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

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

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

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 Hebrewshamar. 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.




Enns, Pete. "Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Working and Guarding the Garden" N.p., 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 18 February 2019.


Enns, P. (2011, January 12). Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Working and Guarding the Garden
Retrieved February 18, 2019, from /blogs/archive/genesis-creation-and-ancient-interpreters-working-and-guarding-the-garden

About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. He is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for BioLogos and author of many books and commentaries, including Inspiration and IncarnationThe Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So. His most recent book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs. 

More posts by Pete Enns