Guarding the garden

Over on his blog (I can see it in the distance), Ben Witherington has been working through my book on Constantine. His latest post criticizes my biblical arguments at the end of that book. I hope to address some of his criticisms over the next few days, and I’ll start with his charge that my reading of the Adamic mandate is “atrocious” because I claim that Adam was called to “guard the garden”: “Adam was not called upon to guard the garden!” exclaims Witherington, emphatically.

Perhaps there’s atrocious exegesis in my book, but it’s not here. I wouldn’t have thought the point controversial. In fact, it’s so elementary a claim, so easily supported by a quick check of a lexicon and a few standard commentaries, that I’m surprised that Witherington finds it “atrocious.” Holladay lists “watch, guard” as the first meaning of the verb shamar and its first example is Genesis 2:15: “obj. garden.” BDB lists Genesis 2:15 under the meaning of “keep, have charge of,” and elsewhere in the article defines “keep” as “protect.” BDB doesn’t provide as strong support as Holladay, but “guard” is still within the range of meaning.

Commentators frequently agree with Holladay.

Cassuto finds analogies with the Babylonian Epic of Creation “since it mentions, in juxtaposition, both the serving and the guarding .” He adds later, “we shall not err if we assume that Ezekiel alludes to this tradition when he calls the cherub in the garden of Eden guardian cherub or measuring . . . guardian cherub .” He claims that the noun form shemirah means “guarding.” More recently, Gordon Wenham translates the word in Genesis 2:15 as “guard” and Bruce Waltke notes the connection between Adam’s role in the garden and the activity of priests in the tabernacle, and argues that shamar “entails guarding the garden against Satan’s encroachment. As priest and guardians of the garden, Adam and Eve should have driven out the serpent; instead if drives them out.” Are Holladay, Cassuto, Wenham, and Waltke atrocious lexicographers and exegetes? Happy to be in their company, I am.

For myself, the argument is largely based on Jacob Milgrom’s (an atrocious exegete?) treatment of shamar mesheret in The Encroacher and the Levite . He argues that the phrase means “do guard duty.” The Levites formed a cordon of watchmen and guardians around the tabernacle, armed (Milgrom claims) to prevent encroachers from defiling the sanctuary and causing Yahweh’s wrath to break out against the people. I don’t recall now if Milgrom makes the connection with the priestly responsibility of Adam in the garden, but the link is easily made (James Jordan pointed this out to me long ago): Many recent commentators have noted that the garden is the initial form of the sanctuary (see Wenham, eg), and so it would be natural for the original sanctuary to have an original guard. When the same verb appears in a sanctuary context in Genesis 2 and Numbers, we’re justified in concluding that the task is similar.

Perhaps Witherington’s real objection is the argument I draw from my claim that Adam was called to guard the garden. If Adam was posted as guard, then he was supposed to resist. Even in an unfallen world, Adam had to resist evil; my argument in Defending Constantine is that the fall was, among many other things, Adam’s failure to resist. If Witherington denies that Adam was supposed to guard, it follows that he was not called to resist. Perhaps that’s the real brunt of his argument. If so, he’s correct: If Adam is a guard, he’s guarding against something, and that means there’s something for Adam to be against even before sin enters the world.

In any case, that Adam was posted as guard is well-supported in the literature on Genesis, and to my mind perfectly obvious.

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