Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Working and Guarding the Garden

Bookmark and Share

January 12, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

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

Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Working and Guarding the Garden

In Genesis 2:15, we read that God put Adam in the Garden of Eden to “work it and keep it.” English translations differ on how to handle the Hebrew words behind this simple clause. “Work” is from the Hebrew word `avad and in this context probably means something like “till.” In other words, Adam is given the role of tilling God’s Garden.

“Keep” is one way of translating the Hebrew shamar. It has another, and common, meaning, however, which is “guard.” This led some ancient interpreters to say that Adam both tilled the land and also guarded it from something or someone. But from what or from whom does Adam do this?

What Exactly is Being Guarded?

According to the book of Jubilees (second century B.C.) 3:15-16, Adam (and later Eve) were taught their gardening skills by the angels (which answers the question of how Adam knew how to garden in the first place). One of his duties was to “guard the garden against birds, animals, and cattle.” The first couple would then eat the fruit and gather together what was left over and “keep” that as well. So this ancient author took the word shamar to mean to guard what was tilled, the fruit.

Another ancient interpreter understood shamar a bit differently. Apocalypse of Moses 15:1-3 says that it is the Garden itself that needs to be guarded. In this passage, Eve is recounting to her children the events of the fall from her point of view.

Listen, all my children and my children’s children, and I will tell you how our enemy deceived us. It happened while we were guarding Paradise, each his own portion allotted from God. Now I was watching my share, the South and West, and the devil came into Adam’s portion….

According to this author, Eden was quartered off, with Eve guarding the South and West, and Adam his “portion” (which seems to mean North and East). They were each assigned the task of guarding Eden from being infiltrated by the devil, who eventually made his way in as a serpent and so deceived the first couple. So here shamar means to guard in a more military sense, which is a common use of this word in the Old Testament.

But other interpreters were not satisfied to read Genesis 2:15 this way. They opted for a more spiritual meaning.

Adam Was a Law Keeper

The Hebrew word ‘avad not only means “work” but is used frequently in the Old Testament to mean, “serve God.” Similarly shamar is often used of “keeping” the commandments.

So, some interpreters read Genesis 2:15 as a call to Adam to study Torah and practice law-keeping. For example, 2 Enoch (first century A.D.) 31:1 says that Adam was put into Eden to “keep the agreement [perhaps meaning covenant?] and preserve the commandment.” Likewise, Targum Neophyti says, “And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to labor in the Torah and to keep its commandments.”

The fourth century theologian Ephraim the Syrian preserves this interpretation in his Commentary on Genesis. He says that “guarding” must mean something spiritual. After all, Adam had no tools for plowing, and there were no robbers (since there were no other people). There was nothing to “work” or “keep” in the physical sense, and so Genesis 2:15 must mean that keeping the commandments is in view.

Reading with an Agenda

There is a slightly veiled agenda at work in reading Genesis 2:15 as referring to law keeping. One issue that Jewish interpreters were concerned about is that the law does not make its appearance until Moses receives in on Mt. Sinai. Since law reveals God’s will, what about all those who came before: Adam, Noah, and the Patriarchs? Was God’s law really hidden all that time? Some interpreters reasoned that law was too important not to have been known before Moses, and so they sought some means to anchor the law in a willing verse early in Genesis.

Also, there are some indications in Genesis that humans already knew some sort of law. For example, God condemns Cain’s murder of Abel (Genesis 4:10-12). But on what basis does God condemn unless there already is law that Cain was expected to keep? Another example is Genesis 26:5. In this passage, God blesses Isaac on the basis of Abraham’s faithfulness to keeping commandments.

…Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.

The language of this verse is what we find elsewhere in the Old Testament when referring to the Mosaic Law. So, some Jewish interpreters read this to mean that the Law of Moses was already known in some sense.

John Walton has suggested a slightly different angle on this idea.1 He sees ‘avad and shamar not as law keeping but as priestly duties to the sanctuary. He sights in particular Number 3:8-9 where the two verbs are used that way. According to this reading, Eden is like a sanctuary and Adam is the first priest. Both of these suggestions—law keeping and priestly duties—have one thing in common: they see in the Garden a hint of things that are not explicit until later.

At any rate, the importance of the law for ancient Jewish interpreters as well as certain textual cues in Genesis led to reading Genesis 2:15 as a reference to law keeping. Theological concerns drove interpretation. The question we can ask ourselves today is how we might be prone to the same tendency.


1. John Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 172-74.

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.

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

Share your thoughts

Have a comment or question for the author? We'd love to hear from you.

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 4 of 4   « 1 2 3 4
Bryan Hodge - #48409

January 20th 2011

That should say, “You haven’t read my argument, which is why I pointed you to my and others’ works.

hashavyahu - #48525

January 21st 2011


“The argument that the theme needs to be explicit is a bit much to ask, don’t you think?”  I don’t think so. We should only affirm what the evidence warrants.  If a theme is not explicit, you need a very strong argument for its implicit presence.

