The Priest of the Covenant (Genesis 2:15-17)

A few months ago we enjoyed an election here in Malaysia. But the fun did not actually end with the election results, did it? For weeks after the election we were all waiting for the new government to form: who’s gonna be in the cabinet? Who’s gonna be new minister  of this and that? High drama and entertainment for everyone.

Well, it was no different in ancient times. When a king came to power he also had to form a government: Prime Minister, Ministers of Finance, Military, Harem, etc. etc.

But there was at least one big difference in the process: today the announcements are made, the contracts are signed, and it’s done. 4000 years ago there was no mass media. Paper was a little hard to come by. And if one of the ministers broke the contract — by running off with 2.6 billion in hard currency, for instance — there was no international high court that could bring him to justice.

So, instead of making announcements and signing contracts, ancient kings would make a covenant with their ministers.

And these covenants had three basic parts.

In Part 1, the king would introduce himself, and outline all the benefits he has already provided.

In Part 2, the king would outline the obligations he would be responsible for, and the obligations the minister would be responsible for.

And in Part 3, the king would outline the benefits that the minister would receive if he did his job faithfully. He would also outline the penalties for unfaithfulness, which on a govermental level was almost always exile or death. And that is fair. Because — as we have all experienced! — when a man is raised up to ministerial level, his corruption does not just affect him, it affects everyone under his authority. So it is appropriate for the potential penalties to be equal with the potential benefits.

— just think: how fast would government corruption disappear in Malaysia if death was the penalty?

And then the covenant ceremony would finish with a test of loyalty. A series of animals would be sacrificed, cut into pieces, their blood spilled out on the ground. And then the king and the minister would walk among the animal parts, walking together through the blood as a very graphic picture of the death penalty that would come upon them if they broke the covenant. If either one refused to take that walk, this meant they were not really serious about being faithful.

Well, this is what God did with his people at Mount Sinai in the Arabian desert. He led them out of Egypt, and brought them to that mountain, so he could commission them as the new government of a new land. The people of Israel were called to be a nation of ministers, a nation of priests, ruling over the land that God had promised to Abraham.

And we can read the entire covenant ceremony beginning in Exodus, Chapter 20, where God introduces himself and tells the people what he has just done for them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” That is the opening, the first part of a covenant ceremony.

Then, if we kept reading, we would see that God moves directly into Parts 2 and 3: outlining the rules of the covenant, and the benefits of loyalty, the penalties for disloyalty…

And then in Chapter 24, we would come to the test at the end of the ceremony: Moses sacrifices a bunch of bulls and cuts them into pieces. But it is impossible for 2 million people to walk together through that blood, so instead Moses collects the blood in a large basin, reads the details of the covenant, and asks the people if they want to sign. They say, “We will do everything the Lord has said: we will obey.” So Moses sprinkles the blood on the people, and says, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you!” A graphic baptism, a graphic picture of the death penalty that will come upon them if they break the covenant.

And the people, as they went through this ceremony, would remember a story that Moses has been telling them. A story about a primordial garden in the land of Eden, and a man who had been formed out of the dust of the desert and brought into that garden.

And as Moses describes how God introduced himself to that man, how God spoke to that man and showed him all the features of the garden, the people of Israel would have realized that God is making a covenant with that man. God intends to commission this man to be a minister in God’s kingdom, a priest in God’s cosmic temple.

But before the man can be a priest in God’s cosmic temple, he needs to get some practice in a smaller setting. Like all of us, he needs to learn to walk before he can run.

So, Moses tells us in verse 15, the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden.

And if we recall from last week, this garden is a hidden valley on a mountain in the east, a high and holy place, filled with the presence of God and bursting with life, which pours out of it in the form of rivers that flow down into the wilderness lands, foreshadowing the fertility that this garden will bring to the whole earth when it is completed; foreshadowing the fertility of the promised land. Gold was mentioned, and spices, and precious stones —

— and as the people of Israel listened to how God put the man in the garden, they would have begun to realize something else: this garden is not just the original version of their promised land, it is also the orginal version of their tabernacle, their temple, which the craftsmen are busy working on there at the foot of Mount Sinai. The tabernacle is covered in gold: the ark, the tables, the lampstand, even the cloth has gold woven through it. The tabernacle is filled with sweet-smelling spices: the incense burned during worship. The tabernacle is covered in precious stones: from the corners of the tent to the robes the priests wear.

