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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:3, Fall 2021

Strata: Book Review: The Tree of Life: A Powerful Symbol

By Ralph K. Hawkins

In 1970, Joni Mitchell released a song called “Woodstock,” in which she described an encounter with a “child of God” who was walking along the road. When she asked him where he was going, he said he was going to Woodstock, where he hoped to get back to the land and find freedom for his soul. He explained, “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

These lines allude to the Garden of Eden, a place of beauty and abundance into which God placed humankind after their creation (Genesis 2:8). Eden was not simply a garden that God planted for human habitation; it was God’s own garden (e.g., Isaiah 51:3), with the tree of life in its midst (Genesis 2:9).

The key idea in the Garden of Eden narrative is the presence of God. The garden was meant to be understood as a temple with garden-like features. As such, it was the very dwelling place of YHWH, which humans were invited to enjoy and cultivate in his presence. Since the garden was therefore a sacred space, the first couple’s task of caring for it should probably be understood in priestly terms—as caring for sacred space. The garden was God’s temple, where the first humans served as priests.

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