Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Earth as An Active Place

Consider these two stories, which appear almost as 'bookends' within the Scriptures. You may recall the story of Cain and Abel, from Genesis 4, where the older brother kills the younger brother out of religious jealousy. There are lots of things to say and think about that story, but here is the part that I want you to notice with me:

And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.’ Genesis 4:10-14

Now, in the story, God gave Cain a 'mark' that protected him from any old avenger coming along and killing him, so Cain went on to establish cities and so forth. But, the curious thing about this part of the story is the agency of the ground. Look at how active it is. First, it opens up its mouth to swallow the evidence of Cain's crime. But, it is not a 'bloodthirsty' ground, so to speak, it has swallowed the evidence to preserve it and produce it at the right time, in order to witness against Cain's crime of Abel's death. As one Hebrew Bible professor put it, "the ground gathered the evidence and protected it so nobody could tamper with it before the trial." Second, the ground will punish Cain for his crime, by refusing to yield produce when he tills it. So Cain is forced to become a wanderer- a hunter and gatherer, rather than a settled cultivator, we could say. And Cain himself knows that, as a wanderer, he has no place, no refuge, no ownership, and so he is vulnerable to anyone who happens to come by and perceive that he is an outcast.

Now, toward the end of the Scriptures, here is another story, from the Book of Revelation, where a dragon is set to devour the male baby that is born to a woman. When the baby is born, it is snatched up into the heavens to God's throne and the woman flees to the wilderness. The dragon is then defeated by the Michael and his angel army and thrown down to the earth. When the dragon sees that he is thrown to the earth, he takes off after the woman, to kill her. The woman sprouts wings to flee to the wilderness (again). Then, the dragon opens his mouth and pours out flood waters to flush out the woman. "But the earth came to the help of the woman; it opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth." Rev. 12:16

Again, the ground/earth is an active agent, particularly in swallowing up the waters that intend to kill the woman.

There are two ways that I do NOT want to read these stories.
1. First, I do not want to take these texts literally- if that means that the earth has a mouth, or that a flood-vomiting dragon is really getting its butt whipped in heaven then foiled again on earth, etc. Taking these stories literally is the first step toward ruining them. John's imagination is actively at work, not telling the news in Walter Conkrite-like objective fashion, but telling the truth about life and meaning and violence and peace and hope and good and evil.

2. Second, I do not want to take these stories as meaningless nonsense. When these stories depict the earth as an active agent, that means that the earth has its own kind of inherent meaning and value- it is not just this passive thing, this repository of resources, that is there for no other reason than to serve our purposes. Maybe the whole "mother earth" language is taking it a bit too far, but the intention is correct. The earth, the ground, our planet, is not just the background setting for our great God-human drama. It is an active player in the drama, its role is significant and belongs on the credits at the end of the drama.

From the creation story to the story in Revelation, the earth is an active agent that has meaning in the drama of violence and justice. From preserving evidence and giving witness to protecting the innocent from undue violence, the earth is more than a passive setting for our drama.

Next time, we'll look at the Scriptures' framing from one garden to another.

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