Genesis 2:15 – Salvation by works or faith alone?

We now come to a heavily misconceived topic – “Work”. The verse in Hebrew for Genesis 2:15 goes:

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ׃

Here is the NIV translation:

“…Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

The Chinese 和合本 translation:

耶 和 華   神 將 那 人    安 置 在 伊 甸 園 、 使 他    修 理 看 守

The NLT translation:

The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.

The KJV:

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.


Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Finally, the ESV (I will only highlight my bolded vocabulary in the previous translations):

“…and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it“….

Notice the discrepancy over the usage of the Hebrew for ‘yanach’ (ינח) (commonly translated above as “to put”, which can be translated to ‘deposit’, ‘by implication, to allow to stay or to rest‘), ‘abad (עבד) (commonly translated as ‘dress’, ‘cultivate’, ‘work’ or ‘tend’ – also can mean to work (in any sense); by implication, to serve, till, (causatively) enslave, etc.), and ‘shamar’ (שמר) (meaning normally to ‘keep’ – also can mean to hedge about (as with thorns), i.e. guard; generally, to protect, attend to, etc.) Why such a discrepancy? Any omission of one of the valid meanings in the context can crucially change the meaning of the verse. As for the Chinese translation, it should definitely be given its due consideration come later in this post – but a quick note to see is that it’s translation for God putting man there is God “resting” man in the garden, and “rested” man in the garden to “serve” (one of the possible English translations of ‘abad) and to “keep” (excluding the term “it” after the word serve and keep – why? This surely doesn’t make grammatical sense? Serve and keep what? Nothing? Or Eden, as the other translations suggest? Are these translations even reliable, given the not-so-trivial discrepancies?).

And yet, the problem on the common evangelical view of work is the basis of the interpretation of Genesis 2:15. A book commonly used in student circles in preparation for their work ministry in the future is “Thank God it’s Monday”, which, again, bases the Godly work and secular work divide on the faulty interpretation of Genesis 2:15. Sure, the book has its positive impact on enabling people to focus on God even during their nine to five (or nine to infinity, as is common in Hong Kong), but is it that simple? Can we incorporate God into our work? Or has it always been vice versa? What does Genesis 2:15, pre-fall, really say about “work”?

The basic definition of work is what we have to do in order for us to live. The basic level is to grow, hunt, and find your food, and build and maintain your home. This can involve earning money so someone else can hunt your food, or someone else can build our home. This work is crucial to life and maintenance.

Traditional Protestant Work Ethic

The traditional Protestant work ethic lies in Genesis 1 – that work is labouring in creating the universe. And because man is created in God’s image, the “logic” is that man, is in the image of God who is a worker. And this seems to be substantiated furthermore in Genesis 2:15 – that the Lord put man in the garden of Eden to work.

But this creates the false impression that full-time paid Christian work is better than secular work (which the octogenarian John Stott had once mistakenly thought in “The Living Church”). However, all work should be good – all our work should be our worship, and work therefore isn’t refined to the ‘religious’ sphere. 1 Corinthians 9 shows that everything we do is for God. In Adam’s sin in Genesis 3, we see that work has become a drudge and becomes toilsome, but work is essentially still a good thing. Is that true? That to be godly is to be working hard at our job as a form of worship? A duty that we owe to God? So being a Christian is akin to working hard?

Self-speaking theology of work

There is something disturbing behind working hard as a form of worship. As a preliminary note, it seems to suggest to the non-Christian that Christians can only be accepted by God through their hard work – an impression we wish not to impose on the observer, as we should be living witnesses for the gospel. But what do we make of the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2:15 interpretations of God as worker and that man is a worker in His image?

The simple differentiation lies in the Hebrew, which is a shame given the majority of English translations lend no significance in gender and nuanced distinctions. The word primarily used of God’s work and man’s work are different words in Hebrew! The Hebrew for God’s work is mla’kah ( מְלַאכְתֹּ֖ו ) in Genesis 2:2 , whereas, as we already stated the Hebrew for man’s work is ‘abad ( לַֽעֲבֹ֖ד ) in Genesis 2:15.

If work is what you do in order to live, then how can this definition work with God’s definition of His work? His work had nothing to do with his own sustenance of life. What we see from His work is that creation is a present and a gift for his Son – that God had prepared creation, and a bride, in worship of his Son (Genesis 1:31 and Revelations 13:8 – the Lamb was slain before the creation of the world, for it is not good for man to be alone, and Adam was meant to be a type of Christ, so Christ was slain before the creation of the world, and left his Father to incarnate and die and ascend as the Father, before creation, prepared the race of men and women in faith to be his bride).

