The Epic of Eden | Notes & Review

Posted on November 6, 2010


Sandra L. Richter. The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament. IVP Academic, 2008. (263 pages)

St. Pete’s Blog: Book Review
Q&A on Ben Witherington’s Blog

Introduction: The Dysfunctional Closet Syndrome

The Bible, in all its parts, is intended to communicate to humanity the realities of redemption. Over the centuries, the church has stumbled when it has forgotten this truth, and has thereby, ironically, damaged the authority of the book from which it has drawn its life. Often the error has run in the direction of making this book less than it is–less than the inspired Word of God, less than the supernatural report of God’s doings throughout the ages, less than the definitive rule for faith and practice among those who believe. But just as often, the error has run in the other direction–attempting to make the Bible more than it is. Too often in our zeal for the worldwide influence of this book, we forget that it was not intended as an exhaustive ancient world history, or a guide to the  biology and paleontology of creation, or even a handbook on social reform. We forget that this book was cast upon the waters of history with one very specific, completely essential and desperately necessary objective–to tell the epic tale of God’s ongoing quest to ransom his creation. And to, thereby, give each generation the opportunity to know his amazing grace. The Bible is the saga of Yahweh and Adam, the prodigal son and his ever gracious heavenly father; humanity in their rebellion and God in his grace. This narrative begins with Eden and does not conclude until the New Jerusalem is firmly in place. It is all one story. And if you are a believer, it is all your story. (15)

…I’ve come to believe that the issues that keep the average New Testament believer from their Old Testament can be categorized under three headings. The first, and to me the most heartbreaking, is that most Christians have not been taught that the story of the Old Testament is their story. Rather, they have been encouraged to think that knowledge of the Old Testament is unnecessary to New Testament faith. … The second…is what I have come to call the “great barrier.” … The third category, and perhaps the most challenging, is the one that has driven me to write this book. This is what I have coined “the dysfunctional closet syndrome.” (16)

The church does not know who she is, because she does not know who she was. (17)

…the closet is a mess, and even with a significant time commitment, they cannot put the pieces together. Thus they wind up either spending an outrageous amount of time putting together an Old Testament study (or sermon), or they wind up with one or two texts or stories with which they feel comfortable and ignore the rest. The end result is that most decide that the Old Testament is just too hard and give their attention to the New Testament where there is some hope of memorizing the characters, places and dates. And all this is in spite of the fact that most Christians are hungry to understand their Old Testament heritage. (19)

My goal in writing this book, therefore, is to deal a mortal blow to the dysfunctional closet syndrome. (19)

Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law. (19)

And rather than doing what folks have been doing for centuries–attempting to impose their own paradigm upon the text–we will attempt instead to discover the paradigm within the text. (19-20)

1 The Bible as the Story of Redemption

More than anything else, we want to hear the words of the biblical writers as they were intended and claim their epic saga as our own. (21)

Thus the study of the Old Testament becomes a cross-cultural endeavor. If we are going to understand the intent of the biblical authors, we will need to see their words the way they did. (24)

… Israel’s society was “traditional.” More specifically it was “tribal.” In a tribal society the family is, literally, the axis of the community. An individual’s link to the legal and economic structures of their society is through the family. … In Israel’s tribal society the family was central, and it is best understood by means of three descriptive categories: patriarchal, patrilineal and patrilocal. (25)

… God’s ways of doing things often stands in opposition to the cultural norms of his people and how redemption’s story critiques every human culture. (30)

The goal of redemption is not a marbled mansion, but reincorporation into the bet ab (בית אב) of our heavenly Father. … And although their culture morphed over the generations with the effects of urbanism, exile, Hellenism, etc., this basic value system endured. (39)


Redemption was the means by which a lost family member was restored to a place of security within the kinship circle. This was a patriarch’s responsibility, this was the safety net of Israel’s society, and this is the backdrop for the epic of Eden in which we New Testament believers find ourselves. … Yahweh is presenting himself as the patriarch of the clan who has announced his intent to redeem his lost family members. Not only has he agreed to pay whatever ransom is required, but he has sent the most cherished member of his household to accomplish his intent–his firstborn son. … His goal? To restore the lost family members to the bet ab (בית אב) so that where he is they may be also. This is why we speak of each other as brother and sister, why we know God as Father, why we call ourselves the household of faith. (45)

2 The Bible in Real Time and Space

The story of redemption comes to us through real time and space–real people, real places, real faith. And if we are going to understand this story, obviously, we are going to need to know something about the time and space our heroes occupied. (47)

For example, the medieval scholars (as well as most folks today) believed that genealogies in the ancient world were intended as cumulative records of every generation in a given society. But in fact, these genealogies were intended as contemporary statements regarding group and individual identity. (50)

Why do geography? Because the biblical stories happened in real space, and that space affected the choices and actions of the players as well as the plot line of the drama. It make a difference that Sinai is located in no man’s land, miles and miles away from any known urban center. It makes a difference that you can drive from Jerusalem to Jericho in a slow car in forty-five minutes, but that your ears will pop all along the way because of the dramatic shift in elevation. It even makes a difference that the Jordan River is neither deep nor wide and “mount” Zion would not qualify as a respectable sledding hill in some parts of New England. (55)

3 The concept of Covenant: The “General Law” That Holds Our Facts Together

…the biblical writers were theologians. …[they] consciously organized their material in a systematic fashion in order to communicate certain central truths. What we want to do, then, is to rediscover their system and allow their system to organize our closets. (69)

In its native context a covenant (Hebrew berit [ברית]) was “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.” (70)

How might a person go about establishing a relationship of privilege and responsibility with someone who was non-kin? Most simply answered, that person would have to make kin out of nonkin. This was accomplished by means of fictive kinship. By means of oath the people of Israel’s world understood that a fictive kinship bond could be established by which both parties agreed to act like family. (71)

By means of covenant, nations could establish a relationship of fictive kinship, thereby securing from one another the privileges and responsibilities necessary for international relations. (72)

…two sorts of international alliances common to the ancient Near East: the parity treaty (a treaty made between equals) and what the literature names the suzerain/vassal treaty (a treaty made between greater and lesser powers). (73)

To abide by the contract with one’s suzerain was to love him, and to betray the suzerain or to fail to keep his stipulations was to hate him. (79)


  • a preamble
  • historical prologue
  • stipulations
  • blessings and curses
  • witnesses
  • deposit [in sacred space]
  • periodic reading

Yahweh did not create the covenant idea; he co-opted it to communicate his plan of redemption. (82)

…in this new covenant the Lord of hte cosmos has served as both suzerain and sacrifice. (89)

In sum, we see that the word covenant carries more semantic cargo than most bible readers would ever guess. (91)

4 God’s Original Intent

Although there is no specific declaration of covenant making in Eden, we find the profile of berit throughout the narrative. I believe this is so because the concept of berit as it was learned at Sinai so profoundly affected Israel’s self-understanding that berit was used to organize the earliest narratives of the Bible as well. (92)

I believe Genesis 1 was written to provide a lens through which to read the rest of the Pentateuch. And since the Pentateuch is the backbone of the entire Bible, ultimately Genesis 1 serves as the introduction to our faith. (94)

Basically, Genesis 1 was written to answer the questions. “Who is God and what is his relationship to us?” (95)

This is not because the Bible cannot answer those questions; it is because, in this case, it did not. This is the bedrock of good biblical interpretation: let the Bible set its own agenda. (98)

This was God’s perfect plan: the people of God in the place of God dwelling in the presence of God. Yet, as with all covenants, God’s perfect plan was dependent on the choice of the vassal. Humanity must willingly submit to the plan of God. (104)

For each of the human partners we find not just the removal of blessings, but the reversal of blessings. What had been a blessing now becomes a curse, a benefit becomes a burden, paradise is exchanged for prison. (106)

It may surprise you to learn that tselem (צלם) is the standard ancient Near Eastern word for “idol.” …Within the worldview of the ancient Near East the message here (Genesis 1:26-27) is clear: we are the nearest representation of Yahweh that exists. (107)

Folks, we are not merely waiting for our personal deliverance, we wait for the day when all of creation will be “born again.” (115)


We have learned in this chapter that Genesis 1-2 essentially provides a blueprint to God’s original intent for humanity: God’s people dwelling in God’s place with full access to his presence. … I know for myself that I am unable to share the gospel without speaking of Eden. Because when we ask the salvation question, what we are really asking is, what did the first Adam lose? And when we answer the salvation question, what we are really attempting to articulate is, what did the Second Adam (i.e., Jesus) buy back? Let the story begin! (118)

5 God’s Final Intent: The New Jerusalem

God’s original intent is his final intent. …In fact, we could summarize the plot line of the Bible into one cosmic question: “How do we get Adam (אדם) back into the garden?” (129)

Like a rock climber having fallen from a great height, Adam now lies broken and bloody on the ledge of the cliff–too far from top or bottom for a simple rescue. It will take a series of rescues to bring this climber to safety. (130)

Each step of the story, each stage of the rescue may be organized under one of six covenants.

  1. Eden
  2. Noahic Covenant
  3. Abrahamic Covenant
  4. Mosaic Covenant
  5. Davidic Covenant
  6. New Covenant (Jesus)
  7. New Jerusalem


In sum, redemptive history is all about fixing what went wrong in the garden. What went wrong in Eden is what must go right in redemption; what was done in the garden must be undone in Christ. (134)

6 Noah and Abraham

What is God’s response to this complete and widespread depravity? He decides to start again–a choice which results in both worldwide catastrophe and a second chance. (138)

…the flood was understood as an epoch divider. (143)

In other words, what we see in the flood is not merely a natural disaster intended to bring about God’s judgment on humanity, but a de-creational event. (144)

Thus, rather than the flood being seen as an event that introduced an inferior era (as the Mesopotamian literature infers), the flood is seen as an act of God that rescued humanity from themselves and offered our corrupt race a second chance. (154)

In Abraham and Sarah’s world, when a person was raised to a new position–a princeling to a throne, or a servant to an office–it was common for the patron to change that person’s name in order to signify the new role. Thus, when Yahweh changes his clients’ names, he formalizes their new roles as the parents of a new line of chosen people. Basically, what we have here is the designation of a new Adam and Eve. (163)


As we close this chapter, we find that we have successfully navigated the first two stages of the great rescue plan. God has reestablished contact with fallen humanity through his covenant with Noah, and the people (the descendants of Abraham through Isaac), the place (the land of Canaan) and the presence (“I am…your very great reward,” Gen 15:1 NIV) have been identified by means of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham. To our joy we also see that the plan is expanding. Whereas, in Eden every man woman and child was welcomed into covenant relationship with Yahweh, with the Fall, all were excluded. But with Noah, one man and his immediate family are rescued and a bloodline identified, and with Abraham, one extended family is now permanently welcomed into covenant relationship. (165)

7 Moses and the Tabernacle

According to what we know about covenants, this is why Israel should serve Yahweh. Moreover, it is also how Yahweh has chosen to be known. For all of history our God has chosen to be identified by this singular event–the God who rescues slaves from their bondage and claims them as his own. (174)


In the task of interpretation a type is an event or person in one era of redemptive history that has a specific parallel (an antitype) in another era of redemptive history. (178) …a type operates upon the principal of limited fulfillment. (179)

The increasing sanctification of the three areas of the tabernacle, the restricted access, the elaborate measures taken for cleansing and atonement all communicate the same message: God lives here. And anyone who draws near must either be holy … or dead. (181-2)

Rather than suggesting that the Law is somehow negated or done away with in the new covenant, Jeremiah 31:31-33 emphasizes just the opposite. According to Jeremiah 31:31-33 it is rather the ability to keep the Law, as a result of having a transformed nature, and thus to keep rather than perpetually break the covenant between God and his people, that distinguishes the new covenant from the covenant at Sinai. …the contrast between the two covenants is a contrast between the two different conditions of the people who are brought into these covenants and their correspondingly different responses to the same Law. (186)


With the establishment of the Mosaic covenant, the kingdom of God may once again be found in Adam‘s world. (188)

8 David and the Monarchy

…the covenant-faithfulness of God’s people is also spiraling downward…a spiral which is shockingly illustrated by the jarring stories that conclude the book [of Judges]. (193)

…rather than allowing the covenant to set the parameters of their behavior, these people (who claimed to belong to the covenant) were creating their own  morality. And their self-centered lifestyles (influenced by the ideals of their culture) were resulting in a “people of God” who looked and acted just like (and in the case above, worse than) the Canaanites. … Hence, the solution to the problem of foreign oppression was not a more effective military it was adherence to the covenant. (194)

Throughout this era, every king of Israel will be compared (for good or for ill) to David. David is the paradigm, his covenant-loyalty the standard. And as the years go by and the storm clouds continue to gather on the horizon, the same question begins to form itself in the heart of every faithful Israelite: “Is there a son of David out there somewhere who can clean up the mess we’ve made, stand against our enemies and speak up for the voiceless?” (207)


The Davidic covenant may be understood as the covenant of the monarchy and the last piece in the Old Testament typological puzzle. …the Davidic covenant adds to this picture the typological figure who will play such a major role in the fulfillment of the promised new covenant: a king for God’s kingdom, as shepherd for his people. This figure takes on the responsibility of representing God’s people, leading them in obedience to the covenant, defending their inheritance and defeating their enemies. (207)

9 The New Covenant and the Return of the King

Predictably, the Jews understood these promises to mean that this coming child of David would throw off their foreign overlords, restore their national sovereignty, reunite north and south and bring back the golden days of independence and prosperity as they remembered them under David. (211)

But hopefully now that you know something about God’s larger redemptive plan, this literary strategy [Matthew 1] does not seem as obscure as it once did. By opening with a genealogy, Matthew is opening his gospel with a list of Jesus’ most essential credentials. (212)

This is the objective of the incarnation. The God-man Jesus Christ has died for humanity, so that we the offspring of Adam and Eve might be born again to a second chance at life. (216)


So we have come full circle. What began in Eden, ends in Eden. God’s original intent to offer kingdom citizenship to every man, woman and child has been reaccomplished in Christ. god’s original plan that the children of Adam might build their city in the midst of his kingdom is recreated in the new earth. His driving desire to be with us is fulfilled as the Presence that walked in the garden now illuminates the New Jerusalem. As the final chapters of the New Testament declare, the great rescue has been accomplished, Adam is safely home. (224)

Frequently Asked Questions

What Role Does the Law of Moses Play in the Christian’s Life?

The most enduring approach to defining this middle-of-the-road position has been the attempt to somehow delineate the law according to “moral” versus “civil” (or “ethical” versus “ritual”) categories. (225)

In sum, I think we can identify at least three categories of Mosaic law which, in their specific expectations, no longer apply to the Christian: those involving the regulation of Israel’s government, those involving the regulation of Israel’s temple, and those laws that the New Testament specifically repeals or changes. I wold still argue that the values that shaped these regulations express the character of God and therefore must be attended to by the Christian, but the specifics of their application are no longer our responsibility. (228)

What About Modern-Day Israel?

…God is no longer in the business of theocracy. (231)

— VIA —

For anyone in the beginning or middle stages of studying the Bible, this book is one of the “must reads.” Richter does a fantastic job in summing up the overarching themes, tying them together in easily understandable language, all while maintaining a value for scholarly integrity through her footnotes and references.

The only critique I have is the same as others have said, that there is simply too much ground to cover in 200 pages, so it’s simply impossible to capture the whole (which is why you should simply just go read the whole…of the Bible that is). However, if you’re looking for a starting place in understanding your faith journey or just the Bible on its own, this is definitely an excellent one.

I had some difficulties with some of the interpretations of the book of Hebrews, and the “replacement” language when it came to things in the Old Testament like the Tabernacle, and cultic law. Replacement theology is often a “theology of contempt” when it comes to viewing God and His redemptive plan from the New Testament backwards through the book, and it’s a theology that has proven very destructive, and hideous in Christian history. It was easier to palate these sentiments in this book given the context of her work and the work as a whole, however, I still have questions and wrestlings when it comes to that kind of language and the overarching perspective. Whenever I hear “the Old is done away with…” it always makes me cringe a bit when preached from pulpits.

Regardless, The Epic of Eden is critical in the constant and ever fluctuating realities of changing meaning. “Redemption,” and “savlation,” and “gospel,” throughout time have been pushed, pulled, stretched, and often times hijacked to mean a variety of things throughout our history. Richter’s book is an important one for bringing us back to center, reminding us that impositions on terms and personal eisegetical interpretations cut out the roots of the tree of whose branches we have made our houses of faith. As she said,

This is the bedrock of good biblical interpretation: let the Bible set its own agenda. (98)

Tremendous thanks to Adria for this reference, and if you are interested in being a revolutionary in the world of Biblical literacy, please visit the Foundation Experiment.

Posted in: Reviews, Theology