Genesis 2:9-15

Genesis: A New Beginning  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  56:16
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We address the significance of the Tree of the Discerning of Good and Not Good, the rivers of Eden, and Eden as a temple


Recommended Resources:

Why God Tests His People | Video by The Bible Project

Why Water Matters in the Bible | Video by The Bible Project

Tree of Life | Podcast series by The Bible Project

Unseen Realm | Book by Michael Heiser


2:9- This is a different word for ground than we’ve seen in some of the other verses. We’ve had הָאָֽרֶץ (ha’eretz), the common word for the earth/land. We’ve had הַיַּבָּשָׁ֑ה (ha’yabasah) , the word for dry land that connects with other stories of water parting over dry land. And in verses 5 and 9, we have a different word—אֲדָמָ֖ה (adamah). The problem verse 5 presents is that there was no אָדָ֛ם (adam) to irrigate the אֲדָמָ֖ה (adamah). There’s a play on words when these two similar words show up side by side. In verse 9, now that there is a human (adam), God allows the plants to grow out of the adamah.

There is a progression of concentric circles here that create a three-part picture of the land. We have the land of Eden as the first circle, the Garden inside of that as the second, and the center of the Garden with the trees inside as the third. I believe this is a very intentional depiction in order to present Eden as the prototype of the tabernacle and temple that also had three-tier setups (courtyard, holy place, holy of holies). And Genesis includes another structure that follows this same tripartite order. In Genesis 6:16 God instructed Noah to build his ark with first, second, and third stories. Noah’s ark was like a mini-Eden where humans and animals were again living in harmony. (Some people add a fourth circle to the outsides of these examples. For Genesis 2, it’s the dry land surrounding Eden. For the tabernacle/temple, it’s the land of Israel surrounding the structure. The ark is a little more complicated, but depending on how you read the Hebrew of the passage, you could read the ark as having four levels instead of three. Either way, there is no added or removed significance if you choose to see four concentric circles instead of three in any of these examples.)

Most people read this story as if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between good and evil, and for some reason, God was keeping it from them. But that doesn’t make sense on several levels.

First, knowing the difference between good and evil is a good thing. If you don’t know the difference, you could do something bad without knowing it. That’s one of the main points of Proverbs. The authors of Proverbs consistently work to give their audience an understanding of the difference between good and evil.

Second, Adam and Eve apparently did understand the difference between good and evil or else God’s command not to eat from the tree wouldn’t make sense. If I give a command, it’s understood that you realize obeying it is good and disobeying is bad. But if the command is to not eat from the thing that tells you the difference between good and bad, how do you know that it’s good to obey and bad to disobey? God’s command would be meaningless if they didn’t already understand good and evil.

Third, that kind of test feels out of character with God. Yes, He does allow testing into our lives, but He doesn’t usually do it in a “don’t touch the wet paint” kind of way.

A second look at the name of the tree in question offers a more helpful perspective. Knowledge in Hebrew is so much more than passive understanding of facts. It is a taking to yourself and aligning yourself with. The same root word is used to describe the first sexual union in Genesis 4 (and many others after that). Here, it has the idea of discernment. Good means that something is serving its purpose. Evil is not just the moral evil we normally think of. It’s a general badness. So, this was not the Tree of Learning Something New about Good and Evil. It was the Tree of the Discerning of What Is Good and Not Good, if you will.

Consider how the word good has shown up in our story so far. God has seen several times that His creation was good. The text is telling us that God alone gets to define what is good and not good. The tree was an opportunity for humanity to choose to accept God’s definition of what is good and not good or to blaze their own path and define good and not good on their own terms. Eating from the tree did not give them a new understanding of right and wrong. It gave them the power to make their own definitions of right and wrong. It’s not about gaining new knowledge. It’s about taking the authority God gave them and either using it to further His kingdom or to start their own. It’s as if Yahweh put His royal scepter in their hands and then set a second scepter with their names on it on a display pedestal. They chose to throw aside His and pick up their own.

Side note, some scholars explain the tree by calling it a temporary test. Eventually Adam and Eve would have been allowed to eat from it. But that assumes the common view that the tree was about gaining knowledge. That view would not work from the position I hold where taking from the tree would always be a negative statement of independence from God.

It’s worth noting that this is the first time evil is mentioned, and it’s not that something is evil but rather that there is now a choice on how good and evil will be determined moving forward.

2:10-14 We don’t know the exact location of these rivers. We do still have a Euphrates River today, but there’s no guarantee that it’s the same Euphrates from several thousand years ago. Flowing water can change landscape quickly. And this is pre-Flood. That would have seriously changed geography and the shape of rivers.

