In Nehemiah 9:25 the Hebrews—recounting the Lord’s leading in their history—talked about how, after reaching the Promised Land, their ancestors “delighted themselves” (NKJV) in God’s great goodness. In Hebrew the verbal form imports nothing extraordinary. But what it is, I think, is another matter. The verbal root is the same as the name Eden, as in the “Garden of Eden” (Gen. 2:15).
Though in biblical Hebrew one has to be careful about semantic links between nouns and verbs with identical roots, especially in a case like this, where the verb form in Nehemiah 9:25 appears only here, the use is still fascinating.
Various translations of the verb are: they “abounded with delight” (Douay),1 they “reveled in” (NASB),2 and they “enjoyed to the full” (NET).3 Perhaps the best translation would be that they “edenized themselves,” if edenized were an English verb.
God created the physical world precisely in a way that humans could enjoy.
The gospel is, after all, about restoration. And what better symbolizes that to which we are ultimately restored than does Eden? God raised up the Hebrew people and brought them to Canaan, the crossroads of the ancient world, in order to create the closest reflection of Eden that could exist on a fallen earth. Even after their captivity and return, the potential was still there. “The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden” (Isa. 51:3).
The reason was not just to show Israel the blessing that came from obeying the Lord, but to show pagan nations what humanity could become by following the true God, as opposed to their worthless idols. And these other nations, marveling at the moral, spiritual, and physical prosperity of the Hebrews, would declare, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6). And among the blessings that the Hebrews would have enjoyed would be material prosperity and wealth (Deut. 8:17, 18; 28:11-13), which would have caused other nations to come to Israel “from the ends of the earth and say, ‘Our ancestors possessed nothing but false gods, worthless idols that did them no good’ ” (Jer. 16:19).
Yes, people enjoyed the material blessings that the Lord had promised them, blessings that were, to whatever degree possible in a fallen world, reminiscent of the abundance of Eden. And that was fine. They were supposed to enjoy them. Greek philosophy, not biblical theology, argued that the physical was bad and the spiritual good. God created the physical world precisely in a way that humans could enjoy, and ancient Israel—blessed of God—enjoyed it also.
Their sin was not in “edenizing themselves” in God’s great goodness, but in forgetting the Lord, whose goodness they were enjoying (Eze. 23:35). The blessings became an end in and of themselves, instead of a means to an end, which was to reveal God to those around them.
H’mmm . . . Any lessons for our church today?
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, will be released by Pacific Press this fall.