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.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).

Complementary accounts

In the last post, we looked at the account of creation in Genesis 2 as a theological text, focusing on what it has to say about our relationships with God and creation. We saw how the story uses priest and temple symbolism to describe our service to God through care of creation. But what are we to do when we encounter differences in the ways that Genesis 1, 2, and modern science describe creation? Are these accounts mutually exclusive, and if not, how might they relate to each other? Let’s start by looking at Genesis.

The accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 stress complementary aspects of what it means for the world to be created by God. To find what aspect of created-ness is primary in a given creation account, we need to look at how the passage describes both the precosmic state13 and the created state. In Genesis 1, the precosmic state is described in verse 2: “the earth was without shape or form, [and] it was dark over the deep sea…” The created state is given in the rest of the chapter, as the Creator’s power transforms this shapeless darkness into a structured design. Therefore, Genesis 1 is focusing on the ordered structure, meaning, and purpose of creation. Genesis 2 describes the precosmic and created states slightly differently. The precosmic state is a barren land with no rain and no human to farm it (v. 5). The created state is a lush garden with humans in perfect relationships with God, each other, and the natural world. Therefore, Genesis 2 is focusing on the intended harmony of these three relationships.

On the other hand, a modern physicist will give an account of material origins that describes nothingness (the precosmic state) giving way to material atoms, space, and time (the created state). A chemist’s account will likely focus on the simplest atoms (hydrogen and helium) giving way to the heavier atoms (like carbon and nitrogen) and complex molecules. A biologist’s account will describe single-celled organisms giving way to more complex, diverse multicellular organisms.

Each one of these five accounts describes a precosmic and created state differently, but does that mean that they all contradict each other? Or should the different order of creation events between Genesis 1 and 2 bother us? Do we have to choose which account(s) to accept and which to reject? We do not; these different accounts are simply describing different aspects (in different ways) of what it means to be created. People often speak of a “contradiction” between science and the Bible, or between Genesis 1 and 2, but we don’t have to choose between physics and Genesis 1 any more than we have to choose between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. These various descriptions are complementary. Genesis 1 and 2 do not speak in scientific language or describe scientific theories; such concerns would have been alien to an ancient audience. Instead, these chapters provide a rich, profound theological framework for understanding God and his creation. This framework can help us understand what modern science tells us about the material world, rather than requiring that we negate it.

We can see the same sort of complementarity of scientific and theological truths when it comes to other texts in the Bible. For example, Psalm 139 praises God that “you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb…My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my embryo…” (from vv. 13-16). It would be extremely misguided for us to interpret this as literal science, rejecting modern embryology in favor of some kind of “Knitting Theory” of fetal growth! We would miss the whole theological point of the passage, a theological account that is completely compatible with the account given by science.

Creation and the Human Calling

As I discussed in Part 1 of this essay, one of the theological concerns that Genesis 2 addresses is the relationship between humanity and creation, and how protecting creation is a sacred duty. Like an interpersonal relationship, an exploitative relationship with the natural world has harmful consequences as well. Our wasteful overuse of coal and oil has altered the earth’s climate, bringing an increase in extreme weather events and threatening the survival of whole ecosystems and vulnerable human communities. Careless deforestation and pollution has destroyed numerous species, each one a masterwork of God’s creative hand. Scientists are still learning how environmental pollutants contribute to a wide range of health concerns, from stunted fetal brain development to certain forms of cancer.

Why have we so readily ignored the task given to us all the way back in Genesis 2 to properly care for creation? It certainly isn’t for lack of attention paid to Genesis 2; the first chapters in the Bible are some of the most heavily-discussed, heavily-disputed in all of Scripture. But perhaps for all the attention Christians have paid to it, we’ve spent too much time pitting Genesis against science, rather than working with scientists to better understand the very world that these verses command us to protect.

In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan is sent to confront King David over his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uzziah. Interestingly, Nathan begins by telling a story of a rich man and a poor man who lived in a town. When a guest of the rich man arrived, the rich man stole the beloved only lamb of the poor man to feed his guest, rather than killing one of his own lambs. Upon hearing the story, King David was enraged at the injustice, but Nathan responded that it was David himself who was the “rich man,” and the story was a metaphor for David’s own sin.15 It would have missed the point for David to respond by arguing with Nathan over whether these two men and the lamb were literal, where they lived, or when this happened. Once he recognized Nathan’s purpose, David recognized the story’s symbolism, acknowledged his sin, and repented.

I pray that we will respond to the story of the Garden of Eden in the same way, regardless of whether we think it is a historical account or a purely literary one. We shouldn’t get so hung up on the symbol itself that we miss the truths that the symbol is pointing to. After all, this is the reason we have the Bible – “so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim. 3:17) as we recognize our responsibilities in this our Father’s world.

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About the Author

David Buller

David Buller is Program Manager at BioLogos, where he currently manages the BioLogos Voices speakers bureau and oversees planning for BioLogos national conferences and other major events. Prior to coming to BioLogos, David was a Program Associate in the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC. At AAAS, he helped lead and plan projects working with scientists, seminary leaders, pastors, and other organizations. He is a producer on “Science: The Wide Angle,” a AAAS science video series tailored for use in religious education. After completing his BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Bob Jones University, David earned an MA in Theological Studies, Religion and Science Emphasis, from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. While in Chicago, David worked as a student coordinator on various events and symposia at the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. He is a Fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation, having previously served as Student and Early Career Representative to the organization's Executive Council.