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Reading Genesis One in the 21st Century
Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology, Duke Divinity School
Sermon Delivered at Binkley Baptist Church, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
October 11, 2009
Text: Genesis 1
Being a creature means you eat for a living; it is that simple. As the Bible understands it, one of the major differences between God and ourselves is that we need to eat, and God doesn’t. “If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you,” God comments acidly in one Psalm (50). And the essential corollary is that God, who does not eat, provides food for all the creatures, who do. The very first chapter of Genesis establishes that emphatically, when God makes the Dry Land ready for life on the Fifth Day. Up until that point, the description of each divine act is spare: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” But the narrator suddenly becomes verbose in describing terrestrial food sources, with grains “setting seed heads” and fruit trees setting “fruit with the seed inside them” (vv. 11-12). This is a precise, botanically correct description of the remarkable variety of edible plants native to the Middle East, the region that produced not only the Bible but also dry-land agriculture.
Reading the Bible is my line of work, yet for years I read past the first chapter’s detailed attention to the food supply, as have my fellow biblical scholars. I now realize that my profession’s obliviousness about food in the Bible points to a deep and worrisome difference between a modern cultural mindset and the culture that all the biblical writers represent. The difference comes down to this: for them, eating and agriculture have to do with God, and for us they do not. We might think carefully about what food we buy; some of us I dare say are “foodies,” for reasons of health or personal taste, but I doubt we consider eating to be a genuinely religious activity. We might bless the food on our plates, but rarely does that provoke any serious thought about the mystery that underlies it. Yet for the biblical writers, God’s provision of food is a key mystery and a core theological concern; eating is at the heart of our relationship with God and all that God has made. That is why the first chapter of the Bible cares more about what the creatures eat than any other aspect of earthly life.
So Scripture stands against us, in our ignorance about the theological significance of eating. The weight of history is also against us: the vast majority of cultures and individuals who have preceded us on the planet, up until the last three generations perhaps, have been intensely aware that getting food from field to table is the most important religious act we perform. Every day, consuming what comes from the earth and from the bodies of other animals, we enter deeply into the mystery of creation. Eating is practical theology, or it should be; our never-failing hunger is a steady reminder to acknowledge God as the Giver of every good gift. When we ask our heavenly Father for an egg, we do not get a stone (Luke 11:12, cf. v. 2).
Genesis 1 is a theological statement about food, and at the same time it is an ecological statement. Eating is practical ecology, the most important ecological act we perform. Thus we enter into the delicate complex of interactions among living creatures, exchanging the energy that keeps us alive for a time, consuming until in the end we are consumed. We are, as Genesis says, “dust to dust,” taking from the soil and in the end becoming part of the fertile soil that yields more food for God’s creatures
“Dust to dust” – in this way we are no different from the other creatures, yet Genesis says we have a special status among them: we are charged to “exercise dominion.” That notion of human dominion is suspect to many ecologically sensitive people, since it has been used as a license to kill, to exercise power in wantonly destructive ways. However, the key Hebrew verb suggests skill along with power; we are charged to exercise “skilled mastery among the creatures.” And our best clue to what skilled mastery might mean comes immediately after the charge is given, when in the very next verse God says, “Look, I have provided food for every creature: for humans, fruit trees and grains; and green plants for all animals and birds and creeping critters.”
The Bible often conveys meaning by simple juxtaposition. So I propose this connection between the charge for us to exercise skilled mastery, and then immediately God’s announcement that there is food enough for all: As the creature made in the divine image, humans are meant to act in ways that maintain the food supply for all creatures. To use contemporary language, the integrity of the food chains may well be the test of whether or not we are fit to exercise a special place among the creatures.
And the Bible never says we have passed the test. If we had read the whole first chapter of Genesis, you might have noticed that virtually every divine commandment is followed directly by a notice of fulfillment: “‘Let there be light’ …and there was light… ‘Let there be a firmament’ …and it was so” – and so on. But no such notice of fulfillment follows the charge for humans to exercise skilled mastery; we are never told “And it was so.” So we readers are left in a position – maybe with an obligation – to render judgment on ourselves. If I am right, if our dominion has something to do with maintaining the food chains, then we might well render a negative judgment, living as we all do in the Sixth Great Age of Species Extinction, when food chains and natural systems have been disrupted worldwide. Knowing that this latest tidal wave of extinctions is driven largely by human activity, we might well conclude that we have failed in the exercise of skilled dominion for which we are intended. Viewed in light of Genesis 1, our failure to exercise a proper dominion seems to be the one outstanding gap in God’s design for the world, and it is the gap that threatens to undo all the rest.
