Sunday, September 24, 2023

Gardening a Good Earth

In these past months, as we've taken Genesis as our guide, we've sought and seen the mighty hand of God work his generosity throughout all his works of creation. From the spark of a universe formless and void to the dawn of light, from the birth of stars and planets to the formation of our earth, from the diverse realm of plants to the fabulous lives of animals, and now to us strange creatures between ape and angel, established in the innocence of original righteousness and crowned with gifts beyond all expectation, God has simply been relentless in his inventive prowess and his kindly care. And every step of the way, Genesis has treated us to God's assessment of the fruits of his labor. Over and over again, he says that light and sky and sea and earth and plants and sun and moon and stars and fish and birds and livestock and wild things and even creepy-crawlies were good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). As Paul said, “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4).

And now, with the creatures of the earth in place, and us made where and how the Lord of all wants us, he looks at this completed and crowned creation, he “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Not just good, but very good, exceedingly beautiful in the eyes of the Lord, precisely suited to his purposes for all things. It's true that the world was plenty good before we stepped onto the scene. Already, even on their own, God said these things were all good, all valuable in themselves without any reference to us, valuable for far more than their mere usefulness. God already had touched the earth with beauty as he saw it.

But when we were added, that's when things fulfilled their deeper potential. That's when nature reached its high point. Creation is far more beautiful for having us in it than it is on its own – that's what God says. There are contributions we make simply by existing, simply by being here as that final slot between ape and angel in the great chain of being. But there are further contributions we make to this beauty by what we do.

Last Sunday, we began to meditate on life as it was meant to be for us. God had planted a special garden in an area called Eden, which means 'delight' or 'luxury.' We talked about the flourishing of fruits and flowers, about the abundance of waters in their freshness, about the open-handed provision that would meet all our needs. We heard how early Christians always pictured this life as care-free and at ease, a relaxing place of deep pleasure in which we could flourish beyond every daydream and every vacation.

But if we stop our thoughts there, we're liable to have a misconception of the Eden lifestyle. In God's process of creation, Genesis picks up its second look in a land where things yet fall short of their full potential because “there was no human to work the ground” (Genesis 2:5). Only then does God respond by shaping the dust and breathing it to life (Genesis 2:7). We were an answer to a shortfall of goodness, and gap would take work to close. In that much, the Bible answers the myths of Babylon, which imagined that originally the lower gods were forced to do the grunt work until they went on strike and rebelled, after which peace was only restored when their bosses invented humans to “assume the drudgery of god.”1 But where the pagans portray us as slaves created to do forced labor in a harsh world, Genesis shows us created to be caretakers of a gracious home. And so “the LORD God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it” (Genesis 2:15).

To some of us, if we – like the Babylonians – identify work too closely with hardship and drudgery, this is going to sound wrong. How could there be work in paradise? Isn't it a world without responsibilities we're longing for? But when early Christians read Genesis, they explained that “had Adam been relieved of all need to work, he would have fallen victim to great indulgence and at once slipped into sloth.”2 And that wouldn't have been a healthy condition. It would have corrupted his original righteousness. After all, “the mind is something that is in constant motion and incapable of total inactivity” – that's just how God made us, and so “there is in us a natural bent for work.”3 We are not naturally meant to just sit around and do nothing with our whole lives. And so our perfect garden couldn't have been a mere vacation home with nothing to do but laze about. And God did not put us there to be passive recipients of its splendors and enjoyments. God made us for more than that.

And so, as one saint put it, “like a loving father who prevents his young child from being unsettled by great relaxation and freedom from care by devising some slight responsibility appropriate to the situation, the Lord God in like manner ordered the task of tilling and guarding for Adam so that, along with all those delights, relaxation, and freedom from care, he might have – by way of a stabilizing influence – those two tasks to prevent him from overstepping the limit.”4 God made us to do these initially simple things for our own good.

