'Now the Lord God set the Man down in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it - and thereby serve it – to have care of it and conserve it.'
If I was to ask “When God made humans in the first place, what did he have in mind for us to do?”, what would your response be? I’m not saying there’s only one valid answer to this question, but I think this verse provides us with one important answer.
You might respond that we are not Adam and we don’t live in the garden of Eden, so what has this got to do with us? I believe this verse is of universal significance because Genesis 2 is a story of origins that is meant to set the pattern of what is to come; so when Christ talks about marriage, he goes back to this chapter on the basis that how things started between the man and woman was meant to set the pattern for all of us who follow on.
We may not be gardeners, or farmers, but what I believe this verse says for all of us is that humanity was given charge of the earth with all its resources, to develop its potential, but also to conserve it - just as a gardener does with his garden. As we cultivated it, we would be continually bringing out its inherent meaning, both to our own satisfaction and enjoyment and for the glory of God, not to mention for His pleasure; the meaning and pleasure we got from doing this would naturally lead us to the enjoyment and praise of God. All this is because the characteristics of the creation he has given us to work on derives from the nature and character of God himself.
There are two key Hebrew words, which I have expanded in my translation: The first word is 'abad' and is usually translated 'cultivate', 'tend' here, but it has another far more common meaning. 90% of the time this word is used it means to serve – a meaning which I have brought into my translation here. You might find the idea of us serving the earth a bit strange. After all, doesn’t it say earlier in this chapter that Mankind was given dominion over the earth to subdue it? For a biblical Christian worldview there is no conflict between the exercising of power and authority verses being a servant. As Christ made plain to us, authority and service go together hand in hand. So I am the master of our dog, Mabel; at times I tell her what I want her to do, I use force to constrain her on a lead, and I look for obedience from her (even though I may not always get it!). At the same time we feed her, take her to the vets and I take her daily for a walk - not to mention other numerous other acts of love and TLC. I usually enjoy walking but at times, when I don’t feel like it, she will still get a walk. She doesn’t feed me, take me to the doctors or take me for a walk! So that makes me both her servant and her master. The things we are given mastery over are also the things we are to care for and to serve.
The other Hebrew word 'shamar' has a range of meanings; as well as meaning to have care of something, it means to guard, keep or conserve. When it comes to carrying out what God meant us humans to do on earth, man’s rebellion and fall has truly put the spanner in the works; even so, a vestige of this still remains in the God-given instincts that are at work in things like the nature and wildlife conservation movement, or in the formation of national parks. As far as I know, Richard Attenborough is an atheist who believes we are the chance product of a blind evolutionary process. Yet, when in his most recent series about the natural world he lamented the effects of plastic debris floating in our oceans, we could well ask that, if that’s all there is to us humans, why should he or anyone else care about this? Why should he care about whether animals suffer because of us, or a plant or animal species dies out, unless it is of some particular use to us? Shouldn’t we rather see a species dying out through our activity as a measure of our strength and competitive success in the evolutionary race? The fact that he, and many others like him, are by implication holding us as a race responsible for our effect on the natural world, and calling on us to be better guardians of it, reveals an instinct within him that tells a different story to the one he professes to believe in, one where we were given responsibility for the earth to be custodians of it. The biblical story of origins is written on his heart, whether he acknowledges it or not. However, while the wildlife conservation movement shows a God-given instinct at work, like other conservation movements it operates very much in a compartmentalised way. On a more general level we see the effects of the fall. Today, we are described as being consumers, and we have been labelled a consumer culture. It would be perfectly logical to talk of consuming food and drink, but we are said to be consumers of fridges, washing machines, ovens, phones, cars, bikes, hi fi, holidays and legal services! The language speaks volumes. To consume something is to use it up, and so it is hardly a coincidence that we have also been labelled a throwaway society – and indeed, in many ways, that is what we are. Western culture puts a premium on progress to the point of idolising it, and it doesn’t particularly care what gets spoiled, wasted or used up in the process. It has a knock on effect on us as people as well. I believe that even while on some levels we may enjoy seeing improvements, on other levels the effect of a restless compulsion for change brings a loss of stability and increasing stress, as we all try to cope and keep up with a target that is forever moving, and feel the loss of things we value that have been sacrificed in the race to keep up.
The other extreme is to live like the Amish community. The Amish are focused very much on the preservation of their way of life, a way of life that goes back to a pre-industrial age. They look at western culture with its restless change and its patterns of ravenous consumption and they don’t like it at all. The answer for them is to escape into a life that remains unchanged, kept in place by rigorous rules designed to stop the infiltration of anything that would compromise this. Their reaction is understandable but the difficulty with their approach is that they are responding to one extreme with another kind of extreme. Development is rejected in favour of preservation.
The biblical mandate is for both cultivation and preservation working hand in hand. There is a tension between the two things; how can we hold both of those things together? The answer is that, without the help of the God who gave us both of these as a divine mandate, if is very difficult to know how to do this. It’s not something about which I or anyone else could sit down and write and book of instructions. It is more like a journey of learning and discovery that we commit to with God as our guide and teacher. It would be something we could only properly do when we as a culture, a nation, a race, brought ourselves before God and asked him to lead us down the right path, just as he showed the ancient Israelites in the Mosaic Torah, which had guidance and principles not just for individual morality but also concerning matters like this, which relate to our economics and concern how we operate collectively as a society.
Under God, the tension between the two sides which are assigned to us – cultivating and conserving, developing and maintaining stability – would be a creative and enriching one. So much of the joy and beauty of life arises out of the creative handling of opposites, as we get the apparent opposites to work together rather than fight against each other. But without God a creative tension becomes a destructive conflict where the two sides are in a tussle with each other and can’t be fully reconciled. We cannot properly do things without God.