I feel compelled to deal with mandates of the Bible toward man in relation to creation. This is key to our motivation and the decisions we make moment by moment. To deal with this mandate, I will draw attention to a key Hebrew verb in the creation account I feel is critical to having a right mindset leading to stewardculture.

Christians must figure out what we do based on God’s mandates to us in order for that to inform our actions and subsequent words. In other words, when we trust in God, we have subsequent obedient actions.

The first places where we see specific directions given to man is found in Gen. 1:28 and Gen. 2:15. I will deal with the latter passage here because it is a verse often used to support what I believe is poor stewardship. Gen. 2:15, and its corresponding verse in Chapter 3, is of particular interest because of the implications that follow from a clear understanding of God’s direction in the verse to man related to His creation.

So we head to our Bibles and open to Gen. 2:15 and read, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” I believe many interpreters of the Genesis account often rely too heavily on English translations of Hebrew words. Thus their ideas are based on modern or even older understandings of English words. In my opinion, some people of dogmatic positions give a less-than-accurate understanding of the believer’s role in stewardship of God’s creation because of this. Most germane for this discussion is use of the English words cultivate or till (depending on version) to represent the corresponding Hebrew word עָבַד (abad).

Since, the original manuscripts were written largely in classical Hebrew and common Greek with some Aramaic passages, I caution that to establish a doctrinal or dogmatic position on a theological matter on English terminology has a good chance to be less than accurate.

I believe that the notions of cultivation and tilling were contemporary cultural concepts deeply rooted in the minds of the early translators who lived millennia after Moses’ inspired work was scribed. I can picture these translators carefully and prayerfully going about their tasks and reading the Hebrew word עָבַד (abad) and it would be normative for them to translate it directly into English as the verb “to work,” which is its literal meaning. Then, I believe their own historical and contextual tendency would drive them to define the work, in this case, to till or to cultivate because that was their cultural reference when people interacted (or worked) with a given landscape.

My point is that I conclude an alternative translation for עָבַד (abad) in Gen. 2:15 and 3:23 to be the English verb “to serve” based on these four arguments:

  1. The context of the occasion of the writing;
  2. The context of the scene;
  3. The logic of timing within the creation account; and,
  4. The preponderance of use of עָבַד (abad) in the Old Testament.

I feel it necessary to give one proviso. I am not advocating hyper biblicism. My position is not that we have to use only the literal words of the Bible to explain the Bible. My position is that our doctrine must be based on the original manuscripts. Translation can help us with understanding, but to establish or base one’s doctrine or dogma so heavily on English translations is what I question.

The context of the occasion of the writing

First, the context of the occasion of the writing of Genesis should be examined. We must acknowledge one of Moses’ primary purposes to write Genesis – other than directed by God do so – was to answer the questions of origin of the Hebrews.

Because the Hebrews were tribal in mindset, it might have been logical if Moses began his writings describing the call of Abraham out of Ur. Yet, some might argue the nation’s history could have begun with the account of Noah, the righteous man who by grace survived the global destruction of the flood as a result of sin and violence. But, the thinking Hebrew would naturally ask about Abraham’s or Noah’s origin. They might ask, “who was before Noah, and where did they come from?” These, and other questions, would only be natural.

In part, I believe God’s inspiration to Moses to record in the first five books of the Bible is a telling of the history of the nation of Israel, not necessarily as a history of man in general, which it thankfully serves dual duty.

The Hebrews would certainly have been familiar with the creation mythology of the other peoples around them. By comparison, the history of the Hebrews would have been lacking without taking the story of Israel back to the account of creation.

Moses’ writings, including the creation account, are to reinforce the absolute need for God of mankind. The Genesis account and four subsequent books demonstrate that man needed no one other than God for a complete and whole existence. This complete provision is demonstrated in the description of creation and further modeled by the garden itself and the Hebrew desert wandering. The garden even served as the place of meeting between God and man. It lacked nothing, therefore Adam and Eve lacked nothing for a whole and complete existence under and within God’s provision.

In anticipation of the Hebrews occupying the Promised Land following the hard-learned lessons of the desert, God communicated through Moses to the Hebrews their need for no one other than Himself for fullness of life. Therefore, the message of the wholeness and completeness of the garden is both a literal and a type of model reinforcing God’s total provision to the burgeoning nation.

Moses led by the Spirit used the occasion of the writing to help the Hebrews see they needed nothing other than God who would provide a place of provision and wholeness.

The context of the scene

In addition to the occasion of the writing, I believe we must look to understand the verse in context to the scene. Though I prefer the English word “serve” as a better option for עָבַד (abad) in Gen. 2:15, I can accept the more literal translation “to work.” But what does work mean to Adam at that time and that place before the fall?

To gain understanding of the meaning of עָבַד  (abad) as used in Gen. 2, we must have a context-sensitive definition. Examine Gen. 2:8 compared to Gen. 2:15 for some insight into this context (the garden). Focus here is on the English translation “to put.” The English word “put” appears in both verses, yet the Hebrew word is different in these two verses. In Verse 15 the Hebrew word is נוּחַ (nuach). In Verse 8 the word is שׂוּם (sum).