That doesn't mean that we exist to work, that we live to work. No: we live toward the sabbath of God. But sabbath takes its meaning from the fact that we have six days to do our works in, to face God's world to minister to it, and therein does sabbath's sweetness grow all the sweeter. Even in Eden, weekdays were workdays. Work in itself isn't a dirty thing; it's pure and holy and good. A life with zero responsibility, zero activity in the world, isn't natural. Naturally speaking, we crave some sort of responsibility and activity, to the measure of our ability.

And the church taught this wasn't just natural but virtuous. They said “whoever works his ground will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 12:11), but “whoever is slack in his occupation is a brother to him who destroys” (Proverbs 18:9). They taught people to “do their work quietly and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). The church said Christ's faithful “should be constant in your work, so that through the course of your entire life, you are either continuing in the Lord's affairs or laboring at your work, and are never idle.”5

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean paid work, a 'job.' We're not just talking about economic work measured by use-value added to goods and services.6 We're not fussing over labor market participation rates.7 But even when not working for room and board, it's still natural to engage in some work. Being deprived of an obvious outlet for that impulse can be a big identity crisis in sickness or in the modern stage of life called 'retirement.' But as one author on aging points out, “retirement from one set of responsibilities and cares frees [us] to explore another set of obligations and to assume another set of concerns..., to assume more fulfilling work.”8

Working – not being employed, but working – is natural to what it means to be humans on earth. In the garden, though, it would have been obvious that this charge to work wasn't a burden. Early Christians pictured it as “some work that was painless and without difficulty,”9 bringing with it “no stress of wearisome toil but pure exhilaration of spirit.”10 Even Martin Luther suggested that “work... in the state of innocence would have been play and joy.”11 That sounds like fulfilling work none of us would have minded.

And for Adam and Eve, working the garden would have been a fairly simple task at first: digging and planting seeds, watering the plants with short irrigation canals, pruning the vines, other basic orchard work. Maybe they would have been charged with making God's garden even more beautiful and diverse than they found it: finding new plants to bring in, breeding them, arranging them in decorative ways, trimming shrubs into fun designs.12 As one medieval Christian asked, “What could be more playful than cultivating paradise?”13

Then, beyond Eden, human history has been a story of increasing division of labor into all sorts of different kinds of tasks, different ways of working on the world.14 In Israel, every man would “go out to his work and to his labor until the evening” (Psalm 104:23), and those words encompassed not just what farmers did but also vinedressers and weavers and hired hands and everybody else. Later on, when Jews translated Genesis into Greek, they recognized Adam's task as quite broad, using the same word here as they used elsewhere to cover the economic labors of a housewife and her home business (Proverbs 31:18), the design work that went into the tabernacle and its art (Exodus 31:4-5), and more.

So our charge here in Genesis is to “cultivate the earth” through “creative, constructive work... expended for the glory of God and the benefit of others,”15 to pour our imagination and skill into God's world to bring it toward fullness.16 Work covers all kinds of disciplined activities that give input into God's world and leave an impact on God's world, ideally in ways that “bring out the natural fruitfulness and productivity” God seeded in it.17 By that definition, carpentry is work, cooking is work, sewing is work, driving truck is work, treating illnesses is work, teaching is work, organizing is work, coordinating the work of other people is work, researching and writing is work. Even hobbies can be such work, if they harness effort for input into and impact on the world.

We humans have reshaped the world around us in profound ways, and that in itself is a good thing, the way God intended it to be. It's good, too, for us to harness and harvest what God has sown in his creation, whether crops or minerals or other resources. Giving input and extracting a harvest are legitimate work, and so the Bible tells us that “everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God's gift to man” (Ecclesiastes 3:13). It's God's gift for us to take pleasure in shaping God's world and harvesting from its bounty.

But we also know that not all inputs and not all impacts we can have on the world are the kind God calls for. It is possible for there to be work that rubs against the grain of creation. One author says that “at its most basic level, a righteous job is one that does not exist to commit or promote sin, but to accomplish the tasks God gave to humanity from the beginning.”18 And not all work done out there, let alone the way it's done, fits that bill. Some speak, rightly, of the need to “align our labor with our human dignity.”19  But we can go further than that, even.   “Good work,” it's said, “tends and conserves both the conscience and the spirit of those who engage in it as well as the creatures among whom it is performed.”20 That's why, in the early church, there were rules laid down such that a person doing certain kinds of work would have to quit before they could be considered as candidates for baptism as Christians.21

To clarify good work, Genesis tells us that “the LORD God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). That last word there in Hebrew has the sense of watching over something. It's used for what a bodyguard does for his client (1 Samuel 28:2), what a shepherd does for his flock (Genesis 30:31), what a friend does if you give him a prized possession for safekeeping (Exodus 22:7). These are all acts of protection and preservation which require some measure of attention, being wary of potential threats, whether external (like attackers and thieves) or internal (like decay and neglect). The psalms mentions how, by God's grace, a righteous person under attack “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Psalm 34:20). That is, God's act of 'keeping' the bones means that they're preserved intact, undamaged, in a healthy condition.

What might it have looked like for Adam and Eve to not only work the garden but to keep it? They'd have been watchful of the garden, attentive to it, observing and learning from it, so as not to force on it a vision detached from its God-given reality. They'd have taken pest prevention measures, keeping harmful influences outside the garden. They'd have been careful not to chop down thoughtlessly whole groves of trees, but made sure that their impact kept the garden as a garden. They'd have maintained a healthy balance in the garden's ecosystem, not letting one kind of plant or animal run rampant at the others' expense. They'd have watched to make sure that none of the valuable species of animals or plants God had entrusted to them went extinct on their watch, and that none of the mineral resources ran out. They would have protected everything from misuse, abuse, or overuse so that it could be healthy and flourishing now and as each future generation entered the scene.22

Too often, our society has been obsessed with working, but not with keeping the garden. Because if human activity is supposed to keep God's creation healthy down through the generations, our performance review isn't exactly promising. Our voracious hunger has been slicing down forests faster than ever to make room for cattle ranches and soybean fields, our farming practices wipe away topsoil ten to forty times as fast as it forms, our fuel-burning industries have put more carbon dioxide into the air than there's been since before God made us, and the damage to earth's climate is on track to becoming unbearable.23 One marine scientist says that “few if any residents of the sea can escape the toll that has been wrought by humankind... literally killing the lifeblood of the oceans.”24 On the whole, it's been estimated that since 1970, the population of earth's animals has shrunk by more than half.25 Just this year, a conservation research group estimated that four in ten animal species in the United States, along with one in three of our plant species, is at risk of going extinct.26 Actively or passively, we are choosing that, and worse, as the cumulative impact of our everyday decisions, callous and careless.

Does any of this sound like what we're here to do? Is this the impact God wants our work to have? At best, Adam's kids have fallen asleep on the job; at worst, we've switched sides and become the arsonists of Eden. If we are not caring for the world God made, if we are not serving it and keeping it, then in our work we are disobeying the purpose for which God put human beings onto this earth in the first place.27 And there's a word for disobeying God's purpose for us.  It's sin.

It was because of just such disobedient hearts and hands that we needed a sinless Savior. As Jesus faced the cross, he proclaimed in prayer that, with the entirety of his life, he had “accomplished the work that God gave him to do” (John 17:4). Yes, Jesus was a worker – and all his work was good work, work that saved, work that redeemed, work that kept and restored what was broken. And we were what he found broken. So, in doing his work, he said he'd “kept” his disciples for his Father. If God had placed the First Man in a paradise to work it and keep it, God placed the Son of Man into a world polluted by sin to work its salvation and to keep us. And he means us to learn from this Last Adam how to work and keep the goodness of God. In Christ, “the LORD... has blessed you in all the work of your hands,” if your hands work the works of his hands (Deuteronomy 2:7).

