NRSV Genesis 2: 15-17
The LORD God took the man
and put him in the garden of Eden
to till it and keep it.
And the LORD God commanded
the man, “You may freely eat of
every tree of the garden;
but of the tree of the knowledge of
good and evil you shall not eat, for
in the day that you eat of it you shall
The two main questions this post approaches are:
What is the significance/role of dust in the narrative?
Why is Adam’s first task tilling and tending the garden? Or in other words, what deeper significance might be embedded in the narrative in these tasks?
Adam is dust bound and dust oriented. Formed from the dust, he is now raking dust. Dust is rich and ambiguous symbolically. It has its dark side. Frequently, it is associated with that which the Lord condemns—spiritually fruitless bodies and buildings are to shatter into dust (Isa. 25:12, 1 Ne. 22:14). It is also a symbol of human frailty or even worthlessness. Abraham marvels that he, merely made of dust and ashes, speaks face to face with the Lord (Gen. 18: 27). Dust is that which is dead, silent, and lowly (Psalms 29:9-12). God pities man for being embodied in dust (Psalms 103:13-14). The wicked, like the serpent lick up milly, dry and tasteless dust in shame (Micah 7:17). Dust is that which is not whole or holy, clean, unified, glorious, or eternal.
But dust is more than this. Dust is the clay from which God miraculously forms all manner of life by his word (Exodus 8:16, Mormon 9:17). The infinite nature of dust particles gestures toward the potential for mortal worlds to stretch into more glorious ones. Abraham is promised that his seed shall be as the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16); it is elsewhere used as a symbol of countless posterity (Numbers 23:10). As Jim has mentioned, rising from dust is associated with royal ascension. Dust and ashes are symbols of sacrifice and repentance. Voices of the dead bearing testimony miraculously speak out of their broken down, dust-bound bodies (2 Ne. 3:19-20). God wills such voices to come forth, and holds us accountable to heed their words (Moroni 10:27). Dust is mortal matter with potential life and growth; it is only those who choose to remain robed in mortal dust rather than to be enrobed by Christ who need be degraded by it.
Let’s also consider soil and tilling in terms of actual gardening. Like dust as a symbol, soil is phenomenologically somewhat dual-natured. This raw mineral and organic material with potential to nourish and support plant life is lumpy, disintegrated, and shapeless in our hands, and yet also shapes the beautiful geological formations of the earth. It is absorbent, porous and malleable, but also resists human control and mastery. It itself is dark and can block light from our view, yet also allows seeds to respond to light’s energy by supporting beautiful growth. It is stony or soft. Dry, or rich and clayey. Poorly or well nourished. It drinks up good and bad substances, to be enriched or contaminated. It is passive but also takes up a kind of micro life of its own through seeds, weeds, insects, and fungi that grow in it. Soil does unpredictable things due to our lack of knowledge of it and can’t choose to make itself into anything in particular. It must be acted upon with cultivation to have order, cleanliness, and designed purpose.
While soil lacks interest or distinguishing characteristics (e.g. we who don’t grow food don’t even notice or appreciate it), it is ironically something that is not only essential to all life and our enjoyment of life in our bodies, but also has an infinite range of meaningful particularities that affect us. Because soil is by definition crumbled minerals and organic life, its fragments come from a unique set of disintegrated objects, and the resulting nutrients will affect what the soil can nurture and produce.
The terms “tilling” and “keeping” bear important distinctions. The TNK gives “till” and “tend;” the Everett Fox translation provides my favorite pairing, “work” and “watch.” I interpret tilling to apply to the ground and preparing it for plant growth, and the tending to apply to animal life and perhaps also plants (for example, Moses 5:3).
Some synonyms for till include: cultivate, plow, harrow, labor, and strive after. Synonyms for tend are: lead, conduce, look after, watch over, minister, and wait on.
Tilling is the hard labor in the soil, this raw material from which all physical life is to stem. It is the back to the grindstone, sweaty, cardiovascular act of organizing, preparing, fertilizing and stirring up this raw material to ready it to nurture life, help seeds respond to light and water, and grow. Tilling and keeping are interdependent, without plants, animals and humans have no source of nourishment. Tilling concerns what is inanimate or latent, tending that which is starting to actively grow.
