We should so behave on Earth that Heaven will not be a shock to us.
— Pastor Willard Bontrager1
Expectantly, an avid gardener approached me after my presentation at a conference at the University of New Hampshire. She asked if I could give a talk on “The Garden in Biblical Perspective” at an upcoming Garden Symposium to the Long Island Garden Conservancy. I had just presented a biblical perspective on the UNH conference theme: “God, the Environment, and the Good Life.”2 And she was asking me to do so for gardens and gardeners. I agreed.
As the time approached, I entered garden on my computer’s Bible program—which brought me immediately to Genesis 2:15, where adam (the human), is appointed by God to cultivate the garden and keep it. Beneath the word cultivate was the corresponding Hebrew word, abad.
Clicking on abad to see where else this word is used in the Bible, I came to the book of Joshua, “Choose you this day whom you will abad” (Joshua 24:15) knowing this was translated as serve. Could it be that abad also means “serve” in Genesis 2:15?
I quickly phoned a librarian friend at the Hekman Library of Calvin College and Seminary, who called three hours later saying that Young’s Literal Translation reads: “And Jehovah God taketh the man and causeth him to rest in the garden of Eden, to serve it and to keep it.” Excitement! Discovery! A rabbinical saying about Scripture came to mind: “Turn it about, turn it about, for everything you need to know is in it!” I turned it about. The word serve brought to mind the word service, then servancy, and then: conservancy! Might I soon be speaking about “conservancy” to the Long Island Garden Conservancy?
Is a conserver, then, a person who never takes from the garden without giving back? Is serving at the heart of conservation? Must we all return Creation’s service with service of our own? So it seems.
We must never be just takers; we must be also givers: givers to the garden as it gives to us—under the loving and watchful eye of the Great Giver.
Gardeners are joined by other earthy keepers: keepers and conservers of crops, hogs, and cattle—and of the living fabric that envelops our spherical world. One such keeper had invited us to visit his family’s place—a farmscape tended in biblical perspective. And now, Ruth and I were sitting in George and Sally Shetler’s living room whose coffee table held but a single Bible and a few recent issues of Mother Earth News—“our only textbooks on caring for the land we hold in trust.”
Moving outside, Ruth and I observed children grooming cows before milking, then fields rotated on seven-year cycles with each given rest every seventh year and Sugar Maple woodlands mainly for beauty. They planted wheat not for grain this far north, but as bedding preferred by their cows, and cut three inches above the ground to leave stubble for capturing regional windblown topsoil. In little over a decade, this added one inch of fertile topsoil.
Returning to their house, we passed an above-ground swimming pool near the barn. Their children who earlier groomed milk cows were now joyfully swimming and playing in its pleasant water. Returning to our Au Sable cabin in the Au Sable Forest, we savored the Shetler’s joyful care of their farmscape rooted in biblical principles for right living, including Con-Servancy, Fruitfulness, Sabbath, and Earthkeeping.3
The Con-Servancy Principle
We must return Creation’s service with service of our own.
Our love of God our Creator, God’s love of the creation, and our imaging God’s love all empower the commission given us human beings as con-servers of creation. Our service is an inseparable component of the reciprocal service implied in Genesis 2:15. It is a relationship and like all relationships it necessarily has two (or more) parts. And most importantly it is a relationship that is reciprocal. Our conservancy is a reciprocal relationship in which the creation, and the human, reciprocally provide life-affirming and life-sustaining services to their gardens, farmscapes, and the biosphere.
The Fruitfulness Principle
We should enjoy but not destroy creation’s fruitfulness.
God’s blessing of fruitfulness is for the whole creation. “Let the water team with living creatures and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky” (Gen. 1:20). And God blesses these creatures with fruitfulness: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth” (Gen. 1:22). As God’s fruitful work brings fruit to creation, so should ours. We should let the profound admonition of Ezekiel echo in our minds “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you trample the rest with your feet?” and “Is it not enough for you to drink the pure water? Must you muddy the rest with your feet?” (Ezekiel 34:18).
The Sabbath Principle
We must provide for creation’s Sabbath rests.
In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, God commands us to set aside one day in seven as a day of rest—for people and for the animals. The Sabbath day is given to help us all “get off the treadmill,” to protect us from the hazards of continuous work, to help put our lives together again. And in Exodus 23:10–11 we are told, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat.” All things must have and must enjoy their Sabbath rest.
The Earthkeeping Principle
As the Lord keeps us, we must so we must keep and sustain our Lord’s creation.
Reflecting on the con-servancy principle with the gardeners of Long Island, we found that human beings are appointed in Genesis 2:15 not only to serve the garden but also to keep it (shamar). The blessing of Aaron employs the same word: “The Lord bless you and shamar you!” As we ask the Lord to keep us, the Lord asks us to keep the garden. Another Hebrew word, natsar, means to keep in a preserved state. God’s law is to be kept in both senses, natsar and shamar. God’s law must both be preserved without change and put into practice—in the sense of keeping the law by doing it, applying it in fulfilling our vocation given us by God.
The first and last of these principles, interestingly, are boldly printed on Chicago police cars: “To Serve and Protect.” What Chicago—whose motto is “Urbs in Hortis” (city in a garden)—expects from guardians of the city and its people, the Bible expects from the gardeners of creation. Gardeners are guardians bringing good news to the creatures they abad and shamar.
The Shetlers were members of Coldsprings Mennonite Church, where my family also worshipped in the decades of the 80s and 90s, along with many students from Au Sable Institute. The Pastor, Willard Bontrager, while ordained, was also a carpenter. And he was highly respectful of Creation and his Creator. On one of our church work days, when we came together for cleaning and doing repairs on our church building, we stopped—as aways—at one point to enjoy cake and ice cream. And resting from our labor, Willard asked me to summarize what we were teaching and learning at Au Sable. I reviewed the four principles above, and more, for about 20 minutes. Deeply interested, and resonating throughout with comments, he summarized what I had said: “Cal, that was good.” And then: “What you just said is, “We should so behave on Earth that Heaven will not be a shock to us.”
- Willard L. Bontrager was pastor of the Coldsprings Mennonite Church, 1949–1994. See the last paragraph of this blog post for additional information.
- See Calvin B. DeWitt, “A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective,” in The Greening of Faith: God, the Environment, and the Good Life, 20th Anniversary Edition, edited by John E. Carroll, Paul Brockelman, and Mary Westfall (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2016), 79–104. This CSR blog post is an adaptation of: Calvin B. DeWitt, “Guardening,” Lutheran Woman Today, July 2004.
- For more extensive treatment for each of these principles, see: Calvin B. DeWitt, Earth-Wise: A Guide to Hopeful Creation Care, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: FaithAlive, 2011), 72–79, and Calvin B. DeWitt, “Reading the Bible through a Green Lens,” in The Green Bible: New Revised Standard Version (New York: HarperOne), 25–34.