Eden: Physical Place or Spiritual State?
The truth of Genesis two, the truth of Eden is that we are all the man and the woman of this passage. We are all born into a state of innocence, and we all have the choice before us: to live life with God, eating of the tree of life, or to be our own god, eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. One means death; the other means eternal life.
It is amazing how this simple truth gets obscured by loony assertions about the geographic nature of Eden, attempts to find it, and the requirement to have it as a historical place or else the whole Bible is worthless. Consider the following a therapy to return us to a more spiritual simplicity. This may take some explaining of some complex fine points, but, like I said, it actually returns us to the simple truth of the text.
In this post and those subsequent we will look at Genesis two and point out obvious literary contours that suggest its character is often just as spiritual or poetic as it is historical, and so, its truth is its theology not necessarily its geography or history.
Myth or History?
Are the early chapters of Genesis history or myth? Well, technically both and neither. The either/or notion of history or myth is a modern invention. In fact, conservatives that attempt to force these passages to be history in the modern sense, ironically accommodate the Bible to a system of thinking very foreign to Genesis. While the Gospels are eyewitness accounts and memoirs, Genesis is not. While the whole Genesis narrative is enveloped in features of historicity – being written in a genealogical account with a rough chronology, it is simply not history in the precise modern sense. Ancient story tellers passed along their accounts orally, embedding them with rich poetic detail from the surrounding culture and its mythology. The stories were a set of oral traditions, passed along in a tradition of story telling and they retain that flavor. God was pleased to have it that way. Eventually the stories were written down hundreds of years later. God was pleased to do it that way.
Note what this process looks like: they were passed along without any fact checking (or worry of factually) and they were passed along because of their ongoing theological truth as told and retold in a community who understood themselves as being a people in covenant with God. The notion of writing history from primary sources and eyewitness reports, critically fact checking them is really a method of historiography that is only a few centuries old, developed in the Enlightenment. So, the narrative intends history, but its form is more complex than that. It intends historicity but is not bound to its historicity. Whether or not the passage happened is just not a worry of the ancient world. Thus, for us, we need to have a similar mentality. The value of the narrative is not in the history behind it, but in the story retold. These narratives are God’s word, using the means the people of the day had to communicate salvation truths today. As the baptist theologian James McClendon reminded, “The Bible is the story of God, retold in the way God was pleased to tell it.” God was pleased to use the ancient discourses just as much as he is pleased to have the present imperfect church as his body.
This poetic aspect has its own theological weight to it, as we will see, since literary devises suggest theological truths beyond historical references. While Genesis two is written to be an event occurring in the ball park of 4000 B.C. and Eden is in some way described like it is a physical place, there is also signs that the Eden is an ongoing spiritual reality fitted into this history-like account.
As we will get into, putting even all arguments about evolution aside, humans have been on this earth for a lot longer than 6000 years. The standard estimate is somewhere around 200 000 years. Young earth creationists, who, as we say in the previous post on Genesis one, bring an uneven literalism to the Genesis text, making up arguments to make their interpretations work such as Carbon dating is completely inaccurate or that before the flood the rays of the sun somehow made fossils look older. This is a far-fetched theory. It still does not reconcile why no human fossil is older than, for instance, dinosaur fossils, let alone how there are human fossils still that are dated around 6000 years, while others are far older, mostly found in Africa, not Mesopotamia. While most forms of carbon dating start to get less precise after about 50 000 years (which is determined based on the half-life of forms of carbon, after which point the carbon traces become minuscule), within that span of 50 000 years, it is reasonably accurate. If humans have only been on this earth for 6000 years, why are we finding perfectly persevered 10 000 year old totem polls in bogs in Russia, bogs where neither light nor air touch? Why are we finding cave paintings, sealed and protected in hundreds of feet of rock, that date 30-40 000 years (such as the Cave of El Castillo in Spain or the Chauvet Cave in France)?
