Green Thumbs and Holy Ground: Why God created people in a garden
By: Madalyn Salz
Nearly from the dawn of time, humankind has fallen prey to a vicious lie –that God is not after our own good. We need not turn many pages into the Bible before seeing this untruth manifested. In Genesis 3 Adam and Eve encounter the serpent who asks, “did God really say…?” The serpent not only questions their knowledge of God’s word, but tests their trust in God’s goodness. The devil’s schemes have not since changed, and, unfortunately, we have not much altered our response. We still fall into thinking that God’s instructions are arbitrary, or even mean-hearted, as we misunderstand His character. However, when we have accurate vision of His character, and trust that God desires the best for us, our minds are opened up to the possibility, if not the surety, that His instructions are for our benefit.
Subdue the Earth
In Genesis, just after God creates male and female, He commands: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28b, NIV). Tragically, Christians have, at various times, interpreted this passage as permission to strip-mine and pollute what God created and called “good.” Again, our understanding of God’s instructions hinges absolutely on our understanding of God’s character—who He is. The larger problem lies not in a faulty understanding of “rule,” but in miscomprehending God’s heart.
Let us now look at God’s heart to gain a better understanding of this passage. In the beginning, Genesis describes chaos and void. The introduction of time, heavenly bodies, plants, and animal species describes not only of the creation of things in an otherwise vacant space, but about the creation of order and purpose. The first few pages of Scripture give tremendous insight as to the purpose for human life in the ordering of creation.
Genesis 2:15 reads: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (NIV). In other words, humans were created to work and take care of the garden.
To gain a fuller understanding of what God intended for humanity, we need not go forward, but backwards. Genesis 1:27 tells us, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” At first, this may not appear to do all that much with gardening. However, when the word image is explored, you may think otherwise.
In the Image of God
Many have heard that we were created in God’s image—or likeness. But what does that actually mean? An image in the ancient Near East was a physical representation made in the appearance of the king. These images would be set up in the far reaches of a ruler’s domain to indicate lordship. In the Genesis narrative, God is the ruler and He creates humankind in His image to represent His rule and reign in the physical spheres humans inhabit. The first job God gives to humans is not to do anything, but to be image bearers – people who display God’s kingship over creation. We were meant to live in a way in which everything about how we live communicates something about who we worship.
Ironically, whether or not we realize it, the way we live always indicates the nature of who or what we worship. We need not balk at the responsibility of dominion. But to rightly embrace our role, we need to know something of the King we are meant to represent.
God’s Green Thumb
As we’ve already discussed, in the first pages of Scripture God is bringing order out of chaos. That gives us a start. Secondly, by examining creation, we learn that God designed intricate systems to work together for the flourishing of not only humans, but all other life forms. We see his intent for bringing about life in His commands: “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds” (Genesis 1:11). God begins with blessing plants, but he moves on to creatures also.
“So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth’ […] And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind’” (Genesis 1:21-22, 24).
Not only does God bless animals with the capacity to bear life, He also blesses human life: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). So God is about bringing forth life – and not just one type of life. God is the author of biodiversity.
So when God instructs humans, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28), it is not without some indication of how we are to rule.
This authority is not license to kill, steal, or destroy what God has created and called good. On the contrary, the example of authority that we see in God is marked by bringing forth life, by harmony, and by service. These are the true marks of dominion. To rule could be defined this way: creative service for the flourishing and harmony of the whole. When we understand that this is the work God calls us to, we are freed to abandon any false notion that humans are granted divine authority to use and dispose of God’s good earth in any manner we wish. Rather, God’s assignment of dominion to humanity is the bestowal of responsibility for the care of creation.
Today, we are inundated with marketing that sells us what promises comfort or provides the highest level of convenience. We are a generation of customers in search of satisfaction. To some, the fact that God bestows responsibility, and the knowledge that God is after our good, may seem to be contradictory. While these truths are paradoxical, there is no contradiction. You see, responsibility to care for the earth (and all its inhabitants) is not diametrically opposed to God producing pleasure in us through that very act. God is so ingenious, and so generous, that He wove into the fabric of creation ways in which our work might instill joy.
Over and over again, scientific studies show that when we do what is good for creation, we receive the benefit. There are examples too numerous to list, so I will focus only on the benefits of gardening. It is widely documented that gardening has a multitude of health benefits. Some benefits are obvious, such as plants producing fresh air from carbon dioxide and water. Then there are the aesthetic benefits of viewing plants, whether lush gardens or plots of land plentiful with neat rows of crops. And of course, there are tremendous health benefits to the exercise component of gardening.
Yet many may be unaware of the power gardening plays in reducing stress. For example, one study from the Netherlands found that people who spent thirty minutes gardening reported better moods and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who spent time reading indoors. Other research has indicated that a microbe in garden soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, may actually play a significant role. Researcher Christopher Lowry conducted a study in which he found this microbe to have a calming and focusing effect. When mice were injected with the microbe, their serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex significantly increased in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The mice exposed to the microbe also performed better in a stress test compared to mice that did not come into contact with M. vaccae. Evidence suggests that this de-stress effect may even last as long as three weeks.
In another study conducted by Torsten Olszak, mice that were exposed to microbes early in life produced fewer invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells than both the germ-free mice raised in a sterile environment, and specific-pathogen-free mice raised in a standard laboratory environment. Mice exposed to the microbes early in life produced fewer iNKT cells, resulting in greater resilience to auto-immune and inflammatory diseases than the germ-free mice. In another study with human patients, those who were given the bacteria as part of their cancer treatment reported feeling happier and less pain than their counterparts who did not receive the microbe as part of their treatment. While this is a field relatively still unexplored, it seems we were meant to be in the garden, getting our hands dirty.
God designed harmonious symbiosis for us and the rest of creation to live in. As we work the earth, we also reap the reward. Surely, we benefit from breathing purified air, time to process our thoughts, and using our muscles to plant a tree, but God ingrained creation with far less obvious advantages too; the soil itself causes a beneficial bio-psycho response in the human body. What a good God we serve!
God cares about our health and the health of soil, vegetation, animal species and soil because each is healthiest when the other is. As we tend to the Genesis 2 instruction to cultivate and steward the land, our health improves. We work it and it works for us.
Work It and Take Care of It
What should be the Christian response to this knowledge?
First, we should praise God for designing creation so meticulously—that He shows His concern and extravagant love in how we give and receive. We should praise God for designing ecosystems in which all parts of creation, from humans to the ground from which humankind was formed, may exist in mutuality and flourish simultaneously.
Second, we should work and play outside. Take a walk in an old growth forest or plant a tree! Join a community garden or arrange flowers.
A fantastic example of this is the Christian organization A Rocha Canada. They provide families with the opportunity to learn hands-on how to garden, and are given knowledge on cooking skills and nutrition.
Whether you are growing tomatoes on an apartment balcony or herbs in a window box, or you are a master gardener able to teach a neighbor a thing or two about gardening, get your hands dirty. You won’t be sorry you did.
 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 57-58.
Madalyn Salz grew up in Oregon City, Oregon. She attended Vanguard University of Southern California where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing. After graduating, Madalyn moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland where she served in several ministry capacities, including leading youth and student ministries at a Presbyterian church, and earned a Graduate Diploma in Theology from Queen’s University Belfast. Now, back in Oregon, she serves as the administrator for the Seminary Stewardship Alliance and Blessed Earth Northwest. Madalyn is active in her church community, Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, cooking, learning guitar, going to concerts, and reading.