And this idea that the garden is also a kind of temple is confirmed by what Moses says next:

[15] The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

And these words — to work it and take care of it — are special words. These are the same words that Moses uses when he talks about how the priests are supposed to do the work of worship in the tabernacle, and take care to preserve the holiness of the tabernacle.

In other words, the priests of ancient Israel had two main jobs: one, they were to work the tabernacle, and two: they were to protect the tabernacle. In the same way, this man that the Lord God has put in the garden has two main jobs: work the garden, and protect it, as if it is a temple.

So it turns out that the Garden of Eden is not just the original version of the promised land, it is also the original version of Israel’s holy temple, which was a model of God’s cosmic temple. Which means that this man in the garden is the original high priest of God. And apparently God really is going to give him a chance to practice in an earthly temple before promoting him to be high priest of God’s cosmic temple.

And all the man has to do is work the garden and protect it.

Now, working the garden makes sense. We already discovered, last week, that the earth is an unformed wilderness. It has some type of vegetation, but not the seed- and fruit-bearing kind that people really need in order to thrive. So we understand that the man’s job is to continue the process of cultivation that God has started. And we also learned last week that the rivers flowing out of the garden gave the man an idea of what he is called to do: expand the garden, grow it bigger and bigger until it has filled the earth with good things.

So we understand what it means to work the garden.

But what does protect the garden mean? What — or who — is the man supposed to protect the garden from? Especially since, in Chapter 1, Moses told us clearly that at the end of Day 6 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

If everything in creation is “very good”, then…why does the garden need protection?

Mmmmmm…well, if we think back over what we have read so far, we begin to realize that “very good” does not mean “perfectly complete”. It is clear that God has deliberately left some things unfinished. These things are not bad, but they are not as perfectly good as they could be: they have room to grow toward a more orderly existence.

If we recall, Chapter 1 showed us how God structured the physical universe to begin with outermost chaos and darkness, and then work its way in — layer by layer — to a more and more orderly centre: the footstool of God, the earth at the centre of the cosmic temple. Now Chapter 2 has zoomed in even further, and what we are seeing here is the absolute pin-point centre of order in the universe: the garden of Eden, overflowing with life and every good thing.

Which means that, when we zoom out from the garden — just slightly! — what do we see outside the garden? Wilderness. The lands around the garden are not quite as orderly as the garden itself, they are not quite as good as the garden. There is an element of chaos and disorder outside the garden, and that is the problem the man was created to resolve! He is supposed to bring order and life to the wilderness around him.

But still, this word “protect” suggests that the movement is not just one way. The man is not just trying to push life and goodness outward into the wilderness; the wilderness is also trying to push disorder and death inwards into the garden.

Now I am not suggesting that the outer wilderness is some kind of evil living force that wants to devour the garden. It doesn’t need to be. Scientists today talk about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which basically says that everything runs down and falls apart if no one is there to take care of it. If God had not put the man in the garden to work it and protect it, the garden would have naturally become more and more disorganized and unproductive until it finally turned back into a wilderness.

So, to be very clear: the wilderness is not evil. Chaos is not evil. The first two verses of the bible told us that God rules even over chaos. But: chaos cannot produce life, and chaos cannot reveal God’s character very clearly. The more orderly something becomes, the more life and revelation it can produce. In the same way, the wilderness around the garden is not evil, but it does not support life or revelation as well as the garden does.

In other words, the garden is holier than the wilderness: it is more life-giving, and closer to an accurate reflection of who God is. The man’s job is to protect that holiness, to fight back against the disorder and decay that would eventually take over if he lowered his guard.


So far the Covenant-Speaking God has introduced himself to the man, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the ground, out of the wilderness, into this garden” — Part 1 of a covenant ceremony.

And just now, God has spelled out Part 2, the obligations of the covenant: “I want you to work and protect the garden.”

Which means we are ready for Part 3: the benefits of being a faithful government minister — and the penalties for betrayal.

Verse 16: And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden

— and that includes the tree of life —

[17] but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

The man’s obligation is to work and protect the garden. If he does this, the benefits include eternal life. God is obligating himself to the man, promising to keep him alive: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden!”

