In this post I want to examine Genesis 2:15 and raise a few questions about a current popular interpretation. I will argue that the translation found in most English versions is correct, which reads ”The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (ESV et al.; emphasis added). I will also argue that the increasingly popular interpretation that replaces the words “work it” and “keep it” with “worship and obey” is a mistranslation.
Now, at first glance, it would seem that the choice between the two phrases is an easy one. Shouldn’t we expect to find biblical instructions about worship, rather than about working a garden and keeping it pristine? But unfortunately, the matter is not simply about deciding between which interpretation seems more theological. The real question is about what position is taught in the actual text of Scripture.
Part of the difficulty is that in examining the Hebrew behind this verse, each word can have multiple meanings. Thus, the first Hebrew word עַבָד can mean”to work” or ”to serve” or “to worship” (see Deut 6:13; 2 King 10:19) while the second word שַׁמָר can mean ”to keep” or “to guard” or “to obey.” So the question, then, is whether Adam was to work the garden and keep it, or to worship and obey.
John Sailhammer is probably the most well-known supporter of the “worship and obey” view. In his commentary on Genesis (Expositors, Vol. 2) he notes (pp. 45-48) that the Hebrew לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ is constructed with two infinitives, each having what appears to be feminine pronouns suffixed to them. Sailhammer argues that these “feminine pronouns” cannot refer to “garden,” since it is a masculine word. Instead, these should be understood as a common feature of biblical Hebrew, simply as a final he attached to the end of infinitives (p. 47). Furthermore, Sailhammer notes that working the ground is the result of the Fall (3:22-24) – an ironic reversal of fortunes from his pre-fall state which cannot be seen if 2:15 is translated as “keep” and “work.” Therefore, Sailhammer concludes,
A more suitable translation of the Hebrew . . . would be ‘to worship and obey.’ Man is put in the garden to worship God and obey him. Man’s life in the garden was to be characterized by worship and obedience; he was a priest, not merely a worker and keeper of the garden (Sailhammer, 45).
Sailhammer also notes that context supports this idea of worshipful obedience, since in 2:16 God commands man. As is true elsewhere in the Torah, “enjoyment of God’s good land is made contingent on ‘keeping’ God’s commandments” (Sailhammer, 45).
Sailhammer’s influence may be seen in the statements of several others. Howe (Rethinking Adam in the Garden, 6) states,
Rethinking Adam in the garden casts a different theological light on the responsibility that Adam bore there. Rather than Adam
bearing any responsibility toward the garden, Adam’s responsibility was toward God: to worship and obey Him. Further, the significance of the change of direction of Adam’s attention before and after the fall is retained. Before the fall, Adam’s attention was directed upwards toward God. Adam was to obey God by keeping God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam was to worship God by trusting God to supply the good. After the fall, Adam’s attention was directed downwards toward the ground (3:17-19). Because of the curse, the ground was now the source of Adam’s sustenance. Because of the curse, the ground would yield its food to Adam only with much toil and sweat. Adam’s reorientation toward the ground was a portent of Adam’s future to “return to the dust” out of which he was taken.
So we see that this approach is appealing because it seems more theologically rich. Man before the fall is directed Godwards, man after the fall is directed groundwards. Thus, work in the dirty soil is said to be the result of man’s sin. Similarly, Liederbach and Reid echo Sailhammer’s view in their recent book The Convergent Church: Missional Worshipers in an Emerging Culture, where this passage (Gen 2:15) is used to argue that worship is the purpose of creation. Discussing this passage, they state, “There is a greater reality and truth that lies behind this passage, and it is often missed or under emphasized” (p. 120). Sailhammer is then quoted to help bring out this often overlooked truth. The authors conclude ”God also gave to Adam an orienting purpose for his whole life: to worship the creator through obedience. . . . He specified the purpose of living before him as a joyous journey of worship and commissioned the first couple to fill the earth with worshippers!” (p. 122, 124).
