Genesis 1 revealed who God is and who we are. Genesis 2 reveals how we were intended to live in his presence.
There was a place known as Eden. From the perspective of the people telling the story (Israel), it was to the east. The sovereign planted a garden there, “in Eden” (Gen 2:8). Does that suggest that Eden was something more than the garden?
“A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden” (2:10). Eden cannot be the garden if a river flows out of Eden to water the garden. The “garden of Eden” must be the garden associated with Eden, not a garden named Eden. So what is Eden?
The river that flows out of Eden and into the garden is no ordinary river. Ordinary rivers have tributaries that feed water into them, but this river runs the opposite way: it feeds water into four other rivers which supply water to all directions of the realm (2:10). Eden is the source of provision, the head of the life-giving water that nourishes the realm. Eden is the fountain of providence, the torrential spring that flows from the sovereign to sustain life in his realm.
Along the streams that flow out of Eden are other examples of the heavenly monarch’s generous provision: gold and precious stones (2:11-12). The riches of the realm flow out of Eden.
Right in the middle of the garden is another symbol of the sovereign’s life-giving provision for his subjects: the tree of life (2:9).
Taken together, all these provisions suggest that Eden is the earthly dwelling of the heavenly sovereign. The king not only constructed this realm (Genesis 1); he provides everything to sustain life in his realm. Eden is therefore the palace of the great king—not a physical building made of stones, but the dwelling-place of the sovereign who oversees and takes care of his earthly realm.
If we understand “Eden” as the dwelling-place of the divine sovereign, then “the garden of Eden” is the visually stunning and providentially nourishing landscape associated with Eden—the grounds of the palace. Together, Eden and its garden form a picture of the heavenly sovereign living among his subjects. This theme—the heavenly sovereign dwelling among humans—is central to the whole Biblical narrative.
Some scholars talk about Eden as a temple. Eden is the original ideal of God living among his people, and that ideal is re-expressed in the tabernacle, in Solomon’s temple, and so on. But people in the ancient world understood a temple to be a kind of palace. They did not separate religion and state as we do, so their god was also their ultimate ruler. The house of the god (temple) was also the house of their ruler (palace).
The closing chapters of the Bible describe a restored Eden, complete with the tree of life and the river that flows from his throne. The whole narrative of Scripture finds its fulfilment when the king announces the restoration of the Edenic ideal:
Rev 21:3 (NIV) And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.”
Eden, the tree of life, and the river that sustains life—these are all symbols of the sovereign of the realm. He rules from heaven, yet he lives among his people on earth, providing a garden associated with his presence, and sustaining life throughout his realm.
What a picture: King YHWH, living among his creatures, providing for them, and honouring humans with participation in his reign! Can you imagine what life on earth would be like if it had always remained like this? This is the hors d’oeuvres of the kingdom: does it pique your appetite for the banquet?
What others are saying
John H. Walton, Genesis, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 167–168:
In ancient Near Eastern literature, it is not unusual to find creator gods with a watery abode. Mesopotamian Enki/Ea and Canaanite El are notable in this regard. El particularly is said to reside at the source of the rivers. The Old Testament reflects the same kind of concept: “In the pride of your heart you say ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas’ ” (Ezek. 28:2). Because the garden in Genesis was planted in a well-watered place (Eden), it took Eden as its name. But technically speaking, the garden should be understood as adjoining Eden because the water flows from Eden and waters the garden (see Gen. 2:10). In the same way, therefore, that a garden of a palace adjoins the palace, Eden is the source of the waters and the residence of God, and the garden adjoins God’s residence.
Gregory K. Beale has written extensively on this topic. For a summary, see “Eden, the Temple, andUnit 148/23-35 Crane Road the Church’s Mission in the New Creation” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48:1 (2005): 3–31. More detail in God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (IVP, 2014) or The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (IVP Academic, 2004).
Update 2017-01-12. Jubilees 8.19 (second century BC) identified Eden with God’s house:
He [Noah] knew that the garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the Lord.
Read Genesis 2:1-14.