My wife realized early on in our relationship, with a degree of horror, that I am ignorant about art. When we have gone to the local art museum, she has raved about the techniques and the periods and the passion of artists, while I have looked on these same works and thought, “That sure is a lot of rectangles in a lot of different colors.”
I am not wholly unappreciative of art, and I did take an art history class in college, though the only thing I remember about it is watching a few clips from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. I like artwork that depicts something recognizable, like landscapes and portraits. I have a slight affinity for Renaissance paintings, mostly because I can usually tell what’s happening in the pictures. A lot of those paintings are of scenes from the Bible, and I’m pretty familiar with that book.
I always like paintings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Renaissance paintings portray Adam and Eve in very delicate tones; they are naked and pale, their soft bodies untouched by the sun or stress of any kind, as they gingerly reach out a dainty hand toward an apple, with the hope that the apple might just gently fall into their hand so as not to overtax their paradisaical efforts. I’m pretty sure that is not the case.
We have this false notion of paradise as a place of unrelenting ease, a place where there is nothing to do all day but sit around and eat and take naps. Maybe this sounds ideal to you, but it does not sound ideal to God. God gives us six days to work for every one day of rest. And when God placed Adam and Eve in the garden, it was not to passively receive what the garden produced, but “to till it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) In other words, God gave Adam and Eve a job, and we their descendants have inherited that job. We better figure out what that job is, then.
To till something is to dig into it, to turn it over and make it ready to receive the seed and produce edible vegetation. The Hebrew word is la’avedah. It can also be translated as cultivate, with an obvious connection to agricultural endeavors. This is the Hebrew word used throughout the Old Testament to describe work done on farms and in fields. It is most interesting to me, though, that the word can also be translated as to serve. It is used in reference to slaves serving their masters, and also for humans serving God. So here God places Adam in the Garden to serve it. That speaks directly to my claim that right dominion is service.
The second word in this verse is commonly translated as keep. I worry that the English language views keeping too passively. I associate keeping something with sticking it in my pocket or up on a shelf or back in the drawer. How many times have you gone through your old clothes, deciding what to keep and what to give away?
But keeping in the biblical sense is not passive at all. The Hebrew word is la’sham’rah, which also means to guard and protect. It is used to describe shepherds keeping their flocks safe, good kings keeping their cities and subjects safe, and parents keeping their children safe. It is also used in reference to God’s Covenants and the Sabbath. It is more than just protecting; it is an adherence to the thing being protected. As a shepherd’s life is connected to the sheep, a king’s life is connected to his subjects, and a parent’s life is connected to his or her children, so is Adam’s life connected to the garden, to adhering to life within that garden, and keeping it safe and productive.
I believe that God has given us the job of serving and protecting Creation, which I understand to mean the earth and everything in it: soil, water, air, plants, animals, and our fellow human beings. Our lives and our wellbeing are connected to everything around us, whether we like it or not. When we serve and protect Creation, we are making everything better for everyone, including ourselves.
How can we serve and protect Creation? Well, to quote Isaiah, “…cease to do evil, learn to do good.” (Isaiah 1:16b-17a) Generally speaking, we Christians tend to limit this to our interactions with our fellow human beings (and, a lot of times, only certain ones of them). But I believe this is applicable to all of Creation; stop doing evil to the ground, the water, the air, the plants and the animals. Do good to them instead.
Christians ought to be exemplars of service and protection. Our churches ought to be bastions of good works that overcome evil. Unfortunately, when it comes to taking care of Creation, they are not, we are not.
Church, we need to do better.
We need to stop making so much trash; what if we stop using disposable plates at all of our potlucks and started washing dishes? We need to stop being complicit in an agriculture system that abuses animals; what if we agreed to only buy meat from sustainable farmers who treat their animals as God intended? We need to stop empowering the enslavement of the least of these; what if we committed to not buying so much junk?
And on and on it goes. Already, I know that there are some reading this who are on the verge of giving up. The scope of the problem is too big, and you are too small.
I don’t believe that, though. You might not be able to get all the trash out of the oceans, but surely you can keep your trash from reaching the ocean. It might be a small impact, but if a billion people make a small impact today, that adds up. Imagine if a billion people made a small impact daily. My advice to you: don’t worry about scale. Just do something to serve and protect God’s creation every day.
And share. Share your reasons for serving and protecting, and share your methods. Add them in the comments here, put them up on Facebook, talk about them with your friends and family, and talk about them with your Church!
In my next post, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on how to share these ideas in our churches.