As a committed evangelical, one thing I find incredibly discouraging is how the debates of the age of the earth and the meaning of “day” in Genesis 1, have become a distraction that have kept us from paying attention to theological elements in the text that would have been far more contentious to the original audience. While we need to take all of God’s Word seriously, I cannot help but find us majoring on the minors and minoring on the major points in Genesis 1 and 2. When this happens, we are failing to do good grammatical-historical exegesis. We need to be careful to not over-prioritize modern issues of debate in a way that causes us to miss the intentions of the text when it was given.
Outside of the academy, the average Bible teacher and student often fails to notice that when God established creation and placed the garden of Eden within the center of it, he was erecting a temple. Yet, this imagery would have resounded to the ancient reader like a chorus of church bells shaking the belfry. God’s desire is to dwell with humanity and he established all of his creation like a temple so that he could be present in their midst.
Imagine the ancient Israelite going up to the tabernacle, or later the temple. They would have seen the structure, the imagery of creation and angels on the walls, the altars, and the boundaries which they could not pass. Then, they would hear the Torah in Genesis 1 and 2 read. It would click in there minds eye, “wait, what I am hearing is like an echo [or a shadow] of what I’ve just seen around me.”
The tabernacle and the temple were littered with cosmic symbolism. When the Torah was read in their midst, the Israelites would hear of Adam and Eve walking with God, and they would look up and see the curtains and realize that at their present time there is a veil keeping them protected from the glory of God. G.K. Beale has put this another way: “Israel’s earthly tabernacle and temple [were] reflections and recapitulations of the first temple in the Garden of Eden.”1 In that tabernacle/temple, there was both the presence of God in the midst of his people, and also the distance of God to keep the glory of God from radiating onto a sinful people.
Eden was a Temple
Without being exhaustive, let’s summarize a number of lines of evidence that indicate Eden was a temple:
God walked in a gardenFirst, in Genesis 3:8, God walks “to a fro” or “back and forth.” As he is walking in the garden we read of “the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” This word for ‘walking back and forth’ appears in Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14; and 2 Sam. 7:6–7 in reference to the tabernacle. His tabernacle allowed God to move about in the midst of the his people as it was carried from place to place. Even more, when Solomon built his temple, there was a preponderance of tree and garden imagery with flowering lilies, gourds, and pomegranates all around it.
Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms (1 Kings 6:29; see also: 1 Kings 6:32, 35; 7:20, 22, 24–26, 42, etc.)In the temple, God’s presence dwells in a veritable garden, his presence is amongst the trees and fruit once again.
Adam and Eve had a priestly role to keep and tend the garden.In Genesis 2:15 it says “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” As I say elsewhere “to ‘cultivate’ (עבד) and ‘keep’ (שׁמר) uses verbs that typically refer to the priestly role of serving or guarding in the tabernacle.”2
Adam and Eve are the image of God.Being the image of God entails both kingly and cultic elements. Throughout the world’s history, at the center of a temple would be placed an image of the deity. In fact, Israel’s temple and tabernacle were distinct in that the Ark of the Covenant was not an image of the deity, as making images of God was forbidden by the Torah. The Ark of the Covenant was like the footstool of God’s throne and his glory would abide over it. So, when Adam and Eve are placed in the garden as the image, they are the symbolic representation of the LORD in his temple. They represent him.3
There are parallel features between the garden and the temple/tabernacle.
Scholars have noted how the lampstand directly in front of the holy of holies bears similarities to the tree of life. In Genesis 2:12 we find gold and onyx in the land of Havilah (where the garden was) just like in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:20–22; 1 Chron. 29:2), the tabernacle (Exod. 25:11–39), and the priest’s garments (Exod. 25:7; 28:9–12, 20). A river flows out of the garden (Gen. 2:10) like in Ezekiel’s new temple vision (Ezek. 47). The entrances to both the garden and the tabernacle faced east, and when Adam and Eve are driven out from the garden God placed cherubim to guard its entrance (Gen. 3:24), just like the cherubim on the curtains guarding the holy place in the tabernacle (Exod. 26:1, 31).4
The Temple, Tabernacle, and Mount Sinai all had a tripartite structure.
For the temple and the tabernacle, an Israelite would progress from the outer courts to the holy place, and then into the holy of holies. This is like Mt. Sinai where the people gathered around the base of the mountain, the elders progressed part way up, and Moses went all the way. This is similar to the progress of worshipers and who can enter the various levels of the tabernacle/temple. Genesis 2:10 tells us that “a river flowed out of Eden [the innermost part] to water the [rest of the] garden.” Thinking of the tripartite structure then, it seems to be the outer world, garden, and innermost Eden. Although Ezekiel 28 is full of exegetical debates, the garden of Eden and being placed in it was synonymous with being on the mountain of God (28:13–14).5
There is much more we could say about a Biblical theology of Genesis 1 as well as the later developments of the tabernacle and temple. But it is worth drawing our attention to the purpose of Eden being a temple: God’s plan was always to create and then dwell in his creation in fellowship with humankind. He desires his glory to radiate throughout the creation, and his image bearers to reflect his glory.
When we fell into sin, God’s plan was not thwarted. He sent his Son to dwell (ἐσκήνωσεν, lit. tabernacle) with us in the flesh (John 1:14). And his purpose in redemption is to bring a new heavens and a new earth where the fulness of his glory dwells with us.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3).
1. G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. (InterVarsity Press, 2004), 66.
2. Timothy J. Bertolet, The Obedience of Sonship: Adamic Obedience and the Heavenly Ascension in Hebrews (Dallas: Fortress Press, 2023), 125.
3. Stephen Herring, Humanity as the Manifestation of Deity in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East (Götingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 108–118.
4. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 71–75; J. Daniel Hays, The Temple and the Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Places from Genesis to Revelation, Illustrated edition. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2016), 22–24.
5. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, 74–75; Andrew S. Malone, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood (London: IVP Academic, 2017), 49–52; Benjamin L. Gladd, From Adam and Israel to the Church: A Biblical Theology of the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 18.