The Garden (Genesis 2: 4-25)

We now get what many scholars take to be a second and possibly contradictory creation account.[1]  By the way, I think it is unlikely that someone would just stick two contradictory accounts side by side: common sense tells me that. There are also good reasons found in the text itself for rejecting that suggestion and we will see them as we work through the passage.

What I believe we have here is the continuation of the story picking up on Genesis 1’s grand big picture of creation and focusing in on a specific time (day 6) and location.

God and Man the Gardeners

“This is the account ….” (2:4). The Hebrew phrase “Eleh Toledot” can literally be translated as “These are the generations.” It’s the phrase used to punctuate the whole book of Genesis and mark out each section (including the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).[2]  Each section usually includes a family tree listing the descendants of the chosen focal point. The idea is that we are about to discover what became of certain key people and, in this case, creation itself personified. Bandstra renders it “These are the outcomes of the heaven and earth when they were created.”[3]

When we turn to the New Testament, Matthew echoes this style by providing the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-7). This is one of the ways that he signals that he is writing new Scripture. It also signals that he sees in the coming of Jesus a new creation.

Sometimes, Hebrew writers used syntactical devices to highlight important points in the text or to link passages together.  Wenham identifies one of those devices here: a “chiastic” pattern.[4]

Chiasms take a phrase, sentence or paragraph and then repeat it, but reversing the word or phrase order. So here in verse 4 we have “…when the heavens and earth were created” reversed in the second part of the verse with “when God created/ made the earth and heavens.”[5]

The pattern signals a close link between ch1 and ch 2, suggesting careful and intentional editing.[6] In other words, as I suggested above, these are not to accounts that have been carelessly stuck together by a negligent editor.  Now, if there’s intentionality to the structure and content of Genesis, then this is important because it makes it much less likely that the aforementioned careless editor had missed some obvious contradictions between the two passages.[7] If that is so, then the apparent differences between chapters 1 and 2 are not contradictions between two different accounts, but examples of a single account giving different perspectives on the same event.


“There were no people to cultivate the soil” (2:5-6). This meant that plants were not yet growing. Two types of plant are described here, “shrubs” and “plants” (probably distinguishing inedible – by humans – from edible: vegetables, salad etc.[8])  This links to a distinction between types of agricultural land, pasture for animals to graze and fields for growing crops. As Wenham puts it,

“Gen 2.5 therefore distinguishes two types of land: open, uncultivated ‘plain’ or “field,’ the wilderness fit only for animal grazing, and the dusty ‘land’ where agriculture is possible with irrigation and human effort.”[9]

There is no rain yet, but there are springs of water. However, this still needs human effort to develop irrigation systems and to cultivate the land.   Wenham notes that “this fits in well with a Mesopotamian setting for Gen 2-4.”[10]

This probably helps make sense of what is happening and helps us to harmonise chapter 1 where it appears that vegetation is already present and chapter 2 where it is not.  Chapter 1 gives us the big picture of the whole earth where God has caused trees and plants to grow. Now, we know that in many contexts, plants will grow naturally by themselves. However, if you go to the Middle Eastern setting of the Old Testament, you find dry dusty land dependent upon human intervention to prepare it for plant life. So chapter 2 takes us to Day 6 and focuses in geographically on the location where Adam will live, a place that needs cultivation.

Man is formed from the dust of the ground V7.  Note here the play on words.  Adam is the one who comes from Adamah (from the ground).  God breathes life into him.

God plants a garden (2:8 -14).  This is a cultivated place.  We have two clues to its location. First of all, it is “in the East.” Remember that the original hearers are being told this by Moses as they prepare to go into the Promised Land and that later readers would have been in the land of Canaan.  East takes us towards Mesopotamia.  We are then told about four rivers, two of which are still there today: the Tigris and Euphrates.  By the way, we tend to think of gardens being like our back yards, but this is God’s garden, not my back garden, and so it could well have taken in a significant part of the whole region and may refer to the whole fertile crescent.

The Garden seems to be described in a way that functions symbolically and “there are many…features of the garden that suggest it is seen as an archetypal sanctuary, prefiguring the later tabernacle and temples.”[11] However, “The mention of the rivers and their location in vv10-14 suggests that the final editor of Gen 2 thought of Eden also as a real place even if it is beyond the wit of modern writers to locate.”[12]

The garden is rich in resources including minerals, precious metals, vegetation and fruit. The fruit trees are pleasing to the eye and the fruit is good to eat. Note that the exact same description is given to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in chapter 3. This suggests that:

  1. It wasn’t out of need or even the idea that this tree offered better fruit or was more attractive than the other trees that Adam and Eve were tempted.  It was purely the craving for power and status and the desire for something forbidden that led to their downfall.
  2. We must always give the tree its full title. It isn’t just the Tree of Knowledge. Adam is already able to know and discern things (see later in the passage).  Nor does Adam need to eat from it to know goodness. He already knows goodness and can delight in it. The specific issue is the knowledge of good and evil or good from evil. Eating the fruit means that you will know evil as well as good.

