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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Garden Paradise

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November 30, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Garden Paradise

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Garden God planted in Genesis 2 is clearly an earthly one. It is complete with vegetation, rivers (including the famous Tigris and Euphrates), and is located “in the east” (Genesis 2:8). The reference to Eden as “paradise” is the English version of a much older word we know from many ancient languages including Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. The word simply means “garden” and implies nothing more.

Still, this is God’s Garden. It was his and he created Adam to “till it and keep it” (2:15). When God took a stroll in the Garden in 3:8 after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, he was not making a cameo appearance from on high. He was taking a walk on his estate, so to speak. The humans he had placed there were his guests.

Early interpreters speculated what might be special about this Garden—special enough to have been off limits after Adam and Eve’s transgression. The fact that sin barred humans from the Garden and that there was a Tree of Life in the Garden that provided eternal life (3:22) suggested to some interpreters that the Garden is where righteous people go after death to live forever.

But where is this Garden? Some interpreters felt that it was and still is an earthly Garden. After all, the first humans were barred from re-entering, and there is no indication that the Garden somehow lifted off into heaven. So, according to one early interpreter, the author of the Apocalypse of Moses, Adam and Eve were promised immortality at the resurrection by re-entering the Garden and eating of the tree of life once again—provided they guard themselves from evil throughout their lives (see 28:4 and 40:6).

More often, though, early interpreters felt that heaven was a better location for the Garden. After all, heaven is where God really dwelt, as we read throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:2). So, might not God’s Garden as the final repose of the righteous dead be in heaven as well?

Many early interpreters apparently thought so. In the Testament of Abraham, Abraham entered heaven and saw two paths, one of which led to the “gate of the righteous” that opens up to paradise (11:1-10). Second Baruch 4:6 refers to paradise being preserved with God in heaven. In Life of Adam and Eve, a chariot brings one to “the paradise of the righteousness” where the Lord dwells.

The New Testament may have a similar notion of the Garden, although it is hard to tell. According to a cryptic passage, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul says he was “caught up into Paradise, and heard things that are not to be told.” It is possible that this notion of a heavenly paradise is part of this older tradition that connects the afterlife to the Garden of Eden. Similarly, Jesus’ words to the thief crucified alongside him may also reflect a heavenly Garden or paradise when he promises him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Revelation 22 is more explicit. This passage portrays the final state as a return to the Garden, complete with a river and Tree of Life on either side—a double dose of the blessing that was lost at the beginning (v. 2). The biblical story of loss and alienation from God has come full circle. Those redeemed by the second Adam from the curse of first Adam are back in the Garden paradise he had forfeited.

What makes Revelation so tricky, however, is that this Garden paradise is part of a new heaven and new earth (beginning at chapter 21). The old creation has passed away, and a new creation has appeared. This suggests that this new Garden is not to be understood as a heavenly paradise but very much an earthly one, although a “new and improved” version—although how one handles this issue will depend on how one understands the book of Revelation as a whole.

Of course, discerning the location of the Garden according to the biblical mindset is speculative, as we have seen in previous weeks, but it is also speculation prodded by some unanswered questions of the text itself. Humans were barred from the Garden, but what exactly happened to it? Why does no one know where it is? Did God destroy it? Was it wiped out in the flood? Did it just disappear?

We see again how the biblical text leaves unanswered questions that curious readers are bound to ask. That is not a deficiency in the biblical story, but simply the property of any piece of literature. It takes attention and focus to understand what any text is saying, and that certainly holds for God’s word, too.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Jimpithecus - #42344

December 2nd 2010

“´science now gives us no possibility of defining “first human” in biological terms´ - Jon
Answer: ´Correct´. - Pete”
I find both of those comments peculiar since palaeoanthropologists have been doing just that for quite some time.  In biological terms, the hallmark of “human” has always been defined as someone who practices habitual (not facultative) bipedality.  That shows up in the fossil record probably around 3.8 million years ago and certainly at 3.6.  Now, if you want to define “human” in cultural terms, that is more controversial.  We know that Homo habilis had stone tools, we know that Homo erectus had fire, and we know that Neandertals were as smart as we were but may yet have been a different species.  It seems to me if we are going to place Adam in an ANE context, we need to place him in the Neolithic, around 8-10,000 years ago.  This, of course, raises the “pre-Adamite” question again.  Did the precursors to Adam and Eve have souls?  If not, you are talking about a lot of humanity that is little more than animals.  This becomes problematic since there appears to be a not so fine transition between Homo erectus and archaic Homo sapiens and between them and us.

Jon Garvey - #42358

December 2nd 2010

Jimpithecus - #42344

No biological criterion of humanity can, of course, dictate how God defines it, which is the issue. But you’d agree that if, say, bipedality were the agreed norm, no one person invented it - like all evolution it was a population trait shared by thousands.

