The resurrection of Jesus, which we will discuss much later on, can be seen as the establishment of the eschatological temple: the raised Messiah is the temple (cf. John 2:19–21). But this connection between new creation, kingship, and temple building was already present in the very first story of the Bible. In this article, I will show how the writer of Genesis presents Eden as the first sanctuary.
This is not a new idea in the academic field; it may be just that, however, for lay readers of the Bible. For those who want a more extensive look at the concept of Eden as a sanctuary and the theme of ‘temple’ throughout the canon, G.K. Beale’s work The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP Academic 2004) is highly recommended, to which this article is greatly indebted. 
The thesis can be explained by the following steps:
- The whole cosmos was created as the sanctuary of God for him to dwell in; 
- The garden in Eden was at the center of the cosmos-sanctuary, the ‘Holy of Holies’ where God dwelled most directly;
- The commission of image-bearing humanity as priest-kings was to spread God’s royal presence from Eden to the whole earth (in other words, extend the Holy of Holies) so that God would fill the whole cosmos-sanctuary;
- The later sanctuaries (tabernacle/Temple) were microcosms (small-scale models of the cosmos), reflecting God’s original purpose of expansion;
- In his first coming, Jesus began to fulfill humanity’s commission through his resurrection and his Spirit-indwelled body;
- In his second coming, he will finish this commission through his renewal of the whole cosmos and the resurrection of believers.
Furthermore, there are three tripartite layers of symbolism which are important for this thesis:
- Heaven (where God dwells) / the skies (also called ‘heavens’) / the earth
- The garden / the land of Eden / the earth
- The Holy of Holies / the Holy Place / the court
In this article, I will focus on the accounts of Genesis 1–2, especially on the second chapter. Here God’s new-creating work is presented as temple-building, finding its focal point in the garden of Eden where God dwells with mankind. We see this in the following aspects of the text.
Temple Imagery in Genesis 1–2
‘And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the skies.”’ (Gen. 1:14)
The word for ‘lights’ is used in the rest of the Torah for the lights in the Temple (e.g. Exo. 27:20; 35:8, 14), notably the lampstand. These lights were situated in the Holy Place, which corresponds symbolically, not by chance, to the skies. This symbolism is reinforced in the Holy Place of Solomon’s Temple, where there were even ten lampstands (e.g., 1 Kings 7:49).
‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image.”’ (Gen. 1:26)
The first thing people would think of when they heard ‘image’ would be a literal image, namely of a god in (pagan) temples. The fact that God is putting an ‘image’ of himself at the center of the cosmos reflects the reality that the cosmos itself is seen as the sanctuary of God and the garden as the Holy of Holies.
Rest after Seven Days
‘And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.’ (Gen. 2:2)
The ‘rest’ of God does not denote inactivity, but him assuming a position of complete sovereignty, especially after defeating enemies. We see ‘rest’ being clearly associated with the Temple in Psalm 132: ‘For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: 14 “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it”’ (v. 13–14). Also, Solomon was only enabled to build the Temple after he had gotten ‘rest’ from his enemies (e.g., 1 Kings 5:4–5).
Throughout the Old Testament, the tabernacle and the Temple would be associated with God’s throne, his sovereign reign. For example, in Psalm 99 we read: ‘YHWH reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! (…) Exalt YHWH our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!’ (v. 1, 5).
Noteworthy is that the construction of the tabernacle was also structured around seven ‘acts’. Seven times it is written, ‘And YHWH said ….’ (Exo 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). Moreover, the construction of the Temple by Solomon lasted seven years (1 Kings 6:38) and the consecration was in the seventh month (1 Kings 8:2).
‘YHWH God planted a garden in Eden.’ (Gen. 2:8)
Ezekiel describes Eden as a mountain: ‘You were in Eden, the garden of God (…) you were on the holy mountain of God; (…) I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God’ (Ezek. 28:13–14, 16). In the Ancient Near East, mountains were seen as the place where the divine met the earthly. That is why they were often regarded as sacred spaces. Throughout the Bible, mountains are associated with the dwelling place of God, notably Mt Sinai and Mt Zion. This all points to Eden being a sanctuary.
Tree of life
‘The tree of life was in the midst of the garden…’ (2:9)
The tree of life would be associated later on with the lampstand as described in Exodus 25:31–35. The lampstand is said to consist of a ‘stem’, ‘branches’, ‘cups’, ‘calyxes’, ‘flowers’ and ‘almond blossoms’. This is all garden imagery, more specifically tree-of-life imagery. There is far more garden imagery throughout the Temple, which seems to point back to the first sanctuary of God, the garden in Eden. 
Tree of wisdom
‘…and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ (2:9)
The other tree in the garden could lead on the one hand to wisdom, but on the other hand to death. That is similar to the ark of the testimony, which contained the two tablets of the law (e.g. Deut. 10:5). The law leads to wisdom, but touching the ark would incur death (e.g. Uzzah in 2 Sam. 6:3–8; 1 Chron. 13:7–11). Moreover, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is described as ‘pleasant to the sight, good for food, and to be desired to make one wise’, features that the psalmist would repeatedly ascribe to the Law (e.g., Psa. 19:7–10).