What are you and I on earth to do? We humans are gardeners of God's good earth. God puts us where we are, each one of us, with a charge: to work the world while keeping the world, to be forces simultaneously of change and conservation, of production and protection, of impact that leaves the world intact. That's what good work looks like: tidying the garden, farming the land, fixing the broken bridge, getting essentials cleanly from place to place, maintaining order and health in the world, all in ways that respect everything that God pronounced very good.

We know that, in a sad and broken world, sometimes we find ourselves pressed to work for a mere paycheck, whether or not the job is pleasant, whether or not the job is dignified, whether or not the job is meaningful. Then we hear the command: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). But then sometimes we find ourselves asked to do work that's less than good for us, less than good for our neighbors, less than good for God's good earth. That's a hard place to be in, and it's easy to rationalize things to ourselves we maybe oughtn't make a living doing; perhaps you've been there, and never even thought about it.  Whether it's pays the bills or not, “those who have believed in God must be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). And a good society – the human society we're all responsible both to call for and to cultivate is a world where everyone has, not just some work, any work, to do, but good work to do, to the measure of their ability, and where everyone can truly live off of doing their good work to the benefit of creation and the glory of God.

May we, each in our own lives and all together, do our part to be a good humanity, to “be joyful and to do good as long as we live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12), to work and keep God's good earth, until that day all the world shall “be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more” (Jeremiah 31:12). Amen.

1  Atrahasis I.197, in Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (CDL Press, 2005), 235

2  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 14.8, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:185.

3  Symeon the New Theologian, Discourses 10.3, in Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses (Paulist Press, 1980), 164.

4  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 14.10, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:185.

5  Didascalia Apostolorum 2.63.1, in Alistair Stewart-Sykes, tr., The Didascalia Apostolorum (Brepols, 2009), 181.

6  See, e.g., Chris Tilly and Charles Tilly, Work Under Capitalism (Westview Press, 1998), 22.

7  See, e.g., Nicholas Eberstadt, Men Without Work, post-pandemic edition (Templeton Press, 2022 [2016]).

8  Will Willimon, Aging: Growing Old in Church (Baker Academic, 2020), 29.

9  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 14.8, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:185.

10  Augustine of Hippo, Literal Meaning of Genesis 8.8 §15, in The Works of Saint Augustine I/13:356.

11  Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis 2:15, in Luther's Works 1:103.

12  Gregg Davidson and Kenneth J. Turner, The Manifold Beauty of Genesis One (Kregel Academic, 2021), 46.

13  Remigius of Auxerre, Exposition on Genesis 2:15, in Joy A. Schroeder, The Book of Genesis (Eerdmans, 2015), 70.

14  Jan Lucassen, The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind (Yale University Press, 2021), 4-5, 66.

15  Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2004), 48.

16  Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible's Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan Academic, 2022), 98.

17  R. R. Reno, Genesis, Brazos Theological Commentary (Brazos Press, 2010), 68-69.

18  James M. Hamilton Jr., Work and Our Labor in the Lord (Crossway, 2017), 22.

19  Jonathan Malesic, The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives (U. of California Press, 2022), 169.

20  Michael S. Northcott, “Reading Genesis in Borneo: Work, Guardianship, and Companion Animals in Genesis 2,” in Nathan MacDonald, Mark W. Elliott, and Grant Macaskill, eds., Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012), 197.

21  See, e.g., Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 16.2-12, in Popular Patristics Series 22:100.

22  Joseph E. Coleson, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Beacon Hill Press, 2012), 96.

23  Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (Zondervan Academic, 2018), 202-215.

24  Ellen Prager, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 146-147.

25  Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (Zondervan Academic, 2018), 199.

26  Brad Brooks, “Huge chunk of plants, animals in US at risk of extinction,” Reuters, 6 February 2023. <>.

27  Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (Zondervan Academic, 2018), 78.

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