Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Garden of Delight

Last Sunday, when we began again our study of the works of the God of Genesis, we talked about what it is we are – what a human being is, what God made us to be. And on the one hand, whether in one step or many, God sculpted us from the dust of the earth, from the chemical properties of the matter beneath us. It was in this connection that we examined what Christians, both before and after Darwin, have consistently believed about our life in the body. It is good to have a body derived of dust, good to have senses and impulses and all this biological baggage. On the other hand, God caught this dust of earth up in the wind of heaven – we're set apart from other animals because ours is a spiritual soul, able to judge and contemplate and wonder, able to know and will and love beyond what any matter can itself sustain. We're each that odd overlap between angel and ape.

Today, we have to ask the question about where God ought to put such an odd critter as the human being. What place would be healthy for a miniature universe to be? What kind of life did God want for us from the outset? What's our natural – and more-than-natural – habitat? And now Genesis rolls on. For “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature; and the LORD God planted a garden... and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:7-8). It wasn't inside the garden that the human being got its start – it wasn't the garden's dust from which he rose, wasn't the garden's trees between which he came to life – but God led him there, put him there.

So maybe the first question we'd best ask is, what's a garden? The Hebrew word for one, gan, comes from a verb that means “to be enclosed, fenced off, protected.”1 To their mind, the defining feature of a garden was the notion of life within boundaries of protection, a cultivated space with structure, shape, capable of being locked or unlocked (Song of Songs 4:12). Later on, Greek-speaking Jews picked up a new word to translate this. The Persians had a word, paridaeza, a space surrounded by an enclosing wall, which the Greeks reimagined as a royal park cultivated to be a pleasant place for a king to take a stroll.2 Many kings took pride in getting exotic plants from all over for their personal pleasure park in their capital city, like a botanical garden.3 And it's from such paradeisoi, and this original garden of God pictured as one, where we get our English word 'paradise.'

So God himself is pictured as the king planting his royal garden, his special paradise. Where? “In Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). So somewhere east of Israel, the garden is inside a larger territory called 'Eden.' We're also told that “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden,” and that this river “divided and became four heads” (Genesis 2:10). That's probably not a view downstream at a river that flows into four; it's likely looking upstream at four rivers merging into one River of Eden.4

When early Jews and Christians read this, some took it as pure allegory, saying the rivers represented the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.5 But most insisted that Eden was a real place on earth.6 And Genesis spends several verses trying to explain where, by mentioning four rivers. The last two are easy. “The name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria” (Genesis 2:14). The Tigris rises in eastern Turkey and flows into Iraq. It's over a thousand miles long, and Nineveh and Baghdad are on it. “And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (Genesis 2:14). Further west than the Tigris, it's formed in southeast Turkey by two rivers called the Karasu and the Murat, and then it passes through Syria, picking up a few smaller rivers that join it there, before getting to Iraq and flowing down to meet up with the Tigris just before the Persian Gulf. It's over seventeen hundred miles long, and Babylon was built on its banks.

So far, so good, right? But “the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that wound through the entire land of Cush” (Genesis 2:13). And “the name of the first is the Pishon, the one that wound through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx are there” (Genesis 2:11-12). Before modern times, most people guessed that the Gihon was the Nile in Egypt and the Pishon was the Ganges in India – even though these four never touched.7 But prehistorically, the Tigris, the Euphrates, a third river that flowed through Cush in western Iran, and a fourth river that flowed through the gold-rich territory of Havilah in Arabia used to all come together in a single river valley full of freshwater springs. Where? In what's now the bottom of the Persian Gulf, but which – long, long before recorded history – was a massive oasis.8

So what if you could go back? What if you could step through your Bible like a door, and find yourself in the garden as Genesis pictures it? The name 'Eden' comes from a verb whose primary meaning is “to make abundant with water supply.”9 One early Christian understood it as “a most delightful place..., shady with groves of fruit trees..., rendered fertile by a huge spring.”10 Another pictured it “thick with evergreen trees, full of fragrance, flooded with light, and surpassing any conceivable sensible loveliness and beauty.”11 They all imagined life there was one of “enjoying the beauty of visible things... and gaining much pleasure from that enjoyment. Consider, after all, how great a thrill it was to see the trees groaning under the weight of their fruit, to see the variety of the flowers..., and all the other things you would be likely to chance upon in a garden, especially a garden planted by God.”12 In other words, Eden is Longwood on steroids, “a rich mosaic of wetland environments, river floodplains, mangrove swamps, and estuaries.”13

