So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and 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. Genesis 1:27-28
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. Genesis 2:15
From the beginning God’s purpose is that His children become like Him with the first commandment He gives them being to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, or in other words to create as He does. In connection with this commandment, God designs and charges His children to be stewards of His creations, including their own offspring.
The charge to be stewards comes in verse fifteen of Genesis chapter two cited above as the Lord puts the man in the Garden of Eden for two important purposes: to dress and to keep the garden. These first purposes are not temporary assignments in the Garden of Eden, unconnected to man’s role in the world and in the eternities but instead are fundamental to who God is and what man may become.
The Hebrew word for dress means to work and to serve, while the word for keep means to guard, protect, save, watch, treasure up, and celebrate. One way to understand the meaning of the word for keep is to think of the English word as a noun. Keep in English can refer to the innermost stronghold of a castle. This is the place where a keeper of the castle keeps that which is most precious, particularly his wife and children, safe and nourished with provisions that he also keeps there for that purpose. In this sense, the Garden of Eden is a keep just as heaven is a keep where God keeps, protects, saves, and nourishes His family, or as the holy of holies in the ancient tabernacle and temple is a keep as a representation of heaven.
(walking into a castle keep on our trip to the UK the summer of 2016)
This understanding of the word keep is meaningful from other perspectives as well. For instance, to me it gives greater weight to what it means to keep commandments, implying obedience with a deep recognition of the importance of the commandments and of honor for the giver of the commandments.
As an example of ancient connections between cultures and languages highlighting these universal principles, the Samaritans whose name comes from the Hebrew word for to keep consider themselves keepers of the ancient word of God and commandments as found in the Old Testament. As another example, samurai, using the same three letter root word--SMR and meaning servant in Japanese and potentially also coming out of this ancient understanding, are keepers of ancient traditions and the land of Japan.
In any event together these purposes of serving and keeping include much of what man should do and what God does. An applicable sermon about these two principles and their righteous application to lend understanding to the charge to dress and keep the Garden of Eden is found in Mosiah chapter two in which King Benjamin teaches about how God serves and keeps us, and how He expects us to do likewise in reciprocation to Him by keeping His commandments and in service to others:
And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne—and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day.
Yet, my brethren, I have not done these things that I might boast, neither do I tell these things that thereby I might accuse you; but I tell you these things that ye may know that I can answer a clear conscience before God this day.
Behold, I say unto you that because I said unto you that I had spent my days in your service, I do not desire to boast, for I have only been in the service of God.
And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.
Behold, ye have called me your king; and if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then ought not ye to labor to serve one another?
And behold also, if I, whom ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service, and yet has been in the service of God, do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!
I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—
I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.
And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless and prosper you. Mosiah 2:14-22
The roles of creators in God’s plan are always those of father and mother, and the fifth commandment is a solemn charge to keep God’s plan, as children and society, in general, are commanded to honor fathers and mothers.
The account in Genesis chapter nine verses 20 through 27 is on its surface a difficult passage to understand, missing detail and leading to questions, but it is also full of rich symbolism and can be viewed symbolically in many ways including as a lesson in honoring father and mother:
And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
Again, one way of understanding this account is as a lesson in keeping the fifth commandment (at the time of Noah the fifth commandment is yet to be recorded in the currently held scriptures, but it is eternal in principle).
Despite what is recorded as weakness on the part of Noah, God requires his children to honor him. Noah is naked in his drunkenness, and the Hebrew word for naked comes from the same root as the word used to describe Adam and Eve as naked in the Garden of Eden, which can additionally involve poverty and vulnerability. The details regarding Ham’s actions towards his father Noah may be incomplete, but the inference is that he should exercise more honor towards his father. In contrast, Shem and Japheth walk backwards into their father’s tent (the symbolism of the tent leading back to the meaning of keep as a noun) so as not to see his nakedness and cover him, thereby honoring him, serving and keeping their father who is in a condition of vulnerability at that moment.
The Hebrew word used here for cover is often used metaphorically to cover sin or to pardon. Pictographically the root verb is a beautiful word that can represent this covering of sin and pardoning through the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In pictograph, the word begins from right to left with an open palm, a thorn, and a man with outstretched arms: The open palm potentially[i] represents bending, opening, allowing, or taming; the thorn involves an interesting duality in that a thorn can inflict pain and be a symbol of hate and sin but can also be associated with shielding and protecting as shepherds traditionally often use thorn bushes to protect their sheep from harm; the thorn can also mean to hold or cling; and finally a man with outstretched arms traditionally potentially means the beholding of a great sight but also has obvious Christian meaning as a representation of Christ lifted up on the cross.
This Hebrew verb for to cover is also associated with plumping up and filling in hollow spaces as with earth covering a body in burial, and this meaning and the account of Noah and his sons in its entirety suggest a beautiful general companion role of children ideally plumping up and filling in hollow spaces in terms of forgiveness, compassion, care, and honor for their fathers and mothers with that of the creative roles of fathers and mothers with their children (one way of looking at creation in Hebrew pictographic language being to fatten or fill up with life). As children grow they perceive weakness in their parents, whether that weakness be real, merely perceived, or a mixture. It is the same love that parents have for children that children can and should reciprocate to their parents in forgiving them and treating them with compassion, kindness, respect, deference, and honor. This reciprocation in truly honoring father and mother strengthens the familial link, taking it from the one-sided creative relationship to a greater two sided binding of faithfulness and love made possible and increased by God’s grace as He blesses the associations of imperfect parents and children. Just as parents are charged to be stewards in serving and keeping their children, children through the commandment to honor father and mother may to their great advantage, especially as parents age, become stewards in serving and keeping their parents.
In this sense of reciprocation of the roles of steward in a spirit of love, the blessing of the fifth commandment—that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee—holds a spiritual meaning in the eternal nature of family relationships built on forgiving and being forgiven, serving and keeping, honor and love that will bring eternal, joyful association.
[i] I use the word potentially because attempts to definitively assign meaning to ancient pictographic language carry the danger of limiting all of the powerful meaning that can be derived from it. In the case of pictographic Hebrew meaning derived from individual symbols and combinations of symbols can expand in breadth and depth of interpretation and application as one reads and contemplates with the spirit. As an example, and again hopefully not to limit, (to cover) can potentially illustrate covering or pardoning sin, accepting salvation through Christ only, bending to His will, taking hold of and clinging to Christ, taking up a cross and following Christ, being grateful for and accepting all experiences in life as blessings... Furthermore, contemplating the three symbols themselves in sequence—the open palm, the thorn, and the man with arms outstretched—with the spirit can be much more powerful than translating the word into modern language. Coupling this reading and contemplation with further context in the pictographic language leads to more and more spiritual meaning. Becoming an expert in pictographic Hebrew or biblical Hebrew in a strictly academic sense is illusory, limiting, and truthfully impossible in that expertise in this world is tied to worldly nature and culture with its aspects of consensus, status, control and other limiting characteristics in opposition to revelation, whereas the true blessings that can be gained from language, particularly a language that is relatively closer to the pure Adamic tongue are those of revelation and the knowledge of God. In this way the spiritual study of truth through ancient language and symbols in general is similar to seeking truth through a urim and thummim, bringing one closer and closer to God through a cycle of revelation and faith. Eventually in this world as people truly and profoundly humble themselves, recognizing their own nothingness and God’s goodness, in preparation for the time when the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day (Isaiah 2:11) the language of man will cease to devolve and instead be elevated by God like the language of the ancient brother of Jared for whom the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them. (Ether 12:24)