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Pete Enns
 on November 09, 2010

Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: In the Garden

Pete Enns discusses Genesis 2—the Garden of Eden story. He begins by discussing the aspects with which ancient interpreters wrestled, recounts their conclusions, and then offers his own insight.


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

For the past several weeks, we have been looking at some episodes in the first creation story in Genesis 1 and what early interpreters have said about them. Today we move to the second creation story. As you can well imagine, the stories of Adam and Eve, the Garden, and the serpent posed as many questions then as they do now.

One issue that occupied the attention of many early interpreters is found in Genesis 2:16-17, where God warns not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for on the day you eat of it you shall die.”

apple on a treeThe problem is well known: Adam (and Eve) did eat of the fruit, but they did not die on that day. In fact, Adam continues to live until the age of 930 (Genesis 5:5), and Eve, we can presume, had a long life as well.

One way of resolving this problem was to do what many Christians and Jews have done throughout history: look elsewhere in the Bible for a resolution. The principle behind this approach is that God is the author of the Bible, and so it is “mutually interpretive.” A common way of putting it among Christians, at least Protestants, is “scripture interprets scripture.”

Based on that principle, Psalm 90:4 was brought into the discussion: “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” A glance at Psalm 90 will show it is not concerned with the Adam story. The psalm is making the point that God is from everlasting to everlasting (v. 2), although people come and go quickly, in what is like a moment for God—like a single day, like a watch in the night (vv. 3-6).

Even though Psalm 90 does not address the question of Genesis 2:16-17, the connection between the two is not as random as one might think. Psalm 90:3-6 refers to death—specifically, the “sons of men” (literally, “sons of Adam”) returning to dust, or like grass they are here today and gone tomorrow (vv. 5-6). Also, as we read in the rest of the psalm, God is clearly angry with the Israelites for their “iniquities” and “secret sins” (v. 8).

You have in these three verses the use of the word “adam,” a reference to some trespass, and death described as a return to dust—and all this happening from God’s perspective in a span of time from morning to evening. Whether or not the psalmist intended to reflect the Adam story (Genesis 2:7), it is easy to understand how his choice of words would encourage interpreters to see Psalm 90 as commenting somehow on the Garden story, where you also have an “adam” retuning to dust in the face of God’s anger for his iniquities.

Given this overlap there is only one more element of Psalm 90 to apply to Genesis to make the connection complete. Maybe the divine day in Psalm 90:4 also applies to the Garden story: Adam’s life span, from God’s perspective, is also a mere day in length.

Before we got too excited thinking that Psalm 90 actually solves the dilemma of Genesis 2:16-17, we should note how the rest of the psalm plays out. In v. 10 the psalmist leaves the poetic description of death in vv. 3-6 and plainly says that the human life span is very brief, a mere 70-80 years, a mere moment compared to God. It seems clear that the point of the psalm is simply this: “Lord, you are everlasting and our time on earth is but a moment, relatively speaking. So relent of your anger and rather teach us to be mindful of how brief our stay here is.” (vv. 11-12)

Psalm 90 does not answer the question of the “day” of Adam’s death in Genesis 2, but you can see why—guided by the principle that all of Scripture is “connected” somehow—one might bring these two together.

In the New Testament, Peter picks up on this in 2 Peter 3:8 where he says, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Peter is not talking about Adam’s death, but applies the language of Psalm 90 to another issue entirely. His readers were apparently concerned about the delay in the Lord’s return. Peter was simply telling them that “delay” is a relative term, and so “the Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness” (v. 9).

Other early interpreters, however, honed in on Psalm 90 to reconcile God’s warning in Genesis 2:16-17 with the fact that Adam died at the ripe old age of 930. After all, if a day in God’s mind is like 1000 years, and Adam died at 930 years of age, Adam died in a divine day—with 70 years to spare. And so we read in Jubilees 4:29-30 (written in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.):

Adam died, and all his sons buried him in the land of his creation, and he was the first to be buried on earth. And he lacked seventy years of one thousand years; for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens [i.e., Psalm 90], and therefore it is written concerning the tree of knowledge: “On the day you eat of it you shall die.”

