Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 2:15–17

Genesis 2:15–17
15 The LORD God took the man and placed him in the orchard in Eden to care for it and to maintain it.  16 Then the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat fruit from every tree of the orchard,  17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will surely die.”
(NET Bible)

Almost All Permitted

In today’s lesson we will see that God did not put us here for our own entertainment. Humanity did not originate as a totally free entity. No, we had responsibilities then, and we still do. What leads us to deny our responsibilities or to resist them? Who has the right to assign responsibilities? Who will enforce those responsibilities?

Can you believe it? The Garden of Eden needed care! When it finally sinks in that even paradise was not designed to be free of responsibility and work, we are beginning to move from fantasy to reality. Is it possible that a life without responsibility is meaningless—even ruinous?

The NET Bible is in good company in saying the man was responsible “to care for it and maintain it.” This translation suggests that “care for” and “maintain” are essentially synonyms; such parallelism often occurs in poetic Hebrew.

Indeed, the verb for “care for” (Hebrew ‘abad) occurs with great regularity in the Old Testament with the meanings “toil . . . work . . . serve.”[1] That is sufficiently general to encompass just about any specific task that one would do in a garden. NET’s “care for” is reasonable. Wenham observes, “It should be noted that even before the fall man was expected to work; paradise was not a life of leisured unemployment.”[2]

The second verb (English “maintain”), however, is another story altogether. Consider the Word Study.

Word Study (“watch over, protect”)

The Hebrew verb shamar, translated by NET as “to maintain it” in Genesis 2:15, means: “keep, watch over . . . take care of, preserve, protect.[3] Derived nouns include “watchman,” “guard,” and even “prison.” In other words, the word has strong security overtones.

Hamilton says: “The same [Hebrew] root is used in the next chapter to describe the cherubs [angels] who are on guard to prevent access to the tree of life in the garden (Gen. 3:24). The garden is something to be protected more than something to be possessed.”[4] He also points out that the poetic synonym of shamar is always natsar, which means “keep watch, watch over.”

It is instructive to note that the first use of shamar at Genesis 2:15 means to protect the garden and the last use at Genesis 41:35 involves Joseph arranging protection for the grain storage the Egyptians will use to survive the great famine. Such literary parallelism is usually intentional. To anyone who wonders why man’s exact responsibilities make so much difference, stay tuned for the answer in Genesis 3.

A general rule followed by an exception!

Genesis 2:16–17 provide both a lesson in biblical interpretation and present God’s standing orders for the first man (who presumably told his wife). First we have the lesson in biblical interpretation.

Note carefully that in Genesis 2:16 the man is allowed “to eat fruit from every tree of the orchard.” That seems comprehensive, does it not? And we have already been told that the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stand in the midst of the garden (Genesis 2:9). So, we conclude that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is allowed — right? Wrong!

Why is the interpretation wrong? Because we have not read the context. Genesis 2:17 expresses the exception to the general rule: “. . . but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” What we have here is a set literary form: the general rule is given first and the exceptions (if any) are then presented. We would have worded things a bit differently in contemporary English, but we must allow ancient people to have their own ways of saying things!

This very same pattern (General Rule – Exception) will recur in Genesis 6:5–9. First we have the general observation that all of humanity is “only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). As a result God resolves to destroy all humanity (Gen. 6:6–7). We do not find the exception to the rule until we are told of righteous Noah in Genesis 6:8–9. So, always read a verse in its context.

The exception is backed by a somber warning: “for when you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17b). This is the first mention of death in the Bible. Hamilton argues convincingly, that the phrase means “he shall die (at God’s hands).”[5] Though Adam and Eve did not die immediately after breaking the command, perhaps by God’s grace, in time they were separated from the realm of the living. Worse, their children suffered the same consequence. Worst of all, they were separated from the giver of life and could no longer walk with God in the garden.

That is where you and I come in, because death and alienation have penetrated throughout humanity (Romans 5:12). Only through what Jesus did on our behalf at the cross did we gain the opportunity to regain life and peace with God (Romans 5:1, 5:8–21).

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner and J. J. Stamm. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), Translated and edited under the supervision of M. E. J. Richardson. 5 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994-2000) ‘abad, work, q.v.

[2] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 67.

[3] HALOT, shamar, protect, q.v.

[4] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 170.

[5] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 173.

 

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!