Given that Scripture is true because it witnesses to Christ and shows us salvation truths to live righteously (2 Tim 3:15-17) and not because it gets every historical detail correct, we can apply what Baptist interpreters call the “form/substance” distinction. This moves the meaning of the passage from what the passage said to what it is saying. The ancient form of this passage is an origin story, assuming a 6000 year old earth and that humanity is relatively new. Yet, these are incidental. The enduring message of this text is that all humanity as well as the whole world was born into innocence and that all humans have a moral choice between obedience and life or disobedience and death. That is as true now as it ever was, with or without science.
So, in this post, we will look at (1) how Eden is talked about through the Bible, which applies to how Eden in Genesis is understood. This is in a way working and reading backwards. (2) We will look at features within Genesis two that corroborate a spiritual-poetic meaning. Note that this post only addresses Eden as a place. We will cover the nature of Adam and Eve, the Serpent, death and the curse, etc. in another post.
1. Eden throughout the Bible
In Genesis two, we see this particularly with how the geography is set up. As God forms the man the text mentions that “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east.” Eden is a place existing before anything else, and then the garden is planted in it. This begs the question what was Eden before there were no people or plants? Hmmm…
The passage continues to mention that in the garden there is two trees and “a river flows out of Eden to water the garden” (2:10). Out of Eden proper to water the garden. Eden is still talked about as somewhat distinct from the garden. These should give us clues that, as Rabbinical commentators thought, what is being talked about here is a garden participating with the celestial Eden. I know that sounds bizarre, but treat it as a hypothesis that we will continue to test and explore.
Eden in Ezekiel is spoken of as a spiritual reality. Eden is the garden; it is also mount Zion, where salvation will come to earth; it is heaven above, and oddly it is all of these simultaneously. It is deeply mystical. In chapter 28, the king of Tyre is understood to be “in Eden” like he is a fallen cherub, a glorious being with jewels like those on the priest’s breastplate (Ex. 28:17-20). This is metaphorical, but it is also spiritual. The passage reads as follows:
Mortal, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord God:
You were the signet of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden, the garden of God;
every precious stone was your covering,
carnelian, chrysolite, and moonstone,
beryl, onyx, and jasper,
sapphire, turquoise, and emerald;
and worked in gold were your settings
and your engravings.
On the day that you were created
they were prepared.
With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you;
you were on the holy mountain of God;
you walked among the stones of fire.
You were blameless in your ways
from the day that you were created,
until iniquity was found in you…
Your heart was proud because of your beauty;
you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.
I cast you to the ground (Ez. 28: 12-15, 17)
Again, while the king of Tyre is being metaphorically compared to a fallen cherub at the time of creation, notice how Eden is being talked about. The cherub is in the “garden of God,” which is also the “mountain of God” (Sinai and/or Zion in Jerusalem); it has the “stones of fire,” which may be referring to how God often appears as a pillar of fire, particularly as he did to Moses at Sinai. The pride of this person was so great that God threw him “to the ground” from above, either from the holy mountain or from heaven. The complexity of reference here simply does not work if Eden is a physical place in the past. It only works if Eden is a spiritual reality, interconnected in the past, present and future, paradise, Zion, and heaven.
What is interesting about this passage is that it is referring to creation and the fall, but it is not to a creation and fall strictly at the beginning of history. After all, Eden somehow also has the mountain of God in it, Zion. Eden is a present reality. It is talking about the king of Tyre’s creation and fall in the present. Eden is referring to the king’s former innocence and un-corrupted beauty. If Ezekiel had a doctrine of original sin, much less an idea that the fall was one historic point in the past, then he would not be able to talk about a pagan king being formerly “blameless” and “perfect” then being corrupted by pride iniquity. Instead of Eden and the fall being a moment and place in the past, it was a spiritual figure, a spiritual pattern we all participate in, rediscovered and relived in every person’s life as they moved from innocence to responsibility to fall.
Continue on in Ezekiel and we find a stronger example of Eden being a present spiritual figure. Chapter 31 has Pharaoh identified as a tree in Eden. Ezekiel 31:2-4, 8-9 reads,
Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes:
Whom are you like in your greatness?
