by Joshua Kielsmeier-Cook
[Note: We welcome Joshua Kielsmeier-Cook as a contributor to Emmanuel Mennonite Church’s weblog. The following essay and reflections continue his sharings and contributions to our church’s recent retreat at a Community-supported Agriculture farm late last September–Pastor Mathew Swora]
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
The focus of Emmanuel’s annual church retreat this year was Local and Sustainable: Faith and Food. The synergy and interplay betweeen these four themes has become for me a constant conversation betwen the land, the Church, God, and myself. For two seasons I have worked at a small organic vegetable farm in the St. Croix river valley. As a reselft of working with the land, I have a strong God-given desire to explore the primal (by this I mean first and basic) relationship that humans have been placed into with the earth. The above verse is the foundational description of this realtionship. It is my desire that we, as Emmanuel and the Church universal, understand this primal realtionship and execute our primal vocation in light of this understanding.
From the beginning, followers of God have understood that our primary (by this I mean first and foremost) vocation is unity with the Godhead through an ever deepening unification and identification with the divine. The God-human, Creator-creature relationship begins with God’s act of creation and it is here that I want to begin the focus of this essay. In verse 7 of the creation account in Genesis 2 it is written, “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the gorund…” and he became a living creature. According to Ellen F. Davis, an Old Testament scholar at Duke University, the Hebrew word used here for “ground” is adamah, from which the name Adam is derived. Adamah can be taken to mean the land, the whole earth, and/or the fertile soil. God’s act of creation inextricably and purposefully binds us in relationship with the soil as the material of our genesis.
There are two active elements used in the creation of humanity, the breath of life and dust from the ground. God, the divine active agent in creation, chooses the fertile soil to be that which God animates with divine breath to become Adam. I want to venture as far as to say that the soil in this story has qualities of a mother in the creative function it is chosen to perform. The soil is made fecund by the breath of God. There seems to be a foreshadowing of Mary’s role as mother in the birth of Jesus, the second Adam, as the ground here gives birth to the first Adam. Biblical writers use mother language quite often when refering to the land, especially the land of Zion (Ps. 87:5, Is. 66:10-13, Is. 65:17-18, etc.). This language is not meant in reference to a pagan Mother Earth but it is language used of a fellow creature, the land, made fruitful by God’s breath of life in order to conceive us. This elemental connection between humanity and the fertile soil must lie at the heart of our renewed sense of identity and vocation as creatures. We must not stop here, at our original connection with the land, but it is necessary for us to move forward towards an understanding of our continued relationship with this elemental component of our identity.
As the creation story of Genesis 2 continues, the fertile soil is shown as not only elemental to our identity but also to our existence as nourisher and revealer. The story continues as the LORD God plants a garden in Eden and places God’s new creature into its physical reality of ecological beauty and abundance. Here, God casues “to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9a). Again, by God’s hand, the land is made fruitful, this time in order to meet our needs as spiritual and material beigns. The trees of the garden are not only “good for food” (material) but “pleasant to the sight” (spiritual). Humanity is bound in relationship to the land by the nourishment it provides for our bodies and also by the revealation it provides for our spirit. God is revealed by the land as a God of love, for nourishment is born of love, and a God of truth, for what is beauty if not truth? Ultimately we are placed in the bosom of a fellow creature, the land, from which we receive double: nourishment and revelation. It is from the fertile soil that we were brought into existence and from its divinely seeded fruitfulness we continue to exist. God has bonded us together with the land in intimate ways that we have begun to forget and ignore. When this primal relationship is forgotten how can we remember our primal vocation?
Let’s return to the verse used to open this essay, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). To begin to understand the vocation given to humans in this verse we have to see that this vocation was not circumstantially isolated to the garden nor an accidental arrangement due to lack of foresight but an intentional and divine calling. The concrete reality of God’s action in the formation of the vocation “to work it and keep it” is evident by the verbs, took and put. First, God takes, removes, the man from some original state or location of creation. When we take something it is always intentional, whether we are aware of our own intentions for not. We can assume that God is infinitley self-aware and acts with full intention when God takes the man. Secondly, God puts the man in the garden of Eden. God removes man from somewhere in the primeval milieu of creation and with intent places him in the garden. What purpose does God’s activity here at the dawn of all being hold for us? The question posed by God’s activity in the beginning of the sentence is answered by the latter half of the same verse; “to work [the garden] and to keep [the garden].”
These two verbs, work and keep, carry almost as many possible meanings in the Hebrew as they do in English. All of the following discussion on the maning of these two Hebrew verbs comes form Ellen Davis’ book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. The verb work in Hebrew most frequently means to “work for someone, divine, or human, as a servant, slave, or worshipper.” Much less frequently but in the surrounding context of the creation story, work means to work on or with something, usually the land. We know that both understandings of the verb work are necessary in our continued existence on the land. It is impossible to continually work the land and expect its continued fruitfulness without at the same time working for the land. I think we can embrace the verbal ambiguity and comprehend work in this context as fitting both possible understandings. Our God calls on us to both work the land and to work for the land.
The Hebrew verb for keep adds even more to the rich ambiguity and content of our God-purposed vocation. Commonly, this Hebrew word is translated as “keep” as in, for example, a flock, or a household, or a brother. More frequently, the translation is “observe” as in observing the world to gain understanding, or observing moral statutes or justice, but mostly to “observe/keep” the commandments of God. I believe that the ambiguous meaning of this verb is purposeful and is meant to help us recognize that we are charged to keep the land, as a sibling or a spouse, but also to observe the land to gain wisdom and to keep the divine limits of it. Perhaps we are called from the beginning to not only keep the commandments of God but to also keep the limits of the land. Today, the Church’s understanding and keeping of the limits of the land are more necessary than ever as the land is forced to produce more and more. As human population continues to mushroom we need to seek more creative ways to maintain the land and its fruitfulness that we depend on. In the end, we are charged by the Creator to work and keep the land, a fellow creature upon which all life depends. We, the Church, must not fall short of our divine vocation.
Now the questions begin, slowly at first but gaining momentum. How do we at Emmanuel Mennonite Church live fully in our vocation? I want to repeat the hope I expressed at the retreat, that this vocation will become a core part of Emmanuel’s identity. We will learn, talk, pray, and act our way into being faithful to our primal vocation. There aren’t any easy answers. We all know the wonderful admonitions to eat local, buy organic, grow a garden, get to know a farmer, etc. that are circulating in our culture today but our fulfillment of this calling must run in a deeper current. This deeper current is defined by relationship, commitment, reciprocity, sacrifice, and above all love. We must love God; we must love God’s creatures and as I have tried to communicate in this small essay, we must love that creature that makes up so much of what, who, and where we: the land. I pray that we might recognize the divine createdness of the fertile soil and come to honor and love it as we have been called.