Genesis 2:5-9 (ESV) When no bush of the field[a] was yet in the land[b] and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist[c] was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— 7 then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
At Tate Modern, we are treated to a panoply of modern and new art on a spectacular scale, where installations on a massive scale are set in the turbine hall of a now hushed power station on the banks on the Thames in the UK capital. Above this industrial space are stories of galleries housing the imaginative and creative products of modern and post-modern artists of the twentieth century and into the present day. Another of my favourite haunts is just down the road from Tate Modern, where the Clore Gallery houses multitudes of sketches and watercolours by one of Britain’s most radical artists, J M Turner, who created paintings of water and light at the rate of two a day for the whole of his working life. In this Genesis passage we are invited into a personal viewing of God’s creative studios at the start of time as we might think of it.
Artist Ai Weiwei’s installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds painted by hand over two years by 1600 artisans, on the floor of the main turbine hall at Tate Modern in 2010-11. Right: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake of Zug @The Met.
In Genesis 1, we are told ‘it was like this, and this, and God did that’ in a positive and assertive sense. In Genesis 2, the curtains and canvas are pulled back and we get to see something of what is going on, behind the dashboard as it were. There is a shifting of images and imagery; our imagination is engaged and mobilised, and pictures are created which then flux into something else before our eyes. ‘Can you see what it is yet?’ And as more brush strokes are added, the overall view is transformed, and then transformed again: what was bare ground is then filled and populated, and a story of progression and progress is constructed. First there is bare soil, without bushes, yet now we know these are coming. There aren’t yet any small plants in the field- hang on, what is a field anyway? So there will be fields, and that implies people who will work the land, and so these small plants may be crops, or they could be weeds. In working the field, the small plants can be distinguished and tended appropriately, and destined for food or fuel for fire.
The description continues: this care of the ground is administered in two ways, by the Lord God and by the humans working the land. Right here is co-creation! God and mankind are mentioned as creative tending agents in the same breath and at the first opportunity in this second movement of the creation concerto, right at the start of scripture. God’s tending will be by means of the supply of water- which has ‘not yet’ arrived, while the working man has ‘not yet’ been placed in the fields. So these are two complementary aspects to the Lord God’s creation plan, and in saying ‘YHWH Elohim’, we are introduced to God as the God of covenant with human beings and the human community in history, not merely a generic God ‘El’ of the heathen nations who conceive of a god but know not of Whom they speculate. In Genesis chapter one we are indeed affirmed in this hypothesis: there is indeed a God Who created, but we can only know the One who was called ‘El’ by men if the real God chooses to reveal their Reality. And so YHWH does!
There was ‘not yet’ rain, but rather a mist rising from the ground. Just as in chapter one, where the heathen imagination is upset by decoupling the existence of light from its natural sources so as to break misconceptions of pagan deities- God can make light without there being a sun or stars or a reflective moon, so don’t make gods of them! So also here. We know that water is vital for life in this universe, and one might be tempted to make a god of it, or the rain or sea. So the text breaks this link: God will be the explicit first cause of necessary rain, and in the meantime, the familiar sequence of the water cycle is reversed, with a watery mist being provided instead of rain. The same theological claim is being underlined, rather than describing meteorological realities. Our appreciation of God’s sovereign agency is being heightened. We are not being given an encyclopedia entry on the Water Cycle! Look at what we are told about this mist that God has provided: it waters the ‘whole face of the ground.’ Here is a profound turn of phrase that describes the intimate quality of relationship between YHWH and YHWH’s physical world. Just as mother taught us to wash our faces (and behind our ears) each day, so the mist does its daily spa work all over God’s world. The same point was made in chapter one:
And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.’ Gen 1:2