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon,
with fair branches and forest shade,
and of great height,
its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it,
the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
around the place it was planted,
sending forth its streams
to all the trees of the field…
The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it,
nor the fir trees equal its boughs;
the plane trees were as nothing
compared with its branches;
no tree in the garden of God
was like it in beauty.
I made it beautiful
with its mass of branches,
the envy of all the trees of Eden
that were in the garden of God.
Here we have an interesting set of metaphors describing spiritual realities. Assyria is metaphorically described as a “cedar of Lebanon” that rises to the clouds with the “deep” beneath it and streams flowing out of it. It is spoken as in the garden of God such that the cedars of the garden are envious. Assyrian mythology, like many other mythologies, believed in the tree of life as a “world tree,” a tree whose canopy supported the heavens and roots formed the pillars of the underworld. This mythology is mixed with the Hebrew understanding of the garden to talk about the splendor of Assyria. Notice then that this is not a mere metaphor. This passage and Assyrian mythology talk about the garden of God and the world-tree as a present reality. Eden as a spiritual reality means the past is alive in the present and the present participates in the past. Eden is again a spiritual reality here, forsaking the restrictions of time and space.
b. New Testament
Now, the passages in Ezekiel are a bit difficult, but this only primes us for the move obvious examples that bring the point home in the New Testament. Jesus promised to the Good Thief on the cross that he will be with Jesus in “paradise” after his death (Luke 23:43). Similarly, Paul said that in a vision he was called up into “paradise,” which was the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Far from being lost in the flood, a distant memory of the past, Eden is heaven. Paradise, the Greek way of referring to the garden of Eden, is heaven. Revelation 2:7 says to the believers in Ephesus, “To everyone who perseveres, I will give permission to eat from the trees of life that is in the paradise of God.” This paradise, as well as the tree, is not a place of distant memory, it is a future spiritual reality connected to heaven and salvation. This corroborates everything said so far. Eden is a spiritual reality.
c. Eden as Destination
In this way, going back to the Old Testament, the prophets are adamant in using Eden imagery to talk about future salvation. For example, consider Isaiah,
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isa. 51:3)
Eden, Zion, and the whole world ends up being connected in the promise for future restoration. In prophetic longing, Eden is referred to as something coming, not something lost. Isaiah 11:6-9 longs for the day when the “wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” This becomes important as while we know that humans have actually be on the earth for some time as well as physical death in the animal and plant world millions of years before that, this should not bother us. The spiritual figures of Eden is not about getting back to an event or place that may or may not have historically existed, but God using these poetic images to talk about the future he is bringing humans into.
Thus, Eden is a spiritual and symbolic reality, symbolizing our innocence, our original goodness, but also heaven, Zion, as well as our future salvation, and thus, it goes from a past image to a present and future reality.
2. Eden in Genesis Two
Does Genesis talk the same way about Eden as does Ezekiel and the writers of the New Testament? The rivers suggest the answer is yes. The rivers and trees are deliberately portrayed in symbolic and spiritual ways.
Genesis two opens up quite differently from Genesis one with no vegetation growing yet. One central stream rises from the ground to water the whole earth. This is the river of life (Rev. 22:1). God forms the man as if by molding him out of clay from the stream and breathing life into him. From there God plants a garden in Eden. Eden is already existing and now there is a garden in it. As we said, rabbinical commentators have noted that Eden is semi-celestial with the earthly garden participating in it.
The text mentions that this garden is “in the east,” which is an interesting detail. It may merely be the direction, but it may also be a literary devise. If the historical garden was at the top of where the Tigris and the Euphrates begin as some literalists suggest (which is modern day southeastern turkey), this is hardly in the east from the standpoint of where the Israelites lived. It is actually directly north. We will get to the identity of the rivers, but we must note the repetition of the use of “east.”
