Biblical Gardens

A garden is a well watered, richly nourished, carefully tended place for the cultivation of plants. A garden can be expansive or tiny, free form or formal. It may contain few varieties or a vast catalog of species. It may be virtually all shades of green or a profusion of floral color. But even if it is not one’s favorite style, people delight in a garden. Why? Some suggest a biblical answer.

In Genesis 1 the words regarding God’s creation of plants and animals are broad and cosmic in scope. At the end of Genesis 1, God pronounced His creation “very good.” But in that perfect world, God went a step further. Eastward in Eden, He planted a garden. In Genesis 2 the words describing God’s gardening are different than used previously. They refer to cultivated, controlled plants and animals.

Like all gardens, the Garden of Eden was watered, designed, and restricted. A river watered the Garden. God planted special trees in the Garden’s center and caused other plants to grow within it. Today we think of fences or hedges limiting a garden. The nature of Eden’s boundaries remains a mystery, but we know that after Adam and Eve were evicted, angels with flaming swords prevented their reentry.

Man Began in a Garden

Gardens have purpose. Eden was home to man, God’s special creation. God also assigned Adam to “dress and to keep” the Garden. The first God-ordained task for humans was to be a gardener.

Some modern translations use till in place of dress in Genesis 2:15. While both are acceptable, dressing a garden implies less labor than tilling it. The lesser term appears to have appealed to earlier translators’ ideas of pre-sin perfection. This led some to speculate that Adam and Eve’s gardening duties involved tasks like leisurely plucking faded flowers as they meandered around Eden. Our idea of tilling involves tools. Adam with a wheelbarrow and shovel does not reflect our concept of perfection.

Animals ate of the Garden’s plants. Today animal consumption of garden plants is generally negative, but could it have been needful trimming in Eden? Some have suggested that Adam and Eve’s gardening responsibilities were to point out to the animals which plants needed trimming. Interesting thought. But other suggestions of how man dressed and kept Eden will only have equal biblical support.

Note that Garden cultivation was not introduced after man’s sin. In their perfect existence Adam and Eve had responsibilities. The modern idea of “hanging out” without obligations is not the perfect human existence. It never has been, nor ever will be. We are to serve God—be it by tending His garden, living a life that pleases Him, or singing His praises while reigning with Him in glory (Revelation 5:9,10). Man was made to do. Rest is essential, but we are not to aspire to lounge eternally in a garden or strum a harp while floating on a cloud.

Today, maintaining a garden involves work. Plants must be put in and unwanted ones (those that spread too far or uninvited weeds—the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3:18) must be removed. Garden plants must be protected, watered, and nourished, and over-growth must be trimmed. These chores keep gardeners busy. Even with modern techniques, gardening is work.

The Curse of Genesis 3 involves the fact that much of our labor is not fruitful. The sin-cursed earth reluctantly yields its bounty. The labor and sweat involved in cultivating a modern field to produce grain and then processing it into bread is not the same as dressing and keeping Eden while enjoying its fruits.

Gardens Provide Food

With one notable exception, the fruits of Eden’s trees were to be food for Adam and Eve. The other gardens spoken of in Scripture also provide human sustenance. To most of us, food cultivation conjures images of fields planted with grain or row upon row of a crop. This kind of farming was practiced during Bible times. Generally, Scripture refers to it as “fields.” Plowing, sowing, and reaping grain-laden or barren fields are frequent Scriptural analogies. Except for planting and harvesting field crops, biblical farmers were not overly involved with their growth. A garden, however, involved a different kind of plant cultivation.

In Scripture there is little distinction between a vineyard, orchard, grove, or garden. They were places of intense cultivation of several kinds of plants growing together. A garden in Bible times might contain trellised grape vines along with pomegranate, olive, apricot, fig, almond or date trees. Choices depended on the owner’s tastes, the size of the garden, and its location (all plants do not grow equally well in all biblical areas).

With the woody vines and trees might be cucumbers, various melons (including watermelon) along with onions, leeks, garlic, and other tasty members of the genus Allium. These were cultivated in Egypt before the Exodus and brought to Canaan by the Israelites.

As the Israelites wandered in the wilderness they could not plant fields or gardens. God met their need of food with manna. But some remembered the Egyptian melons and “flesh pots” (stews or soups made savory by onions, garlic, and other herbs) and lusted for what they had left behind. Scripture tells us that “there they buried the people that lusted” (Numbers 11). Is there something wrong with eating melons and tasty food? No. These complainers did not think that God was being good to them, since they did not have their favorite foods. Their problem was they were not satisfied when God was abundantly meeting their needs. God’s judgment of their greedy rebellion should be a lesson for all.