Furthermore, the “logic” of the image of God being akin to being Him is quite inversely contradictory – given that the image of God is a very specific thing (as mentioned in my previous post on Day 3 and Day 6 – but more needs to be said about it). Mike Reeves, UCCF theological advisor, in his sermon on theology behind work states that no God-respecting Old Testament scholar thinks that the image has anything to do with working. How do we explain Genesis 2:15 then? Again, the ‘secret’ as it were, lies in the poor Hebrew translation offered in the English NIV translation as is commonly used in European and Asian churches. To suggest that man was put in the garden to work and to care for the garden is to directly contradict Genesis 2:5 – that no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no man to work the ground (‘adam)… but streams came up to water the ground. Furthermore in Genesis 7:12, we don’t see rain until the Noahic flood. If that is the case, Genesis 2:5 refers directly to man working ‘adam after sin (In Genesis 2:5 we see that God states specifically that there was no-one to work the ground (‘adam) – and this is repeated again in Genesis 3 where the ‘adam is cursed – in Genesis 2:15, God is unnecessarily silent on this ‘adam which is so crucial to understanding God’s reversal of his blessing on man, from the ‘adam being a blessing to ‘adam becoming a curse), as opposed to working “it” and keeping “it” (the “it” in English is of course neutral…but does it necessarily refer to the “garden” in the Hebrew?).

To sum up quickly: Earth is an uncultivated wasteland – a lot of work is needed to feed hungry Adam; yet the Lord forms Adam out of that wasteland outside Eden and then we get to see (v. 8-9) the Lord planting a finished garden, where Adam can receive the food that he needs (more on this point of food later on). So in this uncultivated wasteland, we have the garden of Eden which was planted in the east. Why does God take Adam from the uncultivated wasteland and put him in the garden? Genesis 2:15 should be an answer to this subtle point, which many people miss when they preconceive that Adam was made in the garden, which he wasn’t. The significance lies in him being brought to the garden from outside in. Unlike v.8 (where he used the word “put” to mean “to put (used in a great variety of applications, literal, figurative, inferentially, and elliptically)wholly, work.” – a type of putting that is NOT the same as the Genesis 2:15 “put” — Moses therefore did not use the word “the Lord put Adam there”, but Moses said he “rested him” (akin to “sabbathed” him – and in fact, this fits the Chinese translation!) in the garden. The man is therefore given rest in the garden, not work! But we still haven’t explained Genesis 2:15 – it doesn’t say rest… or does it?

The problem lies in the translation of the word “it” – but we can find comfort in the fact that God’s work (in Genesis 2:2) is not the same work used in v. 15, though the English seems to say so. The 3rd person pronoun of “it” in Hebrew however has a male and female distinction. Remember in my first few posts (Genesis 1:1, Genesis 1:2, and details of day 1) that the gender is essential to understanding exegetical insights which prevents problems of liberal or feminist thinking by understanding our roles in relation to God. If we were to respect the Hebrew grammar similarly, we should treat every feminine/male distinction with the same theological distinction as it deserves, which English does not preserve. So here we go.

In Hebrew, the gender for ‘garden’ (‘gan), is masculineגַן ” – yet, in v. 15, the word “it” (which in the English seems to be referring to the garden) is feminine -“הּ” . Essentially this would mean work “her” and keep/take care of “her” which simply doesn’t fit well if we were to imply that Adam was working/tilling/keeping the garden in v. 15 (let alone re-interpreting the word “work” in v. 15, which is different from v. 2). This displays a clear grammatical error in the English translation.

Genesis 3:23 shows God’s punishment for sin, each part of God’s curse being a reversal of Adam and Eve’s previous blessing. They had life, and now they have death. They had rest, and now they had work. If we were to give Genesis 3:23 its contextual understanding in light of pre/post-fall status of man, then we should give Genesis 2:15 its respectfully more accurate translation:

God rested/sabbathed man in the garden to serve and to keep

And why do I not include the word “it”? Because the nature of the word “it”, if used in this context (in English) would wrongfully include the “garden” as an object of the work. However, if we stay sensitive to the grammar, the word “keep” (kamar) is in fact quite similar to the keeping of the covenant in other situations (Genesis 17:9-10; Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 18:4-5; Deuteronomy 7:9). If we were to then understand the context of the female “it” and the consistency of “work/keep” with the keeping of the covenant (since we don’t work the covenant, instead, we kamar “it” (that is used in Genesis 2:15) and kamar the covenant). Therefore, kamar, the keeping of the covenant, is what we know as worship of God – for we, as Christian, serve the Lord and keep his commandments as worship and not as works-salvation in itself (Romans 7:7-25).

Thus it is not the garden that we serve and keep! But it is the gift that God established through his provision of the garden that we ‘serve’ and ‘keep’! The gift of the covenant which he established before creation, the covenant which he ‘barach’ed/cut @ Creation, the gift of salvation through his faithfulness (Romans 3:4)!

