15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
As you can see from my index, several years ago I spent a lot of time looking into the meaning of this verse. After much study, and after talking with some theologians and language-experts, I came to the conclusion that the way this verse is translated in almost all Bible versions is wrong. It should, in fact, read something like this:
God caused man to rest in the garden for the purpose of obeying and worshiping Him.
I’m not going to dig into it deeply again. But since I wrote the study, Wechsler, who is the professor who led me to this translation, has written a commentary on Genesis, so I thought it would be useful to include what he wrote.
With respect to the purpose of man this is the “course-setting” verse of Scripture. It contains the only purpose statement associated with man in these two opening chapters that describe the ideal state of pre-Fall Creation and, as we should rightly expect, sets before the answer to the most fundamental question of theology and philosophy: “Why do I exist?” That answer, however, is not to serve as a gardener, as the traditional reading in order to cultivate it and keep it (the “it” being the garden) would seem to suggest. Indeed, this verse also presents us with a prime—though unfortunate—example of how the level of attention paid both to the grammar of the Hebrew text as well as the canonical meaning of Hebrew words (i.e., how they are used elsewhere in Scripture)—not to mention the immediate context of the verse—will dramatically affect how one understands and translates the text before them.
To begin with, the expression “put him” in the first part of the verse requires a closer look. Though apparently a repetition of the same action described in v.8, a look at the Hebrew text reveals that the verb used in v.15 is different. Of course, this might simply represent stylistic variation, yet when one considers how the verb in v.15 is used elsewhere with God as the subject a quite different idea begins to emerge. The verb in question, literally translated, would be “(and) He set him at rest” which can, on occasion, be understood as a more figurative description of the action of “putting” or “placing” something down. yet this is not the usual meaning of the verb (for this idea the usual verb is the one used in v.8). In fact, when God is the subject (i.e., the “doer” of the action), as He is here, this verb is typically intended to denote the rest that God promises to give His people when they are in the land (in all of which instances it is literally translated, “I/He will give you rest”; cf. Deuteronomy 3:20; 12:10; 25:19; 2 Samuel 7:11). Moreover, as clarified in Hebrews 3–4 (following David in Psalm 95), this divine promise of “rest”—which is one of the “golden threads” that runs throughout Scripture, refers not merely to physical rest and the cessation of warfare, but ultimately and more completely to the all-encompassing rest of faith—that is, the spiritual rest, or salvation, that comes from accepting by faith what God has provided (see esp. Hebrews 4:3-10). Consistent with this canonical usage of the verb, therefore, the point being made in the first half of this verse is that, after creating man and placing him in the garden (so per v.8), God immediately (and sovereignly) then placed him in that state for which man was originally intended—to wit, the state of being in full relationship with God; the state of being at spiritual rest.
It is from this state of spiritual rest, consequently, that man is to live out his intended purpose as described in the second part of v.15. And because of the markedly spiritual tone set by the first part of the verse, it is both natural and necessary that we understand the purpose of man in the second part in a similarly spiritual sense—and not in an exclusively physical sense, as suggested by the usual translation “to cultivate and to keep it.” This usual translation, in fact, contains a crippling grammatical problem—namely, that the object of both verbs—the “it,” which is an English adjustment (to reflect our concept of gardens as gender-neutral) of the Hebrew feminine pronoun “her”—does not agree with the actual gender of the biblical noun “garden,” which is masculine (as is clearly evident from the masculine Hebrew modifiers and referents in, inter alia, Song of Solomon 4:12, 16; Isaiah 58:11; Jeremiah 31:11). There is, moreover, no feminine noun at any reasonable distance before this clause to which the “her” could be referring. There is, nonetheless, a perfectly grammatical solution to this dilemma—and one which, unlike the usual translation, is perfectly consistent with the spiritual context set up by the first part of the verse. This solution is to construe the Hebrew element usually translated “it” (literally “her”) not as a pronoun object, but rather as the otherwise attested alternative ending of a verbal noun—that is to say, as part of the infinitive verb itself—in which case we remove the problem of gender disagreement by removing the pronoun from our translation. This further informs the way in which the infinitive verbs themselves are to be understood, since the same two Hebrew verbs translated “cultivate” and “keep” may also be translated worship (or “serve”) and obey (or “keep charge”)—as in fact they are typically translated when, as here, they aren’t followed by an object and when the context bears a clearly spiritual/theological aspect. Indeed, the simple fact of the matter is that whenever the two verbs here translated “cultivate” and “keep” are used together elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, they are always intended in the sense of worshiping/serving (God) and obeying (see, e.g., Numbers 3:7-8; Deuteronomy 10:12-13; 28:45-47; Joshua 22:5).