It may surprise us to hear that very much of our failure has to do with the seemingly innocent and certainly necessary practice of food production. The “amber waves of grain,” in our land and others around the world, are the source of catastrophic erosion rates; in the last 60 years or so, half the topsoil of Iowa has gone south. The chemicals we put on our fields have made it unsafe to drink the water in some rural communities and produced hundreds, maybe thousands of dead zones in our oceans. Modern industrial agriculture also consumes water in vast quantities: great rivers such as the Colorado have been drained to the point that in some seasons they no longer reach their mouths. Forests on this continent and around the world have been razed for cropland, much of it for animal feed. Our dominant agricultural practices are thus a major driver of global warming and species loss. Maybe half our plant and animal species will disappear within the next century. (1)
God’s creatures are dying, in numbers incalculable, because for the better part of a century, our industrial culture has permitted us to eat ignorantly and dangerously. We have been eating against the laws of the biosphere. To put that in theological language, we are eating against the design of creation. Paradoxically, it is an ancient text that gives us the best insight into our contemporary and completely unprecedented situation. The first human sin, as Genesis tells it, is an eating violation; God sets a limit – the humans may take food from any tree except one – and they override that limit. The Eden story underscores the point made already in the creation account: the way we get our food lies at the heart of our relationship with God; therefore eating against the design of creation is the first step in turning away from God.
In eating against God’s express command, Eve and Adam are refusing to be the creatures of God. As far as we know, only humans are capable of that refusal. A muskrat cannot refuse to be the muskrat-creature she is, but we can in a real sense refuse to be the creatures God made us to be. In the past century, largely through the catastrophic agricultural practices of industrial culture, we have done so to an extent that the earth can no longer bear.
I realize that this is not a typical topic for the pulpit. But it is a necessary one. We need to read our cultural situation by the light of Scripture, in order to see just where we are, and even more, to lay hold of realistic hope. A scripturally (and scientifically) informed reading of our situation indicates that it is bad but not yet hopeless. As we have seen, Genesis begins with the hopeful charge that we humans might by God’s grace take note of the biological integrity of the world and preserve it by our actions. That view of the human role in the world is reinforced by another radically ecological view of creation, at nearly the opposite end of the Bible: the Letter to the Colossians calls us to stand firm in “the gospel that was preached to every creature (ktisis) under heaven” (Col. 1:23). Now consider the scope of that vision of the gospel – preached in the hearing, not of homo sapiens only, but of monkeys and hardwood forests, of mighty rivers and earthworms and microbes. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the One in whom and through whom and for whom all things were created, is preached to and for every one of us.
The consequence for us is that we can hear the whole truth of the gospel only in the full company of creatures. We can hear the gospel truth only if we listen to it as creatures, among other creatures. But if the art of being creatures is now a nearly lost art, (2) if we have forgotten how to be creatures, then how can we begin to learn again, so that our ears may be opened to the truth and realistic hope of the gospel?
Being a creature means eating within the limits that God has set in the design of creation. And so the most hopeful task for us is to learn all over again how to eat, within the limits of our fertile, yet fragile and compromised, planet. The genuinely hopeful news is that better choices about eating are becoming more widely available to us, better choices than many of us have had in a lifetime. Here in the Triangle, there are community gardens and increasingly, church gardens. Urban gardens grow in formerly derelict lots, providing skills training for youth and nutritious food for the poor. Through farmers’ markets and membership farms we can personally support farmers who treat their land not as an industrial site but as a home for people and other living things. Nationally, there is work on a 50-year farm bill (not a five-year farm bill) that directly addresses erosion, toxic pollution, and the destruction of rural communities.
These are partial solutions, of course. Creating a global food economy that is adequate for the long term will not be done by any quick or easy fix. The current moment is frightening, as we awaken from our long slumber about our destructive ways of eating, for we are awakening to widespread damage and serious danger. But the good news is that we – probably all of us here today –now have opportunities to eat in response to the gospel that was preached to every creature under heaven. A fuller response may be as close to us as our next meal; it should be as routine as filling our dinner plates. It must become so, in order that our grandchildren and their children may live in a lovely fertile world, and God may be glorified in our eating.
- James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 36.
- See Rowan Williams, “On Being Creatures,” in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 63-78.
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