Genesis 1:1 tells us, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Verse 2 adds, “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Verses 3 through 30 then tell us how God went about giving form and content to what was once without form and void. Throughout the process, He brought increasing order out of chaos.
By speaking the word, He made light, divided it from darkness, and gave each a name: He called the light Day and the darkness Night (verses 4–5). By speaking the word, He made a firmament to divide the waters above from those below, and gave it a name: Heaven (verses 6–8). By speaking the word, He separated the waters from the dry land, and gave each a name: He called the dry land Earth, and the waters Seas (verses 9–10).
Then He turned His attention away from the Seas, toward the Earth, and brought order there. By speaking the word, He made grass, herbs, and fruit trees, each according to its kind — but He did not give them names (verses 11–12). Then He turned His attention away from Earth, toward Heaven, and brought order there. By speaking the word, He made lights to divide day from night — a greater light to rule the day and a lesser light to rule the night — and stars for signs and seasons, for days and years, “to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness” (verses 14–18). Then He turned His attention away from Heaven, toward the Seas and the sky, and brought order there. By speaking the word, He made “an abundance of living creatures,” each according to its kind (verses 20–22). Then He turned His attention away from the Seas and the sky, toward the earth again, and brought order there. By speaking the word, He made “the living creature according to its kind” (verses 24–25).
Now, notice that previously He had first made light and darkness, day and night, and later had made the greater and lesser lights to rule them. So also, having made sea creatures, air creatures, and land creatures, He now makes something to rule them, so bringing order to earth and seas and sky alike: “Then God said, `Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, `Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth'” (verses 26–28). And just as God had given order to light and darkness by naming them Day and Night, and to dry land and water and sky by naming them Earth and Sea and Heaven, so God brought to Adam “every beast of the field and every bird of the air” so that Adam could begin His work of ruling over them by naming them, “And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name” (2:19).
The point I’m making should be pretty clear. What began “without form and void” God immediately set about giving form and content; and He instructed man to pick up where He had left off, giving more form and content. I think, in fact, that even the structure of the text itself is designed to drive home the point that bringing order out of chaos is an important focus here. The phrase “Then God said” occurs nine times in Genesis 1 (verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 29), each time introducing an important new focus. Each day’s work ends with a pronouncement: “So the evening and the morning were the first day,” or “So the evening and the morning were the second day,” or “So the evening and the morning were the third day,” and so on, through the six creative days (verses 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), leading into the seventh day, the day of rest (2:2). Interestingly, God rested only after He had brought order to every part of creation: land, seas, sky, and heaven. Six times, at significant junctures in the narrative, the text tells us that God saw that what He had done was good (verses 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
If anything should jump right out of the text at us, from both its content and its form, it is order, structure, system, rule. The climax of the text even comes when God makes someone to whom, unlike anything else He has made, He speaks. And what does He say to this creature? “Have dominion.” “Rule.” Just as God has ordered things, so He wants man to continue ordering things.
Now let us turn to chapter 2, where we find a reiteration of the story of creation, but with a new focus: the creation of man. And what happened in the creation of man? “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (verse 7). Just as the earth was once “without form and void,” so man was once mere “dust of the earth,” formless and empty. And just as the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the formless deep and gave it form and life, so also the Spirit of God hovered over the formless dust and gave it form and life. And later we learn, from words that should send shivers down our spines, what it means to become “without form and void” again: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (3:19). It is as good as God’s saying “you shall become without form and void.”
Where did God put the man when He first made him? He put him in “a garden eastward in Eden” (verse 8). What was that garden like? It had its own order, its own design, just like everything else God had made. It was located “eastward in Eden,” toward the rising sun, on the verge of the wilderness. It had a middle, where stood the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil (verse 9). Into it, through it, and out from it flowed a river that separated into four riverheads to water the whole land (verses 10–14) — a pattern that we see reproduced later in the Tabernacle and, ultimately in the Bride of Christ, the holy city, New Jerusalem, in which again we find the Tree of Life, the River of Life, and the precious stones of the garden, all presented in a description of the most orderly place imaginable (Revelation 21:9–22:5). 1 I don’t want to get carried away here into a discussion of the symbolism of the garden, the Tabernacle, and the New Jerusalem. My point is simply to emphasize how important order is in God’s economy.
