To Serve and Preserve—Genesis 2 and the Human Calling
The Bible provides us with several beautiful, theologically rich accounts of creation – in Genesis 1 and 2, but also in the Psalms and Job as well. If I had to pick a favorite from these passages, I think I’d choose Genesis 2, which tells the story of creation by zeroing in on the creation of humanity and a garden somewhere “in the East.” This chapter is packed with theological truths, yet we unfortunately often miss them; we may think of this chapter as less significant than Genesis 1, or merely as a setup for Genesis 3. At the same time, our curiosity about scientific matters (and blindness to symbolic language) might predispose us to skip right over the theological truths that this passage teaches. But if we approach Genesis 2 on its own terms, what might we learn from it?
A careful study of this chapter is important because it gives us a beautiful picture of the proper relationships we should have with God, the natural world, and each other. Numerous posts could be written on each of these relationships, but in this post I’d like to focus on how Genesis 2 describes our relationship to the rest of creation. These relationships are given deeper significance when we recognize that the garden is being described as a temple-like “sacred space,” not just an ordinary garden. There are numerous clues in the passage that this is the case. John Walton writes that the Garden/temple parallels “are givens that are simply assumed by the author and audience” 1 of Genesis, but we completely miss them if we take fail to read the text the way the ancient author and audience would have.
Temples and Gardens
In the Ancient Near East (ANE), all sacred space was conceived of as something like a temple; it was a place where humans would serve God and experience their closest access to Him. Thus in ANE cultures, a temple complex was seen as being the apex and a microcosm of creation and the earthly abode of the god(s). Descriptions of temples often pictured a river flowing from under the temple and flowing out through an adjacent garden, symbolizing the fertile extravagance of the divine provision. A temple garden would be no mere backyard vegetable patch, but rather an elaborate, beautifully landscaped botanical park.
The same temple/river picture can be seen in the description of the eschatological temple in Ezekiel (ch. 47) and Revelation (chs. 21-22, where the final temple is God Himself). Sound familiar? In Genesis 2 we also have a river flowing “from Eden [‘Abundance’] to water the garden” (v. 10).2 Not only is the Garden filled with “every beautiful tree with edible fruit” (v. 9), but the area itself is rich with gold, resins, and gemstones (sometimes translated “bdellium and onyx”), the same materials later used to decorate Israel’s tabernacle, temple, and priestly garments. Furthermore, many scholars are convinced that the design of temple’s Menorah (candlestick) deliberately echoes the Garden’s Tree of Life, and some also think that the Ark of the Covenant in the temple parallels the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.3
Made for Sacred Service
As inhabitants of this temple-garden, it comes as no surprise that Adam and Eve enjoyed a special closeness to God’s presence (Gen. 3:8 pictures God taking an evening walk through the Garden). But as inhabitants of the Garden, they had special responsibilities as well; they were told “to farm it and take care of it” (v. 15). The two Hebrew words used here have a broader range of meaning than their English translations suggest. As John Walton writes, the broader meaning of the word here translated “to farm” (particularly when used in a sacred context) “is often connected to religious service deemed as worship (e.g., Ex. 3:12) or of priestly functionaries serving in the temple precinct (e.g., Num. 3:7-10).” 4
The usage in Genesis 2 seems to have two layers of meaning: “farm/cultivate the Garden” (since it is an agricultural space) and “serve/worship God” (since the Garden is also a sacred space). The dual meanings are as intertwined in Hebrew grammar as they are intended to be in practice. The second Hebrew word (translated “take care of”) has a deeper religious meaning as well. The word can refer to protecting farmland from external threats, but in a danger-free sacred space like the Garden, the word more generally refers to “performing duties on the [temple] grounds,” that is, to “sacred service.”5
Walton therefore translates these two Hebrew words as “serve and preserve.” These same words appear again together several times in Numbers to describe the priest’s duties in the temple. Because of all this, Gordon Wenham describes Adam as “perhaps…an archetypal Levite” with a “quasi-priestly” role in the garden.8 Eve was created as Adam’s companion and “helper” in his work, a word which nowhere in the OT refers to a subordinate assistant, but rather to one who is at least equal to the one being helped.9