8 – And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (King James version)

15 – And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it. (King James version)

It is surprising that we might see the common word “put” to have so much nuance. But, in Hebrew the difference is important. In Verse 8 שׂוּם (sum) and its related grammar paints a picture of the literal idea of someone doing the putting of something somewhere. This is the idea we understand when we read, Jane put her shoes in the closet. In this case, it helps answer the journalistic questions of who, what, and where. But for us, the verse is written to emphasize the doer, the fact that it was God who was doing the putting. In fact, the editors of the NASB chose to use a different verb, to place, possibly to demonstrate a difference in understand of the action by God

Verse 15’s use of the Hebrew נוּחַ (nuach) gives us a different picture. נוּחַ (nuach) means “to rest.” Granted, this can mean come to rest, as when a ball stops rolling. But Moses choosing a different word from Verse 8 is telling, in my opinion. Moses could have used the word שׂוּם (sum) and the idea most of us understand about Verse 15 would not have been altered. Yet, נוּחַ (nuach) helps answer the journalistic question why. The inspired writer chose נוּחַ (nuach) to help illustrate what kind of place it was God created for Adam and Eve and His intentions for them both. A place of rest.

The concept of rest in the Bible has theological significance. Though in this case it is not the same word Moses used in reference to the seventh day of creation, the idea of completeness is still contained in נוּחַ (nuach). It can even mean to give comfort, to be quiet and to dwell.

Though I prefer the notion of rest as the translation of נוּחַ (nuach), I can accept “dwell” as a good alternative because it still makes my point. The all-powerful, limitless God of creation designed a habitation for Adam and Eve and it was complete and had all that was necessary for a quality life of rest and peace. And, more importantly, it was a place where Adam and Eve’s attention should not be distracted from God. It was a place of wholeness, a place to settle at peace.

With this picture of Verse 15, I claim this reinforces that Adam’s role was not to work in the sense of tilling or cultivating, for that is not rest. Tilling and cultivation was not necessary in the place of rest God designed for Adam. Instead, Adam’s role was to serve the garden, not desecrate it as tilling would.

Tilling and cultivation, as defined by the idea of soil disturbance, is, in terms from the Bible, a violence to God’s creation. I will not give much space here to describe the effects of tilling except for the following facts:

  • tilling exposes the soil to the sunlight which vaporizes the moisture in the soil
  • tilling raises the temperature of the soil beyond the tolerance of microbial life, creatures of God, die once soil temperatures start to rise above 80 degrees F, without microbial coexistence, plants will not thrive
  • tilling exposes the soil to the damaging forces of wind and rain and thus erosion
  • tilling encourages non-desirable plants in favor of desired plants
  • tilling encourages disease

In short, what we learned from the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, and other ancient imperial civilizations is that tilling leads to destruction and eventually to death[1] [2].

Since the garden in God’s opinion was very good (Gen. 1:31) and complete for the first couple’s provision, there was no need for cultivation as we understand it today, as the original translators understood it, or, dare I say, even as Moses understood it based on his Egyptian experience.

Logic of the timing

There is also a logical argument that serving and not tilling is what God intended. This logical argument is based on the fact that the garden was already established by God.

There had been no tilling of the soil by the time of Gen. 2:15. By this use of till, I am referring to the idea of breaking open of the ground and the breaking up of the ground’s structure to create a particular growing condition. The point is that the idea of tilling as the translators understood it was not in existence by the time of Gen. 2:15. So, Moses’ use of עָבַד (abad) in this case is more likely to not mean to till, but rather to serve.

The other thing to notice is the willingness by some to jump to the conclusion that God was talking about soil when they proclaim Adam’s role as a tiller of the ground. However, a re-reading of the verse reveals there is no reference to soil or land or ground (neither אֶרֶץ  (erets) nor אֲדָמָה (adamah) nor שָׂדֶה (sadeh)). Adam was to work or serve a place of perpetual fertility that was already created by God in His infinite wisdom and design. The garden was already established by God.

There were no tilling tools at the time of Verse 15. How would Adam עָבַד (abad) the soil as the translators understood tilling or as we understand it today if there was no implement of some kind at the time? Conceivably by his bare hands, but that would look more like the sweaty and hard work of Adam after the fall than the rest in a paradise designed by God to meet Adam’s every need. How did Adam know what tilling might be? We certainly have to give room for direct revelation by God on what tilling might mean, but the likelihood that Adam understood the concept of serving is much more conceivable considering the intimate relationship he had with God at the time and the actual contents of the paradise.

To me, choosing the verb serve is a better translation than cultivate or till because of the nature of the place where God put Adam and the nature of the relationship between Adam and God at the time.

The contents of the Garden of Eden also present an argument in favor of the translation to serve regarding God’s intention for Adam in the garden. I do not see the divinely designed garden dominated by annuals, but rather I suggest by what we read in Genesis that it was dominated by perennials or perennial-acting plants. We even see this today if we make honest observation of natural places and processes, though we are in a post-fall world.

