George Ophoff was Professor of Old Testament Studies in the Protestant Reformed Seminary in its early days. Reprinted here, in edited form, are articles which Ophoff wrote at that time for the Standard Bearer.
Facts of history
We now enter upon the practical branch of our subject. It is the old dispensation, inaugurated by the fall of man, that furnishes us with the materials to be considered. This period, however, was preceded by an epoch sometimes referred to as the golden age in the history of the human race. The first few chapters of the book of Genesis record the events of this period and describe the ideal state peculiar to it. It is related how, in the beginning, God created heaven and earth. In the six days that followed, the Almighty was engaged in realizing His designs, and the result was a cosmos declaring the wisdom and the power of its Maker.
Of all God’s creatures, none was as lovely as man. Him God created in His own image. True, God formed him from the dust of the ground, but He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And unto him God said, “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
It is recorded that God prepared for man a garden eastward in Eden where He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; and the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Out of Eden went a river to water the garden. The Lord God took the man, and put him in the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
The above events we regard as facts in history. We oppose the view that all or some of the things of Paradise were not events in history but merely images of higher truths. This view must be denounced because Scripture nowhere teaches that some or all parts of this record are allegories instead of events in history. That view is without an exegetical basis. And the practice to which it points is a pernicious one. Historical facts are transported from the province of the real to the realm of the fanciful. This is done without the permission of Scripture. The practices of this school are fraught with danger. Let us bear in mind that the very cornerstone of the temple of God is a historical fact, an event in history. Consign this stone to the unreal realms of the fanciful, and the entire superstructure is bound to collapse.
Figures of things to come
Scripture does not leave us in doubt as to whether the matters related are facts in history, or merely images of higher truths, or both facts in history and at the same time images of truths of a higher realm. With respect to the things of Paradise, according to the testimony of Scripture, the latter is the case. Paradise, to begin with, is a figure of heaven. This is evident from a comparison of the written record of John’s vision of the celestial city with the description of paradise. “And I saw,” says John,
…a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God…. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God…. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald;…. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it…. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day; for there shall be no night there…. And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life…. And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him; and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.
Let us now return to Genesis.
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden…. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone…. And he (Adam) said, I heard thy voice in the garden.
Gen. 2:8-12; Gen. 3:10
One cannot help being impressed by the likeness between the holy city and paradise. Common to both is the absence of the curse and the moral purity of the inhabitants. Further, the tree of life is there in the garden as well as in the holy city. It is plain from the record in the book of Revelation that this tree is only one of its kind. In the holy city there were several such trees. For we read there that the tree of life was on either side of the river. At least in the book of Revelation, the term “tree” is a common noun, implying the presence of a group of trees of the same kind. There is no objection to regarding the “tree” of the book of Genesis as a term with a similar implication. In paradise, then, as well as in the celestial city, we find a grove of trees of the same kind. The tree of life of the holy city yields her fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations. Likewise the tree of life of the garden of Eden was for food. It kept alive man’s frame, since it nourished that frame of his at the very fountainhead of its existence. The tree of life of the holy city was located near the center of Jerusalem, close to the throne of God. Likewise the tree of life of the garden. It was situated in Eden, a place centrally located. It is stated that the tree was situated in the very midst of the garden. This tree corresponds to the throne of God of the holy city.
Both the holy city and the garden had its river. The one proceeded out of the throne of God; the other out of Eden to water the garden. Further, both places had their sanctuary. The temple of Jerusalem is God and the Lamb. Approaching this throne, the inhabitants come into the very presence of God. The sanctuary of Paradise was the garden of Eden. The inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, was the grove—the tree of life. It was the meeting-place between God and man. Here man stood in the very presence of God.
It is worthy of note that both paradise and the holy city exhibit the design of the tabernacle. Also this structure was divided into three compartments: the outer court, the holy place, and the holy of holies. In the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle dwelt God. Only the high priest was permitted to meet Him there, and that but once a year.
There are still other indications in Scripture that the events and institutions of Paradise are at once figures of the realities of heaven. We turn to Romans 5:14: “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.” To the murderer upon the cross, Christ said, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Denial of the historicity of some aspects of Paradise
But paradise is not only an image of heaven. The incidents and events of this epoch are also facts in history. All of them are. This is something that is being contested today by Dr. Geelkerken* and those of like mind. They maintain that some of the details—such as the speech of the serpent and the tree of life—are events and acts that did not happen as described in the sacred record. They admit that such terms as animal, bird, river, gold, man, woman, creation, and fall refer to realities that were like unto the realities known by these names today. But they draw the line when they come to such written statements as “the serpent said,” and such terms as “the tree of life.” The statement “and the serpent said,” they say, does not signify real speech, but speech as an idea or concept. This idea is then regarded as an image of some other reality. In other words, the expression “and the serpent said” does not signify real speech but something else—who knows what.
There are serious objections to this manner of dealing with Scripture. To begin with, it does not have the sanction of Scripture. Scripture nowhere indicates that this record is intended, in part, to convey something other than what is ordinarily meant by such language. Hence, the record of Genesis must be regarded as a continuous narrative of events and facts on the same plane.
It may be objected that our conclusion has for its premise silence. Let us therefore grant, for the sake of argument, that some of the language of the record signifies things other than those ordinarily designated by the terms and phrases in question. The problem now is to know where to draw the line. If Scripture is silent on the matter, nobody under the sun can know where to do it. The fact that the line has nevertheless been drawn goes to show that the expositors referred to above have taken a leap in the dark. What reason can be given for not denying the historicity of the entire record? None whatsoever. In view of these matters it is well to abide by the rule that the terms and phrases of Holy Writ are to be understood literally unless otherwise indicated by Scripture.
In fine, the thing to do with respect to the record in question is to pass from the word to the reality signified, and from there to the realities of heaven. Geelkerken, on the other hand, passes from the word to the things of heaven and denies the realities that lie between. We believe that the things of Paradise were, indeed, events in history and, as such, images of the realities of heaven.
The things of Paradise
Let us now attend to the things of Paradise. One of its institutions was the tree of life. We read concerning it: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden.” And again: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever….”
Let it be repeated that Paradise exhibits the design of the tabernacle. The grove in the midst of the garden corresponds to the most holy place, the garden itself to the holy place, and the surrounding territory to the outer court of the tabernacle. The grove, then, being the inner sanctuary of Paradise, was the meeting place between God and man. There man stood in the very presence of his Maker.
When man ate of the forbidden tree he was expelled from the garden and was deprived of the privilege of nourishing his frame with the fruit of the tree of life. To eat from this tree is the prerogative of the righteous only. “To him that overcometh,” says Jesus, “will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). And again, “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14). Physical death is the result of a disobedient and unrighteous life, in that fallen man no longer has access to the tree of life.
The fact that the way to the tree of life is kept by the cherubim with the flaming sword, which turned every way, indicates that this tree was not made to disappear with the fall of man. It remained standing in the midst of the garden very likely until the time of the Flood. However, its way was kept. But there was also the promise of a seed who should gain the ascendancy over the malice of the devil. Man knew, then, that immortality and righteousness were again to be his portion. But he was taught to look away from the tree, for the way of the tree was kept. He was made to look for the promised good from different quarters. Thus the tree of life became the symbol of grace and a schoolmaster, training the believers to Christ. The fruits of immortality, of which the tree was a symbol, man will again eat. These fruits will be withheld from him but for a season.
*Dr. J.G. Geelkerken (d. 1960) was a minister in the Gereformeerde Kerken Nederland whose views were condemned by the GKN Synod of Assen in 1926. The GKN deposed him for his heresy.