The Theology of Genesis: The Garden of Eden – Genesis 2

The second and third chapters of Genesis tell a unified story. The second chapter, covered in this article, is a second creation account. While the first account takes a broad view of creation, the account in this chapter narrows that down to focus on humanity, specifically the first couple, and the garden, in the land of Eden, where they lived. For modern readers there is a tension between these two stories. But that tension did not exist for the ancient reader, and I will make no attempt to reconcile the two accounts. Instead, like other articles in this series, I will be looking at what the account has to teach us, regardless how we might view the historicity of the account.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

This is the Account Of

This section starts with an expression that is used throughout Genesis to introduce new sections. The word translated as account in the NIV is the Hebrew word tôlēdôt, meaning ‘account, record, genealogy, family line’. You will also find this word used in Genesis 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; and 37:2. With the exception of this first time, it introduces the genealogy of an individual or family line.

In each of these other tôlēdôt sections, we see a human family line, or what comes from these different individuals. Here, we also see what comes from God. The heavens and the earth, a pair of humans, and a garden. The humans are particularly significant here. God is in the position of Father and we as his offspring. You see this referred to in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus where Adam is identified as the son of God. And Paul, in his discussion with the philosophers in Athens also refers to us as being the offspring of God (Acts 17:24-29).

The Lord God

There are a number of words used in the Old Testament for God. One of these is ’elōhîm. This is a plural word, and could be translated as gods. And it often is. An example is the first commandment in Exodus 20:2-3. The introduction includes the expression “I am the LORD (yhwh) your God (’elōhîm).” And the first commandment then says “You shall have no other gods (’elōhîm) before me.” The word itself cannot be used to distinguish between the one true God, and the gods of the surrounding peoples. You have to depend on the context to determine which it is.

In the first chapter of Genesis it is ’elōhîm who speaks creation into existence. The associated nouns are all singular though, which would render elōhîm as singular as well. So rather than gods speaking, it is ‘the elōhîm, singular, who speaks. It is assumed that the God of Israel is intended here although it is not explicitly stated as such.

But in the second chapter that ambiguity is removed. It is now yhwh elōhîm who is acting. This is the same as the introduction to the ten commandments. YHWH is the personal name God gave to Moses at the burning bush. And it is used here to make clear just which of the ‘gods’ was responsible for what is happening in this account of creation. It is the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The God who choose Israel as his special possession. And the one worshiped by Christians as the only true God.

The Story

This account starts with the heavens and earth in existence. But the land is described as uncultivated. Shrubs and plants are not growing because there is no rain, and there is no one to cultivate the land. While this might be taken to mean that there was no vegetation at all, it seems better to be to see it as simply there being no land under cultivation. There were no gardens, orchards, or vineyards, since there was no one to plant and care for them.

God formed man out of the dirt and breathed into him the breath of life. And the man because a living being (nepeš: breath). God had already planted a garden in the land of Eden (ʽēden: paradise, delight). And, after the man is formed, he is placed into the garden. This garden is filled with fruit trees as well as two special trees in the center of the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and the tree of life. A river waters the garden and, after leaving the garden, it divides into four rivers. The man is placed into the garden essentially as the gardener and given permission to eat from any tree other than the tree of knowledge. Eating from that tree would be certain death.

God then determined that the man needs a companion. So he created all of the animals and brought them to Adam so he could name them. But no suitable companion was found for the man. So he put him into a deep sleep, removed a rib, and used it to form a woman. God then presented her to the man, a suitable helper. And they were naked and unashamed.

A Living Soul

In this account God formed man out of the dirt, breathing into him the breath of life. And the man is described as being a living being. The word translated as being in the NIV is the Hebrew word nepeš, a word often translated as soul. Today, we tend toward viewing the soul as an immaterial part of a human that survives his death. That the soul is distinct from the flesh. But that does not seem to be the way this word is used Genesis, and throughout the Old Testament.

On the fifth day of creation God created the living creatures (ḥay nepeš) to populate the sea. And the next day created ḥay nepeš to live on the land. And, at the end of day six, he identified the sea creatures, the birds, and land animals as being ḥay nepeš. This is the same expression that is used here in chapter two after God molds us out of dirt. We become ḥay nepeš. In our physical composition as living breathing creature, we are no different that the other living creatures God made.

While there is nothing in our creation that would seem to make us any different than other animals, as the story goes on it is apparent that we are unique. It is only humanity that is created to have a personal relationship with our creator. We are created in his image, unlike the rest of creation. Created to rule the rest of creation. And tasked with caring for the garden.

