East, in Eden
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”
The word Eden has almost faded from our vocabularies in these prosaic times, except as a name for honeymoon resorts or cottages. It needs to be revived, because it is a proper and constant reminder of two truths basic to Christianity. First, Christianity is a historical religion. It is not a religion of mere metaphysical concepts and ideas, as many of the non-Christian religions are. It deals with real people who lived in real places and who experienced the very real redemptive acts of God in history. Second, it is the story of man’s fall from perfection and the subsequent redemption of certain men and women by God for their good and the praise of his glory.
Occasionally in my preparation of studies like this I turn to reference books in which the various literary uses of a word such as Eden are recorded. On this occasion I looked up “Eden” in Roget’s International Thesaurus, and was surprised to find it, not under a section dealing with historical names and places, but under the section dealing with “imagination.” It was listed with such terms as “utopia,” “paradise,” “heaven,” “Atlantis,” “Happy Valley,” “fairyland,” “cloudland,” “dreamland,” “Land of Promise,” and “kingdom come.” The quotations, which in Roget accompany each word section, contained such gems as “Imagination rules the world” (Napoleon), “The center of every man’s existence is a dream” (Chesterton), and “All dreams are lies” (French proverb). Apparently, for the compiler of the thesaurus Eden was no more real than fairyland.
Is this the Christian view? Many would like it to be, because if Eden is not real, then the fall is not real and we can all entertain the comfortable secular notions that there is really not much wrong with the human race and that whatever imperfections may be said to exist they are all inevitably being wiped out by time. Unfortunately for secular man, the Bible opposes such optimism and declares instead that man’s state apart from God is desperate.
Names and Places
All along in our study of the opening chapters of Genesis we have insisted that the accounts before us are historical. We asked, “Is Genesis fact or fiction?” We answered that it is clearly fact, defending this from the nature of the material itself as well as from the attitude of the other biblical figures toward Genesis, including that of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if it is true that Genesis 1:1–2:3 is fact—verses that give an account of creation in the briefest possible language—it is many times more evident that Genesis 2:8–17 is fact, for in these verses Moses sets Eden before his Jewish readers as a place they would recognize.
Two features are striking. First, Eden is said to have been located in “the east”—a directional notation. We must remember that Genesis, being the first of the five books of Moses, was initially written to the people of Israel during the days of their wilderness wandering in Sinai. So when Moses says that “God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden” (Gen. 2:8), he is giving the location from the point of view of Sinai. Although the reference is not sharply specific, it means that Eden was located somewhere across the great Arabian desert toward the area we know as the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The second feature of this description is the extraordinary collection of place names found in verses 10–14, including the names of the rivers just mentioned. The text says, “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.” As we study this we must admit that quite a few of these places are unknown today. It may be, as some have suggested, that the geography of the area of Eden has changed as a result of the flood so that today only two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, are found where four were found originally. Or it may be, as Calvin believed, that the names of the “unknown” rivers have simply changed in time and therefore do actually exist today, though the course of the rivers has undoubtedly changed considerably. Calvin regarded the Pishon and Gihon as ancient names for tributaries to the Tigris and Euphrates and believed, on the basis of the Genesis account, that they all flowed together into one river and then divided again into a delta as they flowed from Eden into the Red Sea.
Whatever the solution to this particular geological problem, there is no doubt that Moses was using names and places at least partially known to his contemporaries. The Tigris and Euphrates were known then and are known to this day. Moses speaks of Havilah as a land of gold, resin, and onyx. He speaks of Cush, generally regarded as a section of Arabia and Ethiopia. Asshur is the land of Assyria. Moses is telling the people that at a specific period in past history and in a place well known to them, God placed the first man and woman and that the fall of man, which has affected all subsequent life so drastically, was as real as the acts they themselves were committing in a different but not totally unrelated environment.
Since Genesis is about to speak of the fall this comparison cuts two ways. On the one hand, it means that the disobedience of Adam and Eve was as real, comprehensible, and evil as the sins the people themselves were committing. On the other hand, it means that their sin was as real, comprehensible, and evil as the sin of our first parents.
Human beings always tend to treat sin lightly, and one way of doing this is to dismiss it to a mystical realm in which it becomes merely part of the human dilemma or, as is sometimes said, a symbol of the fact that things are not as good as they can and may yet be. In this perspective sin is not a particular thing that I do. It is just an old word for a general and blameless imperfection. This is not what Genesis teaches, and at this point Christianity stands radically opposed to the non-Christian view. Sin is rebellion against God. It is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism states (A. 14). This means that although it is a flaw in the human constitution resulting from Adam’s first sin, it is also nothing less than specific acts, performed by particular persons at particular points and places in history. Therefore the solution to sin must also be a specific act performed by a particular person at a particular point and place in history, namely, the atonement made by the Lord Jesus Christ in Israel in the days of Pontius Pilate.
A person might argue that the mere historicity of Eden does not in itself prove the historical nature of the fall of man, and that is true. But, of course, this is not all that we are told of Eden. Eden is described as a real place, but in addition to this it is also described as an idyllic place perfectly suited to the man in his unfallen state. Just as Genesis 2:7 describes man’s nature and portrays it as perfect, so does Genesis 2:8–17 describe man’s environment before the fall and portrays it as perfect.
These two things go together and make the fall dreadful. Man could claim some excuse for his sin were he made imperfect, on the one hand, or placed in an imperfect, sinful, or degrading environment, on the other. But neither is the case. His nature was perfect; his environment was perfect. So when he sinned, as we know sadly he did, it was not because of some deficiency either of nature or environment for which God might be thought responsible.
There are three striking things about Eden. First, it was a beautiful place. This is evident throughout the narrative, but it is explicit in the matter of the trees that, the text says, were “pleasing to the eye” (v. 9). This is an understatement, of course. We remember that throughout the account of creation God has been described as making beautiful things and pronouncing the creative acts of each of the days of creation “good” (Gen. 1:3, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Outside Eden there was an abundant and exceedingly beautiful world. Yet here, in the place that is to be the abode of the man and woman, God had poured out beauty in a special measure. Calvin says, “No corner of the earth was then barren, nor was there even any which was not exceedingly rich and fertile; but that benediction of God, which was elsewhere comparatively moderate, had in this place poured itself wonderfully forth. For not only was there an abundant supply of food, but with it was added sweetness for the gratification of the palate, and beauty to feast the eyes. Therefore, from such benignant indulgence, it is more than sufficiently evident, how inexplicable had been the cupidity of man.”
God intended that the environment of man be a thing of great beauty, and in many areas the beauty of man’s God-given environment is still evident. On the other hand, we can hardly read this and then turn without weeping to the many distorted and ugly environments that men have made for themselves. God made a garden, but we litter that garden. In our cities we often eliminate the garden entirely. In place of beauty we have the junk, garbage, and sometimes terribly mangled lives of men and women. How terrible sin is! How abnormal is the environment of man today, as we find it!
The second striking thing about Eden is that it was a useful place. It had a utilitarian value to it, for we are told that the trees were not only pleasing to the eye but also “good for food” (v. 9).
Here we must stop for a moment. In recognizing the value of what God had made we must not make the mistake of linking value to the beautiful as if to say that the thing made by God was beautiful only because it had some utilitarian value. We sometimes think that way in our fallen state or, which is much the same thing, fail to recognize that something is beautiful in itself just because it is not immediately useful to us. But these early chapters of Genesis alone should warn us against that kind of thinking. At this point we are in Genesis 2. But we remember that even before the creation of the man and woman God created a beautiful and varied world and pronounced all that he created good. It was good, first of all, because he made it. It had value in itself. But in addition to that, the creation of God was also beautiful, and some parts of it (from the perspective of Adam and Eve) were useful also.
The third striking thing about Eden is that it was perfectly suited to the nature and responsibilities of Adam. In the verse immediately before this section we are told that “God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (v. 7). By nature man was related both to the ground, from which he was made, and to God, whose breath gave him both life and God-consciousness. Now he is placed in an environment where his task is to “work [the ground] and take care of it” (2:15). Thus, every day of his life Adam would be reminded of his origin and at the same time of his responsibility, for he would know that he was working the ground at the direction of God and for God’s glory.
God kept these matters before Adam by another device too: the command regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (vv. 16–17). The existence of this tree would have reminded Adam that he was not his own god and that he was responsible at all times to his Maker.
Unfortunately, as we know very well, Adam determined to be his own god anyhow and so rebelled by doing what God had commanded him not to do.
In time we are going to study the fall of man thoroughly. But here we should not overlook the obvious contrast between the situation and conduct of Adam in this garden and the situation and conduct of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion.
The first contrast is between the good that stretched out before our first parents in Eden and the evil that lay before Christ. Adam and Eve had entered Eden at the peak of God’s creative activity. Theirs was a world that God declared unequivocally to be good. He had made our first parents vice-regents over this world, giving them dominion over “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen. 1:26). Moreover, he had blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. … I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:28–30). Adam and Eve had all this before them without even a suggestion of a lessening of God’s great favors. Yet they turned from this overwhelming and delightful prospect and sinned.
By contrast Jesus faced what Adam and Eve could not even begin to conceive: first, physical death in what is probably the most prolonged and excruciating form known to man, and second, spiritual death from which even his highly disciplined and divinely motivated soul shrank in deep horror. The full measure of what was before Christ is seen in his great agony, bloody sweat, and heartbreaking prayer (“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me,” Matt. 26:39; cf. Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Nevertheless, Jesus did not turn from this suffering but rather embraced it willingly for our salvation.
