy over time, although the numbers are considerably more fantastic–the earliest kings are said to have ruled tens of thousands of years (!). There’s a tradition of Seven Sages coming out of the Persian Gulf (sometimes they’re part fish) at the dawn of history and bequeathing the arts of civilization to humans, then living “like wild beasts”; “since that time nothing further has been discovered,” reports Berossus. Additionally, the Mesopotamian Noah is granted eternal life, a prospect unavailable to postdiluvian generations. So I think there are ways in which the connection between human and divine has attenuated over time in Mesopotamian religious thought. But there’s nothing similar to paradisiacal conditions that are forfeited; this may partly be because Mesopotamia arguably takes a more positive view generally toward “civilization” (in the neutral sense of “city life”) than the biblical authors. Cities aren’t what people resign themselves to in life east of Eden; cities are themselves divinely ordained and presided over by individual tutelary deities, sites where the divine is manifest. (These differing attitudes make good historical sense in light of the fact that Mesopotamia was basically an urban culture where Israel was structured tribally.)

JNS: Our next reading, I think, is Genesis 4-5; it’s a bit complicated, to be sure, because the manual is much more interested in the Moses version of the text than the Hebrew Bible one.  But our self-imposed mandate is to focus on the Genesis text; I am not the Book of Moses’s keeper…


  1. Thoughts on some of the questions:

    “God — according to Mormon belief — clearly wants Adam and Eve to partake of the fruit, so what does that make the serpent? A hero or a dupe?”

    I think Mormonism clearly makes Satan out to be the big dupe, but didn’t Satan win something too? He wasn’t going to accomplish anything with all of us stuck in the premortal life.

    “God curses Eve with subordination to Adam; does this imply they had an egalitarian relationship in the Garden?”

    I think this is an interesting point. The commandment to cleave unto his wife existed while in the Garden. It was the moment when Eve was alone that she fell, and did so without consulting her husband who was actually around for the fruit commandment. And Adam fell because he failed to consult with the Lord prior to eating the fruit.

    Thus we have the Eve–>Adam–>God pattern that exists in the narrative and the Temple (i.e. hearken).

  2. “I agree that there’s really nothing in the text to support some contemporary Mormon readings in which Eve was acting with wisdom and deliberation.”

    Interestingly, I asked the question in GD if Eve knew what she was doing. Probably 90% of the women in the class nodded yes, while 90% of the men shook their heads no.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    On the issue of potential childbirth in the Garden, David Wright has argued that sex and children were indeed possible in the Garden, contra common Mormon assumption, in both Mormon and scholarly fora:

    David P. Wright, “Sex and Death in the Garden of Eden,” Sunstone 12/2 (June 1998): 33-39.

    David P. Wright, “Holiness, Sex and Death in the Garden of Eden,” Biblica 77 (1996): 305-29.

    Also, I want to stand on a chair and with a megaphone shout out how much I love the Mormon reading of Eve in positive terms and the Fall as a felix culpa. I don’t really care whether that is a contextual reading of Genesis. Women have suffered more harm thoughout the ages from traditional readings of the Eden story than we can even imagine. The clever Mormon rereading of the story with its positive spin on Eve is I think a great contribution, even if it is only reacting to traditional Christian theology.

  4. The clever Mormon rereading of the story with its positive spin on Eve is I think a great contribution, even if it is only reacting to traditional Christian theology.

    Or it could be restored truth that was lost, corrupted or not yet revealed throughout the ages — as Joseph Smith claimed!

  5. “David Wright has argued that sex and children were indeed possible in the Garden, contra common Mormon assumption”

    I think it’s an interesting thought, but I think there is a reason that Eve (the mother of all living) wasn’t named Eve (mother) until_after_the Fall.

  6. “Women have suffered more harm thoughout the ages from traditional readings of the Eden story than we can even imagine.”

    But isn’t this like removing fault from the Jews for the death of Jesus to avoid anti-Semitism sentiments?

    It seems like we’re changing the question itself simply because we don’t like the answer.

  7. I just want to comment again that the text itself doesn’t really have much to say about Eve’s culpability, only that she bears a more serious curse.

