Do We Need Temples Today? (Part 2)

In my last post, I began a biblical-theological investigation into the meaning and purpose of temples in the Bible. I argued that the garden of Eden is Scripture’s first temple. Yet more must be said about the function of Eden in God’s plan for the world. It is not enough to simply demonstrate that Eden functioned as a primeval temple; we must also consider Eden’s purpose in light of God’s design for humanity. If we do not understand God’s creation project, then we will misunderstand God’s redemption project and the role Israel’s temple played in bringing God’s redemptive purposes to pass.

Humanity: Made in God’s Image to Rule the World

The opening pages of Genesis depicts God as the sovereign creator and ruler of the universe. He speaks and it comes to pass. He creates the world out of nothing and triumphs over the dark chaos (“formless” and “void”) characterizing the earth (Gen 1:2). Genesis 1–2 depicts God as the sovereign Lord of creation. He is creation’s supreme king and he sits enthroned above the universe (Isa 40:22).

The remarkable truth of Genesis 1–2, however, is that God chooses to mediate his divine rule over the world through human beings made in his image. God creates man and woman to exercise and establish his rule over the created world. Genesis 1 describes the creation of man and woman as the pinnacle of God’s creation. Genesis 1:26–28 says,

Genesis 1:26–28 (ESV) — 26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these verses for a proper understanding of the rest of the biblical storyline. In these three verses, we learn what human beings are and why they exist. According to Genesis 1:26–27, humanity (male and female) is made in the image of God. The phrase is ambiguous to many modern day readers so it is important that we understand it in its ancient Near Eastern context. The Hebrew word צלם (image) appears three times in Genesis 1:26–27. It is related to an Akkadian word meaning “statue.” In Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature, the king alone possessed the privilege of bearing the divine image of the gods. He was a living statue and representation of the gods on earth. As a representative of the gods, he mediated the rule and authority of the divine realm. Furthermore, the king’s status as image bearer of the gods also meant that he was to be regarded as a son of the gods. Thus in ancient Near Eastern literature the concept of image was tied to sonship and dominion (kingship).

Both of these concepts—sonship and kingship—are apparent in the biblical literature, but with some key differences. While only the king was believed to be the image of god in ancient Near Eastern thinking, Genesis 1:26–28 teaches that all of humanity is made in God’s image to reign over the world. In Genesis 1:26–28, Adam and Eve are made in God’s image in order to “rule” (רדה; also translated ‘dominion’) and “subdue” (כבש) the earth (Gen 1:28). These terms carry royal connotations as they depict someone ruling over someone or something else (cf. Ps 72:8; 110:2; 2 Sam 8:11). As image bearers, Adam and Eve were to exist as God’s royal viceroys over creation.

The royal overtones of Genesis 1:26–28 are confirmed by Psalm 8. In this psalm, David reflects Genesis 1:26–28 and God’s design for humanity at creation. He describes humanity as “crowned” with “glory” and “honor” exercising “dominion” over the works of God’s hands (Ps 8:5–6). All things are placed under the feet of mankind (Ps 8:6–8; cf. 1 Kgs 5:3). David’s commentary on Genesis 1:26–28 posits an understanding of mankind’s status over creation as a royal office.

Sonship. Adam is more than a royal figure, however, in the biblical narrative. As image bearer, he is also a son of God. The terms “image” and “likeness” are picked up in Genesis 5:1–3 to describe Seth’s relationship to Adam. It is apparent from Genesis 5:1–3 that these terms—image and likeness—denote a filial relationship between father and son. It is important to note, however, that Adam’s sonship is covenantal not ontological. In other words, Adam is not of the same being or essence as God. Adam is not begotten of God in the same way human children are begotten of their parents. He is created out of nothing and shares nothing of God’s divine nature. Religious systems that blur distinction between Creator and creature inevitably stray into heresy, paganism, or cultic beliefs. Adam exists in a filial relationship to God by virtue of God’s covenant with him. I am not going to develop the arguments here for seeing a covenant with creation in Genesis 1–2. The important point is, as Luke indicates in the genealogy of Jesus, that Adam is to be regarded as the son (little ‘s’) of God (Luke 3:38).

