We were priests in Eden
I wrote this letter for Mark Batten, the children’s pastor at the church when I grew up in Canada. Mark is exceptional thinker, dreamer, and friend.
Do you remember when I told you Eden was a temple? We had both grown up with Sunday School versions of Genesis in our minds—fig leaves and apple-biting galore—never once questioning the flannel graph images of primal forests untouched by human development. When I began to delve deeper, and shared my research with you, we both felt simultaneously giddy and foolish. Foolish because of our naiveté; giddy because the truth was so much cooler than what we’d assumed.
Eden was a temple, and ancient temples needed two things: priests and idols. The idols contained the deity’s presence and the priests mediated it for the people.
Genesis tells us God made humanity in his image and likeness. That word “image” is the Hebrew word tselem, but it’s best translated “idol.” That’s right. You’re God’s idol. Whenever people see you they’re supposed to realize they’re in the presence of God Almighty.
This is the reason for the many prohibitions in scripture against idolatry. Other idols—little wooden statues or stone golems—can’t think, can’t speak, and can’t act. But God—our God—wants idols that move. The only way he wants to be represented in the world is through you.
God has combined the role of priest and idol. Adam was the first “priest of the presence” who served and guarded God’s temple. He was a guardian gardener. Like him, we are supposed to direct others to worship God and to remind them of his company wherever we go.
One of the many functions of the priesthood in the Ancient Near East—regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation—was to guard the temple, to watch it and to keep it. Many priests were warriors and wardens, guardians and protectors, charged with securing the temple treasury against thieves and the temple sanctuary against blasphemers. Biblical scholar GK Beale claims this guardianship also logically included “Adam teaching God’s law” to the other members of Creation so they might help one another to obey and to repel uncleanliness. This mandate continues in Leviticus, where the priests are charged to keep unclean things out of the temple altogether so as not to desecrate the presence of God.
If, like Adam, we are God’s priests, then part of our work is preservation, just as part of our work is inoculation. We’re supposed to keep ourselves clean and keep the unclean things out of our lives, since we are the locus of God’s presence on earth.
Once upon a time, we thought the whole purpose of Genesis was to teach us that humanity sinned. But how you begin often determines how you conclude, and it’s a relief to know sin is not our starting point, but a detour Christ corrects. We assumed we lived in a slum of debauchery and vice. Isn’t it better to learn the truth? That we were born into paradise as guardians of God? That Genesis isn’t the story of Original Sin, but Original Blessing?
 Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 68.
 Ibid., 85.
 This will become significant later on, when the serpent enters the temple and brings uncleanness with him.
 1 Peter 2.9.
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