Perhaps tilling gestures toward Christ-like virtues and gospel principles, particularly faith. Every gardener’s tilling is performed in uncertainty and risks possible fruitlessness. Did Adam have faith he could help the Father in his work? Not just growing fruits and flowers, but to fulfill his relationship as the son of the creator in this big, new world? When I imagine Adam tilling the garden, I imagine all the potential growth and life—physical and spiritual—that Adam’s life would begin. I don’t suppose he knew this at the time, or even that he saw deeper symbolic purpose in his actions (like a sacred ritual), but tilling seems to gesture toward Adam’s future powerful role as a giver and cultivator of life on earth.
I’m particularly struck by the word “harrow” as a cognate for till because it reminds me that the spiritual labor of tilling into new soil is not easy or pleasant. I think of my father picking into the latent and unformed soil in his children’s brains and spirits with his theological questions, creative metaphors, and strongly expressed spiritual convictions. His was an act of diligent tilling and sowing. It took years for me to understand many of the observations he made. There were resistant, awkward moments of silence as our family gathered and learned from him, and spiritual dialogues shared in quiet moments. I imagine his labors often felt one-sided, we children sometimes passive in our learning and unappreciative in many ways.
What is the fruit the father-tiller hungers after? Spiritual knowledge and life, grown and tasted for and by him and his children. Mortal family life is the resistant yet malleable medium of this work. Spiritual tilling is accompanied by tending. As time presses on, seeds of faith actively grow in the hearts of a family and take on their own life. The chore of tending has become more part of my father’s work. He is no longer laboring so much in what is passive and latent, but feeding the needs of living, active, and fruit bearing creatures who are becoming givers of life themselves. The plant becomes a gardener, the sheep becomes a shepherd (Thank you Julie!) Perhaps his work is not entirely selfless—he hungers after the fruit of knowledge himself, and long just as much for his children to grow and for them to receive it and rise to his stature to help him in his labors.
Tending is watching and responding to particular needs through conscious observation. We could relate “tilling” and “keeping” to two basic principles: labor and watch. We put our shoulders to the wheel, but then deliberately observe changes among the agents we’re entrusted with in order to direct an intelligent course of action.
Adam, the man laboring in the dust, is the father and priest responsible to nurture spiritual and physical life. Laboring in the dust is full of ashes, sweat, and tears for him. He works in the face of failure and death. His heart expands toward eternity; he longs for connections backward and forward through generations with souls as innumerable as dust. He sacrifices, he sometimes even must let parts of himself and prized facets of his life or dreams be burnt up into ashes. He orders and nurtures his stewardship. He feeds it with the words of God without any guarantee that this labor will produce good fruit. As his stewardship sprouts and grows active, He watches it carefully, and through this judges how to reciprocate its responses and needs. He also calls on the greater wisdom of God. Voices speak to him from the dust from generations past, helping him to keep and pass on his knowledge of God. He’s working the greatest miracle imaginable: creating eternal bonds and beings from a fundamentally disintegrated, dust world. Adam could be said to have been given the stewardship of keeping earth in a proper order and a state of preparedness for God’s presence, to keep the home God planted on earth in—an eternal home amidst temporary chaos.
To be a spiritual cultivator requires spiritual knowledge and experience. According to the narrative, Adam seems to have only a little of this at this point as an embodied mortal being. Why does the Father forbid Adam to eat the fruit? If knowledge is good and something the Father “grows” and cultivates himself in his father-gardener role (he is possibly even consuming it in the garden before Adam) why would it be wrong for his son to taste it? As he first experienced life on earth, was Adam’s own mind beginning to be stirred and prepared up by the Father’s words and actions with hunger for spiritual knowledge to gain knowledge? Good parents deny good things often because children are not prepared or matured enough for them yet. Would the day have come when the Father would have invited him to partake? Or would God have taught him to grow his own sapling tree of knowledge in the greater course of time?