Is the garden of Eden allegorical?

One of the biggest questions that haunt many Christians in this modern age is this: Is the garden of Eden allegorical or literal? In this post, we will explore what God and the Scriptures say about the garden of Eden.

The account of Genesis mentions the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden as a literal account. There is no indication of it being allegorical from the account mentioned in the book of Genesis. To fully understand the account in Genesis, if it was a literal or allegorical, we have to be extremely careful in taking everything we know about Genesis into consideration and how God uses the events mentioned in it to later prophets.

Genesis written around 1065-1050 BC

Based on detailed analysis, the book of Genesis itself reveals that it was written around 1065-1050 BC.

Gen 20:7 “Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”

1Sam 9:9 (Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: “Come, let us go to the seer”; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.)

1Chr 29:29 Now the acts of King David, first and last, indeed they are written in the book of Samuel the seer, in the book of Nathan the prophet, and in the book of Gad the seer

The book of Genesis never contains the word ‘seer’. Instead it contains ‘prophet’. Samuel and Gad were referred as seer but Nathan was referred as prophet. This is one of the several clues the book of Genesis reveals about it’s origin and the age. For a more detailed analysis, please refer, When was the Book of Genesis written?

Allegorical Clues in Genesis account

Gen 3:24 So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

Cherubim are mythical creatures. They can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. Hence, it is not unique to the Hebrews and it is of uncertain derivation. In all near eastern mythologies, cherubim guards the temple and palaces which is a striking similarity of how cherubim guards the garden of Eden. Hence, to fully understand, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the ancient Israelite people.

Ezek 28:14-15 “You were the anointed cherub who covers; I established you; You were on the holy mountain of God; You walked back and forth in the midst of fiery stones. You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, Till iniquity was found in you.

In the book of Ezekiel, we find God referring to the king of Tyre as an anointed cherub. While many Christians interpret this to be the spirit behind the king of Tyre or a reference to satan, Scripture does not say that. Scripture plainly refers to the king of Tyre as an anointed cherub in an allegorical sense. Here cherub is not a reference to one particular king but God is addressing all the kings of Tyre as cherub.

2Sam 22:11 He rode upon a cherub, and flew; And He was seen upon the wings of the wind.

Ps 99:1 THE LORD reigns; Let the peoples tremble! He dwells between the cherubim; Let the earth be moved!

During the reign of king David, we can see how they used cherub. God rode upon a cherub and He dwells between them. This is generally considered as a description of how the children of Israel saw God “flying” as a pillar of cloud and the place in the ark of the covenant where God dwells between the cherubim. If cherubim were heavenly creatures, why do they need wings? Consider the below description of cherubim in the book of Revelation.

Rev 5:6 And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth. … (8-10) Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth.”

Based on the description in Ezekiel 10:20 we can know that the 4 living creatures in the book of Revelation as cherubim. Just as the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes are an allegorical representation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the four living creatures are an allegorical representation of kings and priests as they sang a new song about redemption to God who made them as kings and priests by the blood of the Lamb.  Hence, cherubim is not a literal creature but symbolic used in allegories.

God never refers to Eden and tree of life as literal

Ezek 28:13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; Every precious stone was your covering: The sardius, topaz, and diamond, Beryl, onyx, and jasper, Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold. The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes Was prepared for you on the day you were created.

Ezek 31:2 “Son of man, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his multitude: ‘Whom are you like in your greatness? … (8-9) The cedars in the garden of God could not hide it; The fir trees were not like its boughs, And the chestnut trees were not like its branches; No tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. I made it beautiful with a multitude of branches, So that all the trees of Eden envied it, That were in the garden of God.’

God compares to the king of Tyre as a cherub and the king of Egypt as a tree in the garden of Eden.

Rev 2:7 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” ’

Rev 22:2 In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. … (14) Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.

As John saw the visions and wrote in the book of Revelation, we again see that the tree of life is allegorical. Christ granting all those who overcome to eat from the tree of life is symbolic.

John 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Our eternal life is Christ and is in Him, not on some literal magical fruit that makes us live forever which was forbidden from us. If eternal life is merely in some fruit, then Christ doesn’t have to die for us to give us eternal life. Also, there is no fruit that gives us eternal life which even God cannot stop (Gen 3:22). Hence, it is important to understand what is symbolic and what is literal. Further, there is not one tree of life, but several yielding 12 fruits, each tree yielding one fruit for each month. Hence, eating the fruit from tree of life is symbolic of how Christ will grant eternal life to those who overcome the world.

