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Personal View: Was Eden a garden-temple?

August 2017 | by Paul Smith

Few passages in the Bible provide a richer seam of truth than Genesis 1-3. As with any familiar passage, we delight to find new and fresh insights in it. In the last 20 years, Greg Beale has popularised one such potentially enriching idea: that Eden was a garden-temple.

Beale puts forward the temple idea as one of the Bible’s big stories. He presents the whole cosmos as ultimately intended to be God’s temple. He maintains that God placed Adam in a garden-temple and Adam’s job was to expand that temple from Eden across the whole earth by subduing it. Adam was a priest, responsible for guarding the garden-temple from intruders like the serpent.

God temporarily restricted the scope of his temple in the post-Fall world. For a time, the world’s people needed to come in to a single place where the tabernacle was pitched or the temple built. But, after Pentecost, we see the picture once more of temple expansion across the world, as people from every kindred, tongue and tribe become living stones in the global spiritual temple.

Helpful insights

Beale’s big picture draws on biblical truths. God’s intention always was for all the earth to worship him. Christ as mediatorial-king subdues all things to himself, in fulfilment of the original cultural mandate to Adam to fill and subdue the earth.

In relation to worship and pointing others like his wife to God, Adam did exhibit some priestly functions. As the head of his wife and of humanity, he ought to have fought against those like the serpent who would spoil their intimate relationship with God, in the place of his holy presence.

The most persuasive elements of Beale’s argument are the parallels he draws between the tabernacle and Eden. First, a certain form of the verb ‘to walk’ is only used ten times in the Old Testament. These uses include God ‘walking’ in the garden (Genesis 3:8), in the camp of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:14) and in the tabernacle (2 Samuel 7:6).

Second, both Eden and Ezekiel’s temple faced east (Genesis 3:24; Ezekiel 40:6). Third, there may well be a link between the rivers in Eden, the waters of delights (Psalm 36:8-9) and waters issuing from the eschatological temple (Ezekiel 47:1-2). Fourth, there were cherubim in the temple and cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life. Fifth, the lampstand, shaped like an almond tree, reminded Israel of Eden. And sixth, both Solomon’s temple (Psalm 52:8; 92:12-15) and the eschatological temple (Isaiah 60:13) have trees whose symbolism points back to Eden.

We might agree with Poythress that, in these respects, ‘the tabernacle is a renewed version of the Garden of Eden’. However, neither the fact that Eden and a future temple share common themes like God’s presence, nor the fact that aspects of the temple echo Eden, prove that Eden was itself a temple.

Insufficient evidence

Looking back to Edenic features like God’s presence and blessing is not the same as seeing these characteristics leading out from Eden. For example, to establish that Eden was a prototypical temple, Adam must be seen to function as a priest, and here the evidence is tenuous.

If Adam was tasked as a priest with guarding the Garden of Eden as a holy temple, would he not have power to stop the devil entering it? Yet there is nothing in God’s judgement on Adam about him neglecting this priestly duty. It is more plausible to state, as Beale does, that ‘he allowed the serpent to “rule over” him, rather than him “ruling over” [the serpent]’. Adam’s failure was linked to his dominion mandate, which is explicit in Genesis, while a supposed commissioning of Adam as a priest is not.

Ironically, biblical theologians, who can be sceptical about claims by systematic theologians to see prophets, priests and kings across Scripture, seem keen to press a priestly role onto Adam that is far from explicit in the biblical text.

The accent of the Genesis account is much more on Adam as a king with a dominion mandate. Further, his role as prophet in passing on God’s Word to Eve is more prominent in the text than a priestly one.

Beale states that Ezekiel 28:11-19 is ‘probably … the most explicit place anywhere in canonical literature where the Garden of Eden is called a temple’. He is referring to Ezekiel’s judgement oracle against the King of Tyre, in which verse 13 states: ‘You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering’.

Beale suggests that these precious stones are like the jewels of the high priest. Block, a leading modern commentator on Ezekiel, is unconvinced by Beale’s case. Block doubts that Ezekiel the priest would depict a pagan king in sacred Israelite clothing, so the most straightforward explanation of verse 13 is that Ezekiel is simply referring to Eden as a ‘Utopia’. Beale’s ‘most explicit’ data is seriously open to doubt.

Ancient Near Eastern texts

Beale uses Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) sources to draw unwarranted parallels. There are genuine linguistic parallels between tabernacle building in Exodus 39-40 and God’s creation in Genesis 2:1-3. But there is no scriptural parallel between conquering Canaan, where God shows himself sovereign over the ‘forces of chaos’ (Israel’s enemies) and entering ‘his rest’ in his temple; and God creating out of chaos (Genesis 1:2) and Adam’s task as priest-king of making the ‘chaotic’ region outside Eden habitable. Such parallels require reliance on pagan ANE sources, which teach creation-from-chaos. They also happen to allow scholars to argue for a background to Genesis 1-3 of billions of years of evolutionary death and chaos. John Walton, a leading theistic evolutionist, argues that Genesis temple imagery must be assumed for Eden. He mentions ANE sources that recount the building of Baal’s temple in seven days.

Beale is much more cautious than the liberals, but still advocates the OT speaking in a way which is ‘not scientific, but theological, understanding the cosmos as a big temple’, which ‘can be accepted by Christians living in the twenty-first century’. He accepts that ANE sources are partial and distorted reflections of the truth. But if these ANE accounts are so flawed, why does he place such weight being upon them when interpreting inerrant Scripture? Clearly such an approach is flawed.

Blood sacrifice

The final danger in Beale’s thesis is that of emphasising the joy of being in God’s presence at the expense of the way by which sinners approach that presence — which is, through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Clearly the temple points to the hope of God once again dwelling with men. However, the idea that Eden as garden-temple is the archetype for a series of temples means that there is another trajectory that is not sufficiently stressed, namely that of blood sacrifice.

In noting the similarities between Eden and the tabernacle/temple, the major differences between them are easily lost. They were all places of God’s presence, but the temple was specifically designed for sinners to approach him through sacrifice, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear.

When John looked for a temple in New Jerusalem he saw none, for ‘its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb’ (Revelation 21:22). The name given to Christ here is not insignificant; it is ‘the Lamb’. The fellowship picture of the tabernacle, which recalls Edenic blessings, can only be fulfilled because of the atonement picture of the tabernacle.

Whatever narratives in biblical theology we draw from Eden to Revelation, any that downplay (however unintentionally) the centrality of the propitiatory blood of Christ must be reworked.

Conclusion

It is crucial that believers only speak of temple-echoes in Eden to the extent that Scripture does. With no clear scriptural reference to Eden as a temple, it is unwise to use pagan ANE sources to prove this link.

This is especially important, since John Walton and others within evangelicalism are using such arguments to deny the historicity of Genesis 1-3. This may be convenient for believers seeking cultural credibility, but it compromises the truth of Scripture and of the gospel itself.

This is not to say there are no helpful insights in Beale’s thesis. Looking back to Eden, it is legitimate to see echoes of the Garden in the tabernacle: God’s presence is central to Eden, the tabernacle, the temple and the new heavens and new earth. But there is insufficient biblical warrant to trace a strong line of temple imagery forward from Eden. And we must not look to other sources to find it.

Paul Smith studied at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.