Since human history began, people have wondered how the world came to be – and how we came to be on it. Our ancestors told stories about creation, the ground under our feet, and the animals, birds, and humans that make their home upon the Earth. These stories cross all cultural boundaries, and they share similar characteristics and themes. One of the dominant motifs is the relationship between soil and our souls. Whether it is the Maori tale of shaping a woman from the scarlet soil, the Navajo story of man and woman journeying through the worlds to find a home on the land, or a dedicated humanist’s case that life crawled out of the sea to the shore, through the centuries we human beings have tried to make spiritual sense of the obvious link between the ground and our very existence.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims share a creation story from the Bible, found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. Like many such stories, it begins with sky and earth intertwined in darkness. God brings forth light, then separates what is above from what is below, thus making oceans, land, and sky. Although some people insist that Genesis 1 is a literal scientific account, it is best understood as what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a “liturgical poem,” a form for use in worship that invites a community “to confess and celebrate the world as God has intended it.” In the opening pages of the Bible, a cosmic vision of creation unfolds with the making of plants and forests, the stars and suns and moons beyond, all the fishes and birds and animals, and finally human beings. At each juncture, God proclaims blessing on what has been made, declaring it good, and with the creation of humankind the whole of the universe is pronounced “very good.” At the end of the poem, God sends human beings out to till and keep the soil and to work on behalf of the Earth, delighting in all its gifts.
From its opening majesty, the narrative moves to Genesis 2, a quirky and even charming tale of the specific creation of men and women. The Bible’s second creation story more closely resembles other ancient tribal myths than does Genesis 1 with its structured poetry. In Genesis 2, God is not at a mysterious distance. Rather, the story takes place in a garden, an ancient metaphor for the Earth. Here God is an unhappy farmer, for the world looks rather like Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. The Earth, covered with red dust (Hebrew adamah), is not a generative and hospitable place, because there is “no one to till the ground.” So God causes springs to come up from the earth itself, makes a clay, and forms a man (adam) from the ground. God breathes into him, and gives life to this “soil creature.” God places Adam in the garden, to grow it and to care for the rivers and plants and animals, and eventually draws Eve (havah, meaning, “to become,” “to breathe,” or, “life) from Adam’s body to be his partner. Thus, Adam and Eve, not a literal first couple, but rather Soil and Life (their “names” from the Hebrew words) marry, and their union produces the human race.
Of that creation, theologian Norman Wirzba writes:
God fashions the first human being by taking the dust of the ground into his hands, holding it so close that it can share in the divine breath, and inspiring it with the freshness of life. It is only as the ground is suffused with God’s intimate, breathing presence that human life – along with the life of trees and animals and birds – is possible at all. God draws near to the Earth and then animates it from within.
We are animated dirt. Soil and life joined. From living ground we were made; to living ground we will return.
Unlike other ancient Near Eastern creation stories, where humans are often gifted with exalted origins and elaborate tasks to please the gods, Adam and Eve are made from humus, placed in God’s garden, and directed to care for the soil from which they came. In Genesis, God instructs Adam and Eve to “till and keep,” (2:15), that is, “serve and preserve,” the soil. Thus, humankind’s divine vocation is to be Earth’s custodians, the overseers of the soil. The early Biblical heroes are all shepherds, farmers, and tribal judges, unlike the kings or warriors who figured prominently in the religions of Israel’s neighbors, Sumeria and Mesopotamia.
The origins of what would become widespread agricultural practices and the world’s great religions developed simultaneously about seven thousand years ago. As ancient humans domesticated animals, terraced fields, and built water systems, they ruminated on the ground and God, drawing connections between creation and cultivation, between soil and the Spirit. Their stories formed the basis of many religious texts, including the Hebrew Bible, a collection of wisdom based in an agrarian way of life and an agricultural spirituality. “Beginning with the first chapter of Genesis,” explains Old Testament scholar Ellen David, “there is no extensive exploration of the relationship between God and humanity that does not factor the land and its fertility into that relationship.” The whole story of the Hebrew Bible is that of land, its abundance, and its fruitfulness, and how humans are disconnected from the land by sin or connected to it through acts of faith and justice.
Land may be understood in scientific terms, that is, as the source, the material basis, of the food supply (no dirt, no food, no us); or it may be viewed through the eyes of spiritual awareness, as part of a divine ecosystem. From a theological perspective, when we care for the Earth, we are practicing obedience and holiness; disregarding the ground is sinful and evil. When one reads ancient texts, like the Hebrew scriptures, with this understanding in mind, it is difficult to separate out passages about the literal earth from the spiritual allegories and metaphors about the Earth, much less separate human beings from humus or humus from the hands of a Creator. Ground and God and us are nearly of a piece, which seems a purposeful theological construction on the part of ancient poets, prophets, and philosophers.