The following is from John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis.” Pages 1–284 in volume 1 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Gaebelein, F. E. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, pp. 44-45 and contains the details of Sailhamer’s argument. [I have added some bold face emphasis]
15-24 The author had already noted that God “put” (wayyasem ) man into the garden (v.8b). In v.15 he returned to this point and recounted the purpose for God’s putting man there. Two important points from v.15 are in danger of being obscured by the English translations. The first is the change from v.8 in the Hebrew word for “put.” Unlike v.8, where a common term for “put” is used, in v.15 the author uses a term (wayyannihehu ) that he elsewhere has reserved for two special uses: God’s “rest” or “safety,” which he gives to man in the land (e.g., Gen 19:16; Deut 3:20; 12:10; 25:19), and the “dedication” of something in the presence of the Lord (Exod 16:33-34; Lev 16:23; Num 17:4; Deut 26:4, 10). Both senses of the term appear to lie behind the author’s use of the word in v.15. Man was “put” into the garden where he could “rest” and be “safe,” and man was “put” into the garden “in God’s presence” where he could have fellowship with God (3:8).
A second point from v.15 that has often been overlooked in the EVs is the specific purpose for God’s putting man in the garden. In most EVs man is “put” in the garden “to work it and take care of it” (le‘obdah uleshomrah ). Although that translation was as early as the LXX (2d cent. B.C.), there are serious objections to it. For one, the suffixed pronoun in the Hebrew text rendered “it” in English is feminine, whereas the noun “garden,” which the pronoun refers to in English, is a masculine noun in Hebrew. Only by changing the pronoun to a masculine singular, as the LXX has done, can it have the sense of the EVs, namely “to work” and “to keep.” Moreover, later in this same narrative (3:23) “to work the ground” (la‘abod ) is said to be a result of the Fall, and the narrative suggests that the author had intended such a punishment to be seen as an ironic reversal of man’s original purpose (see comments on 3:22-24). If such was the case, then “working” and “keeping” the garden would not provide a contrast to “working the ground.”
In light of these objections, which cannot easily be overlooked, a more suitable translation of the Hebrew le‘obdah uleshomrah would be “to worship and to obey” (Cassuto). Man is put in the garden to worship God and to obey him. Man’s life in the garden was to be characterized by worship and obedience; he was a priest, not merely a worker and keeper of the garden. Such a reading not only answers the objections raised against the traditional English translation, it also suits the larger ideas of the narrative. Throughout chapter 2 the author has consistently and consciously developed the idea of man’s “likeness” to God along the same lines as the major themes of the Pentateuch as a whole, namely, the theme of worship and Sabbath rest.
A further confirmation of our reading le‘obdah uleshomrah as “to worship and to obey” is the fact that in v.16 we read for the first time that “God commanded” (wayesaw ) the man whom he had created. Just as in the remainder of the Torah, enjoyment of God’s good land is made contingent on “keeping” (lishmor ) God’s commandments (miswoth ) (cf. Deut 30:16). The similarity between this condition for enjoyment of God’s blessing and that laid down for Israel at Sinai and in Deuteronomy is clear. Indeed, one can hardly fail to hear in these words of God to the first man the words of Moses to Israel: “See, I set before you today life and blessing [lit., “the good’ (hattob ; NIV, “prosperity’)], death and calamity [lit., “the evil’ (hara‘ ; NIV, “destruction’)]. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep [lishmor ] his commands [miswoth ayw ], decrees and laws; then you will live [hayah ] and increase [rabah ], and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient,… You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deut 30:15-18).
There are more technical details in Sailhamer’s footnote on this passage—including a reference to the great Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto.