Genesis 2:15 reads:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it (RSV).
. . . to work it and take care of it (NIV).
. . . to dress it and keep it (Jewish Publication Society).
. . . to till it and guard it (Moffatt).
. . . to cultivate it and guard it (TEV).
The King James version reads like the JPS, “dress it and keep it” and is the understanding I had of the event for most of my life. I even preached a sermon once on the nobility of work using Adam’s God-given job description as my central illustration. But in time I began to feel there was something missing in this picture. We see Great Yahweh with grand theater creating a new and beautiful earth in six days of incomprehensible activity, energy and intensity.
All for what? For mankind, of course. But why for mankind? Because man and woman are “made in his image”! Made in his image for what great and noble purpose and activity? To mow grass, pick bugs, prune trees, dig dirt, and protect the fruit trees from the deer, of course. To me, this common job description didn’t seem to fit the context of Genesis 2 and in some ways contradicted it. Why such creative spectacle just to put Adam and Eve into a garden with a command to keep it up — “and Oh, by the way, don’t eat fruit from that tree over there.” Something seemed to be missing, but I didn’t know what.
I did know this: Genesis is where it all begins and the key events mentioned there are absolutely foundational for everything that follows in mankind’s future. Here the beginning principles of God are carefully set forth. Principles that tell of man’s purpose, his relationship to his Maker, the purpose of marriage, good and evil, worship and obedience to God. In the Garden are seminal events and seminal instructions that set the tone and rules for all humanity for all time. The first of Genesis is where the record starts and where the record should be gotten straight.
Some years ago while studying one of my commentaries on Genesis — The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan, Vol 2 — I discovered an explanation that solved an old problem I have had understanding God’s instructions to Adam. The great commission to mankind to “plow dirt” just didn’t seem to make sense in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t seem to fit what would be the beginning — hence, the most important and foundational — instructions from God to his man/image.
I believe John H. Sailhamer and the other Expositor contributors and editors got it right. They believe a more suitable translation of the Hebrew in Genesis 2:15 is:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to worship and to obey.”
Worship and Obey
Notice the background to the passage in question. The author of Genesis had already noted (2:8) that God had “put” the man in the garden: “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.” Now in verse 15 the purpose of his being “put” in Eden is given. In fact, two different Hebrew words are used for “put” in these two verses. In v. 8 the common term for “put” is used, but in v. 15 the author uses a special term he employs in several passages elsewhere for two special uses: 1) “rest,” or “safety”; 2) “dedication” before God. Expositor’scomments:
Both senses of the term appear to lie behind the author’s use of the word in v. 15. Man was “put” into the garden where he could “rest” and be “safe” and man was “put” into the garden “in God’s presence” where he could have fellowship with God (3:8).
Expositor’s also notes that the English Versions overlook “the specific purpose for God’s putting man in the garden.”
In most EVs man is “put” in the garden “to work and take care of it” (l obdah ulsomrah). Although that translation was as early as the LXX (2nd cent.B.C.), there are serious objections to it. For one, the suffixed pronoun in the Hebrew text rendered “it” in English is feminine, whereas the noun “garden,” which the pronoun refers to in English, is a masculine noun in Hebrew. Only by changing the pronoun to a masculine singular, as the LXX has done, can it have the sense of the EVs, namely “to work” and “to keep.” Moreover, later in this same narrative (3:23) “to work the ground” (la bod) is said to be a result of the Fall, and the narrative suggests that the author had intended such a punishment to be seen as an ironic reversal of man’s original purpose. If such was the case, then “working” and “keeping” the garden would not provide a contrast to “working the ground.”
In light of these objections, which cannot easily be overlooked, a more suitable translation of the Hebrew l obdah ulsomrah would be “to worship and obey” (Cassuto). Man is put in the garden to worship God and to 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. Such a reading not only answers the objections raised against the traditional English translation, it also suits the larger ideas of the narrative. Throughout chapter 2 the author has consistently and consciously developed the idea of man’s “likeness” to God along the same lines as the major themes of the Pentateuch as a whole, namely, the theme of worship and Sabbath rest.
It should also be noted that immediately after God puts man in the garden to begin a life of worship and obedience (v.15), “God commanded” (v.16) man not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God gave him something to obey. The “worship and obey” translation harmonizes purpose and expectation and makes better sense of the context. This principle given at the very beginning resonates throughout the rest of scripture. Expositor’sagain:
Just as in the remainder of the Torah, enjoyment of God’s good land is made contingent on “keeping” (lismor) God’s commandments (miswot) (cf. Deut 30:16) ….Indeed, one can hardly fail to hear in these words of God to the first man the words of Moses to Israel: “See I set before you today life and blessing [lit., ‘the good’], death and calamity [lit., ‘the evil’]. for I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep is commands…” [worship and obey].
The inference of God’s commands in vv.16-17 is that God alone knows what is good (tob) for man and that God alone knows what is not good (ra) for him. To enjoy the “good” man must trust God and obey him. If man disobeys, he will have to decide for himself what is good and what is not good. While to modern man such a prospect may seem desirable, to the author of Genesis it is the worst fate that could have befallen him.
God made us to take on his image in the fullest spiritual sense. To do that we must become like he is. There is only one way that can be accomplished — through worship and obedience. Jesus said: “If you love me [worship] you will keep my commandments [obey]. True worship is adoration toward imitation. To come to know God in all his love and beauty is love him; to love him is to desire to become like him. To become like him, we must obey him. That is the true commission given to Adam’s race — to worship and obey.