The second contrast between Adam and Eve’s conduct in Eden and Christ’s conduct in Gethsemane is that our first parents spent their time talking to Satan while Jesus spent his time talking with God. The need for prayer was very much on Christ’s mind, for all his actions seemed geared to meeting it. He left Jerusalem to pray (John 18:2). He separated himself from the larger number of his disciples, admonishing them to pray (Luke 22:40). Then he himself earnestly prayed, returning to pray twice, after interrupting himself to encourage the disciples in their own vigil. Jesus clearly felt the need for prayer. But Adam and Eve, though on the brink of that sin that would condemn the race, did not pray. Rather, they seemed oblivious to the danger as they blithely communed with Satan.
The third point of contrast between Adam and Eve on the one hand, and the Lord Jesus Christ on the other, is obvious. They fell while he conquered. How soon did they fall? Almost instantly, it would appear. Satan presented his arguments, and they quickly ate the forbidden fruit. Jesus, on the other hand, wrestled in prayer and only prevailed at the end.
Finally, we notice that by their sin Adam and Eve plunged the race into misery. They fell and carried their descendants over the cliff of sin to destruction. On the other hand, Jesus stood firm. He did not sin, nor did he shrink from the work before him, as a result of which he saved all whom the Father had given him. In Adam all were lost. But Jesus could say, “None has been lost” (John 17:12).
The apostle Paul makes this contrast in that magnificent fifth chapter of the Book of Romans. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned—for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (vv. 12–21).
That is precisely it. One writer declares, “Sin, death, and judgment flowed from the act of Adam. Righteousness, life, and kingship flow from the cross of Christ. The sin of Adam was a stone cast into a pool which sent ripples to every inlet. The cross of Christ was the rock of ages cast into the ocean of the love of God, and it is the destiny of all who are in Christ to be carried on the swell of his majestic love and life and power both now and forever.”
16–17 A further confirmation of understanding leʿobdâ ûlešomrâ as “to worship and to obey” is that in v. 16 we read for the first time that “God commanded” (wayeṣaw) the man whom he had created. As in the rest of the Torah, enjoyment of God’s good land is contingent on “keeping” (lišmōr) God’s commandments (miṣwōt; cf. Dt 30:16). The similarity between this condition for enjoying God’s blessing and that laid down for Israel at Sinai and in Deuteronomy is transparent. Indeed, one can hardly fail to hear in these words of God to the first man the words of Moses to Israel:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity [blessing; lit., the good, haṭṭôb], death and destruction [calamity; lit., the evil, hārāʿ]. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep [lišmōr] his commands [miswôtāyw], decrees and laws; then you will live [ḥyh] and increase [rbh], and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient … you will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Dt 30:15–18)
The inference of God’s commands in 2:16–17 is that only God knows what is good (ṭôb) for humanity and only God knows what is not good (rāʿ) for them. To enjoy the “good,” humankind must trust God and obey him. If they disobey, they will be left to decide for themselves what is good (ṭôb) and what is not good (rāʿ). While to our modern age such a prospect may seem desirable, to the author of Genesis it is the worst fate that could have befallen humankind, for only God knows what is good (ṭôb) for humanity.
2:15–17 / The main story resumes with the repetition of words from verse 8. God assigned Adam to work and take care of (lit. “keep,” shamar) the garden. The meaning of shamar here is “to take care of” something like a member of the flock (30:31). From the beginning God charged man with responsible work.
In addition, God gave the man two specific commandments, one affirmative and one prohibitive. God generously granted man unlimited access to the fruit of all the trees, including the tree of life, which held the possibility of unending life for humans as long as they ate of its fruit. In the tree God provided the opportunity for patterns of obedience. With the second command God prohibited the man from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil under penalty of death (on the significance of this tree, see 3:5). This penalty takes the form found in threats made by kings, in which the king has discretion as to the manner of enforcing the penalty (20:7; 1 Sam. 14:39, 44; 22:16), not the form found in legal texts, in which the king has no such prerogative (G. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 [WBC 1; Dallas: Word, 1987], p. 67).
Giving these commands conveyed that humans are moral: they could choose either to obey or to disobey God’s commands. Obeying God would lead to abundance and the possibility of endless life, but disobeying God would place them under the death penalty.
By giving humans such a prohibition, God was mercifully providing them a tangible symbol of their moral nature. Some people argue, however, that the presence of this tree made it impossible for humans not to sin, given the human proclivity to do what is prohibited. But those who hold this position fail to consider that the first humans did not yet have any inclination of asserting themselves above God. It is difficult for us on this side of Eden to discern how a limit guards freedom rather than serving as a temptation to do what is forbidden. God was protecting human freedom by setting this restriction.
 Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 122–128). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Sailhamer, J. H. (2008). Genesis. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Genesis–Leviticus (Revised Edition) (Vol. 1, pp. 79–80). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Hartley, J. E. (2012). Genesis. (W. W. Gasque, R. L. Hubbard Jr., & R. K. Johnston, Eds.) (pp. 60–61). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.