God’s people dwelling in God’s place under God’s rule: This tripartite division, outlined by Graeme Goldsworthy in his book According to Plan, well articulates the relationship of Adam and Eve to God in the Garden. Yet, often when Christians read the creation account in Genesis 1–2 they miss the royal and priestly themes in those two chapters. In fact, in teaching this section of Scripture, I have often had veteran saints question the validity of calling Adam a royal priest and the garden of Eden a royal sanctuary.
So, in what follows, I hope to provide a brief summary of the biblical evidence for seeing the first image-bearers (imago Dei) as royal priests commissioned by God to have priestly dominion over the earth—a commission later restored in type to Israel (see Exodus 19:5–6), fulfilled in Christ (see, e.g., Hebrews 5), and shared with all those who are in Christ (see 1 Peter 2:5, 9–10). In these sections, we will focus on the temple and by extension to the purpose and work of mankind in that original garden-sanctuary. (Much of this research stems from my dissertation, which considered in depth the details of the priesthood in Scripture).
Gardens in the Bible
The Garden in Eden
Easily missed by a casual reading of Genesis 2, the “Garden of Eden” (2:15; 3:23, 24; cf. Ezek 36:35; Joel 2:3) is actually the “Garden in Eden” (2:8; cf. 2:10)—meaning that the Garden is a subsection of the land of Eden itself. Confirming this, John Walton writes, “Technically speaking, Genesis 2:10 indicates that the garden should be understood as adjoining Eden because the water flows from Eden and waters the garden.” Further support for this view, that the garden is in Eden, is the fact that the man was created outside the Garden (2:7) and then brought to work the garden (2:8).
The Garden of God
Genesis 2 is the account of the Garden of God (cf. Isa 51:3; Ezek 28:13; 31:9), and the man Adam who is placed in the Garden as a servant of the Lord. Describing the literary framework of Genesis 2:8ff, Peter Gentry states, “Genesis 2:8–17 portrays the first man as a kind of priest in the garden sanctuary. In terms of literary structure, 2:8a describes the creation of the garden and 2:8b the placing of the man there. In what follows, 2:9–15 elaborates on 2:8a [the place] and 2:16–17 elaborates on 2:8b [the priest].” Thus, in light of Moses later writing, we should see this Garden as a sacred sanctuary, the place where God walked in the presence of his people (cf. Leviticus 26:12).
The Garden as a Priestly Sanctuary
So what is the Garden exactly? William Dumbrell writes that the word for garden (gan) “comes from a verb meaning ‘cover’ or ‘surround.’ This type of garden was a fenced-off enclosure protected by a wall or hedge.” While in the Bible and in the ancient Near East garden’s are often associated with kings; gardens are often depicted as sanctuaries where priests offered service and worship. Arguing this point, G. K. Beale states, “the Garden of Eden was the first archetypal temple in which the first man worshipped God.” The significance of garden as a sanctuary is the fact that the place confirms the role of Adam as a priest. In fact, Beale shows that many texts in Judaism actually assign Adam’s creation to the location of Israel’s temple. For instance,
- God created Adam partly of the ‘dust from the site of the sanctuary’ (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Genesis 3:23).
- Adam was created at the site of the temple, and the temple itself was located at or near Eden (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, y. Nahir 7:2; Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 11 & 12; Midrash Rabbah Genesis 14:8).
- Moreover, as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, mankind is created to be representative priests in God’s cosmic temple.
The Garden as a Royal Sanctuary
Garden’s in the ancient Near East were also related to kings. Specifically, royalty often owned or constructed gardens. K. Gleason attests to this fact.
Kings boast of large parts of cities devoted to these parks, of the great irrigation works that feed them, and of the distant lands from which the plants and animals are gathered. Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076 BCE) created a combined zoological park and arboretum of exotic animals and trees. Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) created a park/park at Nimrud (Kalhu) by diverting water from the Zab River through a rock-cut channel for his impressive collection of foreign plants and animals. Sennacherib (704–681 BCE) makes similar claim for Nineveh. Parks are beautifully represented on the reliefs from Sargon II’s (721–705 BCE) palace at Khorsabad, in which a variety of trees and a small pavilion with proto-Doric columns are depicted. Other reliefs depict lion hunts and falconry in the parks. A clay tablet from Babylon names and locates vegetables and herbs in the garden of Merodach-Baladan II (721-710 BCE). In the palace reliefs of Ashurbanipal, the garden symbolizes the abundance and pleasures of peace after bravery in battle.