“Does that mean that I can’t conclude that there is royal imagery in Gen 2 because it does not explicitly talk about Adam as king and Eden as palace?”  You could conclude that only if you had good evidence for it.  Its possible there is royal imagery, but I’m not 100% convinced.  Why can’t Gen 2-3 just be about the privileged position of primordial man in paradise without hidden themes of kingship and temple? 

“I don’t think you would adopt that methodology in general.” Actually, that is what I aspire to.

“It doesn’t explicitly talk about the garden as a perfect divine dwelling upon a mountain, yet you would associate it with Dilmun.” Yeah, but in this case the “paradise garden existing in primordial time” looks to me like a common tradition.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a divine dwelling upon a mountain though.  God walks there in the cool of the day, but nothing suggests he lives there.

hashavyahu - #48526

January 21st 2011

As for Shr w Slm, I’m simply following the position of the translator of the COS translation of it (see his notes).  He is an established expert in Ugaritic, and so I think he has a certain amount of credibility.  He also happens to be my advisor, so maybe I’m biased.

Bryan Hodge - #48534

January 21st 2011

“Why can’t Gen 2-3 just be about the privileged position of primordial man in paradise without hidden themes of kingship and temple?”

Well, of course, it can be. My point would be that a garden made at creation and described with the characteristics/imagery that it is, meant to parallel the cosmic temple of Genesis 1 on a local level, and is set in contrast to elements of chaos, seems that it shouts “temple sanctuary” to its ANE reader. The garden is ordered land in contrast to disordered/uncultivated land, and there are elements throughout that make me believe that temple is what is going on here.

“Yeah, but in this case the “paradise garden existing in primordial time” looks to me like a common tradition.”

Which is exactly what I’m saying concerning the temple and chaos. In fact, I think there is much more evidence to establish this than the Dilmun theory you’re espousing. Again, I would not divorce temple from garden. I think paradisal gardens and temples are meant to represent the celestial dwellings of the gods (along with the order they bring) on earth.

Bryan Hodge - #48535

January 21st 2011

It’s funny you should mention Pardee, here are my conclusions from ten years ago:

FN: It is difficult to say whether these lines have been interpreted correctly since there are so many possibilities for almost every other line it contains.  For a completely different translation and interpretation of this text see D. Pardee, “Dawn and Dusk,” in COS 1:274-83.

MAIN CONCLUSION: The text itself is not a complete theogony, but neither are most creation accounts in the ANE.  The text’s main purpose, however, is not that of describing how creation came about as much as it is a ritual text of either a fertility cult,  an incantation against famine recited at a new year festival,  or even a sacred marriage text designed for royalty.  However, it is the only hope of finding a cosmogony within Ugaritic literature (and it may not even be one itself).  If the above text reveals itself not to be any sort of creation account, then one must conclude with Clifford when he states that “El created the world, the gods, and human beings.  Unfortunately, the details of El’s creative acts are not presented in the extant texts; we have only epithets.”

Bryan Hodge - #48539

January 21st 2011

“I don’t think so. We should only affirm what the evidence warrants.  If a theme is not explicit, you need a very strong argument for its implicit presence.”

I don’t agree at all. I think that this would wipe out most of the intentions of literature, past and present. Imagery is often subtle in narrative, if not also in other genres, and someone can always come along and deny its existence in the text, since it is not explicit and the arguments are often just cultural connections that are made. I once pointed out to a literature major that Mel Gibson had made the devil a beautiful woman in his film because he wanted to show that evil, from a distance, looks appealing to us. She thought I was just speculating and didn’t see it—-that is, until I told her that I got the insight from an interview with Mel Gibson where he said that was why he did it. I don’t think your methodology, therefore, takes into account the subtleties of literature. I agree that there should be good arguments made, but a good argument cannot be described as one that is obvious to everyone.

hashavyahu - #48875

January 23rd 2011

You don’t agree that we should only affirm what the evidence warrants?  Well, if you aren’t going to be constrained by the evidence, I don’t think I have much more to say to you about it.  I admit that my approach could lead to an under-reading of the text.  But your approach is susceptible to over-reading, and over-reading has plagued biblical interpretation for centuries.  I, for one, would rather assert too little than too much.

Bryan Hodge - #48877

January 23rd 2011

No, I disagree that evidence exists as only what is either explicit in the text or inferences that must convince everyone who reads it. Of course our conclusions need to be based on evidence. So far, you are the only one I’ve every found to disagree with what I’ve said concerning temple and chaos. I’ve read tons of scholars who confirm it and none who argue against it. If you’re aware of an article that does so, please let me know.
I also disagree that an “under-reading” of the text is better than an “over-reading,” since both miss the point of the passage in question. I see little value in just taking the bare bones of a text, which simply defaults to a more academic version of literalism. So you are not asserting too little when you “under-read” a text. You are asserting the same amount as anyone else. This is the nature of interpretation. The key isn’t to pack on or leave off as much from the text as possible, but to make observations and connections that have higher probabilities than other observations and connections within the historical and literary context of a particular piece of a data. In any case, I deny that what I’ve said above would even be categorized as such by most scholars.

Page 4 of 4   « 1 2 3 4