A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, April 22, 2018 (Earth Day)
Genesis 3:8-13, 21-23 ESV
“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Have you ever taken time to ponder that verse? It’s different; it’s a bit unique in comparison to what we read in most of the Bible. It is a very striking image, you will have to admit – God, the Creator, walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Why do we find such a verse here where God is portrayed in very human terms, immanently connected to creation and to humans, and in other places see a picture of God as a very withdrawn, other-worldly, transcendent presence?
One of the first things we learned in college Bible survey courses and seminary Old Testament classes is that the different stories we find in the opening books of the Bible did not originate from the same pen. Biblical scholars began theorizing in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the writings of at least four different sources – four different religious traditions – were woven together in the first five books of the Bible by later editors whose aim was to present a uniform story of the workings of God among the early Hebrews. And so several years ago, scholars agreed on the JEPD theory of biblical authorship. In the book of Genesis we find literature from the first three: J, standing for the Yahwist tradition, the tradition that refers to God as Yahweh; E, signifying the Elohist tradition, the tradition that refers to God as Elohim; and P, representing the Priestly tradition, the tradition that is concerned with the work of the priests, sacrifices, purity laws, etc.
Now, it should be stated that the four-source or JEPD theory, also called the documentary hypothesis theory, is just that – a theory. Some have questioned parts of it in recent years, but without question the theory holds a lot of truth and is very helpful in interpreting the Bible and understanding what might otherwise be seen as contradictions in the biblical texts.
For instance, in the very first chapters of Genesis we are struck with the presence of two separate creation stories that differ in their accounts of the process of creation. And then we find two different Noah and the Flood stories that also differ in their details and emphases. Understanding that two different sources – often one from the northern tribes of Israel and the other from the southern tribes of Israel – were woven together to tell the stories is very helpful.
But for today’s purposes, I chose to focus on one of the JEPD traditions, the J or Yahwist tradition, the one responsible for today’s scripture reading from Genesis chapter three. Characteristics of the Yahwist tradition include the following:
God is always referred to as Yahweh
The holy mountain where the Law was received is always called Sinai
The peoples of Palestine around the Hebrews are called Canaanites
And (for today’s purposes) God is anthropomorphized – that is, God is given very human characteristics and human feelings by the Yahwist writer. To repeat the verse of the day: “And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Now, there are two facets of this Yahwist story that speak to us pointedly on this Earth Day.
First, the Yahwist paints a picture of God – the Creator – having an intimate relationship with the natural world. Earlier in this book, the Yahwist presents the image of God stooping down and scooping up dirt in his hands in order to fashion man – Adam – from the dust of the earth. And then God performs a divine CPR of sorts by breathing into Adam the breath of life. When the man and his wife commit what is deemed to be “sin,” it is God who fashions clothes for them from the skins of animals. The point is, in the view of the Yahwist writer, God or the Sacred was present in and intimately connected with the natural world which God had made.
Now, the image the Yahwist presents of a God in almost human form walking in the Garden of Eden is just that – an image. We do not interpret such literally. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We don’t have to take the image of God in the garden literally in order to embrace the idea of God being intimately connected to Creation.
By and large, the idea of God walking in the garden of the world – intimately related to Nature – was abandoned for the idea of a transcendent God who set the universe in motion and then stepped away from it. Science, the Enlightenment, rational thought, perhaps the theory of Evolution – all of these movements provided alternative ways of thinking of creation and the God or power behind it. So God, likewise, was cast out of the Garden of Eden.
But it seems to me that by casting God out of the garden we suffer a great loss. By removing God from Creation, or the world of Nature, we deprive ourselves of the blessing of the Sacred in everyday life. And so, I think that from an Earth Day perspective, the Yahwist writer invites us to return God or the Sacred to the garden of the world, as we again train our ears to listen for God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and train our eyes to see God in the colorful wildflowers and singing birds along the path.
The other facet of the Yahwist tradition that speaks to us on this Earth Day is the intimate connection the Yahwist writer makes between Adam, or man, and the soil. Michael D. Coogan drew attention to the fact that the Yahwist writer emphasized a close relationship between humans and the soil, and that initially man lived in harmony with the soil. Also, the Yahwist shows a connection between human sin or corruption and the soil. Because of human sin and failure, the soil, too, is cursed and man suffers the consequences of his actions.
My goodness, could there be any more pointed sermon for this Earth Day emphasis? We are meant to have an intimate relationship with the soil – with the Earth. From the good Earth we all come, from the good Earth we draw all of our support and sustenance, and to the good Earth at last we shall all one day return! How more intimate could we get with the soil than that?
But because of our human folly and the corruption brought about by our own foolish actions, the soil from which we come, live, and shall return is cursed and contaminated. Through our own foolish living – pollution, disrespect, desecration, overuse, depletion, etc. – we are driving ourselves right out of the garden of the world. As Thomas Berry reminds us, “What is needed is a new spiritual, even mystical, communion with Earth . . . a sensitivity to Earth’s needs, a valid economy of Earth. . . . Restoration of this sense of the natural world as divine manifestation has a special urgency because of the devastation that we are presently causing to the natural world.”1
Luckily, there is hope for us today on both counts regarding the Yahwist’s teachings. On the one hand, the idea of God as still being in the garden of the Earth continues to be carried on through the thought and works of such thinkers and writers as Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox, and Sam Keen. Such folk are calling us back to seeing the Sacred within the natural world around us. In case you are interested in exploring this topic further, Matthew Fox’s book Original Blessing, Thomas Berry’s The Sacred Universe, and Sam Keen ‘s Sightings are good starting places. In the words of Matthew Fox, ”The universe itself, blessed and graced, is the proper starting point for spirituality.”2
And the Earth Day movement and a number of organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and so on remind us of the vital relationship we have with the soil, calling us back to a respectful view and use of the Earth – respectful care, conservation, recycling, planting trees, careful management, an intimate relationship, and other ways.
So, on this Earth Day I celebrate the Yahwist writer of the Bible and the imagery and teachings he left us, drawing an intimate relationship between God or the Sacred and the natural world, and reminding us of humanity’s intimate connection to the Earth. As we observe this Earth Day, may we be open to hearing God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and in the song of the birds above, and in the rustling grass, and even in the pitter patter of raindrops on the ground. May we revisit God in the garden theology. May it be so. Amen.
1Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Pp. 73, 83.
2Matthew Fox, Original Blessing. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000. P. 26.