Raise your hand if you have a pet or ever had a pet; say a cat, dog, or a fish. Keep your hands up. How many of you have or ever had livestock like cows, goats, or chickens? Keep your hands up. Now, how many of you have ever had to take care of a plant, be it a house plant or a garden? Good, looks like most of you. You can drop your hands now. For those of you that raised your hand, in that relationship with that pet, livestock, or plant, who did the serving? Did they serve you or did you serve them?
It is kind of a hard question to answer. A dog provides companionship and protection, but that dog needs to be walked, fed, and watered. Cattle can provide an income and livelihood for rancher, but they need feed and fields, fresh water, some level of protection from wind and snow, vaccinations. A garden will provide a bounty of fresh foods for the table if the ground is fertilized, bugs are squished, and countless hours are spent weeding. Does creation serve humanity or does humanity serve the rest of creation?
I also want us to think about that question theologically in light of who we are as creatures, who we are in relationship to our Creator and who we are in relation to the rest of creation. And to do that, we are going back to the beginning. Amy just read about the beginnings of humanity in the two creation stories found in Genesis. Yes, the two creation stories. If you read chapter one into the first couple verses of chapter two of Genesis, there is a marked difference in what you will read next. One way I was told to think about the differences is that the first story starts wet with the watery chaos and ends dry with the earth and all the animals and humans on dry land. And the second story starts dry with the creation of the earth and the plants, and the animals, and the man and then the woman. A river comes out of the garden and because of the sinfulness of humanity; we end that story with Noah’s flood. Wet to dry versus dry to wet.
Scholars think these stories were written at two different times in Israel’s history. The first, with the seven days of creation, may have been written during the Babylonian captivity. The second, the Adam and Eve story, was possibly written earlier, during the height of Solomon’s temple. When you read them, you can’t quite mesh them together into one cohesive creation account. But we also can’t separate the accounts, thinking one is superior to the other. As Walter Brueggemann says, we are not free to choose one at the expense of the other. We have to live in the uneasy tension that exists between the two.
Let’s look at the first one. The good news of this text is we are created in the image of God and commanded to have dominion over the earth. Well, what does that mean? The imago Dei, or image of God, gifted to humanity, has been widely discussed and hotly debated since the time of the early church. Is it the ability to reason? Is it something spiritual? There are so many interpretations that it would leave us dizzy in the head. I’m going to add to the levels of complexity by sharing what I think.
If this creation account was given to the Israelites while in Exile in Babylon, the whole message is pastoral, giving hope and meaning to a people who had lost all hope and all meaning. One of the first things King Nebucnnezer would have done when Israel was defeated was place a statue of himself there to remind people he had dominion over them and that place. In Babylon, they were surrounded by a people who said the God of Israel had been completed defeated their gods and they were surrounded by the images of these gods. Everywhere they looked, there was an image of a king or a god of Babylon. During the exile and being surrounded by idols, Israel resisted every temptation to image God and resist the notion that anything in the world resembled God. For them, the God God of Israel, the one and only true God, in freedom and grace, created the world. It was the freedom of God which gave these exiles hope against the massive power of the empires around them.
And within this situation of the temptation to idolize God, the text gives a surprising counter-assertion. There is one way in which God is imaged in the world and only one: humanness. This is the only creature, the only part of creation, that discloses to us something of the reality of God. No molten or carved images. God is known through this creature who exists in the realm of free history, where power is received, decisions are made, and commitments are honored. So, like the king who places statues of himself to assert his sovereign rule where the king himself cannot be present, the human creature attests to God by exercising freedom with and authority over all the other creatures entrusted to its care. The image of God in the human person is a mandate of power and responsibility. But it is power exercised as God exercises power: In freedom and love. Basically, everything we do is to be a reflection of the one whose image we are created in.
The good news of the second account of humanity’s creation is we are given the gift of the dust and the gift of the breath of life with the command to till and keep creation. The first part of that good news reflects the Hebrew understanding to be alive. It is both physical and spiritual. You are not alive if you don’t have both, and death meant the end of both the physical and spiritual. There really wasn’t a concept of an afterlife because life was here and now in the midst of creation.
The second part of this deals with vocation. And if this came out of the era of the temple, then the idea of a specific role of humanity makes sense. If you read the law codes about who is doing what, who is serving who, how a priest is served at what roles and duties, you can see where the question of “what role, what task, what vocation would God call humanity to?” The human creature is to care for and tend the garden. The word pair, “till and keep,” may suggest a shepherd or a gardener. In either case, work belongs to the garden. Work is good, surely, to enhance the garden. From the beginning of humanity’s beginning, God is preparing to entrust the garden to this special creature. From the beginning, the human creature is called, given a vocation, and expected to share in God’s work. The word translated “keep” is found in the book of numbers with Moses’ blessing upon Aaron and his sons. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.” Keeping is a form of blessing and sanctuary. The first job of the first human, Adam, was to work with God as God intended in blessing the garden and enhance its fruitfulness by their work together.
So, I go back to my original question: Does creation serve humanity or does humanity serve creation. As we delve into these texts, the answer would appear to be “yes:” It’s a both/and.
I’ll share a story that might help. Who here likes bats? Bats are an amazing creature, eating up to a 1000 mosquitoes in just one hour of their nightly flights. So, when I was probably about 10 years old, my cousin and I would go out to his barn in South Dakota and shoot the bats that lived in the rafters with our BB guns. There were no complaints about guano on the hay or fears of rabies; just wanton, senseless killing of the bats. If creation, and the bats, could have turned to me in an attempt to see the image of a loving, caring, grace-filled God in and through me, I would have failed miserably.
Age a few years, and in what could be called seeking redemption for those stupid acts of shooting bats, I decide we need to hang a bat house at the seminary in Austin. And to involve the community, we had a bat house naming contest. The winner: “Bat-leham.” To me, in that moment, I didn’t think I was doing much with one simple bat house. But later when I spoke with someone from Bat Conservation International, I learned how much more that putting up that house meant, not just for me, but also for the human family and for other parts of creation. Besides mosquitoes, these bats in Texas eat millions of moths whose larvae destroy the corn crop. And many of their roosting spots had been damaged or destroyed by development. This one bat house brought the seminary community together but had repercussions on corn crops well past the city limits of Austin. In serving the bats, the bats were now serving us. The fruitfulness of God’s garden had been enhanced by what we did. It was like one small act of service to creation came back to me several times over from many different directions.
Will we get it right, serving each other and serving creation with and for God and each other? Will we get it right, being image bearers of God as we learn what it means to tend this garden with and for God? Sometimes. But God has promised not to give up on his creation nor will he give up on us. And he has fulfilled that promise is by giving his son, Jesus Christ. For in him we find the true image of God on earth, and in Jesus we find a servant’s heart and life reflecting God’s love and grace. It is a life that led the way to the cross, reconciling not only us to God, but all of creation. Amen.