Almost everyone has an image in their mind of what the Garden of Eden looked like because ever since they were little they have seen images that represent the garden in their Sunday School curriculum, their illustrated Bibles and even famous illustrations and paintings produced over the centuries. The question of the physical location of the Garden of Eden is much discussed, but what was the land of Eden, what did the Garden of Eden look like, and what lay outside of Eden are topics of little discussion despite the importance that Christians place on the historicity of Adam and Eve. Literal interpretations have formed our image of the ecology of the Garden of Eden but even literalist are not likely to explore the theological implications of the specific features of the Garden of the Eden and are even less likely to ask about the region outside of the Garden and its physical attributes. Overall, I think it would not be unfair to say that the theology of Garden of Eden is a neglected topic among most theologians and lay Christians. I am interested in exploring the impact of the views on the Garden of Eden through history on the present day creation debate. I am convinced that the image to the right is not reflective of the Biblical representation of Eden and would argue that our images of Eden are tainted by western ideas of an ideal ecology.
But painting a picture of what Eden physically may have looked like is not my interest right now. What is most important, is establishing a solid foundation for interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 in the context of the whole Bible. In particular, I believe an approach to developing a proper biblical worldview based on a Biblical theology point of view can be very helpful for setting the stage to understanding most of the questions with with the evangelical church has been wresting (age of the earth, historicity of Adam, effects of sin on creation etc..). One theologian whose writing has been especially helpful to me in the past two years is Dr. G. K. Beale who is a faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia after many years at Wheaton College. Beale stands in the tradition of the likes of Gerdhouse Vos and Meridith Kline and has written books on Revelation and a response to Enns take on the doctrine of inspiration. Currently, I am working through his most recent tomb, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, but I am interested here in his writings about the temple motif in the Scriptures.
Beale, and others, present a convincing case that in order to understand the imagery of the Garden of Eden, and the meaning then of the Garden of Eden and of Adams position in it, one has to understand the significance of the temple and temple imagery found throughout the Bible (ie. from Genesis through Revelation). In his book “The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God”, Beale traces the language and imagery of the Temple from Eden to the Tabernacle to the Temple and eventually to the new heavens and the new earth.
I am not going to spend time explaining how the Garden of Eden and the Tabernacle/Temple are connected right here but rather just give my highest recommendation to reading at least one of the articles linked below. The book is a bit dense but provides the most detailed defense of his how the temple represents all of creation. I understand that reading a book may be too much so for a concise overview I highly recommend his article in JETS from 2005 which which is a summary of his book.
Links to Beale’s articles on the Garden of Eden and the Temple:
http://www.kerux.com/documents/keruxV18N2A1.htm This is an article in Kerux from 2002 entitled “Garden Temple” which came out before his book and is very helpful but if you only have time to read one article then please take a look at this one entitled “Eden, the temple and the church’s mission in the new creation.” http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-aPDFs/48/48-1/48-1-pp005-031_JETS.pdf JETS. March 2005 48(1): pp 5-31.
A Foundation for Understanding Creation:
The articles above do not address the physical creation of the cosmos or earth, nor do they deal with hot topics like the historicity of Adam. However, I believe that any Christian, whether they believe in an old or young earth can benefit from a better understanding of how the Biblical authors thought about the world as a God’s temple. Once one makes the connection of the Garden of Eden to God’s temple and the earthly temples that represented his temple the purpose behind the descriptions of the Garden of Eden suddenly become more obvious. Why the various rivers mention, why are different physical resources in Eden mentioned? why is the inner garden different than Eden itself and what could the geographical area outside of Eden be like. All of a sudden the temple motif allows much more than speculation about these features.