Another way of looking at the problem of Genesis 2:16-17 is simply to say that on the day Adam ate of the fruit, he was barred from eating of the other tree, the tree of life (Genesis 2:22-24). Adam had only been barred from the tree of knowledge, and so we can presume he had free access to the tree of life. But once barred from the tree of life, mortality was introduced. Hence, “on the day you eat of it you shall die” would mean that immortality was removed, and Adam and Eve then entered a state of mortality.

There are other solutions that have been proposed in the history of interpretation. But, once again, the more basic point should not be lost. In the pivotal opening chapters of the Bible, we have an ambiguity that readers worked to resolve.

close up image of a snake's head

The earliest interpreters of the Bible—just like modern ones—where curious about the serpent mentioned in Genesis 3. He is introduced as “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (v. 1). He then proceeds to dupe Eve into eating from the forbidden tree of knowledge.

This episode raises a number of well-known questions. Is there more to this snake than just being “crafty?” After all, he can talk and he seems to have it out for the first couple.

Genesis 3:1 presents the serpent simply as an animal. But how to explain his ability to talk? Some interpreters suggested that at first all animals were able to talk. The second century BC book of Jubilees says that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, “the mouth of all the beasts and cattle and birds and whatever walked or moved was stopped from speaking because all of them used to speak with one another with one speech and one language” (3:28). Philo said that, “in olden times…snake could speak with a man’s voice” (On Creation 156). The historian Josephus said, “at that time all living things spoke the same language” (Jewish Antiquities 1:41).

This explanation may strike modern readers as a bit fanciful, but perhaps not more fanciful than the presence of a talking snake in the first place. For these early interpreters a talking animal posed a problem that they felt they needed to solve.

Some also handled in the same way the serpent’s unusual punishment: condemned to crawl on his belly (Genesis 3:14). Don’t serpents do that anyway? But some early interpreters surmised that serpents originally had legs like other animals. Of all the animals on earth, they alone lost their legs because of what this one serpent did.

In either case, there was nothing supernatural about the serpent.

Other interpreters took a different approach, and one well known to Christian readers. The serpent’s craftiness and ability to talk are supernatural powers: the serpent was Satan, or perhaps an agent of Satan. This explanation had the advantage of making more sense of the promise of “enmity” between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed (3:15). If the serpent was just a regular animal, Genesis 3:15 would simply be talking about how people would view snakes. Admittedly, it is true that most people really do have a special fear of snakes, but such an explanation seemed terribly anti-climactic as a focus of this important story. Many interpreters concluded that there is something more going on here than a story about a snake.

The Old Testament itself nowhere makes the connection between the serpent in the Garden and Satan. In fact, after this episode, the serpent is not mentioned again in the Old Testament. In the New Testament he seems to make his appearance in Revelation 12:9. There he is referred to as “the great dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, who was cast out, he who deceives the whole world” (see also 20:2).

Not all scholars, however, think this is an allusion to the serpent in the Garden but to the ancient symbol of chaos known to us from other ancient literature. The serpent also appears in several biblical passages such as Isaiah 27:1, where he is referred to as Leviathan: “In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword—his fierce, great and powerful sword—Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.” Furthermore, the highly symbolic nature of the book of Revelation is reason to pause before jumping to conclusions.

Still, Revelation 12:9 refers to the serpent “deceiving” and this may be an allusion to the Garden episode. Other early interpreters read the Garden story similarly, identifying the serpent with Satan or one of his agents. For example, in 1 Enoch 69:6, the serpent is “the third [fallen] angel Gadreel.” In the Apocalypse of Moses 16:4 and 17:4, the serpent becomes the devil” “vessel” for speaking. According to one of the Targums (Pseudo-Jonathan), it was a wicked angel Sammael. With this understanding of the serpent, the promise of enmity was understood as the war between subsequent humans and the devil.

One interesting dimension that has been discovered anew in modern times is how snakes were viewed in other ancient religions. In the Gilgamesh epic, the magical plant that would have rejuvenated Gilgamesh was stolen by a snake. Most scholars see some parallel here with the loss of immortality in the biblical story.

Additionally, snakes were associated with wisdom in Egyptian religions, which may also parallel the biblical story. Gaining knowledge of good and evil is a goal of wisdom for the Israelites, but it has to be gained God’s way (hence the injunction in Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom). The serpent in the Garden tempts Eve to seize wisdom in an illicit way—through disobeying God.

