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Maybe you’ve heard it said that the garden in Eden is a temple sanctuary. Maybe, like me, that sounded at first like reading the temple into the garden. In Sunday’s sermon, “Naked and Not Ashamed,” from Genesis 2:4–25, I suggested that we may not initially see the temple in the garden, but the first readers would have seen the garden in the tabernacle, and later readers would have seen it in the temple. Is this a case of interesting but ultimately fanciful interpretation?

T. Desmond Alexander, in his book From Eden to the New Jerusalem, summarizes a number of the parallels:

  • Eden and the later sanctuaries were entered from the east and guarded by cherubim (Gen. 3:24; Exod. 25:18–22; 26:31; 36:35; 1Kgs. 6:23–29; 2Chr. 3:14).
  • The tabernacle menorah (or lamp stand) possibly symbolizes the tree of life (Gen. 2:9; 3:22; cf. Exod. 25:21–35). Arboreal decorations adorned the temple.
  • The Hebrew verbs [for “to serve, till” and “to keep”] used in God’s command to the man “to work it (the garden) and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15), are found in combination elsewhere in the Pentateuch only in passage that describe the duties of the Levites in the sanctuary (cf. Num. 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6).
  • Gold and onyx, mentioned in Genesis 2:11–12, are used extensively to decorate the later sanctuaries and priestly garments (e.g. Exod. 25:7, 11, 17, 31). Gold, in particular, is one of the main materials used in the construction of the tabernacle and temple.
  • The Lord God walks in Eden as he later does in the tabernacle (Gen. 3:8; cf. Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:15; 2Sam. 7:6–7).
  • The river flowing from Eden (Gen. 2:10) is reminiscent of Ezekiel 47:1–12, which envisages a river flowing from a future Jerusalem temple and bringing life to the Dead Sea.

If this seems like a bit of detail overkill, it helps to remember the heart of the matter: the story of the Bible is the story of God present with his people: how that began, how it was lost, and how it will be regained. The tabernacle and temple appear in the story on the way to the coming of Christ, the Spirit, and ultimately the new heavens and new hearth where we are, once again, at home with God. Interestingly, in Revelation 21 and 22 these threads from Eden reemerge in connection with the New Jerusalem, a city without a temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (22. 22).

In other words, looking back to Eden helps us look forward to this glorious future. The tabernacle and temple, with their priesthood, levels of access, and sacrificial system, teach us about what it will cost to get back where we truly belong.

If you’re interested in exploring this theme further, consider two additional books, the first long and the second shorter: The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, by G.K. Beale, and, God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth, by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim.