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Till and Keep

Today's article begins a four-week focus on the Stewardship of Creation. We know that Stewardship embraces all of life and all of our relationships. Our relationship to the creation is a fundamental key to a healthy and faithful life. We have asked four writers to help us explore our role as stewards of God's gift of creation.


Glenn Taibl, Co-Director
Center for Stewardship Leaders
Luther Seminary

"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15): stewardship of the earth is the original vocation of humankind, and it is still foundational for earth's well-being. "Till and keep" compells my personal attention because my father was an implement dealer in northern Montana. My family's prosperity depended on the sale of machinery used to till hundreds of thousands of acres, mostly wheat shipped by rail to mills and ports in Minnesota. Those machines are emblematic of how we transformed the landscape of Montana, and the Dakotas and Minnesota as well -- indeed, of the whole Mississippi watershed. A drive through this vast, richly productive countryside shows how fully we have taken this mandate "to till": some estimate that over half of the land is planted in row crops.

"Keeping" the earth, preserving its fertility for future generations, is another matter entirely. True, our land grant universities make a great study of soil science; we have sheltered exposed earth from winds; but mainly we keep up the soil's productivity -- which is not to say fertility-- with inorganic fertilizers. Too often we plow to the edge of our rivers and lakes, destroying the borders of wild grasses, trees or shrubs that not only provide critical refuge for birds, bees, turtles, frogs and other wildlife, but are also nature's way of filtering pollutants. So fertilizers seeps into the waters that course through the land. Toxic for aquatic life, they promote excessive growth of algae and decrease the levels of oxygen, leading to the death of fish and other aquatic fauna and flora. Thus do land, water, and creatures suffer from our presence.

Key to understanding this failure to "keep" the earth is our use of fossil fuels. To be sure, "till, baby, till," was our cry well before "drill, baby, drill," but we could not do the former as we have without the latter. Fossil fuels power those machines; petroleum is a major source of inorganic fertilizers. They also power transport of resources to manufacturers and products to market. They generate electricity for our utility networks and ever greater levels of consumption. They tie our world together in ever more complex relationships of supply and demand. Till and keep the earth? The great difficulty is that the means we have devised for tilling the earth makes it nearly inconceivable that we can at the same time "keep it," or even believe we need to. As Lutheran ethicist Larry Rasmussen writes, fossil fuels have fostered the illusion that "we can wholly know and control the ecosphere, that its own rhythms and requirements can be bypassed or bent to our design." Our use of such power leads us to believe that we can meet our needs without any sustained commitment to meeting earth's needs at all. But now the "uninvited blow to this illusion," Rasmussen rightly warns, is the result that "every major life system [is] in decline and the rude appearance of that wildest of wild cards, accelerated and extreme climate change. What that means for all life systems reaching for a future we only perceive through a smoky glass" (Earth-honoring Faith, p. 54).

"Till and keep": how do we fulfill both mandates in the face of such overwhelming addiction to fossil fuels? Bible scholar Ellen Davis would have us translate the words "till and keep" as "serve and preserve." Stewards of the earth with the mind of the Christ, who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave"(Phillippians 2:6-7), and through whom "God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself" (Colossians 1:20) would do well to follow her advice, repent of our fossil-fuel fed illusions, and witness by our example that humankind's "tilling" can truly serve God's earth; preserving her fertility would then follow in due course as a work of love.


Dennis Ormseth is a retired Lutheran pastor working to promote care of creation in congregations of the Minneapolis Area Synod and the wider ELCA . He writes weekly commentaires on the lectionary at Lutherans Restoring Creation.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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