Thus, the proper translation of the second part of the verse, and the purpose for which man was fundamentally created, is “to worship and to obey.” Further underscoring the propriety of this reading, it should also be noted, is its perfect consistency with the following verse. In other words, whereas the usual reading of vs. 15 and 16 presents us with two fairly distinct ideas—i.e., tending the garden (v.15) and obeying God’s command not to eat from the one restricted tree (v.16)—the reading that we have here presented presents us with one consistent idea—i.e., that our purpose is to worship and obey God (v.15), which obedience is expressed by keeping His command (v.16). This latter reading is also perfectly consistent with the purpose of man as taught throughout the rest of Scripture, such as in Deuteronomy 10:12-13, where Moses asks rhetorically: “What does the Lord your God require from you, but … to worship the Lord your God with all your hear and will all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments …?; and in Ecclesiastes 12:13, where we are told that the only thing man can do that will have any lasting value at all is “to fear [a biblical synonym for “worship”] God and keep His commandments”; and as Jesus Himself concisely states in John 14:15: “If you love [again, a biblical synonym for “worship” Me, you will keep my commandments.” — Wechsler, pages 81-84.
I’m convinced, and I don’t think I’m open to further debate on the issue.
So why do all the major Bible translations get it wrong? Why are so many Christians unwilling to allow this translation?
I think it’s because most people want first, to think that it is possible to earn God’s favor and, second, that they are in fact doing what’s required to earn His favor. In order to accomplish this, they pick and choose various activities that they feel they do pretty well and consider them the things that will please God.
For example, when I was a kid, most Christians thought drinking alcohol was a sin. So, if they didn’t drink, they felt like they were pleasing God, and they felt good about themselves. Now, drinking has become vogue among Christians, so they look to other behaviors—being tolerant, celebrating diversity—as the litmus test for earning God favor.
Of course, all of the verses that they use to support there position come from the Old Testament, Gospels, or early chapters of Acts, when the economy of the Law was in effect and works were required, or they’re from the kingdom epistles (Hebrews–Revelation) when God’s law will be written on peoples’ hearts and to break the commandments will be deliberate and intentional rejection of the Holy Spirit.
In the grace epistles of Paul, works are a response to God, not a requirement (Colossians 3:1-4). Christians are urged to act in a way that reflects their reality—eternally, unconditionally saved by Christ’s death and resurrection with no requirements except faith. Paul makes this clear at the beginning and end of Romans when he refers to “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26).
In fact, Paul make it clear that the law was given for the express purpose of proving that there is nothing humans can do to earn God’s favor. The idea that God created man in perfect fellowship with Him with nothing that man had to do to please Him drives people crazy. Hence, “dress and keep.”
In every age, salvation comes through faith in whatever God says is necessary at that time. In the garden, it was to not eat the fruit. Under the law, it was to obey the moral laws and observe the ceremonial laws, in the kingdom economy it’s to keep the law that the Holy Spirit writes in people’s hearts. And under grace, it’s simple faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Of course, most people will say, “You can’t expect people to live without laws and guidelines. They’ll use that as license to do whatever they want.” The people who say that—and the people who do use grace as license—both don’t understand grace.