Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was not man to cultivate the ground. Genesis 2:5
To Cultivate – If you ask someone to tell you the story of Adam and Eve, you will most likely get a fairy tale version. Our cultural fabrications and values have been woven into the sparse language of this story, adding layer upon layer of iconic images. That might not surprise you. The story of Adam and Eve wasn’t painted by Rubens or Rembrandt and it does not come with a family-values coloring book.
But even if you have taken the time to really read the real story, you might not have read the prologue. You see, the story doesn’t begin with Adam being alone. It doesn’t even begin with Adam in the Garden or the creation of Adam. It begins here, before God sent the rain. In the prologue, the Tanakh connects adam and ha’adamah with a verb that sets the stage for all that follows. The verb is ‘avad – and it doesn’t mean “to cultivate.” The translation, “cultivate,” is suggested by the context, but the verb actually means “to work, to serve.” Of course, we think of working the earth as cultivating, but this translation leaves out the important Hebrew connection to serving the earth.
The story tells us that there are two reasons why the earth is not yet fruitful. First, God has not sent rain. This Hebrew imagery speaks directly about God’s sovereign control over the sustenance of life. To send rain is to provide for all who live on earth. Once again the Tanakh affirms that life belongs to God, even after the creative act is finished. Unless God gifts the earth with rain, nothing can survive.
The second reason the earth is not yet fruitful is that there is no adam to serve it. Just as God serves the earth with the water of life, so man must serve the earth as God’s caretaker. God gives. Man ministers. The connection between work and serve is vital. The first obligation of Man is to minister to God’s creation on God’s behalf. Nothing survives without this combination: God’s gift – Man’s ministry. The use of avad also tells us that work has a holy character. Work is invested with divine purpose. Through work, the earth is served and it becomes fruitful. In other words, the purpose of the earth depends on the fulfillment of the divine call on Man.
There is another connection here that is obscured in the translation. In the Hebrew text, there are two distinct words for “earth.” Making these distinctions clear alters the meaning of the text. “. . . for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth [‘erets] and there was not an adam to serve [‘avad] the ground [‘adamah].” Now we see that the Man (adam) serves his own source of being, the dust from which he came (‘adamah). In other words, in some sense serving the earth nourishes us. When we work God’s creation on His behalf, we actually replenish ourselves. God gifts the ‘erets, but Man serves the ‘adamah. Maybe the environmentalists are closer to YHWH than they think.
To work or to serve is an act of worship. Making this last connection teaches us that from the very beginning God fused work, service and worship into an act of self-nourishment. When we are doing what God designed us to do, we minister to our own source of being and at the same time act as His agents to bring about His fruitful purposes. Before the Garden, before the Fall, God designed an interconnection between our spiritual construction and our physical nourishment. The prologue to our story of Adam and Eve is about this connection, a symbiotic relationship of benefit to all.
This raises an important question for each of us. Does your work nourish you? Does it care for God’s creation and provide you with replenishment at the same time? Is your work an act of service and an opportunity for worship? Or is it just making money?
Topical Index: earth, Adam, ha’adamah, ‘erets, serve, work, ‘avad, Genesis 2:5