This is unsurprising given that the Lord God commanded the man in v. 16 to worship and obey – so the gift is given to man for a finished package to enjoy. In v. 19 we see that the Lord brings animals to man (v. 20-21) – man didn’t have to find the animals. The Lord then finds a suitable helper for man. Man can rest and all he needs to do is worship the Lord and have everything given to him! All of this fleshed out day 6 in Genesis 2 – so that, on the seventh day (the first day after man was made), man can have Sabbath. God has done everything for humanity and delivered them a pure gift. Man did nothing, God did everything.

If creation is a sheer gift of grace, undeserved and unearned love, then the Sabbath, also, is all about the gospel. Sabbath is life all about simply trusting the Lord, not the physical day in itself. Hebrews 4 shows that God’s rest is entered only by believing the gospel – simply trusting the Lord like that ends our attempts to end his favour. Hebrews 4:10 – anyone entering God’s rest = resting from his own work just as God did from his, intended for Adam. Similarly, salvation is about receiving God’s rest – that Christian faith and love lies in the truth that we no longer have to work to have true life – the Lord providing entirely for our salvation.

Therefore, unlike the Pharisees’ whose skewed theological understanding is enables us evangelicals to see that rest, rather than an absence of activity, is in fact absence of work which is different from activity! Israel wouldn’t have Sabbath days only but also Sabbath years. However, the Pharisees turned the Sabbath into earning God’s favour, and the point of the Sabbath is that God will provide entirely. But human sin is the choice to reject God’s favour, and the choice to embrace sin (Genesis 3). Thus, man is cursed with work, yet God still yearns to give humanity the rest we are given to enjoy. So what does God do after day seven? Indeed, to give humanity rest again through His work (John 5:17).

Therefore, the work of redemption through the Christ is to give us rest again in the second week after the first seven days!!!

Work of Redemption

John 5:16 – Jesus has just healed a man on the Sabbath; Genesis 2 shows that healing on the Sabbath is a good thing! Yet, it isn’t seen as ‘work’ – John 5:17 – I too am “working as is the Father”. So has this work anything to do with us? Absolutely not – this work of redemption, which the Lord had been doing after his Sabbath on (Genesis 3) is the work of redemption.

John 9 – We meet a blind man in this chapter; the disciples ask why he is blind and Jesus answers in v.3, so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. In v. 6 and 7, Jesus heals and miraculously brings healing through true sight – the gospel of redemption. The work of God after Genesis 3 therefore is a work of redemption and salvation. Jesus in John’s gospel goes to the cross to do the work of redemption. So in v. 4, as long as it is day, we must join in God’s work! To help in bringing healing and redemption to God’s world!

So, the good works (Ephesians 2:10) is joining in GOD’S work which not implicitly, but directly proclaims the gospel which glorifies His name to His good pleasure (Philipians 2:13)! To help in bringing healing and redemption to God’s world!

Two Types of Work

Therefore, we have two types of work: the work to live (temporarily in this fallen world, post Adamic-exile where he banished to the east), and then there is God’s work, which we join, to bringing about redemption. However, can we blend these two together? After all, we work to live, and not live to work!

And similarly, Paul expresses that our labour/work IN THE LORD that is not in vain – that when Christ calls his disciples/fishermen, he stops them and calls them away from their profession. Same with Paul himself, in Acts 18, we learn that he earns his own living through tent-making, but that is not the identity which he carries. No, he does that tent-making work, so that he can do God’s work! God’s work in that work is possible, but that work is merely a stepping stone, a launching pad so he can do God’s work! Therefore, he does that work in mind of the bigger picture of God’s work in redemption.

This is why what job you do or what you choose to do (whether full-time Christian work or not) isn’t the big issue – if you can be a stunningly effective-gospel preacher as a policeman (witnessing to many) but being a compromising pastor, then the former is much more pleasing to God’s work of redemption. Thus, we are missionaries wherever we go, whether we are in the law firm, in the hospital, in the office, on the field. This therefore makes sense of Colossians 3:23, which has been so poorly misused – Colossians 3:23 describes how our work is to partake in GOD’s work. Thus, we work so we can be about God’s work, and we must never confuse the two – since working hard at being a lawyer and doctor and teacher has nothing to do (except to send mentally and physically healthier people to hell) with the clarity of redemption through the gospel of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. Or, that we do work that provides us with enough flexibility to spread the gospel – indeed, our work must be related to the gospel. Are we providing our finances to God’s work? Are we providing our time to God’s work? Are we providing our work to God’s work? If not, then you have turned your work into works-salvation, a matter that is not edifying but only an emulation of Adam’s fallible choice in Genesis 3 to not keep or serve, but to reject the gift of the covenant of grace.

Genesis 2:15 – Salvation by works or faith alone?

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