The story of the Old Testament is one that repeats itself often, and it starts in the Garden of Eden. Despite being one of the oldest stories we know, the meaning of the Garden of Eden has significant relevance for leaders today.
The Eden narrative is one of total disaster. While many leaders today look to the Bible for guidance on how to be a good leader, rarely do we look to the stories of failures like the one that takes place in Eden. And yet, the Old Testament is filled with these kinds of stories. In the end, these failures point to mankind’s desperate need for Jesus. And yes, this includes great leaders.
If you’d like to get a better understanding of the meaning of Eden and the Old Testament, then I highly recommend this video overview of the Old Testament from the Bible Project. It explains the Eden Narrative and it’s repetitive nature very clearly, and is definitely worth your time:
In this article, we’ll explore the structure of story in the Bible, and then some specific examples of stories in the Old Testament. Each of them feature leaders who were excellent in their unique fields, but failed spectacularly. We will then discuss how that matters for us today.
The Pixar Story Structure in the Bible
People often think of the Bible as a guidebook or collection of laws, but in actuality the Bible is a story. To help us see that, I want to use the Pixar story structure. This comes from a list of principles that Pixar follows to make great movies.
The following video comes from our course on the Story of the Bible, and it explains the Pixar Story Structure nicely:
One principle outlines a simple story structure that goes like this: “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”
This is, of course, a very simple version of a story structure. There is far more work that goes into great storytelling than filling out a few blanks, but this is a helpful tool for us when we want to identify the meaning of the garden of eden and the story we see unfolding there.
The Purest of Us
It starts with Adam and Eve, the purest of us. You can read their story in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden and they had one law to follow:
“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.” Genesis 2:16-17
Adam and Eve were created without sin – they were pure. They were the crowning achievement of God’s creation. Everything was great!
But one day, they sinned. Adam and Eve decided to pursue glory on their own terms, ignoring God’s promise and trying to do things without Him. They rebelled against His command and all sorts of bad things started to happen (the worst of which was death).
Amidst the ruin of this situation, God makes a subtle, but hopeful promise when speaking to the serpent:
And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15
And from this short story, we can identify the story of the Bible and the meaning of the Garden of Eden. I’ll fill in the blanks from the Pixar story structure we discussed earlier:
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful garden where everything was very good.
Every day, God would walk with mankind in perfect harmony. There was peace and prosperity for all.
One day, mankind rebelled against God.
Because of that, the relationship between God and man was ruined.
Because of that, our relationships between other people was ruined.
Because of that, death and destruction abound.
Until finally, the offspring of Eve will crush the head of the serpent, defeating sin and restoring peace between God and man.
When Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden, they are devastated, but have a glimmer of hope to hold onto. They know that one of their offspring will destroy Satan’s work and bring restoration.
And so the search begins. The Old Testament provides a series of stories about great people who had the potential to be the one who would crush the head of the serpent. Let’s see what happens to each of them…
The First of Us
It gets started right away in Genesis 4. Adam and Eve give birth to two sons, Cain and Abel. This is their offspring, right? Maybe they’re the ones who will crush the head of the serpent!
But then Cain gets angry and jealous of his brother, Abel. God even speaks to Cain and warns him, “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Cain has a chance here to defy the serpent, but he doesn’t. Instead, he invites his trusting brother out into a field and murders him. The first person to be born in the Bible murdered his own brother. This wasn’t a random accident, this was planned.
This is a colossal disaster. Like Adam and Eve, God invites Cain into something glorious. Instead, Cain chooses his own plans and path to glory and murders his brother. He then gets exiled even further away from the Garden of Eden, moving further away from God’s presence instead of getting humanity closer. Pain and sorrow increase, and the search for the one who would crush the head of the serpent continues.
The Most Faithful of Us
Abraham’s story starts in Genesis 12, and from the beginning he demonstrated incredible faith. For instance, when he was 75-years-old he moved his entire family because he heard God speak to him.
God calls Abraham into a unique, covenantal relationship. He promises Abraham that he will make his offspring outnumber the stars and that his offspring will be a blessing to all nations. But there’s a problem here – Abraham and his wife, Sarah, don’t have any children. And they are old, closer to 100 than they are to 50.
Abraham seems to believe God’s promise, but his actions don’t always reflect this. “It’s too late,” he and Sarah rationalize. “We know God has promised it and it does sound glorious, but we can’t have children.” So they decide to pursue this glory on their own terms. Abraham sleeps with his wife’s maidservant, named Hagar. Together they have a son named Ishmael.
And not surprisingly, Sarah becomes jealous and eventually Hagar and Ishmael get kicked out. It’s a painful experience for everyone. God intervenes and helps, but it’s ugly. It’s not how it was supposed to be.
God invites him into something glorious, but because Abraham tried to do things on his own terms, pain and sorrow increased. Fortunately, God still delivered on his promise: Abraham and Sarah miraculously have a son, named Isaac. This is the beginning of the people of Israel. The Jewish people are all the offspring of Abraham, and so among them the search for the one who would crush the serpent continues.
The Strongest of Us
In Judges 13, we meet a man named Samson. He was a man with super strength – he was always winning fights. He literally killed a lion with his bare hands. I can’t do that, and neither can you!
Samson was a judge before the time of kings. He ruled over Israel and was responsible for protecting them from the Philistines, who were some rather aggressive neighbors (to put it nicely).