But what about the other view that argues God simply told Adam to work the ground and keep it? Should it be so easily dismissed? One important guideline for reading the Bible is to interpret a passage in light of its context. So, when trying to understand the meaning of a difficult word (such as “to work the ground” vs. “to worship”) one should see if the same word is used in the surrounding context. And in our case, it is! Genesis 2:5 states, “no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground.” Significantly, where this verse says “to work” is the same word that appears in Gen 2:15, and in the exact same construction (an infinitive)! Moreover, in 2:5 the word appears with a feminine object (the ground), explaining why in 2:15, the same word can be used with the feminine pronoun attached to it. It would be just like me saying in English, “I gave the dress to my wife . . . I gave the dress to her.” You would understand that since I used the same verb “gave” in each sentence, when I say “wife” and then “her” I am talking about the same person. This is what is happening in the Hebrew of Genesis 2. It says, “there was no man to work the ground . . . God put the man in the Garden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:5, 15). It is very inconsistent to translate the same word as “to work it” and then right after to translate it as “to worship.”
This fact is supported by the context of the entire chapter, where the focus is on the amazing garden that God formed for man. 2:4 states that the context is describing the “generations” of the heavens and earth. On the earth, there were no shrubs because there was no man to work the ground (2:5). But in 2:7, God solves this dilemma by creating man. The wonders of the garden are described in vv. 8-15, its pleasant food, its juicy fruits, its four rivers, the precious gold and stones. And then comes 2:15 — the passage we have been discussing — “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it?worship? and to keep it?obey?”
From the description of the garden, it becomes clear how luxurious it was. In fact, 2:8 describes it as a garden planted by God. And yet, God’s garden, flowing with rivers and gold and full of fruits, is entrusted to man’s care. What implications might be drawn from this? Surely, theological ones. Note the dignity of man, the responsibility; he has been entrusted with naming the animals and enjoying the produce. And, man works in this garden, showing that work is not a result of the fall. Rather, work was a divinely appointed task. In fact, the word for God “putting” man in this garden is that he “rested” man in the garden (v. 15). So it might even be said that it was possible for man to work in this restful garden of delights, and to do so in a glorious pre-fall manner.
Perhaps part of man’s keeping the garden was to keep/guard the tree of knowledge, perhaps from slithering snakes (3:1) or both himself and his wife from temptations that were sure to come.
But another clue that 2:15 should be translated as “to work it and keep it” is the language of the fall in ch. 3. Man was put in the garden to work it the ground and God’s first words to Adam after the fall are “cursed is the ground” (3:17). Where before Adam’s work was enjoyable, now it would be “by the sweat of your brow” (3:17). Adam was “to work it,” now it will bring thorns “to him” (note the parallelism, 3:18). And then chapter 3 concludes with Adam and Eve being driven from the Garden of Eden, now to work the cursed ground. How ironic: man had been placed in God’s perfect garden to work it; now he is driven from the garden to work by the sweat of his brow. And with one final swoop of irony, the way is guarded behind him by flaming cherubs wielding swords. Adam failed to keep/guard the garden, so now the garden is kept from him.
It seems, then, that despite the theological conclusions that can be drawn from 2:15 regarding worship and obedience, the text says otherwise. Adam was put into the garden to work it and keep it (2:5, 15). The text then portrays his failure to do so, and therefore as he is driven out of the garden the exact same language repeated: Adam was put in the garden to work the ground (2:5); his failure means that he will now have to work the ground outside of the garden (note the exact same phrase that is mirrored between 2:5 and 3:23). This seems to form an inclusion around the entire narrative and makes it extremely unlikely that 2:15 should be translated as “worship and obey.” Perhaps the LXX translators grasped this important theme and rendered 2:15 as ἐργάζεσθαι αὐτον καὶ φυλάσσειν (to work it and guard). And this interpretation is not without its theological ramifications, as explained by Keil and Delitzsch:
man was placed there to lead a life of repose, not indeed in inactivity, but in fulfilment of the course assigned him, which was very different from the trouble and restlessness of the weary toil into which he was plunged by sin. In paradise he was to dress (colere) the garden; for the earth was meant to be tended and cultivated by man, so that without human culture, plants and even the different varieties of corn degenerate and grow wild. Cultivation therefore preserved (שׁמר to keep) the divine plantation, not merely from injury on the part of any evil power, either penetrating into, or already existing in the creation, but also from running wild through natural degeneracy. As nature was created for man, it was his vocation not only to ennoble it by his work, to make it subservient to himself, but also to raise it into the sphere of the spirit and further its glorification. This applied not merely to the soil beyond the limits of paradise, but to the garden itself, which, although the most perfect portion of the terrestrial creation, was nevertheless susceptible of development, and which was allotted to man, in order that by his care and culture he might make it into a transparent mirror of the glory of the Creator.