(Hurray hurray for standard time! Now even us early-ish risers can once again wake up to the sun. At least for a few more weeks until the morning is once again swallowed up by nighttime’s darkness. But blissfully that is not now, and it won’t last long. If you are affected by this seasonal dark, get those S.A.D. lights now. And don’t forget the spiritual lift that exercise gives you.)
William Cronon is an environmental historian, a scholar who explores how civilizations use and think about nature.
Recently, I bumped into an article he wrote called “A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative.”
In it he talks about the role that environmental narratives (the stories we tell ourselves about the world around us) play in shaping our behavior and our understanding of “natural” events.
What we learn is that there is nothing natural about the way we see and interact with nature. We do what we do because of the stories we tell ourselves.
In that light, I thought again about the stories of creation that we find in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and how different they are.
Genesis 1 offers a vision of nature as abundance, a divine world-made-in-a-week, full of life carrying within it the promise and capacity for more life. It was only at the end of the sixth day, the last moment of creation, that humans were called into being. We entered, and discovered the world as a table set before us, ready upon our arrival, filled to overflowing with all sorts of delights and possibility, easily within our grasp. All we had to do was sit down and enjoy. That was indeed our task.
Not so with Genesis 2. Here, the picture is more complicated. At the opening scene, the world is barren and dry because “the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no human to work the ground.”
So God created the rivers that irrigated the land, and made the human to bring life to the earth. Here, nature is not self-sufficient, as it is in Genesis 1. Here, nature is dependent on two things: water (a gift from God) and people (also a gift from God). Humans are, in this light, as essential to the earth’s welfare as water. While we are also its beneficiaries, similar to the humans in chapter 1, we are most assuredly, and primarily, its caretakers. Indeed we are its tenders so that we may earn the right to be its beneficiaries.
We are, in a word, workers, bound to tend well to the needs of the earth so that it will tend to ours.
Interestingly, neither of these stories gives us an ending we can use. In the first, we are formed, brought to see the fullness of the world before us, blessed, and then, just as the living of life would begin, action stops. We have Shabbat. We are left to imagine how things spin out.
In the second, the end is unhappy. We can read it this way (which, admittedly fights with my feminist reading of the text, but then that is the beauty of midrash, it gently cradles multiple even contradictory meanings and gives us the right to hold them simultaneously): being seduced by the vision and promise spun by the snake, we experience desire, endless desire, which quickly leads to mistreatment of the earth. Our eating the apple represents our misuse the gifts of the earth, over-mining earth’s resources, over-indulging our appetites, trespassing into terrain that leads to the collapse of earth’s resources.
Hardship, exile, famine, loss result.
It is so very hard for us to imagine such visions when we are alive on a day like today, filled with sun’s splendor, crisp fall air, stocked refrigerators, affordable foodstuffs in the grocery stores, full tanks in our cars. It is a far cry from here to the anguish of widespread need.
But Genesis 2 also teaches us that we can move from a sense of abundance and security to a world loss and need in a moment.
Graciously, the Torah teaches us both these stories, so there must be truth in both.
We need to learn how we successfully blend the two, blend a world in which the table is both set before us and waiting for us to set it; blend the world of privilege with a world of responsibility; blend the world of expansiveness with a world of boundaries.
That has clearly been our task from the birth of civilization. It is remains, as it has always been, a matter of life and death.