Now I want to set the orderliness of the garden, the Tabernacle, and the New Jerusalem in contrast with the disorder described in Genesis 1:2, which says that immediately after God created the heavens and the earth, “The earth was without form and void.” The words “without form” translate the single Hebrew word tôhûw, which is derived from a root meaning “to lie waste.” It denotes a desolation, a worthless thing, confusion, vanity, waste, or wilderness. Just how intense a desolation the word denotes comes clear in some of its other uses. In pointing out how God’s greatness surpasses man’s understanding, Job says, “He stretches out the north over empty space (tôhûw); He hangs the earth on nothing” (Job 26:7). Comparing God’s vastness with the minuscule size of all the nations, Isaiah wrote, “Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing. And Lebanon” — Lebanon with its forests so vast, with game so abundant, it had become legendary — “Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor its beasts sufficient for a burnt offering. All nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless (tôhûw)” (Isaiah 40:17).
Tôhûw also connotes something contemptible in its emptiness, vanity, or confusion. God speaks with contempt of idols who can tell neither past nor future, who can control nothing, who can answer nothing. He concludes, “Indeed, they are all worthless; their works are nothing; their molded images are wind and confusion (tôhûw)” (Isaiah 41:29). And when Moses describes the destitute situation of Israel when God first took it as His inheritance, he writes, “He found him in a desert land, and in the waste (tôhûw) howling wilderness” (Deuteronomy 32:10); from there He delivered Jacob and “made him ride in the heights of the earth, that he might eat the produce of the fields; He made him draw honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock; curds from the cattle, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs; and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the choicest wheat; and you drank wine, the blood of grapes” (verses 13–14).
The word void in Genesis 1:2 translates a Hebrew word that is, if possible, even more intense than tôhûw, a word that rhymes with it: bôhûw, a word derived from a root meaning “to be empty.” What is bôhûw is a vacuity, an undistinguishable ruin, emptiness. The word is used only three times in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, and in all three instances it is used in conjunction with tôhûw — always following it, always intensifying it. We have looked already at Genesis 1:1. The two other passages are Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Let’s look at them.
We begin by setting Isaiah 34 in its context. Isaiah has just prophesied the restoration of Zion, a prophecy that comes to full fruition in the new Jerusalem, the Church of God. Listen to his glowing description of her:
Look upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts;
Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet home,
A tabernacle that will not be taken down;
not one of its stakes will ever be removed,
nor will any of its cords be broken.
But there the majestic Lord will be for us
A place of broad rivers and streams,
In which no galley with oars will sail,
Nor majestic ships pass by
(For the Lord is our Judge,
The Lord is our Lawgiver,
The Lord is our King;
He will save us)…
The description is of a city quiet and peaceful, perfectly ordered and stable. But immediately, in chapter 34, Isaiah shifts to a vision of God’s judgment on the nations, and he singles out Edom. Listen to the description, in which Isaiah uses the language of de-creation:
Come near, you nations, to hear;
And heed, you people!
Let the earth hear, and all that is in it,
The world and all things that come forth from it.
For the indignation of the Lord is against all nations,
And His fury against all their armies;
He has utterly destroyed them,
He has given them over to the slaughter.
Also their slain shall be thrown out;
Their stench shall rise from their corpses,
And the mountains shall be dissolved,
And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll;
All their host shall fall down
As the leaf falls from the vine,
And as fruit falling from a fig tree.
“For My sword shall be bathed in heaven;
Indeed it shall come down on Edom,
And on the people of My curse, for judgment.
The sword of the Lord is filled with blood,
It is made overflowing with fatness,
With the blood of lambs and goats,
With the fat of the kidneys of rams.
For the Lord has a sacrifice in Bozrah [the capital of Edom],
And a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
And now listen to God’s description of how He will bring about the slaughter. He will do it by overrunning Bozrah and all of Edom with wild beasts and turning the once civilized, ordered land into an uncivilized, chaotic wilderness — reversing the dominion of man over nature in judgment of Edom’s crimes:
The wild oxen shall come down with them,
And the young bulls with the mighty bulls;
Their land shall be soaked with blood,
And their dust saturated with fatness.”