But while the gardens around Middle Eastern temples were there so humans could grow food to feed and care for their gods, this garden is different, because God planted it so that he could feed and care for his humans!14 In this realm of special protection, we were meant to live off of perfect providence. To meet your every need, just reach out and take what God has grown. Unlike even in the promised land, there was no need to dig a well – the river's so close, the springs are all around you.15 To eat, we've got “every plant yielding seed that's on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit” (Genesis 1:29), so “eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16), to pluck all the veggies, harvest all the spices. With provision like this, early Christians pictured a life there of “wearing a body yet being fortunately rid of any bodily needs.”16 They imagined the garden as “a wonderful existence..., a life free of any care,”17 a “state of perfect ease.”18 We were meant for that peace!

And the mention of precious minerals like gold and precious stones up the river also suggests a place of luxury and wealth, of the fine things in life. In fact, the word 'eden' entered Hebrew as a common noun meaning luxury like fancy clothes (2 Samuel 1:24), even a delicacy like gourmet cuisine on your dinner plate (Jeremiah 51:34), or the pleasure of an ice-cold drink on a warm day (Psalm 36:8). So it was “a life of freedom and great affluence.”19 Every vacation you've ever taken or ever wished to take, every daydream of enjoyment and satisfaction – that's a glimpse at what God wanted to give us, of where we were meant to be.

But better than where we'd be is how we'd be. If nothing had ever taken us away, if you'd been born and raised in the garden, what would it be like to be that version of you? For centuries, Christians have spoken about “that original righteousness wherewith at first we were created.”20 Sometimes the same phrase was also translated as “original justice.”21 “And this rightness of man, as he was divinely established at the beginning, consisted,” it was said, “in the lower parts of his nature being subject to the higher, and the higher not being hampered by the lower.”22 With everything in you working as God intended, there'd be no virtue you wouldn't have had, and so you would've had “not only an exact purity from all spots of unrighteousness, but also a disposition to perform cheerfully all offices of charity and justice.”23 There'd be no good thing you wouldn't find it delightful to do!

You in the garden would've been “blameless in your ways from the day you were created” (Ezekiel 28:15). However many lived in the garden, there'd be “no domineering pride, no malice, no envy, no falsehood, no brawls or contentions among them, but all harmony and love, each seeking the welfare and happiness of his fellow-creatures as well as his own.”24 There'd be no arguing, no shame, nothing to stop us from fully enjoying everybody else's company, nothing to stop us from fully enjoying just being ourselves. You would be thrilled just to be you. And God meant for this blamelessness, this original righteousness, to be a gift handed down as an inheritance to all generations, both“divinely bestowed upon all human nature in the first parent” and “transmitted along with human nature to the descendants.”25 Had all gone right, you were meant to live all that!

Not only that, Ezekiel pictures those in the garden as “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). In some traditions, these came to be called 'preternatural gifts' that came along with original righteousness – gifts of God that are beyond human nature, but which he wanted us to have even in our life on earth in the garden. “No distresses of body afflicted them,”26 so that in the garden people didn't get sick or hurt, much less die in any sense we'd recognize. We would have just “kept suffering away,”27 or, to whatever extent some sort of pain as “a disturbance of the nervous system” might have been necessary and healthy for us, it would've not only preserved our comfort but been more than balanced by the great pleasure of being alive.28

Because of how God would've kept you ordered inside, in the garden you wouldn't have been troubled by out-of-control passions or feelings, but would've always had total control of your inner self.29 All your inclinations would have been directed consistently toward the best good, instead of toward other lesser goods.30 Nothing about you would be out of order or out of control or bent out of shape, nothing about you would be selfish, nothing in you would settle for being only kind of kind or for chasing after trifles. You'd have integrity.

