Tending and Keeping

By Jessica Maudlin Phelps

The very first command addressed to humanity in the entire Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). We see humankind displaying a type of dominion when it comes to pollution and extraction of the earth’s most precious resources with no room for compassion, dignity or respect. But was this control what God had in mind for us when this beautiful Creation came into being?

In Genesis 2:15, God gave humankind a command and said to tend or keep the garden. The Hebrew word for “tend,” or some translations say “keep,” is shamar and it means more than just keep it neat and tidy. The Hebrew word means “to guard” or “to watch and protect.” The word “work,” or as some translations more accurately say “to cultivate,” is from the Hebrew word abad, meaning “to serve.”

Looking at it this way, Genesis 2:15 would better be read as: “The Lord God took the human and put the human in the garden of Eden to serve it and to guard and protect it.”

Serve. Guard. Protect.

Language that calls out to our best selves, language that calls us to account instead of endowing us with misnamed authority. Language that calls us to be restorers rather than desecrators.

The Rev. Michael Malcom, executive director of The People’s Justice Council, frames it this way: “Restoring our Earth means shifting our collective consciousness from extractors and consumerism to equity and community. It is to return to being stewards of God’s ecology versus extractors of it. It calls for us to place people and the planet over profit. Restoring Our Earth is a rallying cry for us to rise from our apathetic slumber and become partners in caring for God’s Creation.”

And how might we see ourselves in partnership with Creation in new ways? What if for one week, we chose to look at Creation with different eyes? To commit to walk outside daily and pay close attention to components of our planet?[1]

On Day One, appreciate the warmth of the sun on your face.

On Day Two, feel the solidness of the ground beneath you.

On Day Three, examine a rain cloud, a puddle or some other body of water.

On Day Four, count as many stars as you can.

On Day Five, feed birds in your yard or as you sit on a park bench.

On Day Six, find as many animals as you can in your neighborhood, observing the comings and goings of birds or squirrels.

On Day Seven, rest in the knowledge that while being called to steward, we, too, are a piece of God’s good Creation.

As we often discover when we commit to walking a new path[2], we may find that it is not always easy, this sacred calling of serving and protecting. But as people of faith, we dare not take lightly this task of honoring the intrinsic worth of Creation as a way of living out the justice of the Gospel.

Jessica Maudlin Phelps serves as the Associate for Sustainable Living and Earth Care Concerns in the Presbyterian Hunger Program.


[1] Suggested action item from “The Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus” by Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Rabbi Leo Dee
[2] Earth Day Resource from Creation Justice Ministries – A New Heaven and a New Earth: We are reeling from a year that has laid bare the unjust and inequitable systems enabled by a history of structural and environmental racism. With the advent of a global pandemic, vulnerable communities at the intersections of these unjust systems — doubly affected by histories of environmental racism and subsequent health vulnerability — remain disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The suffering is great indeed, and as we bear witness, we are also called as lovers of all of God’s Creation to speed the coming of the day of God, looking and working toward a new heaven and a new earth.

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