Royal gardens are not simply described in the ancient Near East, they are also found in the Bible. In 2 Kings 25:4, “the king’s garden” is mentioned as the “men of war” escaped by night and fled to the Arabah (cf. Jer 39:4; 52:7). Later in Nehemiah, when the Israelites rebuilt Jerusalem, it is said that Shallum “built the wall of the Pool of Shelah of the king’s garden.” Thus, the relationship of the king to the garden finds support in Scripture.
Considering the relationship between kings and their gardens, it shouldn’t surprise us that Solomon is lauded for his interest in botany (1 Kings 4:33), that he fills his temple temple with bucolic imagery. Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus’ parables about the kingdom often employ vineyard imagery. Even Paul speaks of the kingdom of God in terms of garden fruit (1 Corinthians 3–4).
The Garden and the Temple
Finally, we see the most clear indication of the Garden as sacred temple when it is compared to Moses’ tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. For instance, in The Temple and the Church’s Mission, G. K. Beale demonstrates the way the tabernacle and temple reflect Edenic imagery.
For starters, Beale suggests that within Genesis 1–3, there is a gradation from the outer court (the world outside the garden), to the inner court or the holy place (the garden), to the most holy place (Eden itself, i.e., the place where God dwells atop the holy hill). In other words, the architectural pattern we find in Exodus (and Hebrews) begins in the Garden.
John Walton concurs, when he writes,
The garden of Eden is not viewed by the author of Genesis simply as a piece of farmland, but as an archetypal sanctuary, that is a place where God dwells and where man should worship him. Many of the features of the garden may also be found in later sanctuaries particularly the tabernacle or Jerusalem temple. These parallels suggest that the garden itself is understood as a sort of sanctuary.
As he understands Eden to stand above the garden and to stream water into it, Eden becomes something more than the name of the Garden. Rather, the Garden-Sanctuary of Adam and Eve is the place where God comes to visit mankind in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8). Placed there as God’s children, they are meant to serve as royal priests. Though they quickly rebel from this command, God’s original design for humanity remains and will serve as a patten for the rest of the Bible.
Therefore, in any study of Genesis and in any study of the Bible, we must understand the way in which Eden is more than an ancient garden. It is the place where God put his royal priests to cultivate and keep the earth he gave them to subdue and rule. Though framed in ancient language and imagery, it is vital modern Christians understand these original designs—for they have impact on the way we conceive of God, the world, and mankind’s place in the world. Or as Goldsworthy as put it: God’s people dwelling in God’s place under God’s rule.
To help show the biblical basis for this approach to Eden, I have listed a number of passages from the Bible that relates to these themes. They build from Beale’s work on the temple and supply many of the pearls needed to see how God is stringing together in the Bible and the church a royal priestly people, serving in God’s temple, all for the glory of God.
Gardens in the Bible
|Elements of Eden
|Prophets & NT||Extra-Biblical|
|While the Exodus account of the tabernacle does not include the elaborate floral artwork of the latter temple, there are hints of the original garden. The lampstand contains floral patterns (e.g., almond blossom, calyx, and flower). Likewise, the bread of the presence, the incense, and oil are all produce from the soil.
|“Gourds and flowers” (6:18); “palm trees and open flowers” (6:29, 32); “pomegranates” on the capitals of both doorway pillars (7:18-20); “lily design” (7:22); bronze sea had ‘gourds’ (7:24-26); 400 pomegranates around capitals (7:42)
Solomon’s Temple (Pss 52:8; 92:13-15; Lam 2:6)
|The eschatological temple will bear fruit (Isa 60:13, 21)
“Temple” laborers sow the seeds of the gospel and watch the Lord bear fruit and build his temple (1 Cor 3:6–9)
The church bears fruit and grows (Col1:6, 10).
The temple is not static and barren, but grows by the Spirit (Eph 2:19 – 22) and bears fruit from the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23).
|The tabernacle as a replication of God’s dwelling in Garden of Eden (Midrash Rabbah Numbers 13:2)
|Cherubim (3:24)||Golden figures on the Ark of the Covenant (25:18-22)
|Artistic reliefs on the walls (1 Ki 6:29) and doors (1 Ki 6:32-35) of the temple.
Massive gold-plated figures who guarded the Mercy Seat (1 Ki 8:6-7)
|Cherubim are planted on the walls of the eschatological temple (Ezek 41:18)
In the NT church, the servants of the Lord guards God’s people and God’s place (e.g., 1 Cor 5)
|Tree of Life
|The central lampstand in the holy place reflects the original tree of life (25:31–36; 37:17–24)
|Ten lampstands that were designed like trees with blossoms (7:42)
|Zechariah 1:8–11 records the presence of trees in the heavenly tabernacle.