Genesis 2 should banish from our minds any idea that creation care is somehow “secular” work for a Christian, or that it is not even our responsibility. This was the first task given to humanity, to serve and worship God by cultivating and protecting the natural world. The centrality of our responsibility in this regard is even clearer when we back up to the beginning of the chapter. We know there was a river “flow[ing] from Eden to water the garden” (v. 10), symbolizing that “all fertility emanates from the presence of God.” 10 Nonetheless there could be no cultivated plants in the garden because “there was still no human being to farm the fertile land” (v. 5). With no gardener and no rain, the ground was watered indiscriminately; a human was needed to irrigate the waters and support a garden.11 Therefore, God “formed the human from the topsoil” (Hebrew wordplay equivalent to “human from the humus”) before planting the garden. God certainly could have watered it another way without needing us, but He chose not to, and the resulting collaborative picture here is a beautiful one. All provision flows from God, but He has chosen to give us an essential part in further channeling his provisions in the natural world. Far from countering God’s creative work by destroying nature, we are intended to work with Him to preserve and further it.
Of course, though created primarily to glorify God, the world was also made to provide us abundantly with the food and resources that we need to live (Gen. 2:16). Yet we don’t need to look far to see that we have often failed in our responsibility to properly care for creation. We live in a fallen world, and sin has fractured the intended harmony of our relationships with God, creation, and each other (as described in Genesis 3:14-24).
I recently heard a striking crystallization of this fallen perspective in Spencer Tracy’s narration in the opening scene of the sprawling 1962 western film “How the West Was Won.” As the camera flies over majestic Western fields and mountains, the narrator tells us that “This land has a name today, and is marked on maps. But the names and the maps all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man.” This is the fallen perspective – advancing our human purpose on earth is done through defeating nature and other people (derogatively labeled “primitive,” as well) apart from God. This perspective perfectly illustrates the conflict-based relationships that sin brings about, already described for us back in the first chapters of the Bible.
Are we doomed, then, to live helplessly in this way? If this is just the way the world is and the way we are, shouldn’t we just accept that? Apart from Christ the answer would be “yes,” but the New Testament makes it clear that though we are still fallen, the saving work of Christ has brought about a profound change in us. As N.T. Wright makes clear in his book Surprised by Hope, Jesus taught (and the Resurrection vindicated) that the Kingdom of God “was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth.” 12 Christ’s Resurrection was the first act of the future new creation. If we are truly “born again” into this new reality, this new way of living, we must strive (in the Spirit’s power) to live lives of wholeness and right relationships, putting our sinful nature to death (Colossians 3). In doing so, we would be wise to include Genesis 2 as we seek to follow God’s will and God’s Kingdom, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
In part 2 of this series, David describes how Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and modern scientific accounts offer complementary and mutually enriching perspectives in our understanding of God's creation.
1. John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 125.
2. Biblical quotations are from the Common English Bible unless otherwise noted.
3. Both symbolized divine wisdom that humans had to receive from God obediently, with the proper “fear of God” that the Old Testament wisdom literature stresses as a prerequisite. Disobediently eating the Tree’s fruit would lead to death and disobeying God would lead to expulsion from the Garden. Similarly, disobediently touching the Ark brought death (Num. 4:15, 2 Sam. 6:1-7) and disobeying God’s instruction led to Israel’s exile from their Eden, the land of Canaan.
4. John H. Walton, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 172.
5. Ibid., 173.
6. Ibid., 192.
7. See Numbers 3:7-8, 8:26, 18:5-6.
8. Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” in “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, ed. Richard S. Hess and David Toshio Tsumura (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 401.
9. Walton, Genesis, 176.
10. Ibid., 170.
11. This follows Walton’s illuminating exegesis of this passage in Genesis, 164-65.
12. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 201.