Adam is God’s royal covenantal son and king of creation. He stands between heaven and earth mediating God’s divine rule and blessing to the rest of creation. God’s rule and reign will come through human intermediaries. But what does Adam’s royal rule have to do with the garden-temple? The answer to this question is found in Adam’s other office. Genesis 1–2 implies that Adam is not only a royal figure; he is also a priest before God.

Adam’s Priestly Rule

As I indicated in part 1 of this blog series, God placed Adam in the garden as a priest to care for sacred space. His job assignment was “to work” and “to keep” the garden (Gen 2:15). Surely this assignment must be more than a primeval landscaping operation. Indeed it is much more. The Hebrew word translated “to keep” (שמר) also carries the meaning of protecting or guarding. In this sense, Adam was not only commissioned to work the ground, he was also to guard the sacred space of the garden by keeping the serpent at bay and by preserving, obeying, and teaching the law of God to his wife and progeny—do not eat of the tree (Gen 2:16–17). His task was a priestly one. He was to order his life around the priority of worship. He was to obey God’s command in the sanctuary just as the Levitical priests were later called upon to do (Lev 8:35). Adam was to protect the sacred space of the garden by exercising his priestly rule from the place of God’s own presence. Adam, therefore, should be identified as a priest-king commissioned to fulfill God’s kingdom project. This was a high and holy calling.

Expanding Eden

If Adam’s role was to mediate God’s rule on earth as a priest-king, then there must have been an end-goal for his job assignment. God’s creation project must have had an eschatological component. In other words, the creation commission for humanity to establish God’s kingdom by taking dominion over the earth must have been achievable. This project would have been achieved when Adam and his progeny subjected the entire world to the rule of humanity and therefore the rule of God.

A key component in the success of this kingdom mission was redefining the borders of Eden. In the ancient Near East, kings were temple builders. The king was responsible to build the temple for the gods. Genesis 1–2 similarly implies that the first royal image bearers were to build the temple of the only true and living God. Adam and Eve, however, would not build a temple with bricks and mortar, but by extending the borders of the garden to the farthest corners of the earth.

Genesis 1–2 does not explicitly state that garden expansion was part of Adam and Eve’s job description, but it is a necessary implication from the text. The command to “work” and “guard” the garden of Eden in Genesis 2:15 is an expression of the creation mandate to “subdue” and “rule” the earth in Genesis 1:28. Adam’s task of global dominion would begin in the garden, but not remain there. In Genesis 1:28, the command to take dominion is inseparably bound to the command to be fruitful and multiply. As Adam and Eve multiplied, the garden would not be able to contain all of their progeny. Thus, humanity would take dominion over the earth by expanding the borders of Eden outward until the whole earth had become the dwelling place of God, i.e. the temple. God’s kingdom would be established as his royal image inhabited every corner of planet earth so that all would know that God reigns over all. Just as ancient Near Eastern kings placed their statues in newly conquered lands, God’s “statues” would cover the earth worshipping God from his own temple. The knowledge of the glory of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. The whole earth would be God’s temple and display his glory forever as mankind lived in perfect harmony with God, creation, and each other.


The opening pages of Genesis make it clear that God intends to dwell with men. He created mankind to live in a relationship with him by dwelling in his very presence. Perhaps the reason temples transcend culture, geography, ethnicity, and history is because as human beings made in God’s image we were designed to be in a relationship with God. But the sad reality is that we all live outside the garden-temple.

As the biblical narrative continues to unfold, Genesis 3 introduces a dramatic intrusion into the narrative that threatens the existence of the entire created order. The serpent enters the garden, distorts the word of God, deceives Eve, and leads our first parents to break God’s law. The royal image bearers are banished form the garden of Eden and a cherubim with a flaming sword guards the garden’s entrance. No sinful human shall enter the presence of God. Instead, Adam and all of his progeny are subjected to the curse of death. Cursed soil, sin, death, and evil now characterize humanity’s struggle. This is what life outside of God’s temple looks like.

Nevertheless, God’s purpose to establish his kingdom through human mediation does not dissolve. Instead, God promises that he will raise up one of Eve’s descendants to crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). A new Adam will come to establish God’s kingdom by defeating the tyranny of the serpent in a fallen world. God’s creation project has become his redemption project. As the biblical narrative unfolds, the dwelling place of God will continue to be a prominent theme in redemptive history. God will give the people of Israel a tabernacle and a temple. In the next post, I will develop the role of the tabernacle and temple in Israel’s history and in the storyline of scripture. To be continued.