G.K. Beale is a bit of an expert on the subject of the Temple in biblical theology. He did happen to write a whole book on it. Given that, it’s unsurprising that he devotes some space to exploring the significance of the Temple in NT theology in his recent New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New by sketching it’s structure and function in the OT. One of the more eye-opening claims he makes in this section is that the Bible pictures the Garden of Eden as the first Temple in the first creation. He gives 9 arguments/lines of reasoning for that point (pp. 617-621):
- In the later OT the Temple was the place of God’s special presence where he made himself known and felt to Israel. That is exactly how his walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden is depicted. (Gen. 3:8)
- Adam is placed in the garden to “cultivate (abad)” and “keep (samar)” it (Gen 2:15). The same two words are translated elsewhere “serve” and “guard”, and when they appear together, they are either referring to Israelites serving or obeying God’s word, or more usually, to the job of the priest in guarding and keeping the Temple. (Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 1 Chron. 23:32) Elsewhere Adam is portrayed dressed in the clothes of the high priest, functioning as a high priest. (Ezek 28:11-19; see Beale, pg. 618 on this for more argumentation.)
- The tree of life served as a model for the lampstand, which was clearly shaped as a tree, in the Temple.
- Israel’s later Temple was made with wood carvings of flowers, palm trees, etc. meant to recall Eden’s garden brilliance (1 Kings 6:18, 29, 32, 35); pomegranates were also placed at the bottom of the two stone pillars in the Temple. (7:18-20)
- The entrance to the Temple was to the east, on a mountain facing Zion (Ex. 15:17), just as the end-time temple prophesied in Ezekiel is (40:2, 6; 43:12). Well, turns out the entrance to Eden was from the East (Gen. 3:24) and in some places pictured as being on a mountain. (Ezek. 28:14, 16)
- The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the ark of the covenant both were accessed or touched only on pain of death. Also, both were sources of wisdom.
- Just as a river flowed out of Eden (Gen 2:10), so a river is supposed to flow out of the End-time Temple (Ezek 47:1-12; Rev. 21:1-2)
- This one requires some serious argument so I suggest you consult Beale directly here (pg. 620-621), but just as there was a tripartite sacred structure to the Temple, Beale discerns a tripartite structure to creation with Eden standing at the center as a Holy of Holies.
- Ezekiel 28:13-14 refers the Eden as “the holy mountain of God” which everywhere else in the OT is Temple and Tabernacle language.
I have not come even close to doing justice to the exegetical work Beale does in this section, nor in the aforementioned book on the subject. Still, this rough sketch should be enough to show that there is a substantial case to be made for understanding the Garden of Eden as the first Temple in biblical theology.
What does this matter you might ask? The theological implications are actually so massive that I can’t go into all of them. I’ll just bullet-point a few that could be teased out into blogs in their own right (probably books too):
- Creation — Why did God create the world? To inhabit it and dwell with people.
- Anthropology — If the Garden is the Temple, then Adam is a priest. That has implications for our idea of human purpose and our relation to the rest of creation.
- Israel/Covenant — God sets apart a people of Tabernacle and Temple-makers, who take up Adam’s original commission.
- Christology — When we start to realize that Christ is the greater Temple, fulfilling all that the Temple was supposed to be, as well as the true Adam, it starts to fill in the picture on the aim of Christ’s work.
- Ecclesiology — It follows from our thinking about human purpose, and our idea of Christ’s work that our theology of the church will be impacted by this idea as well.
- Eschatology — If our theology of creation is impacted, then so is our eschatology, because God will fulfill his purposes at the end of all things.
The list could go on and on and on, but you get my point. The Garden was a Temple and that’s big.
Also, if nothing else, it’s just interesting for Bible nerds and that’s good enough, right?
Soli Deo Gloria