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Reflections on Genesis 2 as a Theology of Missions


JA and his wife are OMF missionaries working in East Asia to strengthen local church preaching and establish theological education. JA became a believer as a university student and has been involved in the East Asia region for almost three decades. He entered overseas ministry in time to witness the early rapid growth of local churches in East Asia. Following the completion of his PhD in Old Testament, he has partnered with indigenous seminaries and missionary organisations to train believers to understand and communicate scripture accurately.

Mission Round Table 18:3 (Oct-Dec 2023): 20-23

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:3.


Before I begin, a confession needs to be made. I am not a missiologist, much less a trained theologian. I am a biblical scholar, primarily of the Old Testament. For this reason, let me apologise—from the outset—if my exegesis of the Bible and the implications I attempt to draw appear somewhat simplistic or fail to sufficiently interact with mission theology. Admittedly, I hope that readers—who may be more familiar with these fields—might provide me with helpful suggestions to follow up. Similarly, if there are any criticisms or doubts, I welcome those as well.

Despite my limitations, I am not completely new to missions. My wife and I are field practitioners in East Asia, where we live and serve cross-culturally, assisting others to establish theological education in their context. In fact, this paper was originally prompted by indigenous mission agency leaders who asked me to formulate a simple “theology of missions” that they, in turn, could present to local churches.

After reviewing several seminal works on the topic, it seemed to me that two texts are often provided as the basis for mission in the Old Testament. First, there is the Covenant in Genesis 12 where the Lord promises that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” through Abraham and his descendants.[1] Inevitably, this sets up an expectation that mission—at least in the Old Testament—was the privileged responsibility of Israel, a single ethnic group, in contrast to “the nations”, who are everyone else. Even in the New Testament, in Acts and many of the Epistles, we can see how this distinction—along racial and ethnic lines—continued to be a source of tension in the racially and ethnically mixed churches of early Christianity.

A second text that also features prominently is Genesis 3:15, where God announces that the “seed of the woman” will eventually crush the evil one. Usually this is understood Christologically, so that—following the righteous lineage in Genesis—the term “seed” eventually points to Jesus in the New Testament. Moreover, because it occurs in the context of the Fall in Chapter 3—which takes place much earlier than humanity is divided by language and ethnic differences in Chapter 10—it is taken to reflect the universal mission of God (missio Dei) in salvific terms. That is, the mission of God is understood to be a rescue operation, with the goal being human redemption because all of humanity is fallen.

Taken together, “mission” is understood as a post-Fall activity, one in which God intends to work through his chosen and faithful human agents to bring salvation blessing to an unredeemed humanity. I don’t think many of us would disagree with this statement, at least in principle. However, in preparing a theology of missions for my local colleagues, I found myself wondering if God’s mission—and humanity’s role in God’s mission—is limited to redemption. Or, better yet, is mission only a post-Fall activity? To answer this, I turned to Genesis 2. What I found there, I will present under three headings: Where is the mission? What is the mission? Who does the mission?


The Garden of Eden by Thomas Cole (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. Oil on canvas, 97.8 x 134 cm.

Where is the mission?

Genesis 2:15 provides an interesting detail that is not often explained. The verse is translated similarly in most versions. Here, I will provide the popular ESV.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

Key to understanding the location of human activity is in identifying the “it” that humanity is supposed to “work and keep.”

Unlike English, the Hebrew language distinguishes between nouns as having either masculine or feminine gender. In the present case, the object of human activity is indicated by feminine pronominal suffixes on each of the verbs,[2] which normally refer to a preceding noun that is also feminine. To this extent, there is no support for suggesting that humanity is to be active with the masculine nouns—the garden or its vegetation—despite their widespread acceptance.[3]

So what are humans supposed to “work and keep”? A solution is provided earlier in the chapter with the feminine nouns “land” (אֶרֶץ ʾereṣ) and “ground” (אֲדָמָה ʾadāmâ).[4] In the context of this pericope,[5] the word “land” occurs six times and refers to various topographical regions.[6] Alternatively, the word “ground” occurs four times where in verse 5, importantly, it is also associated with human “work” (עבד ʿbd) —the same human activity referred to in verse 15.[7] In any case, regardless to which of these terms the later “it” may refer, both land and ground identify locations other than the garden of Eden.

From the descriptions given in 2:5–6, the land and ground are barren and desolate. Of course, this does not mean that they were not “good” in the sense that chapter 1 designates them, only that they were unproductive. That is, they were not producing any vegetation. Two explanations are given for their unfruitfulness: The first is that, due to a lack of rain, the land was an arid desert; and second, due to the ebb and flow of an uncontrollable water table the ground was a boggy marshland.[8] In either circumstance—dry or wet—the region outside the garden was completely unproductive.[9]

However, it would be wrong to conclude that the land and ground were—in themselves—incapable of becoming productive. As Genesis 2:5–6 make clear, the problem of their infertility lies not with the soil, but with the absence of activity by God and humans.[10]

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground.