In Matthew 23:23 Jesus chides the Scribes and Pharisees for their willingness to tithe seasoning herbs from their gardens (mint, dill, cumin) yet neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. Biblical gardens also included bitter herbs required for the Passover meal. These probably included chicory, coriander, dandelion, sow-thistle and wild lettuce.

Today, some people cook the leaves of the mustard plant, but generally we consume the spice or condiments made from its flowers or seeds. In Bible times mustard was prized for the oil produced from its seeds. In Palestine mustard grew wild and was also cultivated. It has the smallest seed of any plant ancient Israelites grew. Christ used this to chide His followers for their lack of faith (Matthew 17:20). Under favorable conditions a mustard plant may grow over five feet tall with a stalk six inches in diameter in its single growing season. When describing the Kingdom of Heaven, Christ referred to a tiny mustard seed producing a plant large enough for birds to perch in (Matthew 13:31-2).

Gardens Provide Beauty

The luxuriant growth of the diverse plants in a Biblical garden made them pleasing to the eye. A non-edible shrub, like the poisonous oleander, or a willow, juniper, or pine tree might provide visual balance, frame a view, or form a hedge. Other non-edible plants were included to provide floral beauty and fragrance.

A major setting in the Song of Solomon is a garden. The almonds, grapes, figs, pomegranates and apricots of this garden are edible. Poetic analogies are made between the richness of these fruits and the two lovers and their relationship. This garden also contains the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley, other lilies, and “sweet flowers” (reference to fragrance not taste). Their purpose was to make the garden beautiful to the senses. Although this was probably a royal garden where abundant resources could be allotted to ornamentals, it is safe to assume that even commoners’ gardens could afford some space for plants whose sole purpose was beauty.

Beautiful places are to be enjoyed. Gardens are places of solitude and meditation. They are places for private conversation and prayer. Adam walked and talked with God in the tranquility of Eden’s cool evenings. The couple in the Song of Solomon were separated while in the city, but they were alone together in the quiet of the garden.

After His last earthly supper, Jesus led His disciples to the Mount of Olives. There in the garden of Gethsemane (which means “olive press”), He asked them to pray. He went further into the garden and agonized alone in prayer. The site many Bible scholars believe to be the garden of Gethsemane has olive trees which are only twenty feet tall but have trunks nearly eight feet across. Some of these trees have been dated at nearly 1000 years old. When an olive tree dies, its roots may sprout new trees. Today’s Gethsemane has olive trees that may have spouted from roots that were alive when the garden’s seclusion was broken by the High Priest’s soldiers arresting Christ.

Another garden figures in the life of Christ. Near Golgotha, there was a garden which contained a new tomb. Christ’s dead body was laid in that borrowed tomb and a stone was placed over its entrance. Scholars debate the exact location of Golgotha’s garden. The so-called “Garden Tomb” has plants growing near it even today.

A Parade of Gardens

Human life began in a garden planted by God. Eden was to be the ideal habitat, where humans would both serve God and commune directly with Him. Sin broke that fellowship and forced the expulsion of humans from Eden.

In a garden of olive trees planted by man, God agonized with God over restoring His fellowship with man. In that garden, men arrested Christ and took Him to His death. In a garden tomb, the lifeless body of Christ was buried, but the grave could not keep the God of life. He arose and left that garden.

The scriptural narrative ends in the New Jerusalem. As described in the last chapters of Revelation, it is the ideal union of city and garden. Its sides are twelve thousand furlongs and it has twelve gates. It is well watered: the “pure river of water of life” flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. Beside that river, the tree of life is planted. It bears twelve different fruits throughout the year and its leaves heal the nations.

Today, one cannot comprehend how the New Jerusalem will operate any more than one can explain Eden’s workings. We must trust God. Eden did work and the New Jerusalem will work perfectly. Sin caused man to be expelled from the first Garden God planted. Only removal of sin will permit entrance into the second one which God is now preparing (John 14:2). All whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will enter the New Jerusalem and will eternally commune with our God and Savior in that garden.

It appears that God’s plan has always been for humans to live in a garden. No wonder we are so attracted to them.

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By William Pinkston

Mr. William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.