For it is the day of the Lord’s vengeance,
The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.
[Edom’s] streams shall be turned into pitch,
And its dust into brimstone;
Its land shall become burning pitch.
It shall not be quenched night or day;
Its smoke shall ascend forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
No one shall pass through it forever and ever.
But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it,
Also the owl and the raven shall dwell in it.
And He shall stretch out over it
The line of confusion (tôhûw) and the stones of emptiness (bôhûw).
They shall call its nobles to the kingdom,
But none shall be there, and all its princes shall be nothing.
And thorns shall come up in its palaces,
Nettles and brambles in its fortresses;
It shall be a habitation of jackals,
A courtyard for ostriches.
The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the jackals,
And the wild goat shall bleat to its companion;
Also the night creature shall rest there,
And find for herself a place of rest.
There the arrow snake shall make her nest and lay eggs
And hatch, and gather them under her shadow;
There also shall the hawks be gathered,
Every one with her mate.
Jeremiah makes the same use of the language of de-creation when he prophecies God’s judgment on apostate Jerusalem:
At that time it will be said
To this people and to Jerusalem,
“A dry wind of the desolate heights blows in the wilderness
Toward the daughter of My people —
Not to fan or to cleanse —
A wind too strong for these will come from Me;
Now I will also speak judgment against them.”
“Behold, he shall come up like clouds,
And his chariots like a whirlwind.
His horses are swifter than eagles.
Woe to us, for we are plundered!”
O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness,
That you may be saved.
How long shall your evil thoughts lodge within you?
For a voice declares from Dan
And proclaims affliction from Mount Ephraim:
“Make mention to the nations,
Yes, proclaim against Jerusalem,
That watchers come from a far country
And raise their voice against the cities of Judah.
Like keepers of a field they are against her all around,
Because she has been rebellious against Me,” says the Lord.
“Your ways and your doings
Have procured these things for you.
This is your wickedness,
Because it is bitter,
Because it reaches to your heart.”
And then Jeremiah truly laments what he foresees:
O my soul, my soul!
I am pained in my very heart!
My heart makes a noise in me;
I cannot hold my peace,
Because you have heard, O my soul,
The sound of the trumpet,
The alarm of war.
Destruction upon destruction is cried,
For the whole land is plundered.
Suddenly my tents are plundered,
and my curtains in a moment.
How long will I see the standard,
And hear the sound of the trumpet? . . .
I beheld the [land], and indeed it was without form (tôhûw), and void (bôhûw);
And the heavens, they had no light.
I beheld the mountains, and indeed they trembled,
And all the hills moved back and forth.
I beheld, and indeed there was no man,
And all the birds of the heavens had fled.
I beheld, and indeed the fruitful land was a wilderness,
And all its cities were broken down
At the presence of the Lord,
By His fierce anger.
What Isaiah and Jeremiah both described as the most catastrophic, devastating judgment on any people was God’s de-creating their land — returning it to a state “without form and void,” making it a formless, empty wilderness under the dominion of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field instead of under the dominion of man. Just so, when Jeremiah foretells the destruction of Babylon, he says, “And the land will tremble and sorrow; for every purpose of the Lord shall be performed against Babylon, to make the land of Babylon a desolation without inhabitant. . . . The sea has come up over Babylon; she is covered with the multitude of the waves. Her cities are a desolation, a dry land and a wilderness, a land where no one dwells, through which no son of man passes” (Jeremiah 51:29, 42–43). And when Isaiah laments God’s judgment on Zion, he prays, “Do not be furious, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever; indeed, please look — we all are Your people! Your holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation” (Isaiah 64:9–10).
Yet what Scripture consistently treats as a curse is the romantic dream of much of the environmentalist movement. Think of the description of the desolation of the land of Edom under God’s judgment in Isaiah 34:10–15: “no one shall pass through it forever and ever. But the pelican and the porcupine shall possess it, also the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. And he shall stretch out over it the line of confusion and the stones of emptiness. . . . And thorns shall come up in its palaces, nettles and brambles in its fortresses; it shall be a habitation of jackals, a courtyard for ostriches. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the jackals, and the wild goat shall bleat to its companion; also the night creature shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. There the arrow snake shall make her nest and lay eggs and hatch, and gather them under her shadow; there also shall the hawks be gathered, every one with her mate.” That language is enough to make leaders of the Sierra Club, or the Wilderness Society, or the National Wildlife Foundation, or the World Wildlife Fund, or Earth First!, or any of a score of other environmentalist organizations wax rhapsodic in wistful longing.