The Genesis account of creation describes a placed filled with trees, seed-yielding plants and grasses. The seed-yielding plants and the fruit-yielding trees seem to be described this way so as to emphasize that these trees and these plants do not need man to propagate. The man and woman were provided fruit of the trees of the garden for food. Gen. 2:9 indicates this was a polyculture: “Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food.”

The easily missed word in Verse 9 is “every” as the translation of the כֹּל (kol) which is from the root כָּלַל (kalal). The meaning is that God designed and created the garden with the complete diversity of trees that would be good for food. The variety is the emphasis that is often missed when reading the verse. This is the biblical description of a polyculture.

As we examine the industrious mind of man, he has applied a factory-like approach to agriculture and seems to prefer monocultures so he can mechanize and lower the overhead costs of production. A modern farmer is not much different than a factory manager who has the same objectives to lower overhead while increasing production. The problem is that God did not design the Earth or His food-producing system to be a monoculture, as we now observe in the Garden of Eden – and we can observe it still today by looking on creation with an honest mind.

Whether it is the result of the fall of man on the planet or not, a monoculture approach is fraught with weaknesses to produce food. Monocultures are much more susceptible to disease than polycultures. Monocultures are much more convenient for pests than polycultures. Monocultures are more easily damaged by weed pressure than polycultures. As most large-scale farmers can attest, growing crops in a monoculture model is risky and requires significant financial resources to mitigate those risks.

Before getting too far afield with any botanical discussion here, the point is that the God-designed garden was a self-sufficient ecosystem that provided food for Adam perpetually that neither required tilling nor cultivation. Therefore, I cannot see how to till is the best translation.

The preponderance of use in the Old Testament

Since the whole question of translation is important to my argument, I believe I should examine the use of the word עָבַד (abad) in the rest of the Old Testament. According to Strong’s concordances, the Hebrew word appears 290 times in the King James version. Certainly, as most words do, it can have multiple meanings. We see this in scripture. In short, it can mean to serve, to work, to do, to dress, to labor and several other meanings. If we examine the scriptures, we see that use of עָבַד (abad) when meaning “to serve,” appears 227 times. This compared to meaning:

  • to do (15 times)
  • to work (5 times)
  • to dress (2 times)
  • to labor (2 times)
  • to till (9 times; more on this below)

There are times when the word appears as other parts of speech for the verb to serve. Thus, the sum of appearances of all the parts of speech meaning “serve” equals 236 times in the Old Testament. That means that 81 percent of the times when עָבַד (abad) appears in the Old Testament it means to serve.

This does not fully prove that what was written by the inspired writer in Gen. 2:15 and 3:23 was not one of these other meanings. I do concede that. But, clearly the more common biblical use of the word עָבַד (abad) is to mean to serve.

Of the times עָבַד (abad) is translated specifically as till in the King James version, only two cannot easily be also replaced by the alternative to serve. Eze. 36:9, 34 uses the word in the past tense “tilled.” Yet, even these two occasions are more likely the more literal definition meaning “to work” for reasons already outlined above.

Implications

When taken together as a whole, the four arguments here lead me to understand use of the Hebrew word abad or עָבַד in Gen. 2:15 and 3:23 to mean “to serve” rather than “to till” or “to cultivate.” God’s total provision we see in His creation, His total Lordship of our lives, the need for Moses to write the creation account, the common understanding and use of the Hebrew verb and the logic of the timing of creation actions reinforce this conclusion. This conclusion, however, has significant implications.

The implications are germane to food production: food production that takes place in the very creation in which God has graciously and lovingly placed man. These implications are not just for farmers, ranchers, homesteaders and gardeners. The implications are for anyone who eats food. This is true because if in the consumption, purchase, commerce, transport, and production of food if God’s creation is harmed (violation), those who participate in that stream are culpable.

Because of these implications, humans – especially Christians – must adopt food-production paradigms that do not violate or cause violence to God’s design. For it was violence as a primary reason for God’s destruction of the Earth via the flood. As producers we must seek to understand God’s design of systems so we can mimic them as best we can in a post-Edenic setting. I refer to this as stewardculture, a portmanteau of stewardship and agriculture.

If we are properly and appropriately stewarding God’s creation, we are skillfully exercising the appropriate dominion He gave to man. Within this stewardship, we now work to produce food. Just because we will do so with the sweat of our brow, does not free us from the responsibility to do so without violation of, or violence to, His creation. There are approaches to agriculture and production that are actually regenerative. These approaches must be adopted in opposition to the industrial model currently in place today. These regenerative approaches are fully capable, and have been proven, to produce food at scale for a large population.

Other basic implications are that food production must be localized and our diets must return to a seasonal model and include different foods than we are currently used to. These topics should be explored, but it is not the purposes of this essay to detail them here other than to mention they do exist as certain implications to a better understanding of עָבַד (abad).

To summarize, if we are skillfully serving God’s creation as obedient stewards – if we are practicing stewardculture – then we will not do harm that certainly is caused by tilling. Therefore, עָבַד (abad) must have an alternative understanding than to till, which I contend should be to serve.

[1] Wrench, G.T.; “Reconstruction by Way of Soil,” 1946 published by Faber and Faber Limited, London.

[2] Rifkin, Jeremy; The Hydrogen Economy, 2002 published by Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, New York.

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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