If you were reading my blog a year ago, you may remember a series of posts on the correct interpretation of Genesis 2:15. In short, the question is whether the verse should be understood in the traditional way, as the NIV has it — The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Or should it have been translated something like this — “God caused man to rest in the garden for the purpose of obeying and worshiping Him.”
Finally, I got a chance to discuss the issue with the Bible professor from whom I first heard the alternate “obey and worship” interpretation. I asked him the questions at the bottom of Part Eight. Here is his answer: (The rest of this post is his answer verbatim.)
My reasoning regarding Genesis 2:15, which in my view is truly a crucial verse with respect to properly understanding our pre- (and hence post-) Fall purpose, is as follows, in logical sequence:
1) The traditional (though not the only, or even the oldest) translation/understanding of Genesis 2:15 is that “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and to guard it.”
2) Premise: how one understands/translates one of the boldface expressions inevitably influences and informs how one understands/translates the other.
3) Observation 1: The verbal root used for “put him” in v. 15 (nu’ah) is not the same as the verbal root used for “put him” in v. 8 (sim).
4) Observation 2: The verbal root used in v. 8 (sim), when used with either God or man in Scripture, almost always refers to a physical “putting (down) or placing.”
5) Observation 3: The verbal root used in v. 15 (nu’ah), when used with God as the subject in Scripture, is predominantly used to indicate the “setting at rest,” which comes to represent one of the standard biblical idioms for being brought into full relationship with God. In the Old Testament, this is evident in the oft-repeated promise of God “to give you [i.e., His people] rest” (cf. Joshua 1:15; 2 Samuel 7:11; Psalm 95:11) — which is clearly not simply physical “putting down” or even “physical” at all, since He continues to hold out this “giving of rest” as a yet to be realized promise even after Israel has achieved complete physical rest from war and strife under David (cf. 2 Samuel 7:1 with 7:11).
6) To be biblically consistent, therefore, it must be CONCLUDED that the use of rest in Genesis 2:15, in which God is the subject, is intended just as everywhere else when God is the subject — i.e., as an indication of Him giving spiritual rest to the specified object — in this case Adam (and later Eve).
7) This being so, it stands to reason that the rest of the verse should also be read in a “spiritual” context. I.e., if the first part of the verse establishes a significant spiritual/theological idea, this is clearly the vein in which the rest of the verse will/should be read.
8 ) Observation: “cultivating” and “guarding” a garden are not clearly spiritual — or spiritually significant — concepts. (This is distinct from the concept of work as valid and positive — to assume that one must be denying the value of “work” to agree with this statement/observation is a logical non sequitur.)
9) Observation: the pronominal object “it” after “cultivate” and “guard” is feminine (if taken as a pronominal object) — literally, “her”.
10) The term “garden” (gan) in biblical Hebrew is not feminine (“her”), but masculine (i.e., “him”). Some lexicons of biblical Hebrew suggest that the term “garden” (Heb.: gan) may in fact be both masculine AND feminine, but this is begging the question and not at all borne out by the evidence — in fact, this is circular lexical reasoning based EXCLUSIVELY on the view that garden in Genesis 2:15 is feminine and because the pronominal object on the verbs “cultivate” and “guard” is feminine — yet as I will show in following, a more consistent, grammatical, and hence natural reading is that that there is no pronominal object at all!
11) In all of the instances where the word for garden (gan) is predicated by a verb or adjective, it is clearly treated as masculine (e.g., Isaiah 58:11, Jerermiah 31:11, Song of Solomon 4:12, and Song of Solomon 4:16). Not surprisingly, therefore, it is identified as an exclusively masculine noun in the standard Concordance of the Hebrew Bible by A. Even Shoshan (Heb. edition [Qonqordantsya Hadasha], p. 240c).
12) The most grammatical — and therefore natural — reading of the clause in question, therefore, would be to take what has been mistakenly thought to be a pronominal object suffix (“her”) as in fact an alternate feminine affix to an infinitive noun — which is attested elsewhere in biblical Hebrew — and may be intended to denote emphasis.
13) This reading solves/avoids the clear gender disagreement noted above by effectively eliminating an object from the infinitive verbs (“to cultivate … to guard”). The verbs thus become “intransitive” (not taking an object) rather than “transitive” (taking an object).
14) When a) used intransitively, b) used in a clearly spiritually focused context, and c) when used together, the Hebrew infinitive verbs traditionally translated “cultivate” and “guard” in fact mean “worship” and “obey.” Thus writes G.K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48/1 (2005), pp. 7–8: “The two Hebrew words for ‘cultivate’ and ‘keep’ (respectively, ‘?bad and sh?mar) can easily be, and usually are, translated ‘serve and guard.’ When these two words occur together later in the Old Testament, without exception they have this meaning and refer either to the Israelites ‘serving and guarding/obeying’ God’s word’ (about 10 times) or, more often to priests who ‘serve’ God in the temple and ‘guard’ the temple from unclean things entering it (Numbers 3:7–8; 8:25–26; 18:5–6; 1 Chronicles 23:32; Ezekiel 44:14).”
15) Not only does this translation/understanding flow smoothly from the spiritual focus of the first part of the verse, but — contrary to the usual rendering as “cultivate it and guard it” — it also sets up and flows smoothly into v. 16, which proceeds to give the content of obedience — i.e., to answer the obvious, implied question with which v. 15 thus ends — to wit, “So how do I [Adam] obey?”
16) This translation/understanding is not new, but well established in early Jewish exegetical thought, as attested in a) Midrash Genesis Rabbah, xvi.5, b) Targum Jonathan ad Genesis 2:15, and c) Targum Yerushalmi ad Genesis 2:15.
17) The “traditional” translation, we suspect, is a carry-over by late medieval Christian-English translators who, along with their knowledge of Hebrew, are taking this particular exegetical view from their Jewish teachers. In Jewish tradition, though the proper reading of “worship and obey” was early recognized, it was set aside in favor of the ungrammatical and contextually problematic reading “cultivate it and keep it” due to the essential theological emphasis of Rabbinic Judaism on fully attaining God’s “rest” (i.e., approval) through worship and obedience rather than expressing such as a result of having already been “set at rest” by God (thus the reason for the “setting at rest” coming before the “worship & obedience” in 2:15). This theologically motivated misreading eventually carried over into Christian English Bible translation history, was consolidated within Jewish exegetical tradition as the monolith of Pharisaically-based Judaism (i.e., Rabbinic Judaism), became entrenched over time and crystallized in the corpus of early Rabbinic literature.