And not only have Christians pictured life in the garden as one of immortality, impassibility, and integrity, but also one of infused knowledge. Think about it: Adam doesn't waste his time in baby talk. He doesn't wake up and spend his first few hours trying to guess what a stick is. Genesis doesn't picture him learning as slowly as we do. As a gift, God had directly infused into him “all that knowledge both of God and creatures which was needful for his happiness.”31 And it's likely that, had we stayed at home in the garden, had we inherited original righteousness, then from birth you would have simply recognized the world, recognized God in the world, had a deep and profound insight into the nature and character of everything around you. You would've just 'gotten it.' You'd have had the light of God shining in your heart and mind from the instant he formed you there.32

In giving us these gifts, God would've been throwing grace all over us, pouring out his Holy Spirit to sanctify us and make us holy, lifting us up toward our supernatural purpose found only in him. In the garden, you'd always have been moved by a supernatural trust in God, expectation of God, love for God. As Isaac Watts put it, a human in the garden would have been graced so “his will must have an inward bias and propensity to holiness and virtue..., an inward inclination to please and honor that God who made him, a supreme love to his Creator, and a zeal and desire to serve him, a holy fear of offending him, with a readiness to do all his will.”33

And that's fitting, this holiness, because Genesis presents the garden as more than a garden. Think back on how Israel's temple in Jerusalem was decorated like a forest, coated in gold and jewels, and how the prophets even imagined a river running from it.34 No wonder some Jews said “the Garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies and the dwelling of the Lord” (Jubilees 8:19). This is a garden of “holiness in which all was perfect, ideal, and unblemished, immune from the ravages of time.”35 To understand the garden, look to the tabernacle. What did God say in Leviticus? “I will make my tabernacle among you..., and I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). And that's because it was an echo of Eden, where we'd have daily “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day” (Genesis 3:8).

Yes, the best thing in the garden wasn't the protection or the provision or the pleasure, not the loveliness or the luxury, not even the gifts that exceed our nature. The best thing about the garden was that it was a place to meet God without shame or reservation, to live with him as his people. To live there was a nearer and dearer walk with him, a clearer hearing of him, a better sighting of him, than I can even imagine. I doubt even Moses and Elijah, for all they lived and heard and saw, could have even fully gotten their minds around it. This garden was a place where God would be with us every day, available for us to walk with him and talk with him and hear that we're his. He'd have been with us there as our best friend, as a Father to whom we'd all have been born as sons and daughters. We could have interacted with God, and with each other, on a basis of uninterrupted friendship and fellowship, of radical trust, of unobstructed intimacy.

I like the way one old hymn put it, and I sorely wish I'd come across it sooner, else we'd have sung these words today: “There was an Eden once on earth / beyond conception fair, / where mortal beauty had her birth / ere sin had entered there. // What flowers perfumed the balmy gale / all bursting into bloom! / What fruits enriched the happy vale of cool, but grateful gloom! // There our first parents clothed in grace / the velvet verdure trod, / and loved in all they saw, to trace / the vestiges of God! // Oh! life divine – when day retired / and closed her golden eye, / and genial evening gently fired / the curtains of the sky, // then would the Voice that made them all / flow downward from his throne, / and sweetly on his creatures call, / to walk with him alone! // Holy communion! matchless joy! / How freely it was given – / that bath of bliss without alloy, / an antepast of heaven!”36

That's the life we were meant to live, with God and with each other, blameless and growing in grace, enjoying perfect delight with our perfect Lord. And as the Lord Jesus bled and choked on the cross for us, with what words did he comfort a crook who saw this neighbor in crucifixion as King of God's kingdom? “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), to “repose in Eden-land,”37 in that “spiritual garden..., that immaterial and intellectual meadow which never grows old and is never defiled.”38 May you, even now, begin in spirit to be with God your Gardener; and live in “fervent hope of receiving again the Paradise in Eden, as well as the dawn of the brightness of the second coming of Christ our God, from the east.”39 For there's no limit to the beauty and goodness you were made for. And if you cling to Christ in faith, and settle his spiritual paradise called the Church, you won't miss out. Thanks be to God! Amen.

1  Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan Academic, 2001), 85.

