Translation Options for Genesis 2:15

Many environmentally concerned Christians use Scripture as a guide for ecological action, as is proper. Sometimes, however, they misunderstand the texts. Retranslation of Genesis 2:15 is one way a properly biblical view of the humanity-creation relationship has been obscured, even by use of Scripture itself.

Traditionally Bible scholars have understood Genesis 2:15 to show Adam’s vocation in Eden to work in the Garden for his own benefit and God’s glory. The most common translation reads: “The Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

More recently, two divergent interpretations have arisen: first, Adam (and with him the rest of mankind) was intended primarily to worship in the Garden of Eden and not mainly to cultivate it; second, God charged Adam with serving and protecting the earth to keep it in a pristine state.

That humanity’s main function in Eden was to participate in ceremonial worship is a concept with roots in Jewish paraphrases of the Old Testament. Several rabbis interpreted Genesis 2:15 as saying Adam’s role was to “worship God and obey the Law.”

This paraphrase seems to work because it emphasizes the central role of the Law for all people, including Adam, and uses legitimate translations of the Hebrew verbs in Genesis 2:15.  However, it reads an anachronistic, formal Law into the Genesis account, beyond the moral law written on the human heart (Romans 2:15).

This view, though disputed within rabbinic tradition, was adopted and modified by two twentieth-century Protestant Old Testament scholars, Umberto Cassuto and John Sailhamer. They propose to translate Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to worship and obey.” But there are three significant problems with this translation—one grammatical, one lexical, and one more broadly interpretative.

First, grammatically, the translation ignores the fact that each verb has a suffix stating that the verb acts on something. For Cassuto and Sailhamer’s view to be correct, the suffix at least for the first verb if not for both would have to denote God. But both suffixes are feminine, making that highly unlikely, if not impossible. The more likely object of the verbs is garden, which, though usually masculine in Hebrew, is sometimes feminine.

Second, the word translated worship, according to Cassuto and Sailhamer, is typically translated in an agricultural sense in context with nouns like garden, vineyard, or earth, much as it is in Genesis 2:5 and 3:23.

Third, minimizing the concept of work in the Garden undermines the humanity-creation relationship in a way that marginalizes God’s design for Adam to subdue and rule the earth (Genesis 1:28).

The second and more popular divergent translation of Genesis 2:15 asserts an eco-theological view. This view has been popularized by scholars who view people as primarily intended to serve creation. According to this view, Genesis 2:15 should read: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to serve and protect it.”

“Serve and protect” are both possible meanings of the Hebrew words in Genesis 2:15. However, they are not primary meanings, particularly in such a clearly agricultural context. Supporters of this translation tend to interpret the text according to their desired theology rather than construct their theology on the basis of the text. Viewing human dominion as inherently negative and contrary to the divinely intended humanity-creation relationship, they argue that man was designed to “serve” the creation and “protect” it by keeping it in a pristine state.

This view is becoming more popular among some evangelicals, but it is not supported by the text. There are two major problems with it: (1) It inverts the master and servant roles in the humanity-creation relationship. (2) It minimizes the dominion function for which God designed man. This reading of Genesis 2:15 harmonizes well with the environmental movement, but not with biblical Christianity.

The agricultural translation of Genesis 2:15 remains the best option. A major theme of Genesis 1–3 is man’s relationship with the earth, into which the idea of working and keeping the Garden clearly fits. That the overwhelming number of translations throughout history supports this view makes an alternative translation highly suspect.