If the language of de-creation is the language of judgment and curse, the language of re-creation is that of blessing and restoration. We saw in the description of Zion under the rule of King Messiah in Isaiah 33:20–22 that this blessing entailed order and stability. In Isaiah 35:1–2, we see that it includes the transformation of the wilderness into the garden: “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the excellency of our God.”
The themes of wilderness and garden are set in direct contrast in Psalm 107:33–38, which tells of what God does with the land of the wicked and the land of the righteous. With the land of the wicked, “He turns rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground; a fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of those who dwell in it.” But with the land of the righteous, “He turns a wilderness into pools of water, and dry land into watersprings. There He makes the hungry dwell, that they may establish a city for a dwelling place, and sow fields and plant vineyards, that they may yield a fruitful harvest. He also blesses them, and they multiply greatly; and He does not let their cattle decrease.”
Notice carefully what the psalmist connects with God’s blessing on the land of the righteous. He brings water to the desert, makes the hungry establish a city there and sow fields and plant vineyards and reap a fruitful harvest, and He “blesses them, and they multiply greatly; and He does not let their cattle decrease.” Quite simply, one sign of God’s blessing on this people is that their population grows — and with it, their food supply. When God curses a land, He empties it of human population and domestic animals, returning it to the wild beasts. But when He blesses it, He multiplies its human population and builds up its herds.
This is no accident. It is rooted in the very nature of man and beast and in God’s creative order. To mankind alone, among earthly creatures, did God give the capacity of reason, of wisdom, of logos. Mankind alone, among earthly creatures, has the ability to bring proper order to the world. Just as He made the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night, so also He made man to rule the sea, the sky, and the earth. And man exercises that rule by possession and occupation. So the parts of the command in Genesis 1:28 are not independent of each other; they are dependent: “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Fruitful multiplication is a necessary prerequisite to filling the earth; and filling the earth is a necessary prerequisite to subduing it and having dominion over it.
The connection between populating a region and subduing it is significant elsewhere in Scripture, too. One of the reasons why Pharaoh ordered the oppression of the Israelites was that their population was growing large enough that he considered them a threat to his dominion:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and it happen, in the event of war, that they also join our enemies and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh supply cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more the afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were in dread of the children of Israel. So the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage — in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field. All their service in which they made them serve was with rigor.
Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of one was Shiphrah and the name of the other Puah; and he said, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” But the midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive. So the king of Egypt called for the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?” And the midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Therefore God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew very mighty. (Exodus 1:8–20)
No wonder Proverbs 14:28 says, “In a multitude of people is a king’s honor, but in the lack of people is the downfall of a prince”!
A particularly striking illustration of this lesson comes in Exodus 23:20–30, with God’s preparing Israel to leave the Wilderness of Wandering and enter the Promised Land. In close connection God assures His people (1) that they will have dominion in the Land; (2) that He will ensure adequate food and water for them there; (3) that they will suffer no sickness, miscarriage, or barrenness — i.e., that their population will be healthy, long-lived, and fruitful; and (4) that He will drive out before them the present inhabitants of the Land, whose tally of sin at last is full:
Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him and obey His voice; do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for My name is in Him. But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works; but you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars. [Words, by the way, that would not go over well with the champions of cultural relativism or of preserving the products of various cultures!] So you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will take sickness away from the midst of you. No one shall suffer miscarriage or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days.
I will send My fear before you, I will cause confusion among all the people to whom you come, and will make your enemies turn their back to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite from before you.
And now listen to this fascinating promise:
I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased, and you inherit the land.
God actually promises Israel that He will leave the abominable pagans in control of the Land long enough for Israel to come in and occupy it all, lest something even worse occur: the land return to wilderness and the wild beasts become so numerous as to be uncontrollable.
