Does this question matter?

I discovered a blog titled, Redeeming the Dirt. It’s a blog written by a born-again Christian farmer named Noah Sanders, author of the book Born Again Dirt. But, I want to share a question Sanders posed in his blog some time ago.

At his blog, Sanders asked his readers to answer “Is land living or non-living?” He asked this question with the idea that his readers would answer it from a biblical perspective.

I believe we need to examine the semantics because most readers’ scriptural references are made in English, which is not the original language. Additionally, our understanding of these terms can differ today from when the English translators did their work.

For example, the Hebrew word “erets” that is translated as “earth” in Gen. 1:11 is tricky in itself. Its literal translation is “be firm” which then can be translated by context as country, earth, field, ground, land, or even nations. My point is we should be careful about being dogmatic based on the English translations.

Therefore, I posit we may not know what Sanders means by “land” when he asked his question. Do we understand it to mean soil? Or could it be real estate? Or how about a geography? Land could even mean an ecosystem. Do we come up with an answer to his question of vivacity if we pick one of these legitimate definitions of land?

living-soil

Earthworms, extensive root network, varied-sized aggregate, are all good indicators of a healthy soil.

If soil is our definition, then we know soil is some combination of silt, sand and clay. But, it also has many organisms that exist among the three elements. Does soil become living because there are nematodes or other microscopic life in it? Does a house become living because people live in it? Is that a logical comparison? One can say that a dog is living, yet it has component parts that are also living, such as skin cells. Does the living cell make the dog a living thing or vice versa? Do bacteria in the soil, which are alive, cause the soil to be alive in its unified form? This can be heady stuff if we let it.

Let’s say that the “earth” of Gen. 1:11 means either soil or land. The verse tells us that God commands, “Let the earth sprout vegetation …” We have to examine the grammar to help us have some insight into this process. The Hebrew verb “desah” is translated in the New American Standard as “sprout” and “bring forth” in the King James. But the verb stem of the Hebrew used is technically known as Hiphil, which is causative active. One could say that this grammar indicates that the soil has the capacity to transfer life-like characteristics to the plant, or causing the plant to come forth from its own soil nature. I give this qualification, however, that God is the creator and life giver and in this case is commanding by fiat that the earth bear living green things with the soil as His divinely designed system.

Now, after several paragraphs, I haven’t even attempted an answer to Noah’s question. I suggest for most of us that this requires some careful study and prayer. I believe an important reason to better understand God’s creation is that it can help us learn more about Him. Secondarily, as agrarians, it has direct implication as we try to be a biblical steward of the land He has graciously extended to me. Whether I believe the land is living or not may not change my attitude toward it any more than if I view the land as a gift from the greatest Gift Giver. I honor the Gift Giver by working to make it give a return, as in Christ’s parable of the talents in Matt. 24.

Is the land living? That’s a question answered by another question, “What constitutes life (at least for things other than man)?

So as not to be seen as copping out on the question, I view the “land” from a more holistic standpoint and see it as an ecosystem. With that in mind, I would tend to see the land having living characteristics. An ecosystem has component parts that are living (flora, fauna, man). An ecosystem has both a respiratory system (exchange of gases) and a circulatory system (hydrologic cycle) with its component parts dependent on these. An ecosystem also has a neurological system with its component elements communicating and interacting with each other. Its component parts also have their own micro life cycles – plants and animals arise from the elements, flourish and then return to the elements only to become part of the process again.

My second point is to caution against pointing to biblical anthropomorphisms as proof that the land is a living thing. One can view Hebrew as a pictorial language (where English is a literal language) and often uses simile, metaphor, word pictures, figurative language and anthropomorphisms to convey complex ideas. Is our Heavenly Father really “a fountain of living water”? Of course not, God the Father is spirit and not of His creation. However, the Hebrew of Jeremiah 2:13 uses this metaphor to help covey a particular characteristic of God. Therefore, I’m not confident that God intended us to understand the anthropomorphisms in the bible about the land being alive to be a proof that His creation is living.

Though we are subject to the effects of the post-Edenic curse, the land is, by God’s design, an environment within which He knowingly placed man to live and be fruitful and creative. I have to believe that I need to work with the land knowing how God created this special gift to function healthfully and not simply as a resource for my needs. I’m not the owner, simply the steward of a particular ecosystem, and yes, including the soil of the land.

 

Dan Grubbs

Dan Grubbs, editor of Stewardculture, lives in northwest Missouri where he is implementing and managing a permaculture-style design on his 15-acre homestead. A weekly teacher of the Bible, Dan believes that an agrarian lifestyle is one in which he can answer God's calling to steward creation through regenerative techniques that attempt to mimic God's design.

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