“Paradise”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
The word paradise is so commonly used that a riverboat casino near my birthplace chose the mildly clever but very tacky name, “Par-A-Dice Casino.” Different people have different ideas, different images in their heads that they associate with this term, but they all point in the same direction—a place of no worries and endless pleasures. Few of those who recklessly sling the word around realize that it originally referred to the Garden of Eden at the beginning of Genesis. The word doesn’t appear there—at least not in most English bibles—but the Jews during the centuries prior to Christ’s birth started to call Eden by this name, borrowed from a Babylonian word meaning, “walled garden."
That’s an inconspicuous origin. Paradise, at least the way it was originally conceived, turns out to be fairly common, it seems. But these Jews had taken to calling the Garden of Eden by this name, and as a result it has become synonymous with any place, real or fictional, that is portrayed as a…well, as a paradise. There are multiple films by this name, popular songs in more than one genre and era, an island in the Bahamas whose original name, Hog Island, may have been more accurate, and many towns that take this name, including an unincorporated community just a few miles from Newburgh, and a town in California that tragically, if somewhat ironically, became a raging inferno of death in late 2018.
What many, perhaps most of these so-called paradises have in common is easy to see in the first example listed—the Par-A-Dice Casino. Its vision of lasting, worry-free satisfaction amounts to the unbridled indulgence of fleshly appetites—food, drink, sex, money, fame, and idleness. That’s not such a surprise, since the few people in our world who have the means to do so, usually set about satisfying those very desires, but it is a very different picture from the actual Paradise they’re trying to replicate.
Moses tells us about four rivers flowing out of Eden:
The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2.11-14)
None of this is relevant to the story, nor does it help to identify the location of the Garden, since two of the rivers are lost, along with the common source within Eden. Why, then, does Moses mention it? It shows that the very river God put there “to water the garden” (v10) became the cradle of civilization, led the way to mineral resources that were thoroughly useless at the time of Adam and Eve but would become very valuable in the distant future, and gave rise both to agriculture in the fertile crescent, and to the great military powers at the time the book was written. These things were unattainable—and unnecessary!—within Paradise itself, but Paradise laid the groundwork for getting to them.
Additionally, God did not allow Adam to spend his days in leisure. He gave him a job: “The Lord God took took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Ge 2.15). He also didn’t allow Adam to indulge every appetite without consequence. Instead, he
commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Ge 2.16-17).
He didn’t give Adam any commandment concerning the fulfillment of sexual appetites, but consider that he only gave him one option: his wife, Eve, whom he made specifically for Adam and united them into “one flesh” (Ge 2.24).
There are elements of the actual Paradise that are preserved in our warped, modern conception of the idea—the lack of worry over tomorrow, the ready availability of basic necessities, and the lasting satisfaction we crave are all deeply embedded within this description, too. But what we have done over the years, is to fashion in our own minds an “improved” Garden of Eden, complete with a full supply of the “sin which clings so closely” to us (He 12.1).
It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? We aspire to this simple, carefree, satisfying existence, but even our aspirations are tainted by the very same thing that caused Adam and Eve to lose it—our consistent surrender to sinful desires, and rebellion against God. That’s why we don’t have access to Paradise. We blame it on Adam and Eve, and that’s fair enough, but it’s not as if any of us would have done any differently. We all would’ve made the same choice they did, to fail to trust God, and reject his simple instruction.
Blessedly, Jesus offers us a way out—a way to restore our lost innocence. The answer is not to be found in lusting after the tainted, human concept of paradise with its excesses and license to commit all the sins you want. Instead, it’s about striving for something more like what God had in mind from the beginning: a providential relationship with him, an active faith in what he tells us, and consistent obedience to his instructions, finding our lasting satisfaction on this earth in doing the work he laid out for us.