Reconstructing the story of Eden

So far we had seen that the story of Eden is allegorical in nature, written around the time of king David, contains allegorical clues like cherubim and finally, God never mentions it as literal anywhere but always symbolises it to represent other things. If the story of Eden is allegorical, what does it actually represent?

Serpent

Gen 3:1 Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

Rev 12:9 So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. …. (20:2) He laid hold of the dragon, that serpent of old, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years;

As we see above, the serpent in Genesis is the same dragon in Revelation, who is referred as Devil and Satan. Devil is a Greek word which actually a reference to satan in Hebrew which simply means accuser or anyone standing against God. It was generally used to refer evil spirits or demons (Matt 12:24-28) but also for men such as Peter when he stood against Christ’s words (Mat 8:33).

Scripture does not mention any name for the serpent since satan and devil are simply titles. Also, ‘lucifer’ in Isaiah 14:12 from KJV based translations is actually a mistranslated word for shining one or morning star and not a proper name. If lucifer is indeed a proper name, then it must be transliterated as ‘heylel’ in LXX but we don’t see such transliterations or any reference for using it as a proper name. Hence, serpent in Genesis represents a creation of God who opposes God and deceives the whole world.

Tree of life

Prov 3:13 Happy is the man who finds wisdom, And the man who gains understanding … (18) She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who retain her.

Prov 11:30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, And he who wins souls is wise.

Wisdom and Understanding is a tree of life. The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.

Ps 111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever.

As psalmist says, the tree of life represents the fear of the LORD and obeying His commandments. It is the result of being righteous and holy.

Matt 19:17 … if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.

Matt 18:8-9 If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.

This is exactly what Jesus said. To enter life, we need to keep His commandments to be righteous and holy. Hence, tree of life is the fear of the Lord and obeying His commandments.

Nakedness

Deut 1:39-40 ‘Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. But as for you, turn and take your journey into the wilderness by the Way of the Red Sea.’

Mark 10:14-15 But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”

Animals are naked and they don’t feel any shame. The same is true for babies and little children for they knew not what is good and evil and don’t feel any shame if they were naked. Jesus said, if we don’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child, we will never enter it. We see some similarity of how Adam and Eve being naked and innocent in the garden until they knew what is good and evil.

Rev 3:18 “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.

Rev 16:15 “Behold, I am coming as a thief. Blessed is he who watches, and keeps his garments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame.”

As in Psalms 132:9, Job 29:14 and several other places, righteousness is referred as a garment to cover our shame. But in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were naked without any garment, yet there is no shame to cover.

Since they don’t have any garment, they had no righteousness. This doesn’t mean they are unrighteous but innocent. Just like an innocent child who doesn’t have any righteousness, Adam and Eve were also innocent.

Matt 10:16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves.

Christ wants us to be innocent as doves, just as Adam and Eve were in the garden of Eden or like a little child. Hence, nakedness represents innocence, the lack of knowing what good and bad is.

Tree of knowledge of good and evil

Gen 3:22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”–

Gen 1:26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

According to God in Genesis, knowing good and evil means, becoming like Him. In other words, only God can choose what is good and evil and it is His attribute. While humans were created in the “image” of God, we were not created “like” God.

Deut 30:19 “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live;

Just as the choice given to children of Israel in the final speech of Moses, there were two trees in Eden. One tree gives eternal life but the other gives death.

Gen 3:22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”–

The question we may have is, how does anyone die if they ate from the forbidden tree and got the knowledge of good and evil? Now, consider the above verse spoken by God. Will they surely die as God cursed? or Can they override God’s curse of death to eat from the tree of life and live forever? The truth is, God created man with the choice of living forever but disobeying God will make Him stop mankind from receiving eternal life. This does not mean God never wants to give eternal life to man but to give only those who choose ‘good’ and not ‘evil’, because man can now choose good and evil for himself.

Isn’t it knowledge of “good” should be obedience to God? Some biblical scholars identify the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as the “choice” of deciding what is good or evil for ourselves. This is in contrast with the tree of life where there is no choice but obedience to God and He decides what is good and evil.

Conclusion

The story or Genesis gives us the information about man being created in the image of God, yet like animals, naked, innocent and not knowing what is good and evil. Man disobeyed God to choose good and evil for himself, leading to suffering, pain and death. This is the gist of the creation and fall of man in the garden of Eden.

John 16:12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

But what actually happened ‘literally’ is something we may never know or we may not be able to bear them now.