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Adam, Guard or Keeper?
Genesis 2:15 has recently stirred the imaginations of a whole group of OT scholars. The reason for this is that they think they observe intimations that all was not well with the good world which Yahweh Elohim had made. For one thing, as we have already said, the garden of Eden was an enclosed garden (gan). Why was it enclosed? Well, maybe because it was the initial safe point of departure for the man within the Creation Project? In this view the garden was started by God and was to be a laboratory model for Adam’s own gardening enterprises after his progeny had themselves begun to explore and subdue the rest of the good earth.
But there is another supposed “clue” in the passage that all was not well outside of the enclosure. The Hebrew words usually rendered “to cultivate” (abad) and “to keep” (shamar), may also be translated as “serve” and “guard.” If, as some surmise, evil lurked outside the enclosure, then the picture before us is of a park which God has separated off from the rest of the early earth, perhaps by a wall or fence; hence a sanctuary. Adam’s role in this scenario would not be just pastoral and creative; it would also be; in fact, it would mainly be, to act as a sentry, stopping the repeated attempts of Evil from despoiling the island of beauty which the garden must have been.
A corollary to this would be to interpret Adam and his family pushing out the edges of the garden in stages as they brought the untamed outland into order for God. Thus, Adam would be seen as an Empire-builder for the Lord. This is attractive to some people because they construe this account typologically as the first of several failed attempts by representative “Adam’s” to spread God’s kingdom throughout the world. The final successful King is Jesus, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45). Depending on our choice of eschatology, either Jesus either subdues the whole world spiritually from heaven before casting it away and replacing it at His second coming (amillennialism), or else brings it to heel through the efforts of the Church before coming back (postmillennialism). Still another view which would be amenable to this “Man as Guard” motif is historic or covenant premillennialism, although this would have Christ coming back to actually set up His kingdom reign on earth and finally driving evil out of the world like Adam (and many after him) ought to have done, though in double-quick time.
Let me provide a couple of examples of this kind of thinking. The first is from G. K. Beale:
Adam was to be God’s obedient servant in maintaining both the physical and the spiritual welfare of the garden abode, which included dutifully keeping evil influences from invading the arboreal sanctuary…Thus, he was to rule over and subdue the serpent, which was reflective of God’s own activity in Gen. 1 of subduing the chaotic darkness of creation and ruling over it.1
Then there is this from William Dumbrell:
The Garden of Eden is thus a place separated from the outside world, which presumably is very much like our own world…the garden is a special place, separated from a world that needs to be brought under the dominion of the divine rule, for which Eden is a model… At the end of the canon, however, the new creation is presented in varied symbolism, but lastly and most significantly in Revelation 22:1-5 as a new and universalized Eden.2
Beale links the Genesis account directly to ANE creation myths and interprets the words “enclosed,” and “keep/guard” negatively, along with seeing only the Garden in Eden as truly reflecting the name God assigned to it. Adam is somehow to subordinate the serpent3, (whom we know is the immensely powerful being Satan), thus recapitulating what God Himself is said to have done in overcoming and subordinating the anarchic chaos. Dumbrell adds to the picture by describing the world beyond the enclosure as anything but “very good.” It is not under God’s rule, and man’s task is to bring it not only under his dominion, but under God’s dominion also. He also betrays further theologized ideals about the last book of the Bible by calling the New Jerusalem a symbolic “universalized Eden.”4
What sort of response is to be given to this kind of thinking? First, it should go without saying that to view the world of Genesis 1 and 2 in such unpleasant and unhappy terms belies what God says of His work in Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and especially 31. Second, this scenario demands that “Eden” is not really “delightful.” It is the domain of lurking evil.5 The enclosed garden is the lone “good spot” on earth, and even this sanctuary must be constantly protected from insurgents.
I for one feel bound to suspect this picture of the opening chapters of the Bible. As these chapters unfold, the whole earth is “very good” and the whole of the land of Eden is a “delight.” The garden is enclosed because enclosures are attractive and orderly. There is nothing sinister in enclosing a garden. Adam is to “keep” (the usual meaning of the Hebrew word) the garden and possibly extend it. But the text says nothing about it one way or another. The extension of mankind’s dominion does not at all require an extension of the garden, or of Eden. Perhaps Adam’s progeny were to reproduce the garden of Eden as the earth was populated, thus duplicating the original design of the Creator? This is closer to the picture which emerges if the Bible itself is consulted without casting about for ANE parallels or hints which then expand into the kind of non-intuitive portrayals asserted by contemporary evangelical biblical theologians.6
Fortunately, not everyone chooses to paint the pristine world in such dreary and portentous colors. Although he is amillennial, Richard Gamble has wisely decided not to jump on the bandwagon. He sees Adam’s pre-fall task in positive terms.
This work was a blessing, not toil. As images of God, we express this reality by reflecting the divine nature in both our working and our resting.7
This interpretation takes seriously God’s assessment of the whole Creation as “very good.” Being set up as a sentry to fend off Satan could hardly be described as a “blessing”! Satan is in no imaginable set of circumstances a pleasant proposition or an easy foe. It appears to this writer that prior theological concerns have been let loose to play with the words of Scripture as they have been traditionally understood.
1 G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 32, 34. He continues in this vein by saying, “Adam should have discerned that the serpent was evil and should have judged the serpent in the name of God at the place of the judgment tree.” Ibid, 35. See also, 45, where the author puts Adam under “covenant obligations” difficult to find in the text. Beale’s work, though erudite, is filled with this kind of speculative yet dogmatic exegesis and theologizing. As we shall see, he thinks “the covering cherub” of Ezekiel 28:14 is Adam! For the opposite view see,e.g., Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory, 92 n.8. Douglas Stuart thinks the king of Tyre in the chapter “was like an unharmable supernatural being.” He recognizes the “anointed cherub” as a guardian angel, but then he claims the imagery is “hyperbole, nonliteral exaggeration for effect.” (Douglas Stuart, Ezekiel, 273-274. I shall say more about this character at the appropriate place.)
2 William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament, 19.
3 Although acquiescing with this position, Hamilton notes that “This is an interpretive judgment that the text does not explicitly describe.” (James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 74 n.21.)
4 It should not escape notice that prior to the description of the New Jerusalem this earth has been destroyed according to Rev. 20:11. Therefore, by this interpretation this earth never gets brought under God’s perfect rule!
5 The description of the “river out of Eden” which divides and flows into other lands, one of which has “gold” which is “good” (Gen. 2:10-14), continues the idyllic scene of the earth God presented Adam and Eve with.
6 It is not without consequence that these new scenarios suit the old-earth interpretations of these chapters which prevail in much evangelical scholarship, (they constitute an insurmountable problem for young-earth creationists), but it fits easily into old-earth creationist accounts which so often read over these passages with an almost cavalier acceptance of death, disease and disquiet prior to the creation of man. They then rationalize these conflicting facts into the peace and serenity apparently imparted in such plain words by Moses.
7 Richard C. Gamble, The Whole Counsel of God, 1.182.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.