While Genesis 1 establishes Yahweh as the sovereign Creator and enthroned King, Genesis 2–3 lays the cornerstone of how Yahweh is the covenantal Lord of the Hebrews. These chapters connect the work of God done for Israel in the exodus to God’s work with Adam and Eve. They link Israel’s story with that of the first humans. While the word “covenant” doesn’t appear in these chapters, a concept can be present even when it is not named. For example, the cry “Go Broncos!” is more than sufficient to inform you of a football setting. Likewise, no word for “sin” appears in Genesis 2–3, but it would be irresponsible to deny that sin is present in these chapters. In the same manner, the theme of covenant dominates this story.
Remember, our starting point is Israel at Sinai. As modern readers of the Bible, our initial task is to understand the text as it was delivered to the ancient Hebrews, and covenant was hardly a minor note in their song. Yahweh brought them to his holy mountain to enter into a covenant with them. The terms and laws of the covenant covered their whole existence. Israel understood their identity as Yahweh’s covenantal people. “Yahweh your God” meant he was their covenantal Lord. The Sinai covenant, though, was not the only covenantal tune to which Israel danced. The Abrahamic covenant was the bass line on which the treble of Sinai was played.
But what is a covenant?
In the ancient Near East, a covenant at base was a promissory oath to do something sealed in a name of a god to ensure its fulfillment. This oath invoked the god’s name to punish the one who broke her promise. And with Yahweh, since his word is unbreakable, all of his utterances were considered to have the value of an oath. “When God spoke, it was unthinkable that his word would not come to pass; it was implicit that he had sworn by himself in every promise to his people.” More complex covenants included commands and prohibitions, promises of reward, and warnings of punishments or sanctions.
In Genesis 2:16, Yahweh God commanded the man, “You shall eat from every tree of the garden” (my translation). This could have the sense of permission, “You may eat.” Either way, the man is granted the privilege and duty to feast upon the trees. A prohibition follows the obligation: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” The “you shall not” of the Ten Commandments is clearly in the background. And this prohibition is wedded to a penalty for rebellion, “you shall surely die,” which is the capital punishment formula of the law. Finally, the reward of the tree of life is barred from the man and woman for their disobedience, a clear curse.
The indications that this is a covenant are not exhausted with these formal features. The entire setting of Adam and Eve being in a garden with God reverberates with the sounds of covenant. As modern people, our ears are untrained to these notes because the ancient culture of Israel is foreign to us. Yet the Hebrews would not have missed the indicators. Four principles will train our listening skills.
The covenantal foundation of the Garden of Eden
First, “Holiness is not inherent in creation but comes by God’s dictate.” Creation is not holy in and of itself; rather, places and objects become holy only by God’s declaration or action. Yahweh must declare a place holy; he must build the shrine for it to be sacred. Hence, in Deuteronomy 12, the place where God makes his name to dwell is the holy place of his tabernacle and no other.
Second, “Holiness is a necessary … precondition for God’s presence to be manifest.” Yahweh only reveals himself in a holy place, and the presence of God constitutes the place as holy. The bush burned with Yahweh’s splendor, and sandals had to be removed upon the holy ground. For Yahweh to plant the garden and then for him to be present in it with the man and woman constitutes the garden as a holy place, a shrine.
Third, the combination of wonderful gardens and gods invoked both the ideas of temple and the duty to maintain, which fell to the king and/or priest. Kings often planted verdant gardens next to the deity’s shrine, and it was their task to maintain the fruitfulness and purity of the temple garden. Job Y. Jindo puts it this way: “In Mesopotamia, in particular, each temple city was conceived of as the manor of the patron deity, and each local ruler was divinely elected to supervise the temple estates, including its garden(s).” And Jon Levenson concludes, “In sum, in the ancient Near East, gardens, especially royal gardens, are not simply decorative. They are symbolic, and their religious message is very much involved with that of the Temple in or near which they are not infrequently found.” Hence, Victor Hurowitz states about the temple in Jerusalem, “It seems as if the Temple was not merely YHWH’s residence, but a divine garden on earth,” a recreation of the garden of Eden. Likewise, Ezekiel calls Eden the garden of God and the mountain of God, and he likens the Adam figure to a guardian cherub, blameless and flawless in beauty (Ezek 28:12–14).
Finally, these temple gardens had to be cared for and protected. Impurities and detestable things were walled out. The garden had to be tended to shield it from the chaos, decay, and death of the outside world. Caring for such sacred space was a priestly duty, but this responsibility was often taken up by the kings. As such, then, Eden was a type of sacred place, and Adam was put in it as a priest-king to work it and guard it (Gen 2:15). The word here for “work” is often used of the priestly service in worship (Num 3:7-8; 8:11), and “guarding” was performed by both the priests and Levites to protect the temple from defilement (Num 3:38; 8:26). These parallels between Adam and the sanctuary further reveal the covenantal background of the garden of Eden. Just as Israel’s priesthood was in covenant with Yahweh, so was Adam’s in the beginning.
This post was adapted from The Unfolding Word: The Story of the Bible from Creation to New Creation by Zach Keele (Lexham Press, 2020).