In the Bible, the true significance of soil is not immediately grasped by statements directly addressing it. By inference, however, we learn how truly foundational our use of soil is as it relates to all of life. We see it first, of course, in the creation story of Genesis 1. Then in the second chapter of Genesis, where the creation story is illuminated further, we read:
This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, before any plant of the field was in the earth and before any herb of the field had grown. For the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to till the ground (Gen. 2:4-5).
God then created man and placed him in the Garden of Eden:
Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it (v.15).
When the two Hebrew terms used here, “tend” and “keep,” are put together with all their different connotations, you come to understand that Adam and his progeny were to develop an intimacy with the land that compelled them to serve it almost as much as the garden served them. “Tend” (abad) means “to work, serve, or labor for.” The word for “keep” (shamar) is the same word used in the familiar church benediction that was echoed in the hearts of millions of farm families over the centuries as they made their way back home after Sunday morning services to enjoy the fruit of their labors:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace (Num. 6:24-26).
The full meaning of shamar (“keep”) is also telling. In Genesis 2:15, it means “to guard, protect, preserve, observe, and celebrate” the fruit and fruitfulness of the garden. That was obviously man’s original purpose, since this was the way he was to keep alive. The fundamental understanding about man’s existence is the same today. We and our daily bread are both products of the soil.
American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, dismayed over soil erosion after the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s, declared in his 1938 state-of-the-union address, “A man [who] farms his land to the waste of the soil or the trees destroys not only his own assets but Nature’s assets.”
Biblical Principles. When we understand that our role is the stewardship of creation’s resources, we can better grasp some biblical principles about it. First, the poor must not be disenfranchised from the land or denied access to the fruit of the land. The prophet Ezekiel was given word from the Lord to admonish the wealthy leaders of Israel who callously forced the poor off the land and then in the midst of their abundance carelessly damaged the land and polluted the water. The key verse is Ezekiel 34:18.
Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? (NIV).
What followed was a sober prophecy that God would remove them from the land and bring back the poor, who loved the land and used it responsibly and obediently. I believe we need to consider carefully how that might apply to the modern removal of poor farmers from the land they cherish and understand.
It was for this reason that the principle of “gleaning” was instituted in the Mosaic law. The landholders of Israel were not to harvest all their crops to the edges and corners of the field so that the poor would have access to the excess (Lev. 19:9).
Because it was God’s intent to have His chosen people demonstrate godly living, they were often disciplined for their failure as witnesses. One such failure was their lack of concern for the poor and disenfranchised. This was demonstrated by their accumulation of arable land in adjoining fields. They did this to keep the poor from having access to the land for their own farming. And they also wanted quiet solitude—to have their own space. Isaiah wrote:
Woe to those who join house to house; they add field to field, till there is no place where they may dwell alone in the midst of the land! (5:8).
The prophets mourned the failure of God’s people who were “planted in good soil by many waters, to bring forth branches, bear fruit, and become a majestic vine” (Ezek. 17:8) but who instead experienced the discipline of God who gave them barrenness as a consequence.
One wonders how things might be different in the nations of the world today if there were effective laws that limited selfish accumulation of land, and efficient agencies assisting the disenfranchised in obtaining enough land for them to at least sustain their families. There might be far less boredom and resultant crime among those who are continually on the welfare rolls in our urban areas if they were able to work the soil and draw moral strength from that creative activity.
Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev seemed to imply this principle in his classic work on creativity, The Destiny Of Man:
The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty, it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolic state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness.
Further, we should adhere to a second principle: Live off the fruit of the land, but in the process don’t destroy its fruitfulness. Besides being an obvious bit of wisdom like “Don’t eat your seed corn,” this principle is implicit in a number of wisdom principles found in the laws of the book of Deuteronomy. There, the children of Israel are instructed not to destroy fruit trees when they cut timber to besiege the cities God commanded them to take. Also, they were not to take a mother bird when they took her eggs or fledglings for food (Dt. 20:19-20; 22:6-7).