Many biblical scholars today see these themes at work in the Garden story in Genesis, and so see the serpent as an ancient and powerful symbol of the loss of immortality and wisdom.

The serpent is a central figure in the Garden story, but slithers in and out of the story somewhat mysteriously. He continues to attract the attention of biblical interpreters to this day.

The Garden story is about something that started right and quickly went very wrong. The forbidden fruit was eaten with lasting effects for humanity. But who is to blame, Adam or Eve? That was a common question asked by ancient interpreters.

The truth is there is blame enough to go around, and ancient interpreters picked up on it. After all, both Adam and Eve are responsible for curses stemming from their act (Genesis 3:16-19). They both clearly bear some fault. Eve’s accursed act was listening to the serpent; Adam’s was listening to Eve.

Also, the order in which the curses are pronounced may be significant. The serpent is first, and therefore the most culpable, since he instigated the whole scheme. Next comes the woman, and third Adam. To some interpreters this suggested a descending order of guilt, and that Adam was less guilty than Eve.

Part of what drives the question is the fact that, once again, the story is very “gapped,” meaning it doesn’t explain all the details and so interpreters are left to fill in those gaps somehow. Modern interpreters do this every bit as much as ancient ones.

One of those gaps concerns a curious piece of information in 3:3. Eve repeats the command of God back to the serpent, but she adds something that was not given in the original command to Adam. The original command says that eating of the fruit will result in death. Eve adds “and you must not touch it.”

This has captured the attention of biblical interpreters from early on. Why does Eve add this? Could it be that the original command in 2:16-17 is only recorded in an abbreviated fashion and what Eve says is really not an add-on at all but captures the full conversation? Or perhaps Adam was the one who added this prohibition when he told Eve what God commanded. Remember that Eve is created after the command was given (2:21-22), so Adam must have relayed to conversation to her. Maybe Adam added the proviso because he did not trust Eve: he wanted to make sure that there was no chance of her eating the fruit.

Or perhaps Eve added that piece of information on her own. Perhaps Eve was just being extra-zealous. Not touching might have been her innocent attempt to put an extra layer of protection around the command.

There is no clear answer to this question. But however one explains it, this addition may have given the serpent all the ammunition he needed to complete his task. Perhaps upon hearing this addition to God’s command, the serpent proceeded to touch the fruit right then and there. Eve saw that he did not die, and so she might have thought: “if he touched it and didn’t die, perhaps eating it isn’t so bad.”

There is another curiosity in the text that early interpreters took note of. Verse 6 reads, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food….” Yet how can one see that something is good to eat? It might look good but taste horrible. Perhaps the serpent touching the fruit and not dying led Eve to the conclusion that it must also be good for eating.

One rabbinic tradition, a medieval Jewish text Abot de-Rabbi Natan, suggests another solution. Although unstated in the biblical text, perhaps the serpent not only touched the fruit but ate of it as well without dying. This led Eve to conclude that Adam lied to her—and perhaps God as well.

Of course, this is all speculative, but the fact remains that the gapped nature of the Garden story invites some problem-solving—then and now. Who is really to blame? Is one more guilty than the other?

Some early interpreters squarely put the blame on Eve. For example, in the 2nd century B.C. apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, we read, “From a woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her, we all die” (25:24). Philo is also explicit. In On the Creation 151-52 and 165-66 is talks about how things were just fine for Adam until this woman came a long a ruined everything. Philo gets specific. He says that Eve introduced love, desire, and bodily pleasure, which is the beginning of the end of any virtuous life.

In the first century pseudepigraphical text Apocalypse of Moses, Adam says to Eve, “Why have you brought destruction among us and brought upon us great wrath, which is death gaining rule over all our race?” “Oh evil woman! Why have you wrought destruction among us?” (14:2 and 21:6).

Christians will understandably point to Paul’s comments in Romans 5:12-21, where he stresses that Adam’s act of disobedience introduced sin and death into the world. Adam is clearly to blame here.

Still, even the New Testament shows some variety on explaining this episode. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, we read that women may neither teach nor have authority over men. The reason given is that Adam was formed first (hence has priority) and that the second-formed Eve was the one deceived, not Adam. In fact, the end of v. 14 puts it rather strongly: “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

This is hardly the place to get into the debate about the teaching role of women. My only point is that even in the New Testament there is plenty of blame to go around.

We might also wonder why Adam was so quick to listen to Eve when he had been told by God himself not to eat of the fruit. Adam just caves in: no debate, no fight, and no second thought (Genesis 3:6). This easily justifies shifting a lot of the blame back to Adam, especially since he was actually with her when the conversation with the serpent took place, as we see in 3:6: “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

As guilty as Eve looks for adding words and listening to the serpent, Adam also looks guilty himself for listening to Eve even after he saw the whole conversation take place.

As we have seen in many other examples over the last few weeks, the Genesis story is gapped. Important details are missing, and anyone reading it will wind up filling them in somehow, either deliberately or out of habit.


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 inheaven 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.

Adam is formed from the dust of the ground, all alone in the world. God sees that it is not good for Adam to be alone, and so he decides to “make a helper as his partner” (Genesis 2:18).

Immediately after this announcement, God forms the animals out of the ground (v. 19). Adam names all of the animals, but among these creatures “there was not found a helper as his partner” (v. 20). Now it seems as if Plan B is put into place. In vv. 21-25 the woman is fashioned out of Adam’s side rather than from the ground in order to ensure that this helper will fill the proper role. And as Adam named the animals, he will also name the woman “Eve”—but not until Genesis 3:20.

There are many issues that early interpreters discussed relative to Eve. Here, I want to focus on just a couple of things concerning the sequence of events as we read them in Genesis.

Who Came First?

The idea that God first made animals to provide a helper for Adam and then, when no such helper could be found, created a woman was hard for early interpreters to swallow. Not only did it seem like God was tinkering to see what would work best, but it also made the woman an afterthought. But the sequence is clear in Genesis, so what could be done to address this?

Once again, early interpreters took up the challenge and tried to find a way forward. Some interpreters simply took a bold move and subtly tweaked the order. Rather than God saying he will create a helper for Adam and then creating animals first and Eve second, another sequence was devised: Adam sees the animals with mates, and then God resolves to make a helper for him too.

In other words, the chronological order of Genesis is maintained but the causal link is changed entirely. An animal was never intended to be Adam’s helper. Animals were merely the motivation needed for God to create Eve. The first century Jewish historian Josephus puts it succinctly:

Then, seeing Adam to be without female partner and consort (for indeed there was none), and looking with astonishment on the other creatures who had their mates, He extracted one of his ribs while he slept (Jewish Antiquities 1:35).

We see the same explanation in the book of Jubilees (3:3-4). What motivates the formation of Eve is not the failed attempt at finding a suitable helper among the animals, but seeing the animals each having a partner:

Adam observed all of these [animals], male and female according to every kind which was on earth, but he was alone and there was none whom he found for himself who was like himself who would help him. And the Lord said to us [the angels], “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

The ever-present Philo picked up on another point: in what sense would an animal have been a “helper” to Adam in the first place? Certainly God did not really intend for an animal to be the same type of helper Eve would be (which would include a sexual relationship). Nor did Philo think these animals were to be “helpers” to Adam in the sense of providing food for him. Philo approaches the matter differently:

Why, after saying “Let us make a helper for man…” does he create wild animals and cattle? Intemperate and gluttonous people might say that wild animals and fowl, being necessary for food, are indeed a help for man….But I believe that …to the first man, who was altogether adorned with virtue, they [animals] were rather like military forces and allies (Questions and Answers in Genesis 1:18)

Adam’s Ex-Wife?

Some early interpreters reasoned that Eve was not Adam’s first wife but his second. This would partially solve the issue of Adam’s mate being an afterthought: the first wife was created earlier rather than after the animals.

Why in the world would anyone make up such a wild scenario? Maybe it was because of a curious element in the biblical story that needed some explanation. Genesis 2:23 literally reads, “This time, bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh….”

Some English translations have “This at last,” which makes good sense in the context. The point of v. 23 seems to be that the previous attempt to provide Adam with a helper had come up empty. But now at last a suitable helper is found because she had been taken from his side. The only suitable helper for the first man is a creature formed from his own flesh and blood.