I will never forget a time in the mid-1970s, when I lived in Southern California. The sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles had spread to cover many areas that even recently had been wild desert — as, in fact, all of that land once had been. But little pockets of the wild remained here and there in and around the city. In those pockets, wild animals lived on. Among them were coyotes, which normally eat mostly rodents, snakes, and an occasional small bird. As the city grew, the carnivorous coyotes began to run short of their normal fare. And then, little by little, reports began trickling in of coyotes coming up out of flood control channels into people’s back yards and snatching infants out of momentarily unattended baby carriages. I doubt that even the Hillside Strangler or the Freeway Rapist ever managed to provoke so much fear among the people of that city as did those coyotes. Why? Because, I believe, the coyotes were wild. They reminded people of what life would be like if they didn’t subdue the wilderness.
What God promised Israel was that He would ensure, by driving out the pagans only incrementally, that Israel would have time to take control of the land before it reverted to a howling wilderness — the only thing worse than its being under the dominion of pagans.
In this, as in so many other ways, the deliverance of Israel foreshadowed the wider deliverance to come under Christ. After pointing out that part of the curse on Adam’s sin was that animals became wild and threatened mankind, David Chilton remarks,
In Christ, however, man’s dominion has been restored (Ps. 8:5–8 with Heb. 2:6–9). Thus, when God saved His people, this effect of the Curse began to be reversed. He led them through a dangerous wilderness, protecting them from the snakes and scorpions (Deut. 8:15), and He promised them that their life in the Promised Land would be Eden-like in its freedom from the ravages of wild animals: “I shall also grant peace in the land, so that you may lie down with no one making you tremble. I shall also eliminate harmful beasts from the land” (Lev. 26:6). In fact, this is why God did not allow Israel to exterminate the Canaanites all at once: the heathen served as a buffer between the covenant people and the wild animals (Ex. 23:29–30; Deut. 7:22).
Accordingly, when the prophets foretold the coming salvation in Christ, they described it in the same terms of Edenic blessing: “I will make a covenant of peace with them and eliminate harmful beasts from the land, so that they may live securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods” (Ezek. 34:25). “No lion will be there, nor will any vicious beast go up on it; these will not be found there. But the redeemed will walk there” (Isa. 35:9). In fact, the Bible goes so far as to say that through the Gospel’s permeation of the world the wild nature of the animals will be transformed into its original, Edenic condition:
The wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the kid,
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze;
Their young will lie down together;
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
And the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy in all My Holy Mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
(Isa. 11:6–9; cf. Isa. 65:25) 2
To what extent should Isaiah’s language be taken literally? Will lions, with their fangs just made for tearing meat, one day eat nothing but straw, and be as content with that as oxen are? I don’t know. But I would suggest that perhaps we go too far in reading this as figurative if we forget, first, that apparently in the Garden of Eden before the Fall no animal constituted the least threat to man; second, that God certainly intended the Israelites to take Him literally when He promised to drive the pagan inhabitants out of the Promised Land slowly so that the wild beasts would not take over and threaten Israel’s safety there; and third, that God spoke literally when He threatened that if Israel disobeyed His commandments He would punish it with the ministration of wild beasts: “I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, destroy your livestock, and make you few in number; and your highways shall be desolate” (Leviticus 26:22) — a threat fulfilled by the plague of fiery serpents (Numbers 21:6), reinforced in the curses of Deuteronomy 28, where He said, “Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away” (Deuteronomy 28:26), and reflected in the incident when two female bears “came out of the woods and mauled forty-two” youths who had mocked Elisha (2 Kings 2:24) and when “the Lord sent lions among [the newly arrived re-settlers of Samaria who did not fear Him], which killed some of them” (2 Kings 17:25).
I don’t want to belabor the point. It is simply this: that human multiplication, coupled with the incremental transformation of wilderness into garden, bringing the whole earth under human dominion, taming the wild beasts, and building order out of chaos is a good thing. Man’s work is to follow the example set by God in creation: to constantly increase the orderliness of creation — a process that began with his naming the animals. That is why the orderly music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Thomas Luis de Victoria is more authentic music than the cacophony of modern rock by 2 Live Crew, Slayer, and Stryper; it is why the art of Michelangelo and Titian, of Rembrandt and Rubens, of John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins, is more authentic art than the chaotic modern art of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali and Theodor Roszak; and it is why “a well-tended garden is better than a neglected woodlot” 3 or a desert or a swamp.