The Significance of the Garden

We often put the creation of humanity at the center of this account. But it seems like the garden itself is very significant. The account does not give a reason for the garden. But it does tell us that after Adam is made, he is placed there to take care of it. And, in the next chapter, we also find that it was a garden that God would walk through, seemingly to visit with Adam and Eve.

Many have related the garden of Eden to a temple. In the ancient world, temples were a place where the realm of the gods would overlap with the mortal realm. The temple was a place were humans could go and connect with their god. And you can see elements of this in the tabernacle built by Moses and the temple built by Solomon. These were special places where God, at least symbolically, dwelt. And where his people could come to worship and offer sacrifices to him.

The Tabernacle and Temple each had three sections. There was a courtyard surrounding the tabernacle and temple. Inside the structure itself were two rooms. The Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. And, in that inner room was where God was. Only the priests could go in the outer room. And only the high priest could enter the inner room, and then only once a year.

The garden has a similar structure. It is in Eden, with Eden representing the courtyard. The garden itself represents the temple. And, in the middle of the garden, the most holy place, are the two trees.

The Garden: Past, Present, and Future

The garden of Eden was humanities original home. We lived in a state of innocence, walking with God, and caring for his creation. The garden pictures paradise. But, to steal a phrase, a paradise lost to us. Yet one that each of us has a longing for. All of us have a longing for something better than what we have now.

Today, access to the garden is hidden and guarded (Gen. 3:22-24). No longer does humanity live in the garden. We live outside the garden, banished from God’s presence and the tree of life.

But a way into the garden of Eden has been revealed to us. Jesus is that way (John 14:6). And all who put their hope and trust in him enter into the garden. We do not fully experience life in the garden yet. But we look forward to a new heavens and earth. One where the garden is again our dwelling place (Rev. 21:1-22:5).

This account of the Garden looks back at what we have lost. And, more importantly I believe, it looks forward to what awaits us as God’s chosen people. It is where God wants us to be. And where we were created to be.

The Two Trees

At the center of the garden of Eden are two trees. One is called the tree of life and the other is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The account does not tell us why God placed them there or what their purpose was. They are in the center of the garden, indicating their significance, but the account does not elaborate on it.

The fruit tree of the knowledge of good and evil is forbidden to Adam. He is instructed that when he eats from it, he will certainly die. What the knowledge of good and evil means is uncertain. Certainly it is more than simply knowing right from wrong. They already know that it is right to eat from every other tree, and wrong to eat from this one. And it must be something other than knowing what it is to do evil, because later (Gen 3:22), after Adam eats from the tree, God says that the humans have become like God himself, knowing good and evil.

It may well be that this tree represents defining morality for oneself, something that is the prerogative of God. By eating the fruit of this tree the man would be telling God that he knows best what is right and wrong. Essentially becoming like God himself. Humanity was created in the image of God. But they were still under his rule. Eating from this tree would be rejecting God’s rule and taking that role into their own hands.

There is no prohibition against eating from the tree of life. God does say later (Gen. 3:22) that eating from this tree would allow them to live forever. And, while the first tree is never mentioned again, this tree does reappear in the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:2).

Not Good to Be Alone

Repeatedly in the first chapter we read that good looked at what he had done, and declared it to be good. But in this second chapter, after creating man and putting him into the garden, he declares something to be not good. It was not good for man to be alone. So God made a helper for him.

The initial candidates for helper are the animals that God formed and brought to Adam to name. But none of these creatures were a suitable helper. So God then formed a woman out of Adam’s rib and presented her to Adam. In her, Adam found a suitable mate, seeing her, not a just another of God’s creations, but as a part of himself. The author then inserted a little commentary to explain the act of marriage and the forming of a new union.

I do not believe that this passage is a requirement that we get married. Celibacy is commended elsewhere. Nor is it intended as a prohibition against same sex unions. These are adequately dealt with elsewhere. But it does tell us about the special relationship that should exist within marriage, where two people become one. It is a sacred union that is blessed by God.

Naked and Unashamed

This second chapter closes with the interesting observation that Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. If the Bible ended there, it would be little more than an interesting observation. We would have no idea of its significance. But, fortunately the Bible does not end there. As we read into the next chapter we find that one of the consequences of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is that their eyes were opened, they realized they were naked, and they hid behind fig leave coverings.

Being naked, without shame, would seem to represent their innocence. But I believe it is more than just that. After eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, they hid themselves from each other as well as from God. Before that, they were completely open and transparent with each other as well as with God. Nothing came between them.

While I would not advocate physical nakedness within the community of believers, I do believe that letting down the barriers that we erect to hid behind need to come down. Jesus’ prayer for us to be one, as he and the Father are one (Jn. 17:21), points me back to this time in the garden before the fall.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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