Gordon Wenham – Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story

On the first hearing, the Garden of Eden story seems to be a simple, straightforward narrative just right for children or indeed adults in a non-literary culture. But a more careful re-reading poses certain intractable problems. Who was right, the Lord God who warned that if man ate of the tree he would die or the snake who denied it? Inherently one expects God’s words to be vindicated, but the narrative apparently shows man escaping the threatened penalty at least for 930 years! Another problem concerns the stationing of the cherubim to guard the eastern end fo the garden: could not the expelled couple re-enter the garden from some other direction? Again the details of the geography of Eden, with its mention of the four rivers and the gold, seem quite irrelevant to the story. Why wee these verses, 2:10-14, included? Do they perhaps betray the hand of scholastic interpolator or redactor interested in ancient geography?

I wish to argue here that these difficulties in the story may be explained if se see it not as a naive myth but as a highly symbolic narrative. The garden of Eden is not viewed by the author fo Genesis simply as a piece of Mesopotamian farmland, but as an archetypal sanctuary, that is a place where God dwells and where man should worship him. Many of the features of the garden may also be found in later sanctuaries particularly the tabernacle or Jerusalem temple. These parallels suggest that the garden itself is understood as a sort of sanctuary.

To continue reading Gordon Wenham’s essay, click here.

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