One would think that this incredible strength would enable Samson to crush the head of the serpent, right? Unfortunately not. Like Adam and Eve, God basically gave Samson one rule. Adam and Eve were told not to eat from a single tree, and Samson explains his one rule to Delilah in Judges 16:17.
If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.
And of course, Samson breaks the one rule. He forsakes the glory that God offered him for the glory of a night with Delilah. He loses his strength and is captured, taken away, and tortured by the Philistines. Pain and suffering is the result, and the search for the offspring continues.
The Wisest of Us
If a judge couldn’t do it, how about a king? King David was a great king, but a very flawed man. He sinned in some big ways, but he loved God and so God made a covenant with him. In 2 Samuel 7:16 God tells David,
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.
Well that sounds pretty glorious doesn’t it? Maybe we’re getting closer – someone who sits on an eternal thrown should be qualified to crush the head of the serpent.
King Solomon, David’s offspring, takes the throne. In 1 Kings 3:3 we learn that Solomon loved the Lord, and his love was so pure that God basically offers him a “genie style wish.”
Surprisingly, Solomon actually passes the test. Instead of asking for gold or power or a mighty army, he asks for wisdom. This pleases God, and so he gives Solomon incredible wisdom. He also gives him money and power too, he gives Solomon glory for doing things God’s way.
Maybe Solomon really is the one!
But it doesn’t last. In many ways Solomon’s fall is the most painful because he seemed so close to fulfilling God’s promise. God provided some guidelines for the Kings of Israel in Deuteronomy 17. They’re fairly simple. Here’s a couple examples:
The king shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.
If Solomon had obeyed these rules, he would have been a great king. But let’s see what 1 Kings 11 says,
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women… He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.
No matter how you want to determine the number of wives that is “too many” for one king, I’m pretty sure 700 is far beyond the line. I’m sure the decisions felt justified – marrying this princess will protect our Eastern border and marrying this one will bring some much needed chariots and so on and so on. Solomon pursued glory on his own terms instead of God’s way.
The excessive riches were an issue too. Solomon’s reign was the wealthiest time in Israel’s history. You would hope that it was a time of prosperity and fun for his people, but instead Solomon used all the wealth to build monuments to himself and foreign Gods.
After Solomon’s death, we discover his legacy in 1 Kings 12 when some leaders approach Solomon’s son and say,
Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.
Does that sound like a people who loved their king? Does it sound like a people who enjoyed a thriving economy? Or does it sound like the words of a people of a king who decided to pursue glory on his own terms?
Solomon’s turn from the Lord was costly. It caused pain during his time, and then caused destruction during the reign of his son. The Kingdom of Israel would split in two and never be the same. Solomon, who in many ways really represented the best of what makes mankind great, completely fails to honor God and follow him.
The Meaning of of the Garden of Eden for Leaders Today
The Eden narrative plays out over and over again through the Bible. People reject God’s ways and pursue glory on their own terms.
This is not just an ancient story, however, this is a story that continues to be told today. Corrupt executives destroy their companies, leaders of countries kill their own people, and individuals across the world steal, kill, and destroy.
If you hope to be a godly leader, you need to recognize something: you desperately need God.
Dependence on God is not something we tap into when things get tough. Dependence on God is like oxygen. We need God every moment of every day, because without God, we can do nothing.
As the story of Eden and the Old Testament reveal, even the best of us will fail without God. And so, we must take care to seek Him and trust Him in all things.
Fortunately, the story of the Bible does not end in tragedy. The search for the offspring who could crush the serpent was not in vain…
The Perfect One
Jesus was a descendent of King David, and although he was born into nothing, he would inherit an eternal thrown. He was the offspring of Abraham, and through child God would bless the nations. And of course, he was the offspring of Eve. After countless years of searching we meet Jesus, the one who would crush the head of the serpent.
Before Jesus goes into full-time ministry, he spends 40 days out in the wilderness. This story is in Matthew 4:1-11 and has some striking parallels to the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
While Jesus is out in the wilderness, he is approached by Satan, who tempts Jesus the same way he tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden. He twists the promises of God and tries to trick Jesus into disobedience.
It doesn’t work.
He promises Jesus instant glory and power and dominion, all Jesus needs to do is reject God and pursue the glory the easy way.
Until finally, the Eden narrative has a different ending. Jesus chooses to do things His Father’s way. He doesn’t cut corners or pursue glory on his own terms. Instead of causing pain and sorrow, he takes the pain and sorrow upon himself. After resisting temptation, Jesus would go on to minister to people and eventually die on the cross. In so doing, the serpent struck his heal, but he crushed the head of the serpent.
And because of that, we have hope.
So what now?
There is still much work to be done. The serpent was defeated. Jesus has introduced the Kingdom of God into the hearts of his people everywhere, but the pain and sorrow caused by mankind’s sin is still very great. Jesus invites all of us into his mission – to shine light into dark places and bring peace where there is conflict.
This post is a long story that basically comes down to this: If you want to make a positive difference, if you want to help reverse the curse, then it starts with one thing. Trust in the power and work of the perfect one. Depend on Jesus, have faith in his work, and ask him to use you for his glory instead of your own.
Adam and Eve decided they could do it on their own, and it was a giant mistake. The meaning of the garden of Eden for leaders today, then, is to not make their same mistake. Choose to trust in God and the work of Jesus.