“The garden of Eden is not viewed by the author of Genesis simply as a piece of Mesopotamian farmland, but as an archetypal sanctuary, that is a place where God dwells and where man should worship him. Many of the features of the garden may also be found in later sanctuaries, particularly the tabernacle or Jerusalem temple. These parallels suggest that the garden itself is understood as a sort of sanctuary…Further support for such a view arises from the overall purpose of Genesis. The main weight of Genesis falls on the patriarchs: Genesis 1-11 is merely a prologue to the story of redemption beginning in chapter 12. But as Clines has observed the promises to the patriarchs are essentially a reaffirmation of the divine ideals for all mankind expressed in Genesis 1-2…Looked at in this light, the opening chapters of Genesis describe what human life should be like. According to the rest of the Pentateuch worship is of the greatest importance.” (Gordon J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story,” Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 9 (1986): 19-25
1.) The Lord was “walking” in the Garden (Genesis 3:8) just as he later “walked” in the midst of Israel’s tabernacle and temple (Leviticus 26:12, Deuteronomy 23:14, 2 Samuel 7:6-7). Both Eden and Israel’s subsequent sanctuaries are portrayed as God’s own dwelling place with human beings.
2.) Adam and Eve are called to “work and serve” in the Garden (Genesis 2:15). The only other Old Testament occurrences of these two words together are found in Numbers 3:7-8, 8:26 and 18:5-6, where they function as a job description for the Levite priests in the sanctuary.
3.) Cherubim play an important role in guarding both the Garden and the later tabernacle/temple. In Eden, the Cherubim are stationed on the east side of the Garden to prevent sinful humanity from re-entering God’s holy presence (Genesis 3:24). In Exodus 25:18-22, 26:31, and 1 Kings 6:23-29 Cherubim guard and adorn the place of God’s presence in the sanctuary.
4.) Both the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24) and the later tabernacle and temple (Numbers 3:38, Ezekiel 10:19, 11:1, 42:9, 12, 15, 43:1-4, 44:1, 46:1, 47:1) are entered only from the east.
5.) The menorah in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-35) seems to be a symbolic tree, pointing back to the original tree of life in the middle of Eden (Genesis 2:9). Both remind Israel that life is only to be found in the presence of the Lord.
6.) Adam and Eve are clothed by God after their rebellion with garments (Genesis 3:21) that are perhaps reminiscent of the priestly garments the Levites would later wear in the sanctuary (Exodus 20:23, 28:41-42, 29:8, 40:14, Leviticus 8:13, Deuteronomy 23:13-15), in view of the dangers that exist when sinful human beings come “naked” into the holy presence of God.
7.) A river flows out of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14), a notable symbol for divinely given life in the Scriptures. So also a river flows out of the eschatological temple in Ezekiel’s vision toward the nations for healing the curse of death (Ezekiel 47; cf. Revelation 21-22).
8.) The precious stones found in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:12), bdellium and onyx, are later found in Israel’s sanctuary as decoration or as a part of the priestly garments (Exodus 25:7, 28:9-14, 20, 1 Chronicles 19:2), and are compared to the heavenly manna (Numbers 11:7), which is “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4) and kept in the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies (Exodus 16:33).
9.) The description of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ as pleasant to the sight, good for food, and to be desired to make one wise seems to be echoed in the description of the Torah as making wise the simple, rejoicing the heart and enlightening the eyes in Psalm 19:8-10. The law of Israel was kept in the Holy of Holies. The stone tablets containing the ten commandments were kept inside the ark of the covenant and the book of the law (the rest of the commands given at Sinai) was placed besides the ark (Exodus 25:16, Deuteronomy 31:26). And just as eating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil brought death in the Garden, so touching the ark that contained the law brought death (2 Samuel 6:7, Numbers 4:20).
10.) Wenham also notes that “the parallels in phraseology between the conclusion of the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the tabernacle building account in Exodus 25-40 have long been noted…The six commands in the instructions for building the tabernacle correspond to the six days of creation…[and] God’s rest on the first sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3) corresponds to his resting, i.e. dwelling in the tabernacle…[So] the completion of the universe parallels the completion of the tabernacle” (p. 23).
Wenham concludes with this insightful observation:
“If the Garden of Eden story is meant to be interpreted symbolically in terms of later cultic legislation…[then] the divine threat ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall die’ [Genesis 2:17] should also be interpreted symbolically. According to later cultic ritual the sanctuary was the center of life, because there God was present. To be excluded from the camp of Israel was to enter the realm of death…Thus the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden was in the narrator’s view the real fulfillment of the divine sentence. He regarded their alienation from the divine presence as death [cf. Ezekiel 37, where Israel’s return from exile in the promised land characterized by God’s presence is likened to a resurrection from the dead]. But the serpent was a literalist who believed death meant physical death and so he denied that eating the fruit would result in their demise. Though many commentators imply that the serpent was right after all, because God relented and acted more leniently than he had threatened, I suggest this is unlikely.” (p. 24)