Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Garden Paradise
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.