There is only one restriction: you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

And at this point, there is a set of questions that everyone asks: why not?

Why is this particular fruit tree forbidden?

Or for that matter: why a fruit tree at all? Why didn’t God say, “Don’t kill kittens,” or something that is more obviously bad? Doesn’t this whole thing just seem a little bit random?

Well…no. This is not random at all. And Moses has actually been setting us up to understand this from the very beginning. And we are ready to understand this because, for the last several weeks, we have been training our brains to view the world as the ancient people of Israel did.

So, we’ll answer these questions in order: why did it have to be a fruit tree? and, what is special about this fruit tree?

First: why did it have to be a fruit tree?

Because we are reaching the end of a covenant ceremony. Every covenant ceremony ends with a test: a sacrifice. Now, the garden — as the very pin-point centre of life-production — has no death in it. That is the man’s job: to maintain the garden’s order and holiness, and protect it from chaotic death and decay. So the sacrifice could not be a blood sacrifice. It needed to be another kind of sacrifice, another kind of test.

Well, it will interest you to know that, while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, putting the tabernacle together, Moses was teaching the priests how to work the tabernacle. And the priests did not just perform blood sacrifices; they also performed plant sacrifices: wine, and oil, and grain were part of the sacrificial system. And guess what? Once a priest has poured your offering of wine and oil and grain onto the altar, it’s gone! You don’t get to eat that! It belongs to God now. 

Moses was also teaching the people how to work the promised land. Listen to this very interesting law from the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 19: When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fouth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit. In this way your harvest will be increased. I am the Lord your God.

So the people of Israel already understand the concept of fruit trees that are dedicated to God — for a while. It was like a tithe to God: the first four years of the tree’s life belong to God; after that, it belongs to you! just like the first 10% of your salary belongs to God — the rest of it belongs to you.

This test had to be a fruit tree because this was the only way the man could make a sacrifice: the fruit of this tree belongs to God — at least for a while. By obeying God’s command to not eat of this tree, the man is showing that he is committed to being faithful to the covenant.

And that leads us to the second question: why this tree? What is so special about this tree?

Is it magical?

Is it poisonous?

No. Moses has told us exactly two things about this tree: what it symbolizes, and its position in the garden. And those two things actually tell us everything we need to know.

This tree is special because it is in the centre of the garden, along with the tree of life.

Now: think as an ancient Israelite would. Why is is the center so important? What does it mean that these two trees are at the very centre of a garden that is on a continent at the very centre of a wilderness planet that is at the very centre of the cosmic ocean? In a universe that is designed to go from outermost chaos — where there is no life, and no clear revelation — to ever increasingly central order, what would we expect to find at the very centre?

We would expect to find the source of all life and the source of all revelation.

At the centre of the garden we find the tree of life and the tree of revelation — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Remember, the man is on probation here. Just like the rest of creation, he is good but he is not complete. God is giving him a chance to prove himself in this garden-temple on earth, before getting promoted to much greater responsibilities.

And all this means that the man is ready for some things; but he is not ready for some other things. He is ready to eat from the tree of life. He is not ready to eat from the tree of revelation, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God has the knowledge of good and evil; he has the responsibility and the power of Judgement. But the man is not ready to handle that power and responsibility. The man is not mature enough to experience the responsibility of what it is like to rule the way God rules. He is not yet ready to be the priest of God’s cosmic temple, and pass judgement on creation.

The man is God’s highest, holiest, most orderly and most life-giving creature — but he is not yet holy enough to eat directly from the fruit of God’s direct revelation. It would kill him.

So for the man’s own protection, God says, “Don’t eat of this tree. For when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

So what is so special about this fruit tree? This fruit tree is special because it is at the very centre of the garden. The centre of the garden is like the holy of holies in the centre of the temple. The man is holy enough to enter and eat from the tree of life; but he is not yet holy enough to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He is not yet ready to experience the responsibility of what it is like to rule as God rules.

So to summarize here: the Covenant-Speaking God has just made a covenant with the man he created. God has just ordained him to be the priest and the prime minister of the garden of Eden.

He has given the man his job description: work the garden, and protect it. And these jobs have both physical and spiritual aspects.

