To Till and Keep: Care for God’s Green Earth

Mackenzie Worthing

To Till and Keep: Care for God’s Green Earth

In the first chapters of Genesis, at the dawn of Creation, man is entrusted with an important task. He shares in God’s own dominion over the created order, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth” (1:26). The man of dust, placed in a garden made for him by God, is made to “till and keep” the garden of Eden (2:15). The man later shares in God’s creative authority by naming the animals. These stories of our first ancestors serve to illustrate what man was made to do: to serve God in and through his creation. Care for creation has been a part of our mission from the beginning. What does this care for creation mean for us though? What is this dominion of God’s that we share in, what is it not, and how can we practice it today in our industrial and consumeristic age? 

A True Understanding of Man’s Vocation to Till and Keep

The call for man to “till and keep” in the Garden of Eden is not a simple gardening job. The Hebrew used in Genesis uses very particular words to describe Adam’s role – avad and shamar. Avad means to work, yes, but this word is used later to describe the priestly work of the Levites in the books of Exodus and Leviticus. The work Adam is doing in the garden is not menial, but priestly. The garden is not just trees and plants, but a temple in which God is worshipped amongst his creation. Adam’s second job is to shamar in the garden – to protect the garden, which implies that there are those who would try to invade this temple-garden who are not meant to be there. As we see in Genesis 3, Adam does not fulfill this task of protecting and somehow a subtle serpent does get his way into the garden to tempt the man and the woman. These roles of Adam are noble and honorable. They are connected not only to the earth as the place from which he came, but are connected to the proper worship of God. All of creation is meant to be oriented towards the Creator. It is only after the Fall that the man’s job in creation becomes a toil and drudgery to him. It is only after the Fall that the harmony that existed between man and creation is broken, and man does not remember what it truly means to till and keep God’s green earth.

The other original vocation of man in regards to creation is a share in God’s own dominion. This is extraordinary that man is granted true authority over the creation which the Lord drew from nothing, the creation from which man himself was culled from the dust of the ground. Man has true authority over the created order, and that makes him both powerful and responsible. God is mediating some responsibility to man for the way that the animals and vegetation blossom. In the Fall, this understanding is also forgotten. Man’s responsibility has a different times been forgotten, abused, and also over-blown.

What Care for God’s Earth is Not

We live in a time where people seem to diverge in to the extremes when it comes to man’s responsibility for the created order. The materialism and disposable nature of many of our goods today very often lacks regard for the health of animals or vegetation. There are others who place the environment at the forefront of all other issues, stating that man is going to be responsible for the destruction of the earth. Both of these viewpoints have forgotten who the Creator is. Both have forgotten that the sovereignty that man shares in only comes to him from God, and that God alone truly wields complete power over the created order. He allows man to participate, but as the Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount taught the disciples that they should not worry about their material needs because the Lord will provide for them. This does not allow for callousness towards man’s vocation to care for creation to the extent that he is able, but it also forbids obsession. The virtue is in the mean between the extremes. The problem man has faced since the Fall has been forgetting the Creator and the Creator’s goodness. This forgetfulness of God is sometimes lackadaisical absent-mindedness and sometimes blatant idolatry. Some groups literally or very nearly worship the Earth as a goddess and build their understanding of environmentally friendly practices from this ideological perspective. This is not Catholic understanding of care for God’s creation. In fact, the Genesis account was written in such a way as to depict creation in a very counter-culture way in the midst of pagan contemporaries: that the sun, moon, and stars and elements of the earth were not a multitude of gods but rather created by one supremely sovereign God. Neither abuse of the earth or worship of the earth will do. The only thing we must do is worship God through rightly-ordered care for his creation. The world in which we live is very good but it was also made for our benefit, not the other way around. There will come a day when this earth will pass away. Not necessarily from the hands of man, but from the coming of Jesus, and there is the promise of a new heaven and a new earth, just as there is a promise of resurrection for those who believe. 

How do We Practice True Care for God’s Green Earth

Here are some practical ideas for practicing true, rightly ordered care for God’s creation:

-Pray the rosary outdoors and thank God for whatever scenery is available to you

-Plant a garden in your backyard, or if in an apartment, find some indoor-friendly houseplants

-Start a compost pile if you are able rather than throwing away all produce scraps

-Buy sustainably farmed animal and produce products when able

-Look for ways to reduce unnecessary purchases and donate things that you no longer need or use

-Teach your children about plants, animals, and how to correctly care for them