Be wary of anyone claiming to tell you the exact location of anything in the Bible. A lot can happen in 2,000+ years. While it’s tempting to assign specific modern locations to certain events, there’s very little that we know the actual location of when it comes to Bible stories.

Indeed, the purpose of telling us these river names is not to help us pinpoint the location of Eden. But there is a purpose. This is, after all, a rather lengthy digression for such seemingly trivial material. That should be a dead giveaway that we are intended to learn something from the presence of this information. I believe the answer is found in where the rivers lead.

The Pison goes through Havilah, a place mentioned only a few other times in Scripture. Genesis 25:18 locates Havilah in the area between Egypt and Assyria, roughly the Sinai area. The Gihon goes to Ethiopia in northern Africa. The Hiddekel flows toward Assyria. And the Euphrates, assuming it was around the same location as the current Euphrates, was the birthplace of Babylon. So, the rivers would lead into Sinai, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Would any of those locations be important later? Very much so. Sinai is the origin point of Israel as a nation, and the other three become kingdoms that oppress Yahweh’s people in the Tanakh. By linking them all to a common water source, the story is claiming that those nations’ power originates with Yahweh and His Garden. He gives rain to the just and unjust. He loves even those who actively rebel against Him.

It is also significant that the watery symbol of chaos from chapter 1 is tamed by God to become a life-giving force in chapter 2. Thus begins a common theme of God’s providing a surprise source of water in a place that desperately needs it. Consider the stories of Hagar with young Ishmael, the children of Israel in the desert, Psalm 23, Jesus and the woman at the well, and Jesus’ saying that He would bring forth streams of living water from His followers.

Let’s look back at verse 12 for a minute. Bdellium isn’t exactly a word that shows up in normal conversation. The Hebrew word is בְּדֹ֫לַח (bedolah). We’re not 100% sure what it is, but if you go off bdellium, it’s likely some sort of gum-resin like myrrh or carbuncle or amber. Some even suggest pearl. Regardless of the exact mineral being referenced, that Hebrew word only shows up one other time in Scripture—Numbers 11:7. “And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.” Thus, the manna is hyperlinking back to Creation.

The word for onyx is also pretty rare and shows up almost exclusively in descriptions of the priest’s breastplate (ephod) in Exodus 25-39. The priest wore a stone associated with Eden, where the first priest and priestess served Yahweh. This is how the Bible works. The authors throw in these little hyperlinks, inviting you to compare and contrast stories you might not otherwise link together.

2:15- This is still the human (adam); there is no male and female yet.

Most translations say something about God’s placing the human in the Garden, but the text literally says that God caused the human to rest in the Garden. The Hebrew word is יַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ (noakh), and it means rest. It's the verb form of Noah's name. (Noah in Hebrew is Noakh.) God noakh’ed the human in the Garden. Then, in Genesis 9, when Noakh finally gets noakh from the flood after the ark noakhs on a mountaintop, he plants a garden as well. More hyperlinks.

The word the KJ translates dress is the common word for work (avad עבד). Avad has several meanings. It can mean “to work” as well as “to serve” and “to worship.” As we read this passage, we are meant to have all three meanings in mind.

The word translated keep means to guard (shamar / שמר).

These are new and more specific roles for humanity to play. Previously, we were told of their responsibility to rule over the whole earth. These commands are in regard to the garden. Humanity was to toil there and guard the Garden. The earth was their responsibility; Eden was their headquarters. The Garden was the meeting place of heaven and earth. We are not told that God walked through the earth, but He is said to walk through Eden. Humanity was supposed to guard this sacred space and work in it to make it even more beautiful. Likewise, the priests would later guard the tabernacle and temple from anything that wasn’t permitted inside. Not just anyone can enter sacred space. Thus, humanity’s first failure is not in eating from the tree but in failing to prevent evil from entering the sacred space.

These words, “to work” and “to keep,” are only used together elsewhere in descriptions of the priests and Levites working in and around the temple. In other words, the ideal vocation for humanity includes responsibilities we associate with priesthood.

“[T]he tasks given to Adam are of a priestly nature: caring for sacred space. In ancient thinking, caring for sacred space was a way of upholding creation. By preserving order, non-order was held at bay … If the priestly vocabulary in Genesis 2:15 indicates the same kind of thinking, the point of caring for sacred space should be seen as much more than landscaping or even priestly duties. Maintaining order made one a participant with God in the ongoing task of sustaining the equilibrium God had established in the cosmos. Egyptian thinking attached this not only to the role of priests as they maintained the sacred space in the temples but also to the king, whose task was ‘to complete what was unfinished, and to preserve the existent, not as a status quo but in a continuing, dynamic, even revolutionary process of remodeling and improvement.’ This combines the subduing and ruling of Genesis 1 with the [avad] and [shamar] of this chapter. — John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, 106-107.