Eden Was the First Holy of Holies

Updated: Sep 24


There are few people who have been given this guarantee in person: “And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise'” (Lk. 23:43). And it was given to a man who, as far as we can tell, lived a violent and idolatrous existence up to that point. What golden grace.


But there’s another golden nugget lodged in this passage with Jesus and the thief on the cross.


The first audience heard the Greek word behind “paradise” (παραδείσῳ) and they would have thought of the garden of Eden because this is the exact word used for it in the Greek translation of Genesis (the LXX).


Jesus spoke of heaven as the garden of Eden, which was common in Judaism. Here are some examples:

  • 1 Enoch tells of a journey to God’s throne in heaven “the garden of the righteous” that resides with the tree of life (32:6)

  • “All who sleep not above in heaven shall bless Him…all the elect who dwell in the garden of life” (1 Enoch 61:12)

  • “And the saints will rest in Eden, and the righteous will rejoice in the New Jerusalem, and there will be to the glory of God for eternity” (Testament of Dan 5:12)

  • " And he will open the gates of paradise, and will remove the threatening sword [of fire] against Adam. And he will give the saints to eat from the tree of life (Testament of Levi 18:11)

  • “It is for you that Paradise is opened, the tree of life is planted, the age to come is prepared” (4 Ezra 8:52)

  • “Now it is preserved with me [God]—as also Paradise” (2 Baruch 4:6-7)

The ancient Jews saw heaven as Eden. Why?


Eden was part of the first temple, which they all knew was the creation described in Genesis 1-2 (see here). In this cosmic-temple, Eden was the place of God’s presence, and since this was the function of the holy of holies, Eden was seen as the first holy of holies.


After Adam’s episode, Eden was no longer accessible—but it wasn’t destroyed! It retreated, as the location of God’s presence in the heavenly temple. And there it remains.


Let’s take a peek to see.


The World, Then Eden, Then the Garden


This series has explained links from Genesis to the temple, where it was argued that the creation account describes—not a scientific chronology to satisfy curious Protestants, but the construction of a temple for God to dwell in.


We won’t rehash those arguments here, except one. The temple had three parts: the courtyard, the holy place, and the holiest place—where God met with the priests. Genesis also pictured the world as three parts: the world, Eden, and the garden inside Eden where God met with Adam.


The focus on most of Genesis one is the world, then in chapter two the author magnifies his scope to Eden, with the final focus resting on the garden within—the third, inner section of the world that corresponds to the holy of holies.


This text about the garden runs from verses 8-17 and it has several details we’ll examine.


1. The Garden is Planted in the East


Many try to picture what the garden physically looked like, which usually results in boring, and totally irrelevant, conclusions. That’s because this technique misses the point. God’s not interested in giving us a dead map to a lost garden, but in giving us a real map so we can get to him—and as we’ll see, he's in the heavenly Eden.


So, why does it matter that the garden is in the east?


The entrance to the garden faced the east (Gen. 3:24), so also the tabernacle and the temple’s entrances faced east (Num. 3:38; c.f., Ex. 38:10-14), towards the rising sun—a picture of God’s glorious presence (Is. 59:19) In the Bible, going east meant departing from God, while going west pictures approaching him:

  • Adam and Eve were exiled to the east (Gen. 3:24)

  • Cain was exiled to the east (Gen. 4:16)

  • Babylon was east of the mountain Noah’s ark landed on (Gen. 11:2)

  • Lot chose Sodom and Gomorrah, east of the promised land (Gen. 13:11)

The mention of “east” matters—not because the direction makes a difference, but because it informs us about God’s plan for creation: to dwell in it like a temple with his people, which he will when Jesus returns (see Rev. 21:22).


2. Adam is Placed in the Garden


We are told God “put the man” in the garden (vs. 8), which is repeated to mark this passage out as a literary unit (vs. 8-15). But a different word is used the second time (vs. 15). A unique word that means “rest” (like Noah’s name). Rest, as was previously argued, meant to rule in peace (Deut. 3:20, 12:10, 25:19).


It was a pun for reigning.


This is itself a temple image, since God’s throne was in the temple (Is. 6:1), which would match the “rest” motif of the Sabbath just instituted at creation's conclusion (Gen. 2:2-3). Because of these temple connotations, this word was also used to describe objects dedicated in the temple (Ex. 16:33-34, Lev. 16:23, Num. 17:4).