The east, however, was a spiritual way of saying a few things. It was similar to how the direction north connotes strength and leadership due to its function on a compass. In Genesis, Lot went east to Sodom (Gen. 13:11-12). Ishmael went east (Gen. 25:5-6). Jacob was tested by going out east (Gen. 29:1). Unsurprisingly it is repeated several times to describe the garden of Eden (2:8), one of its rivers (2:14). It is also the direction of Adam and Cain’s exile (3:23; 4:16). East connotes a place of mystery, testing, and exile. This is a minor point, but when we enter into the patterns of ancient story telling, even things like direction can be used to communicate deeper meaning. It was similar to how a person today might say, “I feel a million miles away from you.” Spatial distance has emotional connotation.
b. The Rivers
Search the internet and you will find gobs of suggestions and goofy maps of where Eden was by trying to identify its four rivers. As the above graphic attests, many have attempted to find the four rivers in Mesopotamia (note that in the above graphic Havilah is in the wrong place, which we will discuss shortly). However, there is only geological evidence of the Tigris and the Euphrates (the Hiddekel and the Pherat are their names in the Hebrew) existing there. Ignoring this fact, some have said that Eden must have been where the Tigris and Euphrates meet at the Persian Gulf. However, they also ignore that the Tigris and the Euphrates flow into one delta, not from the delta into two rivers as Genesis describes. The Tigris and the Euphrates flow the opposite way this interpretation suggests.
The more likely place is in the north (not east) where the two rivers begin (modern day eastern Turkey). This still leaves, however, the problem of the location of the other two rivers, both of which have explicit lands mentioned in their location. The Pishon is described as being near Havilah, where there is gold, bdellium and onyx (also translated as other precious stones). Genesis 25:18 mentioned Havilah as “east of Egypt on its way to Assyria.” Havilah could be two possibilities, Genesis 10 mentions two men named Havilah, one a descendant of Ham, whose lands are southeasterly of Canaan, the other, a descendant of Shem, settled in Mesha (modern day Mecca) all the way to Sephar (modern day Yemen). First Samuel 15:7 helps clarify the location, “Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt.” All these descriptions place Havilah southeasterly of Israel all the way to modern day Yemen, which is the land east of Eden on the other side of the Red Sea. Geological work done in the area shows no sign of an ancient river and if there was one, it is in no way connected to the Tigris and the Euphrates. Some have suggested that the Red Sea is this river, which is not particularly helpful for a physical description of Eden.
The second river, the Gihon, again is quite troublesome to physically identify. Cush is consistently understood in the Bible to be modern day Ethiopia. This would make the Nile the most obvious choice. However, there are two problems with this. First is the Nile does not “flow around” Cush; it flows through it. Second, if it is the Nile, this again is nowhere near the Tigris and the Euphrates.
While the text mentions all four rivers being connected by a common source river from the garden, ancient commentators thought that the four rivers were the Tigris, Euphrates, and possibly the Ganges, Nile, Red Sea or Jordan – two of those four, the most likely possibilities we have already discussed. The problem with any discussion after this of possible rivers is that any river in the entire ancient near east becomes a possible river of Eden, ipso facto.
If the four rivers are, for instance, the Tigris, Euphrates, Ganges and the Nile, there is an obvious implication. These four rivers are not in anyway connected and every reader would have known that. The river feeding them would be spiritual (as we already discussed), being a symbolic way of say the innocence of the garden permeated all life like blood flowing from a heart through all the major arteries. Moreover, the four rivers suggest an obvious poetic device, the four rivers indicating something like when one said “from sea to sea” or “from North, East, South, and West.” The four rivers are a symbolic way of saying the whole world was in a state of innocence.
Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden is interesting to think about because if the author is talking about four rivers as enveloping the whole known world, then exile would be physically impossible. The exile then would be spiritual. Similarly, Cain, when he sins, he settles in the land of Nod. Nod literally means “wandering,” so Cain’s exile of “settling in the land wandering” is again more of a spiritual state that he is left in than a actually physical place he goes to. Plus, we already covered how “east” is less a direction and more a connotation of mystery and exile.