As the prime minister ruling over a very physical earth, he works the garden by farming it, developing it, expanding it, bringing life and order into the wilderness. He protects the garden by fighting back against incursions of disorder and death from the wilderness.

But as the priest mediating between God and creation, he works the garden by eating and distributing fruit from the tree of life, and by offering the sacrifices that God desires, in this case a sacrifice of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Which means that this priest protects the garden by protecting the holiness of those two trees. The tree of life is not to be distributed carelessly — it is the priest’s job to discern when and to whom the fruit should be given. And the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not to be distributed at all! — not even to the priest himself.

And this covenant, just like all covenants, comes with benefits and penalties. The benefits of faithfulness are eternal! And so are the penalties for unfaithfulness. You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.

And at this point there is another set of questions that many people ask: what did God mean when he said you will certainly die. Or — even more importantly — how did the man know what God meant, if he had never experienced death before?

We will answer these questions in order also: what did God mean? and, how did the man know what God meant?

First: what did God mean when he said you will certainly die?

The most directly literal translation of this verse would say this: when you eat from it, dying you will die. And that double use of the word “die” was a way of saying, “This is really, certainly going to happen.”

But it also suggests that there is a way to die that is not really dying. It suggests that there was a way for a man to one day put aside his body — what we call death — but then transition smoothly and directly into a new resurrected immortal body. In that case, the man dying would not die, he would just move into a different phase of his eternal life.

In other words, the phrase “dying you will die” suggests that there are two kinds of death: the death of the body and the death of the spirit.

Later on in scripture this is confirmed. There are two kinds of death: the “first death” — the separation of the spirit from the body — and the “second death”: the eternal separation of the spirit from God.

So what did God mean when he said, “You will certainly die”? He was telling the man, “If you eat that fruit, your body will die and it will not be resurrected. Your spirit will be parted from it permanently — and it will be parted from me permanently.”

But that still leaves us wondering: how did the man know what God meant, especially if he had no experience of death?

Well, for one thing, the man is alive now, and presumably he can conceive of a time when he did not yet exist. Which means he might have some generalized concept of what it might mean not to be alive again in the future.

But that answer is incomplete, because the concept of non-life is different from the concept of death as scripture understands it — especially the death of mankind. So we’re still stuck: how could the man know what death was if he had not experienced it somehow?

Well, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: why are we assuming that the man had no experience of death?

And a very common answer is this: because there was no death in the world before Adam sinned.

But where does that idea come from? Does the bible say there was no death in the world before Adam sinned?

Well, some Christians say yes. They point to the Book of Romans, Chapter 5, verse 12: Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men.

But that verse does not actually say that death came to creation through one man’s sin, it says that death came to mankind through one man’s sin. And that matches exactly with what God has just said here. God did not say, “If you eat from the tree creation will certainly die.” God said, “If you eat from the tree you will certainly die.”

But then some will say, “Hold on, you are forgetting that in Chapter 1 God called creation ‘very good’. How can a very good creation contain death? How can a very good creation contain animals that are hunting and killing other animals?”

Well, as we have already discussed, “very good” does not mean “perfectly complete”. We have already discussed how disorder, in and of itself, is not necessarily immoral or evil, it’s just not finished yet. Chaos has a place in God’s cosmos; disorder is an essential part of God’s order.

So when one animal “disorders” another animal, that is not necessarily a moral evil. And this is confirmed later in scripture, where the Book of Job tells us that God hunts the prey for the lioness and satisfies the hunger of the lions. We know God does not do evil! Therefore, when lions hunt — with God’s help! — and take the lives of other animals, they are not doing evil.

Animal death is different from human death because animals are not in covenant with God; humans are. Animals cannot break God’s law against killing because there is no such law for them. There is for us. And that is why when we murder, and when we die, it is a moral evil. But scripture does not teach that animal death is a moral evil. At most, scripture teaches that predation is a mark of incomplete order, and that — one day — when creation is perfected, predation also will be a thing of the past.

So when God saw all that he had made, and it was very good, that does not mean that there was no death or decay or any trace of chaos anywhere in the universe. In fact, by this point, Moses has been very clear about how God constructed the universe to go from lifeless chaos at the outermost edges through ever-increasing levels of order until it reaches the trees of life and revelation at the very centre.