The problem, though, is that the Hebrew phrase zo’t hap-pa`am would normally be translated “this time.” Early interpreters picked up on this and suggested that maybe Eve was the second of two attempts to make a suitable human mate for Adam.

An early medieval Jewish commentary on Genesis, Genesis Rabba 18:4, says that Adam saw the first woman created “full of blood and fluids” and recoiled at the sight. Then God put Adam to sleep and created the second woman from his side.

What triggered both of these thoughts about Eve was the problematic sequence given in Genesis 2:18-25. However one might address this issue, its meaning is not obvious. It requires careful attention to details, and yes, even for us, some creative interpretation.

After their disobedience in the Garden, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked (Genesis 3:7). They cover themselves with leaves, and after God pronounces the curses on them and the snake (3:14-19), he makes “garments of skin” for them (3:21) before casting them out of the Garden. The sequence seems crystal clear: the first couple was created naked and stayed that way until God provided clothing after they sinned.

This scenario, however, presented a bit of a problem for early Jewish interpreters. For one thing, early Jewish interpreters typically understood Eden to be holy ground—in fact it was the Holy of Holies before there was a tabernacle or temple. In that holy place, Adam was a priest figure, and it was assumed that he would be dressed like one. Exodus 28 emphasizes how priests were to be dressed properly in God’s presence. Would Adam be dressed any less appropriately?

To compound the problem, the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. introduced Greek influence to a Jewish world, which resulted in significant tensions. In the second century B.C. in particular, tensions escalated. The famous Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 B.C.) imposed anti-Jewish policies, which lead to the Maccabean revolt and eventual Jewish independence until the Roman conquest of 63 B.C.

One of these impositions was the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem (see 1 Maccabees 1:14 and 2 Maccabees 4:12). A gymnasium was a Greek cultural center where young men trained naked for athletic competition, which was offensive to ancient Jews.

During periods of cultural tension, where Jews were trying to maintain their own cultural identity, a naked Adam running around Eden came to be somewhat of a problem. The solution was an interpretive tradition where Adam and Eve were “clothed with glory” (or some similar phrase) from the very beginning—Adam and Eve were never really naked.

One text, History of the Rechabites, states the issue very clearly.

We [Blessed ones] are naked, but not as you suppose, for we are covered with a covering of glory…we do not show each other the private parts of our bodies. We are covered with a stole of glory which clothed Adam and Eve before they sinned (12:3).

Adam and Eve were clothed with “glory” before their sin. And according to some early Jewish interpreters, their disobedience stripped from them this garment of glory thus revealing their nakedness.

So what to do about Genesis 3:7, which says that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked”? It seems pretty clear that eating of the tree of knowledge allowed them to see their naked state; this text says nothing about being stripped of any glorious clothing. Well, that was indeed a problem, but Jewish interpreters were intent on reading this verse not as the realization of their nakedness, but the beginning of their nakedness, for the reasons mentioned above.

Several early interpreters speak of Adam and Even being stripped of their clothing. For example, Ephraem (4th century Syrian theologian) says:

It is because of the glory with which they were clothed that they were not ashamed. When it was taken away from them—after they had violated the commandment—they were indeed ashamed, because they were now naked (Commentary on Genesis, 2:14).

Other examples include the following:

And I [Adam] wept and said, “Why have you done this to me, that I have been estranged from my glory with which I was clothed” (Apocalypse of Moses 20:2).

…just as Adam through this tree [of knowledge] was condemned and was stripped of the glory of God… (3 Baruch 4:16).

Here is the point for careful readers of the Bible today to consider. We see in this example that theological need and cultural pressures can lead to creative readings the creation story: Adam and Eve were clothed before their sin.

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.

Earlier, we looked at the serpent in Genesis 3. Some early interpreters identified him simply as a talking snake, while other saw him as Satan (or an agent of Satan). Most early interpreters took the latter approach.

Understanding the serpent as the devil, however, leaves open a pretty basic question in Genesis: why did the devil want to trick Adam and Eve in the first place? Granted, if the devil is God’s archenemy and wants to undermine God’s works, tricking Adam and Eve into disobeying God is a good idea. But why does such an archenemy exist in the first place? Is there something behind what Genesis 3 is telling us?