The unusual usage of this word in Genesis 2 implies that Adam was dedicated to God’s temple, picturing Adam as a holy object set inside the temple. This also matches Adam’s description as “the image of God”, since after temples were built, the last item added was an image of that temple’s god (2 Chr. 23:17).


These are all cryptic clues to the meaning of the creation account and the purpose of the creation—God living with us.


3. Adam Was Made to Work


Adam was told to work and keep the garden, which some misinterpret as gardening, but these are also specific terms, especially when used together. The word used for “work” often means temple service: “bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel to serve me as priests” (Ex. 28:1).


The word behind “keep” has nothing to do with tending a garden, but refers to guarding something, as when God sent the angel “to guard” the way of the Israelites (Ex. 23:20). Guarding was also a task of the priests.


Most importantly, these terms are used together to summarize the priest’s job as “they minister” to God while guarding the temple:

They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle (Num. 3:8).

Both words describe the priestly function, and with our last discovery, we could translate this as “God dedicated Adam in the garden to minister and guard it”. It all points to Adam as the first priest in the first temple to meet with God in the holy of holies (Lev. 16:2-3), making the garden the first holy of holies.


4. Eden Had Gold and Precious Stones


The garden also has gold, bdellium, and onyx stones. Where else do these words occur together in the same place? The temple and the tabernacle, which were covered inside and out with gold (1 Kings 6:20-22), as well as the furnishings (Ex. 25:24-), including the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:10-11).


Why all the gold?


God’s presence is seen as a bright light (covered by a cloud), which is represented by the reflective light of gold, reminding people of God’s brilliant glory at the temple.


The sanctuaries also have precious stones: bdellium is compared to manna (Num. 11:17), which is kept in the ark in the holy of holies in the temple (Ex. 16:33), while onyx stones were in the tabernacle and on the priestly vestments (Exod. 25:7, 28:9, 20; 1 Chr. 29:2). More clues.


5. Eden’s Trees


Ancient temples were adorned with luscious gardens to attack the senses with aromas and colors. Israel’s temple was also covered with engravings of “palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and out rooms” (1 Kgs. 6:29, 32, 35, 36). Its doors were even “olivewood” (1 Kgs. 6:31, 33) to portray the garden trees in Eden.


With the gold, jewels, and tree images, the temple was in actuality a model of the garden of Eden, so when the priests entered, it was a reenactment of Adam living in the garden with God who "walked in the cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8). And it gave hope that one day Eden would return (as John describes in Revelation 22:1-5!).


In the middle of the garden was the tree of life. Is this in the temple?


It was, symbolized by the menorah: the lampstand that burned day and night in the holy place (Ex. 27:21). The menorah was made to look like a tree with “branches” topped with “cups made like almond blossoms” (Ex. 37:19), that burned bright to represent the life that comes from God (Job 11:17).


There was also the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is a misleading translation because it’s not moral knowledge. The Hebrew here generally refers to something’s quality (sometimes moral), and the context has God repeatedly declare the “good” quality of his creation (Gen. 1).


This was the ability (or choice) to know if something was good or bad, as in beneficial or disadvantageous. It’s what the Hebrews called “wisdom”. It was about deciding for oneself if something was wise or not without having to trust God’s assessment, which means the tree personifies independence from God. As such, everyone encounters the choice of this tree in every decision: will we live life on our terms, doing what we think is wise, or will we live by God’s wisdom?


When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, it was a new way of being human—a self-determined path, the first humanism, and it resulted in exile from God’s presence (and the life he gives by the tree of life).


As a type of wisdom, this tree may correspond to the ten commandments in the holy of holies. This wisdom was also deadly, as the law lead Israel, “weakened by the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), into the rebellion that death causes (see Deut. 29-30). Like the tree of knowledge, God’s commandments gave the option of life or death, but it led to death (see Romans 7).


Like the garden in Eden that had a plethora of trees, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge, so the temple had golden tree carvings, the burning menorah, and the ten commandments.