What am I saying? That the whole surface of the earth should be transformed into Wal-Mart Stores, freeways, skyscrapers, and industrial factories? That we should ignore the extinction of species, the destruction of rain forests, and the paving over of migratory birds’ nesting grounds? Not hardly. Of all people, I would be the most hypocritical to say so. After all, I’m one who consciously moved out of cities into a rural farm setting. But I must admit that when my wife and I hear a pack of coyotes and wild dogs — abandoned by their owners — howling across the pastures, I’m thankful that we can listen to that wild sound with the excitement of romance instead of the trembling of fear. And I guess I’m glad Daniel Boone and his generation tamed the Cumberland region so my family and I didn’t have to worry about bears and panthers and wolves when we visited there last weekend.
You see, it is possible for mankind to tame and even settle a region without robbing it of its beauty. It is possible for us even to develop an area’s resources without destroying its magnificence — as well-managed selective cutting in the lumber business can show.
I have a feeling that what most people really have in mind when they say they want to preserve the wilderness is that they want to preserve natural beauty and grandeur. That can be done — it has been done throughout much of the world — without excluding human occupation and even use of the land. But quite frankly, the desire to keep large tracts of land — millions of square miles — in the wild, natural state, unchanged by humanity, is both unbiblical, in that it contradicts the dominion mandate, and elitist. For it is only the privileged few who can afford to travel long distances with the special supplies and equipment necessary for safety and survival in the real wilderness. What is implied in their saying that we should keep such regions isolated and largely inaccessible is, “Keep out of them yourself, but let us go into them to enjoy them as we wish.”
And there is something a little inconsistent in the notion that all species ought automatically to be protected from extinction or diminution. Would those who feel that way include in that judgment such things as smallpox virus, botulism virus, or the AIDS virus? Should those be preserved — even guaranteed their own natural habitat — out of concern for maintaining species diversity? I have a sneaking suspicion that advocates of preserving species would turn their backs on these. Why? Because they’re so small? Then they’re committing the same fallacy David did when he compared puny man with the vast creation and asked God, “What is man, that You are mindful of him?” — confusing quality with quantity. No, these destructive viruses should be seen as part of the curse on a fallen world. And if they may be, is it impossible that some larger things might be also? I’m not suggesting that we should try to eliminate all poisonous snakes or wild tigers or great white sharks from the world, but if there is a mandate to exercise godly dominion over them — and I believe God’s command for us to do so implies that there is, at least in the course of the redemption of the world through Christ — then I believe we should do so. And I think it is appropriate to weigh human needs against other species’ needs, and sometimes the human needs must prevail, even if it means those species must be reduced in population or relocated from the native habitat to another one.
Perhaps you think I’m tilting at windmills here, that nobody would favor nature over humanity anyway. Then you aren’t aware of just how virulent some in the environmentalist movement can be. Recall from this morning’s lecture the West German Green Party’s spokesman who said, “We, in the Green movement, aspire to a cultural model in which the killing of a forest will be considered more contemptible and more criminal than the sale of 6-year-old children to Asian brothels.” 4 Think again of what I cited from the Earth First! newsletter: “If radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human populations back to sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS. It has the potential to end industrialism, which is the main force behind the environmental crises.” 5 Remember Prince Philip’s desire to be reincarnated as a “killer virus to lower human population levels” — and keep in mind that his majesty is a respected leader of the World Wildlife Fund.