2  Jan N. Bremmer, “Paradise: From Persia, via Greece, into the Septuagint,” in Gerard P. Luttikhuizen, ed., Paradise Interpreted: Representations of Biblical Paradise in Judaism and Christianity, Themes in Biblical Narrative 2 (Brill, 1999), 1-19.

3  Douglas Green, “When the Gardener Returns: An Ecological Perspective on Adam's Dominion,” in Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block, eds., Keeping God's Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (Apollos, 2010), 271-272.

4  Joseph E. Coleson, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 92.

5  See, e.g., Philo of Alexandria, Allegorical Interpretation of the Laws 1.19-23 §§65-72, in Loeb Classical Library 226:189-195; Ambrose of Milan, On Paradise 3 §§14-18, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:296-298.

6  See, e.g., John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 13.13, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:175.

7  See, e.g., Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.38-39, in Loeb Classical Library 242:21; Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis 2.6.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 91:100-101 (though he thinks the Pishon is the Danube, not the Ganges); Epiphanius of Salamis, Ancoratus 58.2-3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 128:142; and many others.

8  Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003), 429; C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (P&R Publishing, 2005), 120; Jeffrey I. Rose, An Introduction to Human Prehistory in Arabia: The Lost World of the Southern Crescent (Springer, 2022), 246.

9  David Toshio Tsumura, The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2: A Linguistic Investigation (JSOT Press, 1989), 136.

10  Augustine of Hippo, Literal Meaning of Genesis 8.1 §4, in Works of Saint Augustine I/13:347-348.

11  John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 25, in Popular Patristics Series 62:125.

12  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 14.12, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:187.

13  Jeffrey I. Rose, An Introduction to Human Prehistory in Arabia: The Lost World of the Southern Crescent (Springer, 2022), 247.

14  Iain W. Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 38.

15  Anwarul Azad and Ida Glaser, Genesis 1-11, Windows on the Text (Langham Global Library, 2022), 101.

16  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 13.15, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:177.

17  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 13.15, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:177.

18  Isaac Watts, The Ruin and Recovery of Mankind, 2nd ed. (James Brackstone, 1742), 3.

19  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 13.15, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:177.

20  John England, Man's Sinfulness and Misery by Nature (J. Heptinstall, 1700), 7.

21  Edward Reynolds, A Treatise of the Passions and Faculties of the Soul of Man (Robert Bostock, 1656), 429.

22  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.94, a.1, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 13:89.

23  James Ussher, A Body of Divinity; or, The Sum and Substrate of Christian Religion, 7th ed. (Nathaniel Ranew, 1677), 319.

24  Isaac Watts, The Ruin and Recovery of Mankind, 2nd ed. (James Brackstone, 1742), 6.

25  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I-II, q.81, a.2, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 26:15.

26  Augustine of Hippo, City of God 14.10, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/7:115.

27  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.97, a.2, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 13:141.

28  Paul O'Callaghan, God's Gift of the Universe: An Introduction to Creation Theology (CUA Press, 2021), 327.

29  Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q.95, a.2, in Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae 13:113.

30  Paul O'Callaghan, God's Gift of the Universe: An Introduction to Creation Theology (CUA Press, 2021), 327.

31  Isaac Watts, The Ruin and Recovery of Mankind, 2nd ed. (James Brackstone, 1742), 4.

32  Paul O'Callaghan, God's Gift of the Universe: An Introduction to Creation Theology (CUA Press, 2021), 327.

33  Isaac Watts, The Ruin and Recovery of Mankind, 2nd ed. (James Brackstone, 1742), 5.

34  G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004), 71-73; John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (IVP Academic, 2009), 81-82.

35  Gregg Davidson and Kenneth J. Turner, The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One (Kregel Academic, 2021), 102.

36  Matthew Bridges, “The Garden,” The Passion of Jesus: A Collection of Original Pieces... (Richardson and Son, 1852), 14-15.

37  Samuel J. Stone, Lyra Fidelium: Twelve Hymns on the Twelve Articles of the Apostles' Creed (SPCK, 1866), 42.

38  Anastasius of Sinai, Hexaemeron 7b.5.8-6.1, in Orientalia Christiana Analecta 278:261-263.

39  Germanos I of Constantinople, Ecclesiastical History and Mystical Contemplation §11, in Popular Patristics Series 8:65.

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