6. Eden’s River


Genesis speaks of a river flowing out from Eden, through the garden, then splitting into four rivers (Gen. 2:10). Ancient palaces and temples also had gardens with streams to water them (Neh. 3:15), so this was a familiar temple link.


More, the number four in the Bible often refers to the world—as in the “four corners of the earth” (Is. 11:12, Ezek. 7:2, Rev. 7:1), picturing the river flowing in all four directions of earth. And since the river flowed out of Eden, it was apparently on a mountain (as temples and holy places always were; i.e., the tower of Babel, the ark’s resting place, Mount Sinai, and Mount Zion).


Now, this may be unconvincing by itself, but it’s confirmed when we read later biblical books that portray temples on a mountain with a river flowing from them to water the world. Consider Ezekiel 40-48, which is about a temple on a tall mountain (43:12), with water flowing from “the temple towards the east” (47:1). East, just like the garden’s entrance. Ezekiel even sees this river flowing into the Dead Sea, giving it new life (vs. 8-9), which includes trees with fruit and leaves that “heal” and “never wither” (47:12). This is all Edenic imagery.


Revelation 21:1-22:5 also describes the new heavens and earth (21:1) as a giant golden cube, which would have been seen as the holy of holies, which has the tree of life and other items from Eden, including a river of living waters (Rev. 22:1-5).


A temple. A Garden. A mountain and a river—these converge to show us that the garden of Eden was the first holy of holies in God’s cosmic temple—the meeting place of God and humans, and the final meeting place in the eschaton.


Even Jews in Jesus’s day associated the blood that flowed down the Kidron Valley during Passover as life-giving waters, since:

  • It flowed from the temple

  • Which was on a mountain

  • Which was covered with pictures of Eden

  • And blood symbolized life (Lev. 17:11)

But Jesus is:

  • The true temple of God

  • The Lamb whose blood truly gives life

  • He who promised a return to Eden (Rev. 2:7)

  • He who said, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”

From the trees, gold, jewels, river, mountain, and priestly vocabulary we can see that Eden was the original holy place where people and God could cohabitate. Indeed, Adam could hear:


The sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8).

In fact, the verb form of this word "walking", is unique too (a hitpael), which is used one other time in the Pentateuch where it speaks of God’s presence in Israel. To make the connection brilliantly clear, the verse is a near-replica of Genesis 3:8:

The LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp (Deu. 23:14)

Humanity was always made to live with God in Eden.


Why Is Eden in Heaven?


God doesn’t destroy the garden, but rather, “He placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24).


Notice first how the cherubim took over Adam’s role, who was the original guardian of the garden. It’s now guarded by cherubim, which is also why the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies had two guardian cherubim on it: it was another image of the presence of God in the garden of Eden.

So also visions of heaven have these same angelic guardians:


I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim (Is. 6:1-2)

Notice the temple is in heaven, with a throne, and guardians too—all reminiscent of Eden.


Anyways, the force of the language “to guard the way to the tree of life” means that humans couldn’t get to God’s presence where the tree of life was, in the garden of Eden. It still exists!


And if Eden was the first holy of holies holy in the first temple, the original place of God’s presence, then it would naturally remain with God’s presence in the heavenly dimension—where God lives in the rest of the biblical story (until Rev. 21).


It remained for the saints who died as a place to go and be warmed by God’s glory, and what better place than the perfect paradise God perfectly planned for humans in the first place?


One more proof: the temple was a replica of the heavenly temple. When God showed Moses the pattern to model the tabernacle from, he said:


Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furnishings, so you shall make it (Exod. 25:8-9)

He saw the heavenly temple, then he was then told to build the tabernacle out of garden-like materials and with garden-like images. The tabernacle was modeled after the dwelling place of God in the heavenly temple, which was and remains the garden of Eden (again, Rev. 22:1-5).


Here’s a bit to sum it up:

1. Eden was the first holy of holies because God’s presence dwelt there

2. After sin, Eden retreated into another dimension, called “heaven”

3. The Jewish temple was modeled after the heavenly temple of Eden

4. The temple was only a shadow of the reality in Jesus

5. One day Jesus will make a new universe, which will be a return to Eden (Rev. 21:1-22:9).


We were made for Eden, so like the thief on the cross who heard Jesus's promise, "Today, you will be with me in paradise", all people are invited to live in paradise.