At the centre of the Garden, alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is the Tree of Life. We are not told much more about the Tree of Life except that at the end of Chapter 3, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden to prevent them eating from it[13] and then it makes a further appearance at the end of Revelation.[14]

The land needs a man to care for it, but note also that the Garden comes pre-planted, just as when the people of Israel come to the Promised Land they are promised

10 “The Lord your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. 11 The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant. When you have eaten your fill in this land…”[15]

The man is placed in the garden (2:15-17) and given permission to enjoy its fruits. He is told “to tend it and keep watch” or “to till and to keep.”  Work is presented here as a good thing but notice that this is worship language too.  A similar phrase is used to describe the work of the Levites in the Tabernacle.[16]

Adam is given one restriction. He is not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  He is told that if he eats from it, he will “surely die.”[17]

Wenham suggests that the knowledge of good and evil together is to do with wisdom and how we acquire it. “The acquisition of wisdom is seen as one of the highest goals of the godly according to the book of Proverbs.”[18] However, “the wisdom literature also makes it plain that there is a wisdom that is God’s sole preserve, which man should not aspire to attain (e.g. Job 15:7-9, 40: Prov 30:1-4)” and “To pursue it without reference to revelation is to assert human autonomy and to neglect the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7).”[19]

With this command, God puts boundaries in place. Adam is to rule and subdue creation, but it remains God’s creation and Adam remains under God’s rule.

Remember that everything God has said so far has come to pass. We can trust this warning to be fulfilled if Adam disobeys.

If there is an explicit command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, nothing is said explicitly about the Tree of Life. However, this must be included within the permission to eat from all the other trees. Indeed, perhaps there is an implicit invitation here to eat from the right tree. The Book of Proverbs picks up the imagery of a Tree of Life and links it to wisdom (Proverbs 3:18) righteousness (Proverbs 11:30) hope (Proverbs 13:12) and a gentle tongue (Proverbs 14:4).

If taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the desire to cross boundaries set in place by God and to acquire wisdom and knowledge for oneself, we may see eating from the Tree of Life as representing complete trust in and dependency on God for wisdom and righteousness, living by his rules and following his ways.

Eating from the forbidden Tree is literally to choose death rather than life. God’s people are later told to choose life.[20]

Alone and Together

“It is not good” (2:18). This is the first time that something is described as “not good”.[21] Note that the issue here is of being alone and not about loneliness.[22] It is possible to be alone and not lonely. It is also possible to be deeply lonely in a crowd.

God says that Adam needs a helper like him.  Literally, the Hebrew phrase talks about someone “like but opposite to.”[23] In other words, he needs someone who is similar but also distinct from him.

God forms animals from the ground (2:19-20).  Humans and animals share the same material origins.  It is not our genetic structure that distinguishes us from the beasts.  He brings them to Adam to be named. Remember the significance of naming from chapter 1. God names his creation to demonstrate his sovereignty over it.  Now man names things. This is part of subduing and ruling over Creation.

No suitable helper is found.

God makes a helper (2: 21-25). He puts the man into a deep sleep and forms (literally builds) a woman from one of his rib bones. When the man wakes up, he sees her and identifies her as the one suitable for him.

“For this reason…” (2:24). This is an editorial comment by Moses. He identifies theological and therefore ethical implications for marriage. It is something from God, something that is meant to be lasting. A relationship distinct from all other relationships.

They were both naked (2:25). Nakedness will later become associated with shame and shaming, of being exposed and vulnerable. This is not the case here.

[1] For discussion on this see Westermann 1:  186-90 and Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 51.

[2] See Genesis 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2. Note also an echo of this in Exodus 1:1 “These are the names…”

[3] Barry Bandstra, Genesis 1-11 A Handbook on the Hebrew Text (Waco Tx.: Baylor University Press, 200), 116-1

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 55.

[5] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 55.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 55.

[7] NB This is not the time for a detailed discussion of authorship and whether or not there were separate written sources that were later edited into one book.  However, I take the traditional view that Moses was the main author of the Pentateuch.  I don’t believe that this view or belief in the inspiration of Scriptures precludes the possibility that Moses made use of existing written and oral sources when drawing up the account or that others may have been involved in editing the book into its final form.

[8] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 57-58.

[9] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 58.

[10] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 58.

[11] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 61

[12] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 61-62.

[13] Genesis 3:22-24.

[14] Revelation 2:7 and Revelation 22:2, 14 & 19.

[15] Deuteronomy 6:10-11.  22:2.

[16] See Numbers 3:7-8; 4:23-24, 26 and Deuteronomy 4:19. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 67.

[17] This is emphasised by the use of the infinitive form of the verb “to die” followed immediately by the indicative.

[18] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 63

[19] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 63.

[20] Deuteronomy 30:19.

[21] Blöcher, In the Beginning 96.

[22] See Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Leicester: IVP, 2003), 107.

[23] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 68.