Isaiah 61:3 refers to the eschatological people of God as “oaks of righteousness”
Jesus is the branch who brings life to all who abide in him (John 15:1–8)
|Temple curtain in ‘second temple’ was covered with ornamental flowers (Josephus, Ant. 3:124-26; cf. 3:145; 15:395)
The lampstands represent a small orchard (Testament of Adam 4:7)
Thicket of trees (Yoma 4:4)
“good gold” and “bdellium and onyx stone” (2:12)
|All the furniture in the holy place and holy of holies was covered with gold (Exod 25:11–39)
|The priestly garments are covered with gold and precious stones (25:7; 28:6-27; 1 Chr 29:2)
Solomon’s temple was covered with gold (6:20–22)
|The priest continued to wear gold and precious stones (see Joshua in Zechariah 3)
The church is described with temple terms; Paul speaks of preaching the gospel as building with gold, silver, and precious metals (1 Cor 3:12)
|While not in the tabernacle courtyard itself, the people of Israel received the benefit of water flowing from the rock. And, according to 1 Corinthians 10, the rock represented the Lord and his presence, just like the temple.
|The Sea is made and placed in the courtyard; the land and sea symbolize all creation (7:23)
‘Rivers of delights’ (lit. ‘Edens’) and “fountains of life” (Ps 36:8-9)
|Those who trust in the Lord are like those planted by streams of water (Jer 17:7-8, 12-13; cf. Ps 1:1-2)
Post-exilic temple depicted with a flowing river (Ezek 47:1-12; Rev 21:1-2; cf. Zech 14:8-9; Rev 7:15-17)
Waters of life are also depicted in John’s Gospel. In a book replete with temple imagery, John speaks of water and blood flowing from Jesus’s side (John 19:34), just like the temple. And John 7:37–39 of streams of living water flowing from the believers heart.
|Post-exilic temple depicted with a flowing river (Letter of Aristeas, 89-91)
Streams flowed from ‘the tree of life’ (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 15:6)
|When the covenant was inaugurated, God fed his people (Exodus 24:11)
The bread of the presence (25:23–30)
The sacrifices were for the priests and the people to eat in the presence of God (Leviticus 1 – 7)
|Solomon offered bountiful sacrifices (8:62–64) and the people feasted at the Lord’s Temple (8:65–66)
The nation enjoyed bountiful food under the righteous rule of Solomon (10:10) – this would change as Solomon and his sons broke the covenant
|Food is promised to God’s eschatological people (Isaiah 55:1–3)
The hill of the Lord will overflow with wine and milk (Amos 9:11–15)
All famine will cease, so that the bread and wine of the temple will never run out (Joel 2:18 – 19)
|Hill of the Lord
(Genesis 2:10)Looking back at Eden, Ezekiel depicts it as a holy hill (28:14, 16)
|Israel’s temple was on Mount Zion (Exod 15:17)
|The temple was built on Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1)
The Psalmist looks to the dwelling place of the Lord as God’s holy hill (Psalm 15, 24).
|Eschatological temple was located on a mountain (Ezek 40:2; 43:12; Rev 21:10)
|Adam as Prototypical
|Aaron is set in the tabernacle, much like Adam was set in the garden.
Aaron is clothed in beautiful, glorious splendor (Exodus 28:2), just like Adam is depicted in Ezekiel 28.
The Levites are commissioned with the same work as Adam—to serve and guard (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-7)
|Solomon was the ideal botanist (4:33)
David established the Levitical priests to worship, serve, and sing in the temple (1 Chronicles 24–26).
|Joshua, a royal-priest, is portrayed as the coming savior (Zechariah 3).
The means of salvation in the Psalms is a priest like Melichizedek (Psalm 110).
Christ is a new Adam (Matthew 1:1) who has come to offer a sacrifice to save his people (Matthew 1:21).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Walton, “Garden of Eden,” DOTP, 202.
Peter Gentry, “Kingdom Through Covenant: Humanity as the Divine Image” in SBJT, Vol. 12:1 (Spring 2008), 38.
William Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 24. Cf. Keil & Delitzsch,
Meredith Kline, Wenham, Barker, Parry, and Beale who cites all the others (The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 66).
Beale, The Temple and The Church’s Mission, 66.
Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 67 fn 90. Cf. Scroggs, The Last Adam (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), 51.
Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 29-80.
K. Gleason, “Gardens in Preclassical Times,” OEANE 2:383, quoted by J. H. Walton, “Garden of Eden,” in DOTP, 203.
Beale, The Temple and Church’s Mission, 75.
Gordon Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story” in “I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood”: Ancient Near Eastern and Literary Approaches to Genesis 1-11, ed. R. S. Hess and D. Tsumura (SBTS 4: Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 19.