  8. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John F., Joseph Smith didn’t really introduce the positive reading of Eve, though.

    Tim J., it isn’t historically credible to assign primary or even major guilt for the death of Jesus to the Jews, and most historians don’t, so the argument seems a bit weak.

  9. By “it” I was referring to The Book of Moses which supports the positive reading, in conjunction with 2 Nephi 2.

  10. “it isn’t historically credible to assign primary or even major guilt for the death of Jesus to the Jews”

    See what I mean?

  11. This history is a many splendored thing. For me the splendor comes in the life cycle reading, the sense in which prelapsarian life is a story about the innocence of childhood followed by the terrible assumption of moral agency some time in later childhood or adolescence. In that vein it may also be a meditation on memory, on the human hunger for the primordial and pure.

    It is also a story about negotiating roles with the divine parent, in this narrative YHWH, but in common life more frequently one’s literal parents.

    and I’m with Kevin in loving the notion that Eve saved creation. This text means so many other things and is left in such a spare state that I think there is exegetical room for this position.

  12. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    John, I don’t think it necessarily does support that reading; Mormons have really only offered Eve as a heroine much more recently, although I certainly do empathize with the reasons for that reading.

    Tim, no, I don’t see what you mean. The Jews didn’t kill Jesus. Even the Gospels are clear on this point. What’s wrong with being straightforward about this?

  13. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    smb, I have no objection to the life cycle reading, so long as we regard the depicted life cycle as an ideal type rather than a model for each actual lived experience.

  14. In the 19th-century Mormon suffrage songs, there’s a strong theme that, while Eve was “first to fall in Eden’s bower,” womankind is (perhaps preferentially) redeemed by knowledge of the gospel. It seems clear, though, that even those proto-feminists (pseudo-proto-feminists? quasi…?) did not yet read Eve as the hero of the Garden story.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    The problem with reading Eve as the hero of the story is that God doesn’t treat her that way.

  16. I think the beauty of the story as an allegory is that it can function on many levels and support multiple interpretations at once. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that reading it as an Everyone story is an anachronism. It has obvious functions, as John C points out, as a story explaining why the world is so bad.

    I’d be curious to know how it was viewed by whoever produced it, or even by whoever put it in the Hebrew Bible. The only interpretation that I really can’t get my mind around is the interpretation of the story as a matter-of-fact, literal, historical account.

  17. I was kidding, JNS. It’s a debate for another day.

    I greatly enjoyed this post, btw.

  18. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jacob, I think it’s easy enough to get my mind around the story as a matter-of-fact account of creation — just a wrong one. Obviously, the story is used symbolically in at least hundreds of fundamentally contradictory ways. I think that’s fine, but we ought to realize that the authors of those symbolic readings are us, that they’re basically artistic constructions by just normal people.

  19. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Tim, fair enough. There are few ways to get my ire up faster than arguing that the Jews killed Jesus.

  20. JNS, yes exactly.

  21. I’ve only had time to make a quick skim here, so a quick point or two-

    Besides David Wright’s arguments, David Bokovoy (one of his award-winning students and a full-time Institute guy in Boston) has pursued this line of research. (Quick google shows up this post somewhere. )

    On JNS suggestion that increasing pain in childbirth indicates a continuation, I disagree on lexical grounds, with Kiskilili. It simply means “make great, large, numerous” with little connotation of increasing something already present.

  22. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Nitsav, yep, I gratefully retract that argument and pledge to read only the JSP Hebrew Bible from now on (given my shameful lack of will to master actual Biblical Hebrew). The alternative argument, based on the divine curse really being about pain and not about the introduction of childbirth per se, still seems more plausible to me.

  23. Kristine, I read that poem about ten years ago, did not remember where, and have been unable to find it since. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  24. For some reason I thought Adam partook after Eve did because they knew Eve would be evicted from the Garden and Adam certainly couldn’t multiply and replenish by himself if he stayed. Perhaps they didn’t have children in the Garden only because they weren’t physically mature enough to have them. That would fit with Eve’s child-like rebelliousness.

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