“Then.” This conjunction now pivots out attention from the environment to the major affirmative statement of this paragraph: the creation of humankind. The setting was and is important, and yet, by being couched in negative terms, our attention is directed forwards. The ground was described metaphorically as having a face which God has tended with gentle moisture: now God takes this dust of the ground and forms an animate being with a face that is really sensitive and responsive. Having taken the red dust that has already been esteemed by such intimate wetting- with water that would rouse any dry seeds in the ground from dormancy to germination, God then breathes into this personally fashioned form by God’s own intimate moist breath to impart life directly, and so ‘it’ becomes a living ‘he’, just as Martin Buber would say. The suspense generated by delaying the realisation of bushes and plants of the field is brought to a climax in the creation of God’s own human creature. The three fold sentence describes in poetic form the wonder of this most beautiful act of our first conception: ‘God formed… God breathed… and the man became…’ The scripture is shameless in its use of anthropomorphic language describing G-d’s creation of His human being, who is elsewhere described as being made in the very image and likeness of God. The whole form of this paragraph directs us to the joint realisation of climax and unity: a pinnacle of creative impartation, and yet all aspects are in necessary connection with one another. God and God’s creation (considered inanimately and animately) and also God’s human creatures are all brought together in a theologically organic nexus. The three fold picture of God’s creation, the tripartite theological worldview, has sprung to life before us in jewel-like simplicity and wonderment under God’s intimate direction and planning. Such a mode of creativity is also imparted to us- to imagine the ends while also considering the means, and scoping out the ultimate end points as well as considering what we might do next.
To what purpose? As the English has it, ‘And…!’ God’s human creatures are not abandoned in their new environment, left alone to work out how to manipulate soil and seeds, water and weather, and form all the necessary requirements for a sustainable life, knowing nothing, without understanding and in grave danger of declining in our self-centred obsessions. The worldview picture of Genesis 2 is not yet complete. God’s way of giving His creatures a ‘guided tour’ in this wonderful new world is put in this literary form: God takes on the nature of a human king, who subdues his environment to raise sustainability and beauty to the ultimate heights of a royal garden. This is where God places His human creature, and just as a gardener would be schooled in the culture of his community and given a personal appreciation of the likes and mores of his Master, so the man of dust is brought into a fully-fledged relationship with his king that makes him far more than a common creature. The encounter between divine and human is not a fleeting moment, after which the human experience sinks back merely to equality with the other biological organisms on the planet, though we are still intimately joined with them in organic continuity. Though in the very briefest of detail, we are given to understand that there is scope for an ongoing relationship with God as equals in nature in some vital respects. As Jesus himself would later quote to the Jews, ‘Have I not said that you are gods?’ [John 10:34, referencing Psalm 82] This is not to be overstated, as God is the only One capable of making a universe or matter with the capacity to form life, but now we realise that our capacity to transform what is in our little corner of God’s cosmos has expanded by orders of magnitude over the last few decades. We can now begin to dream of and embark on very great projects, including the exploration of our neighbouring moon and planets and, say, even the terraforming of Mars. What opportunities and dangers lie before us!
Being placed as God’s gardener in a specific place and time, ‘in the East, in Eden’ is no trivial calling. It is not to be understood as a quaint or overly romantic conception of human life, pottering around on ‘garden leave,’ insensible to the challenges of our lives in corporately challenging times and circumstances. Rather, the invocation of garden subtly points to important truths. God’s world is placed under our authority and control, which is to say, our delicate stewardship, which must consider whether this plant is to be made a crop or a weed, and whether this bush will live here or there or not at all. How will we shape and form this world? Later, we find that God leaves his human creatures to their work. There is a trust in their agency and motivations to design, in the expectation that there will later be a frank conversation between all ‘in the cool of the day.’ This stewardship is one of equals between humans. No person is to be more influential than any other. God is the only king- we humans are therefore equal subjects and citizens and equally charged with the responsibility to tend this ‘garden’ which is both functional, as fields are, and also beautiful, enjoyed alike by king and the creative gardener who forms and maintains it. Who has more fun, and enjoys the reward- the king who decrees where the hedges and borders will be, or the gardeners who actually do the work? If you are a gardener you may well say that the worker finds more reward than the ‘boss’ who is only an occasional visitor. No matter, for it says that God is the first maker of the garden, and then He passes it over to his son and daughter. There is more than enough fun and recompense to go around. Having said all that, we cannot and must not forget that God is still the ultimate authority, and we shall surely give an account.