So: how did the man know what God meant when he said, “You will certainly die”? Had he witnessed death before?

Because I am preaching here, I want to be very careful. I am not up here to tell you my opinions. I am here to tell you what scripture says, and and what it does not say — to the best of my abilities.

What does scripture say for certain?

It says this: the centre of the garden is more orderly and life-giving than the rest of the garden. The rest of the garden is more orderly and life-giving than the wilderness outside. The wilderness outside is more orderly and life-giving than the sea and the sky. The sea and the sky are more orderly and life-giving than the cosmic ocean. And the cosmic ocean contains no physical life.

So we know three things for absolutely certain. First: there was no death at the very center of the garden. Second: there was death — or, at least, lifelessness — at the very edges of the universe. And third: Moses has been describing a gradual transition from lifelessness to life-fulness, from chaos to perfect order.

Scripture also says — later on — that when all of creation is brought into perfect order, predation will be a thing of the past. And since the garden of Eden is a preview of what perfect order looks like, we can conclude that there was no predation inside the garden — especially at its life-giving centre.

But…was there predation and death outside the garden?

Scripture definitely does not say “no, death is a moral evil”. As we have already seen, scripture does not teach that animal death is a moral evil, but rather a mark of incomplete order.

The wilderness outside the garden was a place of incomplete order.

In Moses’ understanding of how the world is structured, inside the garden there was no predation, no death; but outside the garden there was. And the further away you got from the garden, the more and more disorder and death there was. That is why the birds — and especially the fish — needed a special blessing from God to make sure that they would multiply: their lives, in the chaotic transition zones of sky and sea, were destined to be more disorderly, more violent, because they lived further away from the source of life.

But how would the man in the garden know about the death outside? Well, remember that he was formed outside, in the wilderness, and only brought into the garden later on. And as we discussed last week, Moses does not tell us how long he was in the wilderness, whether it was minutes or months or years.

So most likely, when God said, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die,” the man knew exactly what God was talking about, because he had seen it.

And when God said, “You are here to protect the garden,” the man knew exactly what he was protecting the garden from, because he had been out there.

And when God said, “You are here to work the garden, and fill the earth with the revelation of who I am,” the man understood very clearly that his job was to gradually bring an end to predation and violent death.

So what does this mean for us?

We were designed to rule over creation as governors, and to serve creation as priests, just like the people of Israel were called to be a nation of ministers and priests in the land that God had promised them.

That nation failed spectacularly. Instead of working their land and protecting it, they invited in the gods of death and chaos, just like the nations that had been there before them. And because God is always faithful to his covenant, he had to keep his part of the contract, and bring them the death they asked for.

And the only thing that keeps us from despising them is the fact that our nations continue to fail just as spectacularly. Our human race has turned out to be terrible governors and even worse priests. And if the history of mankind tells us anything, it tells us that we are not getting better. And if the history of God’s covenant tells us anything, it tells us that we are not going to get away with it. God is always faithful to his covenant. We are corrupt government ministers; we are the ones who run off with billions in hard currency; and under the conditions of God’s covenant, death is the penalty.

So what are we to do?

Well, the Good News is that out of the wreckage of our race God produced a perfect priest, a perfect king: Jesus the Messiah. He was born, he lived, and he did what the first man failed to do: he was a faithful high priest in God’s temple. He distributed the fruit from the tree of life. And he refused to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree that gives a man the power and responsibility of Judgement. He refused to judge mankind.

In return, mankind judged him, and nailed him to that tree of Judgement. But dying, he did not die. He became something greater: the first man of the new humanity. And because he was faithful, God promoted him to be high priest of the cosmic temple. Now he holds the power of life and the power of judgement. The power of the second death belongs to him.

And the only way of escape for us is to eat of the tree of life, and eat again, and eat again until we are full. Jesus is the tree of life. And there are many ways to eat of him. One way is here, at the table, where we will partake of fruit and grain, a sacrifice we were forbidden to eat at the beginning but available to us now through faith in Christ. Another way is by eating his Word, his revelation, which guides us in our knowledge of good and evil. And another way is simply by meeting together in worship, as we have here, and rediscovering the peace and safety we enjoy in the garden-temple of God’s people.

So let’s eat.

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