We should apply this principle in our day to the destruction of our land’s fruitfulness by the complete removal of topsoil that is accompanied by abuse of the remaining soil by overuse of chemicals and the application of salt-laden irrigation water to the land. It’s logical to extend this principle to every way in which humanity carelessly reduces the fruitfulness of the creation.
A third principle is also evident in the Old Testament: Give the land its Sabbath rest. Cal DeWitt, in his booklet Earth-wise, puts it like this:
God’s Torah states, “When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord” (Lev. 25:2). This means that the earth’s land and creatures are not to be pressed relentlessly or pushed for all they are worth for human financial and material gain. Instead, honoring the will of their Creator, humans must give land and creatures their time for rest, rejuvenation, and recreation (see Ex. 23:10- 12 and Lev. 25–26).
To understand how serious a matter this was to God, consider the fact that Israel would be taken into captivity for 70 years, in part because for 70 years they did not give the soil its weekly and 7-year rest (Lev. 26:31-35).
This is a concept still understood today, but less frequently used. It’s the idea of fallowness—the practice of allowing land to occasionally rest uncultivated for at least a year so that it can regain moisture, combat plant diseases, and control undesirable vegetation. Many agronomists believe that modern crop rotation is better than fallowing because it allows the farmer to continuously make money off all his land. While this may be true, it ignores the spiritual benefits of delib erately taking soil out of production. By so doing, you declare your dependency on God— the One who created life and causes all increase. Because so little land is now cultivated by people who live on it and love it, this sacramental and sacrificial practice is virtually ignored.
Also missing are the nonpragmatic elements of relieving the land from the pressure of constant tilling. When I drive through the intensely cultivated rural regions of the former prairie states and provinces of North America, my soul seems to sense the heavy weight borne by our overburdened soil. It yearns for the fencerows and fallow land that used to give relief.
This nonutilitarian understanding is ancient. The Greek poet, Hesiod, writing in the days when Israel was still the homeland of God’s covenant people, said that “fallow land is a defender from harm and a soother of children.” I believe I know what he meant about “soother of children.” Some of my most pleasant memories of childhood are of the times when my friends and I wandered through resting pastures, undeveloped woodlands, and abandoned fields where new growth abounded with wildlife and wildflowers.
A Biblical Parable. This brings us to perhaps the most significant reference to soil in the New Testament: Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. The story’s metaphor is a sower whose seed is scattered, falling on many areas that are not good for growth: the trampled byway, the stony ground, and the weed and thorn-infested land. Yet some of it does fall on good soil (Lk. 8:4-15). Understandably, as every farmer knows, the seed takes root and grows to maturity only in rich arable soil.
Jesus explained to His disciples that the seed is God’s Word that goes out to all people. The good soil represents the souls of those who receive it “with a noble and good heart” and patiently allow it to bear good fruit. While Jesus’ listeners apparently did not grasp the meaning of the spiritual parable, they understood perfectly the subject of Jesus’ allegory. They lived close to the land, they prayed and fasted regularly for the rain essential to growth, and they feasted annually in celebration of the harvest. Today, followers of Christ usually know the spiritual meaning of the parable, but I fear we fail to grasp the full significance of the story’s referents: good soil and careful sowing.
A Biblical Promise. These biblical principles and this parable gain more significance in the light of an important biblical promise: The curse God placed on the soil will one day be lifted. It is stated in clear terms among the many promises found in the final chapter of John’s Revelation:
There shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in [God’s holy city], and His servants shall serve Him (22:3).
The beauty of this spot, our ultimate destination, is that it has many of the features of the original Garden of Eden—including pure, life-giving water and access once again to the Tree of Life, which Adam lost in the first garden.
This final lifting of the curse has long been celebrated by the church with the words of Isaac Watts’ great hymn, “Joy To The World.” We sing it almost exclusively at Christmas, but we should sing it all year long:
No more let sins
and sorrows grow,
infest the ground;
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.