Three parts and a life-giving river
’A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden.’ (2:10)
There seems to be a distinction between Eden and the garden. Presumably, the original creation had a structure of three parts, like the later tabernacle and Temple: the garden (where God dwelled), Eden (where the priests worked), and the outer ‘chaotic’ world (the court). This reflects a cosmic tripartite structure: the earth, the skies, and the heaven where God dwells.
Furthermore, the eschatological temple is also associated with a river. In Ezekiel 47 we read of a river issuing forth from the threshold of the Temple (verse 1), and ‘everything will live where the river goes (…) And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing’ (Ezek. 47:9, 12). So, again we see a connection between a life-giving river and a garden in the context of temples (cf. Zech. 14:8–9; Rev. 21:1–2).
Interestingly, the name of the second river, ‘Gihon’, is found later on as the name of the spring under the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 1:33, etc.)
Gold and onyx
‘The name of the first [river] is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.’ (2:11–12)
Gold and onyx are mentioned multiple times in relation to the building of the temple, for example in 1 Chronicles 29:2: ‘So I [David] have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able, the gold for the things of gold (…) besides great quantities of onyx and stones for setting, antimony, colored stones, all sorts of precious stones and marble’ (cf. Exo. 25:7, 11–39; 28:6–27; 1 Kings 6:20–22.) Also, two onyx stones were on the ephod of the high priest (Exo. 28:9–14).
Working and keeping
‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.’ (2:15)
In this verse, Adam is presented as the first priest. ‘Working’ and ‘keeping’ are verbs associated with priests in the Old Testament, for example in Numbers 3:7–8: ‘They [the tribe of Levi] shall keep his charge, and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to work the service of the tabernacle. And they shall keep all the instruments of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the children of Israel, to work the service of the tabernacle’ (cf. Num. 8:25–26; 18:5–6; 1 Chr. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14). It was Adam’s task as priest to cultivate and guard the garden as the space of God’s holy presence.
‘And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.’ (3:8)
This is probably the most obvious sign that Eden was a sanctuary: God dwelled there. God is also recorded ‘walking’ among the people of Israel, e.g. in Leviticus 26:11–12: ‘I will make my dwelling among you (…) and I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (cf. Deut. 23:14; 2 Sam. 7:6–7.) This ‘dwelling’ would be instantly connected with God’s dwelling place, the tabernacle.
Entrance facing east
‘God drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden…’ (3:24)
The tabernacle and the Temple, as well as the eschatological temple of Ezekiel, all had entrances facing east, (e.g., Exod. 26:22; Ezek 43:4).
‘… he [God] placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.’ (3:24)
The tabernacle and Temple contained multiple allusions to cherubim. Most famously, there were two cherubim on the ark of the covenant. Exodus 25:18–22 says that ‘on the two ends of the mercy seat’ were ‘two cherubim of gold’ who ‘spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be’ (cf. 1 Kings 8:6–7). Furthermore, there were cherubim on the curtains of the tabernacle (Exo. 26:31), in the inner sanctuary (1 Kings 6:23–28), and on the walls and doors of the Temple (1 Kings 6:29, 32–35). Ezekiel also mentions cherubim in the eschatological temple (Ezek. 41:18).
What does this all come down to? To rehearse and expand the thesis:
- The whole cosmos was constructed as the sanctuary of God, consisting of three parts: the garden (Holy of Holies), Eden (Holy Place), and the world (Court).
- The purpose of God in creating the world is that the ‘Holy of Holies’ would be extended over all the world and thus that the tripartite distinction would make way for his all-encompassing royal presence. Eschatological hopes foresaw this purpose being fulfilled: ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH as the waters cover the sea’ (Hab 2:14).
- The later tabernacle and Temple were microcosms, reflecting the purpose of God, namely that the whole cosmos would one day be full of his presence.
Why is all this relevant? First of all, because this is how the author of Genesis 1–2 wanted his text to be understood. We always want to look for the authorial intent. Secondly, as we will see later, this concept of the cosmos-as-sanctuary (and sanctuary-as-microcosmos) pervades the storyline of the whole Bible, up to the church, which is the body of the Messiah, the temple of God’s Spirit.
 For more sizeable reads, see G.K. Beale and M. Kim, God Dwells Among Us. Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (IVP Books 2015); God Dwells Among Us. A Biblical Theology of the Temple (IVP Academic forthcoming). See also the works of John Walton on the creation accounts, such as The Lost World of Genesis 1 (IVP Academic 2009) and Genesis 1 As Ancient Cosmology (Eisenbrauns 2011).
 Note that, for clarity, I make a distinction between ‘sanctuary’/‘temple’ as a general term for God’s dwelling place, ‘tabernacle’ in its usual sense for the Israelite structure, and ‘Temple’ as referring to the building in Jerusalem.
 Also note that the lights of the lampstand(s) correspond to the stars in the heavens. In other words, we see the correspondence between earth/heavens/Heaven and court/Holies/Holy of Holies.