Priestly Profiles: Primeval Priests (Part 1)

Who was the first priest in the Bible?” That, on the face of it, looks like an excellent question for a Bible knowledge quiz. But a quizmaster, keen to ensure that his quiz was not diverted into debate and controversy, would be wise to think twice about including it. There is no clear-cut answer to this question. Melchizedek is certainly the first person to be called a priest (Gen 14:18), but that is not quite the same thing, and it would be difficult to defend the position that no priestly activity took place before his mysterious and unheralded appearance on the pages of Scripture. It was Abel who offered the first sacrifice that was acceptable to God (Gen 4:3-5), and that might seem to make him a likelier candidate. One might even make the case that, even though his sacrifice and his attitude to God were both deeply defective, Cain is the first man who attempts to act like a priest. Surely, though, that is as far back as we can go?

It might be. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency amongst biblical scholars to argue that priesthood originated in Eden, and that Adam and Eve are the first priests. This is largely a consequence of the view that the Garden of Eden is itself a sort of a temple.[1] That view is based on the observation of a number of parallels between Eden and the tabernacle and temple. Structurally, it is argued, the division of creation into three parts – the earth, Eden, and “the garden eastward in Eden” – echoes the tripartite structure of the Jewish sanctuaries. The garden, like the tabernacle and temple, was entered from the east (see Gen 3:24). The garden and the later sanctuaries were places where God was present: “The same Hebrew verbal form (Hithpael) used for God’s ‘walking back and forth’ in the garden (Gen 3:8) also describes God’s presence in the tabernacle (Lev 26:12; Deu 23:14; 2Sa 7:6-7; Eze 28:14).”[2] Scholars also point out that God’s instruction to Adam “to dress … and to keep” the garden (Gen 2:15) uses verbs that are otherwise found together only in Numbers 3:7-8, 8:26, 18:5-6, where they refer to the Levites’ responsibilities in the tabernacle. They also note that both the tabernacle and temple abounded in arboreal ornamentation and that rivers are associated both with the Garden of Eden and Ezekiel’s temple.

These parallels are suggestive, though not all of them survive closer scrutiny. Even if we allow them to stand, however, they are inconclusive. Moreover, it is undoubtedly true that the fact that the tabernacle and Temple had resemblances to the garden of Eden does not mean that the garden was a temple: “the Edenic features of the tabernacle, the Jerusalem temple, and the temple envisioned by Ezekiel are obvious. Apparently, their design and function intended to capture something of the original creation, perhaps even to represent in miniature the original environment in which human beings were placed. However, the fact that Israel’s sanctuaries were Edenic does not make Eden into a sacred shrine. At best this is a nonreciprocating equation.”[3] Block’s point here is worth underlining: the best explanation for the resemblances between the Garden of Eden and the tabernacle and temple is not that Eden was a temple but that the later sanctuaries were mini-Edens – limited and local returns to a condition that existed globally before the Fall.

That temples are exclusively a feature of a fallen world is perhaps confirmed for us by Revelation 21:22, “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.”[4] In the new cosmos, God will need no special dwelling place, for He will be at home everywhere. That was also the situation that obtained in Eden, where God and man freely communicated and where God walked in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8). The temple has helpfully been described as “God’s embassy,”[5] and embassies are only found abroad, in foreign territory, and never at home. God was at home in Eden, as He will be in the new earth, and as He could not be in a world marked by sin. Ultimately, then, the suggestion that the Garden of Eden was a temple, while superficially appealing, proves, on closer examination, to be unconvincing and, at least potentially, unhelpful.

The answer to the question, “Was the Garden of Eden a temple?” does not settle the issue of whether Adam was a priest. However, the argument that Adam and Eve were priests would be considerably more compelling if Eden’s status as a temple could be demonstrated. In the absence of that demonstration, our evidence is more or less confined to verbs that are used to describe Adam and Eve’s responsibility “to dress … and to keep” the garden (Gen 2:15). As noted earlier, these verbs occur together elsewhere only in Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6, where they describe the responsibilities of the Levites.

“Dress” translates a Hebrew verb meaning to work, to serve or to till. It is sometimes used to describe the service of God – it occurs throughout Exodus 9-12, for example, as Pharaoh is commanded to “let my people go, that they may serve me.” It is used, too, of the worship of false gods. Exodus 20:5 warns, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them,” and the same word is used in 2 Kings 10 of the “worshippers of Baal.” However, it can also be used of the tilling of the ground (in relation to Cain, for example, in Genesis 4:2,12, or the wise man in Proverbs 2:11; 28:19). It is telling that the first use of the word, which occurs in Genesis 2:5, only ten verses up the chapter, links it with “the ground,” which seems to suggest that it is this agrarian sense that is prominent in the instruction to Adam. ‘Keep’ “has the simple profane sense of ‘guard’ (Gen 4:9; 30:31) but it is even more commonly used in legal texts of observing religious commands and duties (Gen 17:9; Lev 18:5) and particularly of the Levitical responsibility for guarding the tabernacle from intruders (Num 1:53; 3:7-8).”[6]

The difficulty, then, is that while either word can have priestly connotations, neither has to – both have an everyday meaning that makes sense in the context of Genesis 2. Of course, even the most mundane work that Adam and Eve carried out was for God, and it would be unthinkable that their daily communion with Him and their continual enjoyment of His perfect creation did not involve incessant worship. Worshippers they most certainly were, but that we are intended to see them as priests is less certain. Indeed, it may well be the case that, just as the concept of a temple is an anachronism in an unfallen world, so too priesthood was not necessary in the way that it has been since the Fall.

In that connection, it is surely not without significance that the first sacrifice of an animal to take place was made, not by man, but by God, on man’s behalf. The long “coats of skins” that covered Adam and Eve’s nakedness were provided through the taking of a life, the slaying of a substitute. Adam and Eve appear not to have had the capacity to offer that sacrifice for themselves – it is God who begins the scarlet line of sacrifice that runs through history.

Those garments were a sign of a changed relationship with God and with each other. It is interesting to note that the word for coat is the same as that used for the coat of white linen worn by Israel’s priests. The verb “clothed them” is used extensively in connection with the ceremonial robing of the priests. Adam and Eve’s coats spoke of judgment and of grace, of need and provision. And as they physically manifested a new distance between God and man, they hinted at the prospect that that distance could, and would, be bridged.


[1] See, for example, G.J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story” in Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1985), 19-25; Gregory K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (Downers Grove, IL: Apollos IVP, 2004), 66-80.

[2] Beale, Temple and the Church’s Mission, 59.

[3] Daniel I. Block, “Eden: A Temple? A Reassessment of the Biblical Evidence,” in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2013), 3-29, 21.

[4] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[5] Andrew S. Malone, God’s Mediators: A Biblical Theology of Priesthood, New Studies in Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 14.

[6] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), 67.