Often, while we are busy shouting at them in the language of science, the early chapters of Genesis patiently whisper to us in the language of worldview and theology.
Consider Genesis 2. To fully understand what the text is saying, we need to read it through ancient Near Eastern (ANE) lenses. We need to examine the setting and characters from the perspective of an ANE culture and worldview.
First, the setting
We 21st-century readers tend to picture the Garden of Eden as a tropical paradise (think Hawaii without the beaches), and we often speculate as to its precise geographical location (after all, we know about two of the four mentioned rivers). But any ANE listener/reader would have understood the Garden of Eden to be a temple garden. The clues we miss would have been obvious for them.
There is a holy place (Eden) from which one river flows, eventually breaking into many scattered rivers (2:6, 10–14). Many ANE temples were purposely built on natural springs or streams so that water appeared to flow out of the building, symbolically watering the whole world.
Next to the holy place there is a garden with trees and animals, and with people in it to tend it (2:8–9, 15, 19–20). All ANE temples had temple gardens attached to them. Plus, we were just told at the end of chapter 1 that God is resting. Where else would God rest but in a temple?
Now to the characters
In Genesis 2, there are only two characters other than God. Notice that the writer really wants us to know what they’re made out of (2:7, 21–23)! Again, we 21st-century readers tend to get it wrong, thinking that the purpose is to describe our physical makeup. But in the ANE worldview, things were made distinct by what they did rather than by their molecules. So, when an ANE text tells us what something is made out of, it is not a chemical analysis or an ingredient list; rather, it is a statement about function and relationship.
Consider the creation of woman. First, notice that, along with the man, the woman is made out of dust. This tells us that the human relationship to God is not through physical ingredients: there is no blurring of the boundary between God and humanity. This also tells us that humanity has a relationship with death (“to dust you will return,” 3:19).
Second, although ultimately made of dust, the woman is also made of “rib” (2:21–22), which would be better translated as “side.” The Hebrew word is almost always used in the Old Testament in an architectural way – the side of a building, the side of the Ark of the Covenant, etc. In the ANE world, the choice of “side” is telling. If woman were made out of man’s head, it would indicate she is his master; if out of his feet, she’d be his servant. Instead, these two creatures are companions, facing the world side-by-side.
So, in describing the setting and characters, we can see that Genesis 2 is playing to the assumptions of the ANE world. Knowing that, the remarkable contrasts between Genesis 2 and other ANE texts become crucially significant, for here Genesis 2 does its main work. In these contrasts we see what is distinct in the theology and worldview being proclaimed to and by the Israelites.
What we find
While other ANE texts either do not explain the appearance of humans or portray humanity as a slave class (bringing food from the temple gardens to the gods residing in the temples), early Genesis portrays humanity as being served by God, who has provided food for the people (2:8–9, 15–16). Humanity has been dignified, lifted up.
While other ANE texts describe humans as springing up like weeds, early Genesis portrays humans as descending from a human pair (like family). Again, humanity has been dignified, lifted up. While no other known ANE texts account for the creation of woman, early Genesis explicitly portrays the creation of woman as the completion of creation, and proclaims the deep side-by-side-ness of men and women. Womanhood has been dignified, lifted up.
While other ANE texts include class distinctions in the description of humanity, early Genesis quite deliberately does not, emphasizing instead the basic equality of all people. The underprivileged have been dignified, lifted up.
In Luke, Mary sings, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (1:51–52).
As it turns out, once you put on ANE lenses, all of this is already present in the very surprising temple garden of Genesis 2.
(link to BibleGateway.com)
Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.