Ancient interpreters definitely thought so. Many argued that the devil was the leader of a group of angels who were jealous that Adam has been given such an elevated status in God’s creation.

There are two Old Testament passages that worked together to help create this impression among early interpreters. The first is Isaiah 14:12:

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to earth,
You who once laid low the nations!

The Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, translates “morning star” as “Lucifer” and so being “cast down to earth” refers to Satan being cast out of heaven. This picture of Satan being thrown out of heaven is a misunderstanding of the Hebrew, however. The context of the passage is a taunt against the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4). He is being compared to a divine figure whom we now know of from Canaanite religion. The king of Babylon was claiming divine status, and Isaiah mocks him using his own stories.

So, in its original context the passage is likely not about the fall of Satan. But it came to be understood by some early interpreters as an indication of a prior conflict between him and God for which he was cast out of heaven. That conflict comes into play when asking, “Why did the devil set out to trick Adam and Eve?”

A second passage comes into play: Psalm 8:4-8. In these verses, the psalmist praises God for his creation (v. 3), and in the midst of all this wonder, asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” After all, here are these creatures — man — made by God, just like all the others, but yet they hold a special place. Of all the creatures, God made them “a little lower than God” and “crowned them with glory and honor” (v. 5). In fact, God made man “ruler over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet” (v. 6).

The psalmist considers this elevation of humanity to be motivation to praise God. But, perhaps not all were so supportive. The question raised among early interpreters was “I wonder how the angels felt about this?” Seeing mere creatures have such an exalted place, while angels, divine beings, are given no such royal status must have made some of them jealous. The angels simply fly about doing God’s bidding, sent down by God to help the humans along occasionally. It almost seems as if the angels serve the humans! One ancient story, Life of Adam and Eve, even says that the angels had been commanded by God to worship Adam! (See Life of Adam and Eve, 12:1; 13:2-3; 14:1-3).

So, for some interpreters, there was an elaborate drama that took place behind the events of Genesis 3. Those events, although not mentioned in Genesis, can be pieced together from other portions of the Bible. Some of the angels were jealous of man’s lofty status (as seen in Psalm 8), and Isaiah 14:12 gives us an indirect glimpse of a heavenly battle where the ringleader of the rebellion, later known as Satan, was cast out of heaven. Once landed on earth, the devil plotted his revenge against God by undermining the lofty status of humanity.

This is probably the most popular way biblical interpreters have come to understand why the devil did what he did. It was also brought into common Christian consciousness through John Milton’s seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost, where Milton writes about the Fall of Adam and Eve at the hands of the fallen angel Satan. Milton’s version of the Fall became very influential among Christians (directly or indirectly), although his poem greatly expands on how the biblical story itself is told by drawing on extrabiblical traditions.

Satan’s jealousy was explained one other way, and this was rooted in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you [serpent/Satan] and the woman.” Some early interpreters suggested that if God only now put enmity between them, there was no enmity before. Perhaps Eve and the serpent had been friendly. That might explain why Eve trusted the serpent when he began to trick her.

But what was the serpent’s problem? Why turn a friendly relationship sour? Because he was jealous—not of Adam’s exalted status in creation but of Adam having Eve to himself. We have, in other words, a love triangle.

And so we find in the case of the serpent who sought to kill Adam and marry Eve. God said to him: “You thought: I will kill Adam and marry Eve—now I will put enmity between you and the woman.” Tosefta Sotah 4:17-18

A second century Christian writer, Theophilus of Antioch, added another twist: Satan was overcome with jealousy when he saw that Adam and Eve had children (To Autolycus 2:29).

There are two questions concerning the serpent in Genesis 3: who is he and why did he do what he did? We looked at the first question earlier and the second question here. Genesis 3 only gives us a rough sketch of Adam and Eve succumbing to temptation and the disastrous consequences that resulted (Genesis 3:14-24), which included the introduction of death and expulsion from Paradise. With such dire consequences, early interpreters were intent to explain what set off such a scenario in the first place.

This was the last document in the series "Should Christians Take The Vaccine?".

About the author

Pete Enns

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.

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