If you interpret the rivers as merely physical rivers, like interpreting Genesis one as purely historical, you end up with an unsustainable interpretation. The burden of proof is on the Young Earth Creationist to explain these details of the rivers, and of course, they cook up a lot of fancy reasons to get around the obvious: these are unconnected rivers that suggest something more than mere geographical detail.
c. The Trees
Finally, we come to the trees, which really get at the substance of the passage. God makes two of them: the tree of life and the other the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eating of one means death (the nature of this death we will look at later as it does not straight forwardly mean physical death). As the trees are talked about through the Bible, the trees represent spiritual realities and present choices.
What is odd about this is that God’s ultimate test for humanity to be obedient or not is whether the man and the woman will or will not eat a fruit. This alone does not suggest that the trees are symbolic, but trees do seem to present two choices. The idea that it is just fruit might suggest that even seemingly banal disobedience has cosmic consequences.
However, knowing that in the surrounding cultures there were myths about the food of the gods bestowing divinity, the forbidden fruit makes cultural sense. Interestingly, the story of Eden shows the opposite. While demi-gods sought a way to cheat death and become gods by finding and eating the food of the gods, here the quest for self-divinity ends in death and exile. God even closes the tree of life off from Adam and Eve out of compassion in order to prevent people from being eternally trapped in sin. There is a stark polemical contrast. True life is obedience to God, not rebellion against the gods. The rest of the world sought self-divinity to beat death; Genesis two teaches that to seek divinity is death. By blocking the passage to the tree, God makes mortality in part a remedy to the presence of sin. It ensures that sin is as finite as the sinner.
We have already seen from Revelation that the tree of life is thought of as a ongoing spiritual reality that exists at the end of time, a symbol for the end gift of eternal life for perseverant saints. However, Proverbs also constantly alludes to the tree being a symbol for walking wisely with God. Proverbs 3:16-18: “Length of days is in her [lady Wisdom’s] right hand…She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her.” Again, Prov. 11:30 reads, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life” and Prov. 13:12 reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life.” In Prov. 14: 4 it is said, “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life.” So, the tree of life becomes an ongoing spiritual reality symbolizing our walk with God and our final destination, eternal life.
If you interpret the trees as merely existing 6000 years ago, you actually shortchange the Bible’s richness in understanding them ongoing typological realities in our walk with Christ.
Again, the ancient form of communicating at story meant that this story does assume Eden as a physical place, the world as 6000 years, Adam and Eve as the first original human pair, etc. but the message of this text, a suggested by its poetic crafting is much more: that the world has an underlying innocence to it, that we all face the decision to obey or disobey, to choose exile form harmony and death or obedience, life with God, and that means heaven and eternal life.
Before I was saved, I couldn’t get past the idea that Genesis was supposed to be understood as completely literal. I couldn’t get past the talking snake. Once I was saved, I knew all thing are possible with God but still struggled with a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis. As I prayed and sought to truly understand it, the Lord gave me a peace about it with this word to me: We are all Adam in the day we are created.
For me, this made everything in the Bible much more personal. I was created in the image and likeness of God. The Bible tells us that God is a spirit. I was created as a spiritual being first. In some other dimensional existence, in the garden of Eden, I was tempted and failed. If you think about it, the temptation was to be like God and to know good and evil. Everything created was already good. I knew what was good, so I was actually only choosing to know evil.
Since there is no evil there, I fell from that dimensional existence and was born in the flesh here in this world where evil abounds.
I enjoyed your teaching and will check out some more.
Absolutely, fantastic explanation. I have been studying the Garden of Eden for a while and your article just give me the missing key. I had a clear understanding of how it must have been a spiritual place but your explanation connects the dots in a way that really helps. Especially, recognising that Eden was before the Garden and that the garden was planted in Eden. That with Ezekiel 28 really brings it home. This will help my bible study today. Thank you so much.