Painting: “The Garden of Eden” by Thomas Cole, 1828 (public domain)
Often to truly understand an issue, we need to look backward before we can look forward. That is always the case with biblical theology. To get your brain around the goals and purposes of redemption, you are going to have to cast an eye back to Eden. As regards creation care, looking back to the design of Eden is much the same as reconsidering the blueprints of an historic building. Regardless of what has deteriorated or decayed, what has been added or removed, if a renovation is in the works, the original blueprint will provide the guidance needed to get that building back to what it ought to be. So if we, the redeemed community, want to understand our relationship to God’s creation, we’re going to need to start at the beginning.
In Genesis chapter one God reveals his original, perfect plan for his creation. Here the interdependence of the cosmos is laid out within the literary framework of a perfect “week.” On the seventh day, God is enthroned above his creation, and He rests. This communicates not only His complete satisfaction with what has gone before, but also that the perfect balance of God’s ideal plan is dependent on the sovereignty of the Creator. The penultimate climax of the piece is the sixth day. Here a steward is enthroned—under the Creator but over the creation:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule . . . .’ (Gen 1:26)
By this we learn that the outworking of God’s ideal design in creation is dependent on the sovereignty of the Creator and the leadership of the Creator’s stewards. To be more specific, it was the privilege and responsibility of the Creator’s stewards to facilitate God’s ideal plan by living their lives as a reflection of God’s image. This was the blueprint.
The role of the human stewards within the created order is described further in Genesis 2:15: “Then Yahweh Elohim took the human and put him into the Garden of Eden to tend it (‘ābad) and guard it (šāmar).” The larger message of these accounts is clear: the garden belongs to Yahweh, but ’ādām (a collective term meaning “humanity”) was given the privilege to rule and the responsibility to care for this garden under the sovereignty of their divine lord. Note in particular the vocabulary chosen regarding humanity’s role—God’s intent was that humanity would ‘ābad (“serve; honor; till”) and šāmar (“guard; supervise; watch over; protect”) the garden. This was a world in which ’ādām would succeed in constructing the human civilization by directing and harnessing the abundant resources of the garden under the wise direction of the Creator. Here there would always be enough, progress would not necessitate pollution, expansion would not demand extinction. The privilege of the strong would not demand to the deprivation of the weak. And humanity would succeed in these goals because of the guiding wisdom of God.
But we all know the story; humanity rejected this perfect plan and chose autonomy instead. And because of the authority of their God-given position within the created order, humanity’s choice cast the entire cosmos into disarray. The curses of Genesis 3 make it clear that in addition to the breached relationship between humanity and their creator, there is a breach in the relationship between humanity and their world as well. The natural inclination toward fertility within the created order, the appropriate placement of each species within its native context, and even the land itself feels the repercussions of Adam’s sin. And whereas each aspect of the garden’s ecosystem had been placed in productive relationship one to the next, all is cast into disarray as humanity’s rebellion echoes through the cosmos (see Epic of Eden [IVP 2008], chptr 4 for a more detailed treatment). And as Romans 8 details, because of ’ādām, even “the creation was subjected to futility” (Rom 8:20). Moreover, as Romans 8 states, the goal of redemption is to reverse this present truth with “the glory that is to be revealed” (v. 18).
So now for the question to the Christian. We readily recognize the results of ’ādām’s choice in the arena of human relationships: poverty, greed, oppression and violence. And we just as readily recognize and embrace the role of the redeemed community to stand against these societal norms by living our lives as an expression of Christ’s character in the midst of a broken and fallen world. But how often do we reflect on the impact of our rebellion on the garden? Have we ever considered the idea that the poisoned waterways, growing lists of extinct and endangered species, rampant human disease, and denuded landscapes of our current world are the result of sin? And if so, have we ever considered how the reality of redemption in our lives should redirect our attitude toward the same?
Sandra Richter is Professor of Old Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Affiliate Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University’s Near Eastern Language and Civilizations department. She is a popular speaker and has published on an array of topics. Her most recent book is The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 2008).