Note: The “Season of Creation” is a contemporary liturgical and lectionary movement celebrated during the four Sundays in September prior to St Francis of Assisi Day (Oct 4). This ecumenical observance was begun by a Lutheran pastor in Australia in 2000 and has spread worldwide (see the Season of Creation website, a great resource for churches). The season begins on September 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, an observance started by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and recently adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. This Sunday (Sept 10) is “Land Sunday.” Below is the opening excerpted from my reflections for this day published in Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and Paul Santmire, eds., The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Augsburg Fortress, 2011), pp 83-97.
Most contemporary North Americans have been socialized to see and value the earthy terrain around them in terms of private possession, economic exploitation, and commodification. But in stark contrast to the cosmology of modernity, the Bible does not understood land as “real estate”—ever. Instead, we can identify at least four major characteristics of land in the biblical tradition: as mother of life; as abundant sustainer of living beings; as altar for worship of the Creator; and as home place.
Mother: In the second Genesis creation account we are told that the human being (Heb. ‘adam) is formed from the “topsoil” (Heb. ‘adamah, Gen. 2:7)—a wordplay that is tellingly preserved in the English “human/humus.” Scripture is unembarrassed and straightforward: we are birthed from the earth (as are all flora and fauna: Gen. 2:9, 19). This spiritual and material understanding has been embraced both by old indigenous cultures and the new biological sciences, but ignored by Christians for too long.
Sustainer: In this same creation tale, the Earth (‘eretz, Gen. 2:6), is called a “garden” (gan, Gen. 2:8). Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures this term is used to describe not only fertile terrain (Deut. 11:10; Isa. 51:3; Jer. 31:12), but also a woman’s pleasures (Song of Sol. 4). This garden (LXX, paradeisos) provides everything human beings find “delightful” (Gen. 2:9). The adjective tov, according to Richard Lowery, “expresses God’s intense pleasure at creation’s every detail. It is God’s cosmic WOW” (Richard Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, Chalice, 2000, p, 86.) This divine assessment appears as an emphatic, ecstatic refrain in the first Creation account (Gen. 1:4,10,12,18,21,25), before humans arrive on the scene (thus undermining the common accusation that the Genesis tradition is overly anthropocentric). Lowery also points out that the verb bara’, reserved exclusively in the Bible for God’s creative activity, can also mean “to be fat” (for example, Gen. 27:28; 41:2ff); the Earth embodies a “rich and lavish overflow of goodness, abundant and life giving at its very core” (ibid). This contrasts sharply with Enlightenment notions of “natural scarcity” and the presumption that the Earth has no intrinsic value until humans re-engineer it into something “useful.” Yet, biblically, abundance is contingent upon human beings remaining obedient to their vocation to “serve and preserve” creation (Gen. 2:15; see my article here). To neglect stewardship and “take too much” of the divine gift is to reckon with disaster (see, for example, Num. 11:31-35; Lev. 25-26)—a hard word to our own historical moment. At the same time, eschatological redemption is most often imagined in scripture as the restoration of the land, such as the prophetic visions of YHWH’s reforesting of the desertified Levant (Isa. 35:1-2; 41:17-20) and, even more remarkably, of wild flora and fauna re-inhabiting the ruins of imperial cities (e.g. Isa. 13:19-22).
Altar: The land is the primary locus for worship in the earliest traditions of scripture. Torah’s first account of an encounter with God outside Eden occurs upon Abram’s defection from empire to the marginal desert lands of Canaan (Gen. 12:6f). He arrives at an oak, which is described in Hebrew as ‘elon moreh—a teaching or oracle-giving tree. It is here under this “tree of life” that God first tells Abram of his future in this land—and here that Abram builds the Bible’s first altar (similar encounters take place in Gen.18:1ff; Judg. 6:11; and I Kgs. 19:4). Of particular significance is the often overlooked “eleventh commandment” of Exodus 20:24-25:
You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your offerings of well-being . . . . If you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it.
No work of human hands (much less technology) can improve on creation; nature is thus the most appropriate setting for worship of YHWH. When the people forget this, “teaching trees” and “listening stones” bear witness against them (see Josh. 24:27). Such Earth-based communion hardly bespeaks of a biblical hostility to nature, as is so often claimed by the tradition’s critics.
Home: Genesis 3, as we will see below, narrates how humans abandon their symbiotic relationship with the “garden” (Gen. 3:23f) for the re-engineered landscapes of the city (Gen. 4:17) and eventually of empire (Gen. 11:1ff). The subsequent covenantal narrative of scripture articulates a dialectical relationship between the homelessness brought about by human alienation from the land and attempts by God to bring the people back home to it. When in exodus, dispossessed people are promised land; when in exile, they are promised a return (Isa. 40; 65:19-25; see Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977). In short, the biblical narrative begins with a myth about a garden-home that is lost, and concludes with a myth of that garden-home’s restoration (Rev. 22:1-2).
These four characteristics weave throughout the Hebrew Bible, as well as through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet of the wilderness tradition. They can also be discerned in each of the texts for Land Sunday. Preaching on these themes invites the audience to remember these ancient lessons about belonging, communion, and responsibility and to act courageously in the teeth of our historic present ecological crisis.