Looked at in terms of what theology deals with - relationship with God, sin, judgement, eternal life, there are problems too with an archaic origin for whatever we mean by “the soul.” Until man had a concept of God-as-person, how could he relate to him? And how could he relate without God’s revealing himself? If sin’s origin is also deep in the palaeolithic, and salvation is only through the Cross, man has apparently been left in ignorance of both God and salvation for 10s of millennia. If they were saved by “natural light”, why change the game in the last 2 millennia?

If the concept of eternity, and therefore a desire for it, comes by God’s revelation, then a lack of eternal life is no deprivation for either animals or hominids. Even now many humans sleep easy believing this life is all there is. What is a soul anyway unless it is that which puts us in relationship with God?

Gregory - #42376

December 2nd 2010

Glad to see you again, Jimpithecus! It is important to have a palaeo-anthropological perspective offered on this topic & it’s not so common here.

Much of this uproar to me is not about biology or zoology, but rather about anthropology & culturology. If Adam-deniers (or re-locaters) depend heavily on symbology, then this is closer to anthropo-culturology than zoology. This is why the ‘kind’ / ‘degree’ distinction is so important HSS/NPS.

I acknowledge with Jimpithecus, that “if you want to define ‘human’ in cultural terms, that is more controversial.” But I don’t get the impression that ‘cultural’ is on the table as much for BioLogos as it is, say, for the DI. They speak of ‘science & culture’ while BioLogos speaks of ‘science & faith’. It is perhaps an interesting comparison for how the dialogue is oriented.

Only physical-anthropology please!?

“if we are going to place Adam in an ANE context, we need to place him in the Neolithic, around 8-10,000 years ago.  This, of course, raises the “pre-Adamite” question again” - Jimpithecus


What is a soul anyway unless it is that which puts us in relationship with God?” - Jon

Can one have ‘natural ensoulment’ & speak of “the nature of souls”?

Gregory - #42380

December 2nd 2010

Here are lyrics to a song (Sept. 2010) called “Science & Faith” by the Irish soft pop band The Script, album “Science & Faith”. This is a big release for an album of such title (e.g. Spiritual Machines - Our Lady Peace):

“Tried to break love to a science
In an act of pure defiance
I broke her heart.
As I pulled apart her theories
As I watched her growing weary
I pulled her apart
Having heavy conversations
About the furthest constellations of our souls.
& we’re just trying to find some meaning
In the things that we believe in
But we got some ways to go.
Of all of the things that she’s ever said
She goes & says something that just knocks me dead.

You won’t find faith or hope down a telescope
You won’t find heart & soul in the stars
You can break everything, down to chemicals
But you can’t explain a love like ours.
It’s the way we feel, yeah this is real.

I tried pushing evolution
As the obvious conclusion of the start.
But it was for my own amusement
Saying love was an illusion of a hopeless heart.

Of all of the things that she’s ever said
She goes and says something that knocks me dead.”

It’s a pretty cool album overall (was #1 in UK)!! What about you, Jon?

Jon Garvey - #42393

December 3rd 2010

‘Gregory - #42380

Nothing so exalted for me. The closest I got was a ragtime ditty in my Creationist phase 40 years ago, about the triumph of true love. Apologies in advance for lowering the tone:

People they come up to me
And ask me what I’m doing here
I’ve worked three thousand million years
For you
I’ve changed through countless aeons of time
To reach my present height sublime
Just to find that you don’t love me too
What’s the name of the game
I’m playing with you, Love?
I’d say it was true love
If I didn’t know you were an accident too
See me head in your direction
You’re my natural selection
You don’t need to tell me what to do

We’re going to be Adam and Eve, oh
We won’t care what it’s a solution to
We’re going to be Adam and Eve, oh
We’ll make our random contribution too.

Evolutionary returns
I get from your sweet kiss that burns
With saliva and with germs
From you
Floating in the protein stew
I knew that you were floating too
So I became a blooming human zoo
Just the same it’s a shame
Being so in love, Love
When I know that dove, Love
Is an atom or two of C and O2
Thoughts of God just come from man
It all goes on without a plan
But even so I have designs on you

Jon Garvey - #42401

December 3rd 2010

Returning to sobriety…

“I like Walton, but I don’t think the functional explanation gets us out of the conundrum.”
Pete, I think I disagree. The Sumerian myths dated creation to when “the kingship descended from heaven.” Man was formed to serve the gods, not is some vague way but in the cultic temples of the city states.

If they knew about neolithic life before this, it didn’t matter because civilisation was the important thing. Their myths relate to reality, if we avoid pressing palaeontology on them. A new BBC series on Civilisation started in Erech and traced its heritage down through every civilisation since. The result of “the descent of kingship” was a rapid series of changes from religion to writing which still govern life today.

The Genesis stories are, interestingly, closely related to those myths. But they date creation to the revelation of Yahweh to man, not to the descent of kingship (if these are indeed different). They relate to our theology as Sumerian myth does to our civilisation.

Was Paul’s thought dependant on this heritage, or did he do the equivalent of a Babylonian incorporating pre-city life into Atrahasis?

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