By implication then, the land and ground were potentially very fertile and capable of producing abundant vegetation, if only God would “cause it to rain” and humanity were present to “work the ground.”

In view of this situation, it is significant that the first activity of God in the following verses is to create humanity and a garden. On the one hand, the abundance of the garden in 2:9 demonstrates the ground’s latent potential once God acts upon it. Nevertheless, the continued absence of rain and the removal of humanity from the barren ground seem only to further thwart its potential productivity. That is, until it becomes clear that the purpose of humanity’s presence in the garden is actually to facilitate their activity outside of it.[11]

In stark contrast to the wasteland outside, inside the garden of Eden was a place of luscious abundance. The description places special emphasis upon the fruit of the trees, apparently interested only in their comestible qualities.[12] To this extent, it is reasonable to imagine that, from the point of view of the narrative thus far, the garden was a divine blessing to humanity, providing for their sustenance. Such a place of nourishment would certainly be needed if they were to be active in the wasteland, outside the garden.

In addition to the blessing of its abundance, the garden’s location could also be taken as of significant benefit to humanity’s work. According to verses 10–14, the garden of Eden is identified with being positioned at the headwaters of four rivers. Taken together, the rivers and the lands with which they are associated, can be roughly understood to represent the “four corners” of the world in the ancient mind.[13] To this extent, the location of the garden of Eden was in a central position and its human occupants would enjoy convenient and unobstructed access to all the major regions of the world outside.

On the banks of the Euphrates, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIGmatpc-16145].
In conclusion then, the location where human activity is to take place is outside the garden—in the “earth” and “land”—which is currently an unproductive wasteland awaiting the activity of God and humanity to make it fulfil its latent potential. The garden is not the locus of human activity. Rather, its nourishing abundance and its central location are to facilitate human activity even as its identity, being sacred space, is to provide a model for their task in the world outside.

What is the mission?

If the unproductive world outside the garden of Eden is to be the locus of activity, what is humanity supposed to do there? Helpfully, Genesis 2:15 also provides a brief summary. Humanity is expected to “work” (עבד ʿbd) and to “keep” (שׁמר šmr) it.

The first of these verbs, “work” is frequently attested throughout the Old Testament and its meaning is very context dependent.[14] It is commonly used to refer to agricultural as well as religious activity. When the former is intended, “ground”, “earth”, or “soil” will usually appear as the direct object. An example of this occurs in Genesis 2:5 where human “work” almost certainly refers to rural labour, presumably the intensive work of building and maintaining artificial irrigation works common in the Near East.[15] Agrarian activity could also be inferred in Genesis 2:15, in light of our discussion already.

So, does this indicate that all humanity are to be farmers? I think not, at least not entirely. Its coordinated appearance with the second verb “to keep” (שׁמר šmr) suggests that “work” in this instance was to be understood also in relation to sacred service and not merely agricultural labour. Evidence for this can be found in the book of Numbers (3:7; 8:26; 18:5–16), where these two terms also appear juxtaposed. In these occurrences, the hendiadys created by this construction is used to describe the duties unique to Levitical priests. For Genesis 2:15 to describe human activity with the terms “work and keep”, was akin to portraying humanity as priests and their task in the world outside of the garden as sacred service. Thus, even if agricultural activity may be implied by the use of these verbs in 2:15, it is not to be understood only as “production” but of priestly duty.

Within the context of the ancient Near East, the primary duty of priests was not to serve as religious experts or perform sacrificial rituals. These were only a means to an end. As John Walton helpfully outlines, the purpose of ancient priests was to uphold creation and preserve divine order.[16] Many different kinds of service could be associated with this role, not least through all manner of agricultural activities related to building, maintaining, and expanding the sacred gardens commissioned by ancient kings.[17] Along these lines, if the supreme rulership (“rest” שׁבת šbt)[18] of God over all creation in Genesis 2:1–3 can be taken to serve as the immediate context of this passage, then 2:15 suggests that the LORD God has tasked humanity—as his priests—to undertake the duty of extending his garden—this sacred space of divine order—expanding it into the world and making it productive under his rule and dominion.

Who does the mission?

