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Was the Garden of Eden a ‘sanctuary’ from a hostile outside world?

Picture: Caleb Salisbury Adam-Eve

In Genesis 2–3 we see a contrast between the Garden of Eden and the world outside—God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, but God barred them from the Garden after they sinned. Today’s correspondent asks: does this mean the Garden of Eden was a ‘safe haven’ from a hostile wilderness outside? Indeed, some long-age Christians have posited just this as a part of their attempt to explain the origin of death and suffering in a ‘billions of years’ world (see Retroactive death! What’s wrong with that? and The ‘problem’ of evil and the supremacy of Scripture). CMI’s Shaun Doyle explores why God made the Garden of Eden a localized place … even in a world without evil.

Johnny E. from the UK writes:

I have a question that I couldn’t find answered on your site.

I consider myself a Biblical Creationist and have been encouraged through CMI’s ministry.

Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden as a result of their sin and the garden was guarded to prevent their re-entry. It might be said that whilst Eden was paradise, what was outside the garden could have been quite different. If not, why would Eden be a ‘sanctuary’ or have boundaries?

In support of this I’ve heard it preached recently that Adam, as keeper/guard, of Eden, should have killed the serpent upon finding it questioning God’s Word. This, focusing on Adam as guard/keeper of the Garden, adds some more weight to the idea that outside the garden could have been different to inside.

In short, on what basis do we believe the outside of Eden to be perfect pre-fall and why?

Whilst I believe it was, I’m finding it hard to defend concretely as Eden reads like a perfect sanctuary of God’s presence.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Dear Johnny,

Thank you for your email.

The basis for saying the world outside the Garden of Eden was perfect is Genesis 1:31: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day [emphasis added].” The “everything he had made” clearly refers to everything mentioned as created by God in the previous 30 verses of Genesis 1—i.e. the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. There is no geographical limit to Genesis 1:31. See Was God’s finished creation perfect? for more information.

So why did God make the Garden of Eden? What made the Garden of Eden special? The first part of the answer is in Genesis 2:9: “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” These two specific trees were unique to the Garden of Eden (cf. Genesis 2:16–17, Genesis 3:22–23). The Tree of Life signified God’s special life-giving presence among his people, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil provided the special test of obedience. This suggests that the Garden of Eden was set up as sacred space; the centre of God’s communion with humanity. This does not mean it was a safe haven from the outside world, but that it was the place where God’s good presence among His people was specially manifested—at least, at first (more on this below). However, the purpose of the Garden was not only symbolic, but also vocational: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15, emphasis added). The Garden of Eden provided Adam (and subsequently, Eve) with a job.

Nevertheless, in Genesis 1:28 we read that Adam and Eve already had a job description: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” In Genesis 2:19–20 we see Adam’s dominion over the animals exercised in his naming of them, and thus Genesis 2 is not ignorant of Genesis 1:28. However, there is more to subduing the earth than just naming the animals. Eve didn’t name any animals, though she was also given dominion over the earth in Genesis 1:28. And naming the animals has nothing to do with the plants. This is where the vocation to tend and keep the garden comes in: it gives Adam and Eve the means by which to “subdue” the earth, as per Genesis 1:28.

But wasn’t the Garden of Eden just a localized area? It certainly was, but in the light of Genesis 1:28 and Genesis 2:15 I severely doubt God intended Adam and his descendants to keep it localized. God could’ve made the whole world like the Garden of Eden, but if He did then He would’ve left us with nothing to do! In fact, I suggest that God intended us to extend the cultivated beauty of the Garden of Eden all over the world to reflect his glory. So why not expand the Garden? Complexify its arrangement? Incorporate other plants into a grand planet-wide garden design? Why not order the plants of the world in such ways that they become even more fruitful food for the animals? These were questions God gave us to answer. And if we had done our gardening job correctly,we could’ve further beautified God’s all-good world, thus showing forth what His special image bearers can do to his glory, and thus playing our part in the manifestation of Isaiah 11:9: “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”. Perhaps we would’ve even taken seeds from the Tree of Life and planted them elsewhere! Alas, our quick fall into sin ruined the project, but God will get the ‘Isaiah 11:9 Eden project’ back on track—through the reign of the Davidic Messiah (Isaiah 11:1–5), who is of course Jesus.

Rather than thinking of the Garden of Eden as a safe haven from a dangerous wilderness, it’s better seen as the template for what God intended us to do with the world. And think of the world outside the Garden as a canvas God gave to us to paint on—a “very good” wilderness that had no evil or suffering, but was created for God’s image bearers to show forth God’s glory in creation.

Published: 3 January 2015

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