In ET August 2017, Paul Smith argued his personal view against this scriptural interpretation. Here, Nick Needham presents an alternative point of view.
There’s good evidence in Scripture that the Garden of Eden was the first temple and Adam the first priest. The New Bible Dictionary defines a temple (using general theory derived from comparative religion) as a place where a human being meets with and worships his god.
Bearing this in mind, the Garden of Eden is clearly a temple. It’s the place chosen and set apart by the Creator, where Adam and Eve meet with and worship him as their God.
Consider the way God sanctified the garden — set it apart as his special dwelling: ‘And the Lord God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed’ (Genesis 2:8).
The garden is not coextensive with Eden; it’s a special place within Eden. God cordons off, so to speak, a portion of Eden and makes it into his enclosure, his set-apart garden. This we’re told, is in the eastern part of Eden. Some have seen here a link with Solomon’s temple, which was in the eastern part of Jerusalem. The location is certainly suggestive.
We also learn from Genesis 3:24 that the entrance to the garden was on the eastern side, which reminds us that the entrance to the Mosaic tabernacle was from the eastern side (Exodus 27:13-15), as was the entrance to Ezekiel’s visionary temple (Ezekiel 42:9). The symbolism can hardly be accidental. The Garden of Eden is God’s tabernacle, God’s temple, entered from the east.
Further, the garden isn’t only enclosed from the rest of Eden by God’s sanctifying act; it’s also the place where God manifests his presence. Ezekiel 28:13 and 31:9 describe the Garden of Eden as ‘the garden of God’; Isaiah 51:3 describes it as ‘the Garden of Yahweh’. These descriptions suggest a garden consecrated to God; in fact, a garden sanctuary.
This is borne out by the Genesis narrative, where God manifests his kindly presence to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the garden God walks with them in the cool of the day; in the garden he speaks to them; in the garden he plants the trees of knowledge and life, which embody God’s will, so that Adam and Eve’s relationship with God hinges (sacramentally, one might say) on their conduct towards these trees.
In short, the garden is a garden sanctuary, a temple, where God causes his glory to dwell with innocent humanity. And, as the story makes clear, banishment from the garden is tantamount to banishment from God’s presence — at least from that presence as gloriously manifested and experienced in the garden.
Further evidence that the Garden of Eden was the first temple is found in the striking way that Solomon’s temple is itself full of garden imagery. Indeed, the temple is virtually an architectural model of the Edenic garden.
In the temple, we find the following garden imagery in stone, metal or cloth: palm trees, pomegranates, buds, open flowers, lilies, and the golden lampstand shaped like a six-branched tree with bowls like almond blossoms, decorated with ornamental flowers.
We find the sea of bronze shaped like a lily blossom, filled with water, resting on twelve sculptured oxen facing in four directions. This whole structure recalls the river that waters the Edenic garden, which divides into four rivers.
Yet further garden symbolism meets us in the pomegranates woven into the garments of the priests. If we failed to bear in mind the Edenic background, we might be tempted to think that Israel had nature-priests for a nature-religion!
Consider too the breastplate of the high priest: ‘And they set in it four rows of stones. A row of sardius, topaz, and carbuncle was the first row; and the second row, an emerald, a sapphire, and a diamond; and the third row, a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; and the fourth row, a beryl, an onyx, and a jaspar: they were inclosed in inclosings of gold in their settings’ (Exodus 39:10ff).
Compare this with Ezekiel 28:13: ‘You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold’. The way these two passages echo each other is unmistakable. The high priest’s breastplate is studded with the precious stones of Eden, mounted in Edenic gold.
This rich profusion of Edenic garden imagery in the temple suggests that the temple is a symbolic representation of the original garden sanctuary, and therefore that the Garden of Eden was itself a temple, albeit an organic temple rather than a stone one.
What evidence is there that Adam was the priest of this first Edenic temple? I’ve already noted how the priestly costumes of tabernacle and temple are pregnant with garden imagery. This, in itself, suggests that Adam’s role was priestly.
A more direct indication is found in what Genesis says about Adam’s divinely appointed function in the garden: ‘Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it’ (Genesis 2:15). The two words here — ‘tend’ and ‘keep’ in the NKJV — are both sacred and liturgical words, used extensively in the rest of the Old Testament to describe specifically religious and priestly activity.
‘Tend’ is the Hebrew abad, which means to ‘serve’ in a liturgical sense; to serve God, to minister to God, to worship. The meaning is particularly clear in Numbers 18:7, where abad is used to describe priestly service at the altar: the priests are to ‘tend’ or serve the altar.
It takes little imagination to see the connection. The priests were to tend or serve the altar: Adam was to tend or serve the garden. In both cases it’s sacred service, carrying out a divinely appointed liturgical function, in relation to an object consecrated by God for use in his worship — the altar or the garden.
The other word in Genesis 2:15 is ‘keep’; in Hebrew, shamar. This too is used in an overwhelmingly religious sense in the Old Testament: to keep the sabbath, to keep the covenant, to keep God’s precepts.
Again, if we go to Numbers 18, this time verses 3-6, we see shamar used to describe priestly service. The priests are to ‘keep’ the duties of the sanctuary; to attend to sanctuary service. Likewise, Adam, the first priest, was to ‘keep’ the garden, the first temple; to attend to sanctuary service in the Edenic tabernacle.
As the priests were to devote themselves to the upkeep of the Mosaic tabernacle and Solomonic temple, so Adam was to devote himself to the upkeep of the garden. In each case, the rationale is the same: the place God has chosen as his sanctuary must be attended, kept clean, beautiful and well-ordered, a fit place for the manifestation of his grace and glory.
The priests must tend and keep the temple; Adam must tend and keep the garden. The temple is the garden fashioned in stone; the garden is the temple fashioned in earth, water, and herb.
At this point I suppose someone might object, ‘Wait a minute. Surely priesthood has something mediatorial about it. If Adam was a priest, for whom was he mediating?’
The answer surely is that Adam is the priestly mediator of creation — at least, of the earthly creation. In Adam, dumb nature finds a voice with which to praise its Creator.
The fate of the earthly creation is bound up with the life of Adam. As long as Adam stands, the world stands; when Adam falls, the world falls. It’s therefore not incredible or fantastic to see Adam as the priestly mediator between God and his earthly creation.
To be concluded
Dr Nick Needham lectures in church history at Highland Theological College, Dingwall, and is minister of Inverness Reformed Baptist Church.