The sacred duty facing humanity was huge. Humanity—specifically the man (2:7–15)—could not fulfil this task alone. To this end, the LORD God proceeds to create woman for the man. The Hebrew phrase עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (ʿēzer kĕnegdô) is used to describe her in 2:18 and 20 and is translated fairly consistently between the English versions:

NIV: “a helper suitable for him”

ESV: “a helper fit for him”

NRSV: “a helper as his partner”

NASB: “a helper corresponding to him.”

However, recent scholarship has demonstrated this translation to be wholly inadequate and potentially misleading, especially as we attempt to understand the role dynamics of the woman to the man.

It is generally agreed that the term “helper” (עֵזֶר ʿēzer) does not confer upon the woman an inferior status in relation to the man. In fact, quite the opposite could be argued. Many occurrences of this verb refer to God as “rescuer” and humanity in the weaker position of needing rescue. To this extent, proponents of women as man’s “helper” have unwittingly tipped the balance of power toward women who should otherwise be understood as having a superior position over man.

Recognising this problem, R. David Freedman—and more recently Walter Kaiser—have demonstrated on historical-linguistic grounds that the Hebrew term עֵזֶר (ʿēzer) actually represents the mergence of two older Hebrew/Canaanite roots with similar pronunciation into a single written form.[19] This combination of terms gives rise to a conflation of meanings wherein one root, עזר (ʿzr) means “to help”, “to rescue”, and “to save” and is easy to identify because it is paralleled with other expressions of saving and deliverance;[20] while another root ǵ-z-r, with an almost identical initial guttural sound, means “strength” and “power”. Importantly, the latter option occurs in contexts that do not connote status difference; it describes an attribute.[21] To this extent, Freedman and Kaiser each conclude that in 2:18 and 20 the term cannot be understood as “helper” without inferring that the woman is over man. Rather, the term should be understood to describe the woman as a “power” or “strength” of equal status, not least because it accords with the account in Genesis 1, where man and woman are equally created in “the image of God,” but also it is juxtaposed with a second word כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (kĕnegdô), to which we now turn.

Hebrew scholars label the term כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (kĕnegdô) a hapax legomenon (or just hapax) as it appears only once in Scripture. Etymology can provide some help, so that the meanings “that which is opposite” or “that which corresponds to” can be inferred from the related root נֶגֶד (neged). For some, this etymology appears to lend support to the idea of “complementarity”—wherein the woman differs from man in terms of her role—“complements” his function and activity in creation. However, the appearance of כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (kĕnegdô) in later Mishnaic Hebrew provides an important clarification to the idea of “complementarity”. Rather than imply role differences, the term כְּנֶגֶד (kĕneged) in Mishnaic Hebrew refers to “equality” in status and authority, as evident in the famous phrase “The study of the Torah is equal (כְּנֶגֶד) to all the other commandments.”[22]

Along these lines,  כְּנֶגְדּוֹ(kĕnegdô) in 2:18 and 20 would be better understood as emphasising the woman’s equality in relation to man, especially as it relates to power, strength, and authority. Moreover, it provides a clearer understanding of why the creation of animals was not sufficient. Only the woman—another human being—could be considered a power equal to man. The task of priestly humanity—to extend the garden and transform the outside world—would need a co-equal team to undertake it.

Summary and Conclusions

In summary then, I have outlined a way in which we may understand mission as a pre-Fall directive that can include later themes of human redemption and blessing, but is not limited to them. “Mission” in this sense is to be understood more broadly, not so much as a “de-sacralisation” but the opposite—to see human activity that fulfils its priestly function of extending the dominion and rule of God in the world as mission.

In my view, Genesis 2 implies that God’s mission existed from the beginning of creation. As such, it can now be argued that God’s mission and the purpose of God’s creation of humanity was not interrupted or augmented by the Fall. Instead, it is possible to understand that humanity’s later expulsion from the Garden in 3:23–24 may well be a way to accelerate this mission, in much the same way that David Eastwood suggested from Genesis 10 that God used the dispersal of humanity after the Babel event to fulfil his earlier stated will for humankind.[23]

If I may, I would like to suggest the following implications flow out of today’s reading of Genesis 2 in light of the 2023 Mission Research Consultation’s theme of “Race, Ethnicity, and Mission.”

Regardless of race—or perhaps through it, as Genesis 10 suggests—all believers are active in an unproductive world. Moreover, no particular race has privileged access or superior knowledge of the garden template that we are to extend into the world. Indeed, in light of Genesis 3, the Garden of Eden no longer exists in our midst, and humanity is limited to their own part of the unproductive world, with only a memory of God’s sacred space to work from. Finally, the model of humanity—as it is presented in this chapter—is one of power/strength equality. With the exception of Creator vs creation, human hierarchies find no evidence in this chapter, not least those based on gender.

Questions for reflection

  1. Where is mission: How might humanity’s mission to the vast unproductive region outside God’s garden be understood today?
  2. What is mission: In light of humanity’s sacred mission to transform the world into the likeness of God’s garden, is mission limited to evangelism and church planting? If not, then what is “missionary activity”?
  3. Who does mission: How does the understanding of women in Genesis 2 empower female missionaries in the sacred task of humanity?



[1] See Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 194–221.

[2] Note the appearance of the Mappīq in both forms, removing the possibility of reading a masculine suffix. Umberto Cassuto (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part 1: From Adam to Noah) suggests that in “several texts” the Mappīq is absent, suggesting that both verbs represent infinitive long forms. However, he presents no evidence for this, whereas the BHQ presents no alternative readings other than the present reading with a Mappīq.

[3] Note the Chinese Union Version (和合本) has “耕种和看守那园子” (“to work and keep the garden”). More recently, Barry Bandstra (Genesis 1–11: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text) has made a similar assertion, regrettably without explanation. It is interesting that the LXX (ancient Greek) translation of the Hebrew here uses the masculine form αὐτὸν (auton) when a feminine form exists. This suggests that the early translators understood this verse to probably refer to the “garden”. For “vegetation”, see the explanatory notes of the NET. It should be noted that the proper noun “Eden” is also an unlikely candidate. In Genesis 2:15, Eden serves as the nomen rectum and, so, cannot be referred to by the later sufformatives.

[4] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1–15, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1987).

[5] Genesis 2:5–17.

[6] Prior to God establishing the garden, the “land” referred to geographical regions that were either desolate—where bushes and plants were absent (2:5 [x2], 6)—or the geographical regions to which the rivers of Eden flowed (2:11 [x2], 13).

[7] In addition to the object of human activity, the “ground” (אֲדָמָה) in this pericope also refers to the material from which humanity was formed (2:7) as well as the locus of the watering “mist” (2:6), and, later, the “trees” that would make up the garden (2:9).

[8] David Tsumura, Creation and Destruction: A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf Theory in the Old Testament (Winona Lake, IL: Eisenbrauns, 2005).

[9] It should be noted that the use of contrasting descriptions, in this case desert and swamp, are a familiar Hebrew poetic device called hendiadys that is used to indicate comprehensiveness. In this case, the “earth” and “land” were to be understood as completely unproductive, in contrast to the luscious garden of Eden.

[10] Note the chiastic structure in 2:5–6, which centres on the absence of activity by the LORD God and humanity.

[11] Note the syntactical relationship in Genesis 2:15 between the wayyiqtol and qatāl verb forms to indicate result and purpose. See Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), §36.2.3d.

[12] The phrase “pleasant to the sight and good for food” (נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל) is probably a poetic device, similar to a hendiadys, which taken together could best be understood along the lines of food that is “delectable”, that is, both attractive and delicious.

[13] Two of these rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, are known to us by the same names and continue to flow today through the regions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. To this extent, these rivers may be generally understood to represent the regions northwest and northeast of the garden. Although the rivers named here as the Pishon and Gihon have not been identified, the regions Havilah and Cush, with which they are respectively associated, probably represent regions to the southeast and (far) southwest of the garden. A number of ancient works depict similar scenes. Note the colourful mural of Zimri-Lim discovered at ancient Mari depicting his investiture, illustrated with streams flowing out of jars into four different directions. Amélie Kuhrt, Ancient Near East C. 3000–330 BC, (London: Routlege, 1997), 96.

[14] For a helpful discussion of the term’s semantic range in relation to this passage, please see: John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), 104–115.

[15] Victor P. Hamilton, Genesis 1–17, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 155; Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 59.

[16] Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, 106–109.

[17] There exist a number of accounts that record the building and remodelling of sacred gardens by kings following their enthronement and victories.

[18] On this point of “rest” (שׁבת šbt), see: John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).

[19] R. David Freedman, “Woman, A Power Equal to Man,” BAR 9 (1983): 56–58; Walter C. Kaiser Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” in Correcting Caricatures: Revisiting the Biblical Ideal for Men and Women in Ministry, ed. Tim Krueger, William D. Spencer, and Megan Gruelich (Minneapolis: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2012): 6–13.

[20] See, for instance, Exod 18:4; Deut 33:7; Ps 70:5.

[21] As an attribute of God, see Deut 33:29; Pss 20:2; 89:19; 121:1, 8; 146:5; Hos 13:9. As attribute of others, see Isa 30:5; Ezek 12:14; Dan 11:34.

[22] Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat 127a.

[23] See David Eastwood, “Genesis 11:1–9 The Tower of Babel—Scattered Humanity,” Mission Round Table 18, no. 2 (July-September 2023), 4–5.

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