[Since I wrote this lecture two and a half years ago, some environmentalists have promoted a new plan, called the North American Wilderness Recovery (a.k.a. Wildlands) Project, that would entail a vast system of connected wilderness areas that would crisscross the continent, covering at least half of the lower forty-eight states with core reserves in which all trace of human habitation would be removed and when no humans would even be permitted to enter, all surrounded by buffer zones in which only limited human activity would be permitted. “Ultimately, inhabited land would exist as islands surrounded by this wilderness network.” Originally thought too radical for serious consideration by mainstream environmentalists, the plan has picked up increasing support. Michael Soule, conservation biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and creator of the plan, explains that the intent would be not merely to preserve species or ecosystems or habitats, but to preserve “wildness,” which, he insists, entails “fierceness.” When Soule, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman, and conservation biologist Reed F. Noss presented the proposal at the annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in June 1993, it drew strong applause, and Mark Shaffer, vice president of resource planning and economics at the Wilderness Society — presumably a more mainstream environmentalist organization, commented on the proposal, “It’s the right vision, it’s the vision we have to pursue or say good-bye to Mother Nature.” 6
Should we protect nature from wanton destruction? Yes, of course we should. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). We are called in Genesis 2:15 not only to cultivate the earth (that is, to increase its productive potential) but also to guard it. But let me point out one important thing about that instruction. Look at what the text says, and look at it carefully in light of the distinction I have made this evening between the garden and the wilderness: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.” God didn’t tell man to protect the wilderness against the encroaching garden. He told man to protect the garden against the encroaching wilderness. That it is easy to neglect this distinction I know to my own regret. In both Prosperity and Poverty and Prospects for Growth, I treated this text as if it meant that man was to tend and keep the whole earth. 7 I find it tempting to take comfort in the fact that a much better Biblical scholar than I, William Dyrness, made the same mistake, perhaps even in a more blatant way, when he wrote that “man is placed in the Garden (Gen. 2:15) and told to care for the earth” — implying, both by change of words (Garden to earth) and by placement of the citation (as if it applied only to where man is placed, not to what man was to care for), that the command to guard applied indiscriminately to the Garden and the rest of the earth alike. 8 But the fact remains that the text itself tells us that God told Adam to protect the garden; it does not tell us that He told Adam to protect all the rest of the earth. Indeed, we may infer from this and the general garden-versus-wilderness theme of Scripture that an implicit part of the cultural mandate was the gradual transformation of the rest of the earth into the garden.
Does this imply that we are to despoil the earth, to treat it with wanton disregard? Certainly not. But it does imply that we must take seriously the broad and deep implications of God’s curse on the ground, of the distinction between garden and wilderness, between order and chaos, between land under man’s godly dominion and land untamed. It implies that our goal should be not to sustain wilderness wherever it exists but to transform wilderness into garden. It implies that we must recognize that nature untouched by human hand is not necessarily to be preferred, theologically or morally [or aesthetically], to nature transformed by the hand of man; renewed and delivered, albeit in part, from the curse; recovered from wilderness and made into garden again. It might at least tell us that we see with distorted vision when we mourn and protest the deaths of a few hundred or even a few thousand birds and fish and mammals because of an oil spill off the coast of Alaska or California while we ignore the deaths of hundreds of millions of them off the western coast of Latin America every time El Niño, a natural warm Pacific current, shifts northward, as it does regularly, robbing those creatures of their usual rich forage.
I do not pretend to have worked out many implications of this garden-versus-wilderness theme in Scripture. At this point my use of it is mainly negative: as a fulcrum on which to rest a lever of criticism against what I consider to be the unbiblical and anti-human environmentalist world view. More difficult will be the task of translating this into a positive picture of what we ought to be doing with the world. For the present, I will venture to suggest that what we ought to be doing includes sustaining or even improving the beauty of much of the world, bringing more and more of it under human control, and making it serve human needs and aspirations more readily to the end that human beings live longer, live healthier, live happier, and, most important, live more holy than at present.
- I am indebted to James Jordan and David Chilton for calling attention to how the Tabernacle and the New Jerusalem are modeled after the garden of Eden.
- David Chilton, Paradise Restored: An Eschatology of Dominion (Tyler, TX: Reconstruction Press, 1985), 39–40.
- Dixy Lee Ray, with Lou Guzzo, Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things) (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 171.
- Cited in Ray, Trashing the Planet, 169.
- Cited in Access to Energy 17:4 (December 1989).
- Elizabeth Pennisi, “Conservation’s Ecocentrics: A Wild, Some Say Macho, Vision for Saving Species,” Science News 144:11 (September 11, 1993), 168–71.
- E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 29–30; Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future(Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 23–24, 131, 152.
- William Dyrness, “Stewardship of the Earth in the Old Testament,” in Tending the Garden: Essays on the Gospel and the Earth, ed. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 54–55.