God has not finished forming His world or the details of the interrelations of its parts. This passage makes much use of the literary rule of three, and as the bush and plant of the field were features of the ground by which both man and garden were formed, a third greater type of plant is now mentioned, offering another subtle climax. In God’s royal garden are trees, and these are described in dual terms: beautiful and functional; pleasant to look at and also good for food. This is use with dignity, consumption with restraint, exploitation of qualities of usefulness yet with a balancing consideration of sustainability at all levels. This balance is inclusive of ecological realities, and yet there is more being said. Two particular trees are mentioned at the conclusion of this section that do not fit with biological categories or modern scientific conceptions. First mentioned is a tree of life at the centre of this garden, so the life quality is not inherent only in water and light and nutrients- the Genesis account is pointing to a further quality of life beyond these scientific categories, that are only to do with our short sojourn on Earth as biological creatures. There is a further aspect to life which is thus mysteriously announced. And again, another tree which will be a focus of the next passage, with supra-natural qualities. The Genesis worldview is assuredly NOT merely a precursor to the modern humanistic intellectual and sometime empirically derived view of the universe. The claims made for entities and the relationships between them are of a different mode to that of the evolutionary scientist or environmentally concerned ecologist, though the concepts of process and balance are found in our passage. But that is not what Genesis 2 is telling us. Rather, or at least, we can now perhaps see that the claims of Genesis are more than telling us that there is a God who is responsible for once making humans and the world in which we find ourselves. This life we are living is real and very special, and intimately conjoined with the functions of the physical universe in a multitude of fascinating and delicate ways, and yet God’s creation is designed to point to a quality of life which reaches beyond our physical existence for a few short decades, and a quality of wisdom which is grounded in simple knowledge but then goes beyond what we might find out for ourselves. And we have found out a lot, even about the nature of space and time and energy and matter, and so on. What hope can there really be for us? Is this life not simply marvellous, but then a tragic teasing, as we will leave it again so soon after our arrival? Does it really matter if we save or destroy this planet, our first home, or somehow manage to facilitate an existence for some of our descendants elsewhere in this solar system or in our galaxy beyond? The scientist cannot give an affirmative answer, because that is not what science is good for. In the worldview of Genesis, the two trees find their place as signposts of a more certain kind; theological signposts to hope beyond this present reality of soil and bushes- of the life of field and garden- though there will be tragedy in the next episode.
In all this we are thus enlightened in the tripartite biblical theological view of the means and ends of our creation by God, as part of God’s joined up creation, which is still in process, and in which we human beings have esteemed agency as co-creators with YHWH who we can know even more fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
Stephen Thompson © 2020
- Artist Illustration of Dragon to Mars (2015). Original from Official SpaceX Photos. CCO. image-from-rawpixel-id-2229675-jpeg
- Artist Ai Weiwei’s installation of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds painted by hand over two years by 1600 artisans, on the floor of the main turbine hall at Tate Modern in 2010-11. gizmodo CCO Right: Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Lake of Zug @The Met.
- The north polar residual ice cap of the Planum Boreum region. NASA and raw pixel.
- Artist’s concept depicts the top of the 2020 rover’s mast. Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
- Fisheye Stereo from Edge of ‘Santa Maria’ Crater, Sol 2459 Original from NASA. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
- The information gathered by various Mars rovers will be used to select the most likely sites for developing human colonies on Mars, and to begin the process of developing a sustainable ecosystem linking water, light and plants so that there can be continuous human habitation independently of supply from Earth. 135855main_marsconcept-1.jpg CCO
- https://mars.nasa.gov/resources/three-generations-of-rovers-with-standing-engineers/ CCO