God As Gardener
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …
When the morning stars sang in chorus, and all the sons of
God shouted for joy?
These are questions asked of the ancient character Job, finally breaking God’s silence and speaking into Job’s pain. I can read them as a harsh sting, as a silencing gavel to Job’s objections, akin to the response of an exasperated parent putting an end to a child’s endless questions with the trump card of sovereignty: Because I’m the parent, that’s why.
When I first watched Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life, which sets its opening frame with these same lines of God to Job, the familiar sting of God’s words greeted me. In fact, it shaped my entire understanding of the film and suspicion regarding Malick’s intentions behind it. In his Oscar nominated film, Malick juxtaposes grand images of the creation of the world beside the small story of a grieving family from Texas through flashbacks of their life together, glimpses of both the gentle and violent moments.With sweeping creation scenes of a massive and intricate universe interposed between these scenes of a small Texas town—a father’s rage at dinner, a son’s discovery of shame, a mother’s small gifts of grace—there seemed a great disconnect to me, so large that I saw a God who had to be removed and far off. The triviality of much of their lives—the triviality of my life—beside a God responsible for far greater deeds seemed so obvious in light of the massive work of creation, and God’s silencing gavel of authority merely seemed to confirm this. In these images it seemed preposterous to think that a God who could create the world and everything magnificent within it would simultaneously be concerned with details so inconsequential as a family fight, a society’s changing priorities, a brother’s complicated grief. I suspected Malick’s God was saying the very thing I left the theater dreading. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? And who are you to question me at all?
It struck me as odd, then, when a friend of mine in the midst of grief herself had a completely different take on the film, and in fact left the theater encouraged. I was puzzled. I even went to see the film a second time, wondering if I missed something.
About a month later I was sitting with a professor who was talking about the creation of the world through the landscape of gardening. He was simply reading from the creation story, but as he read and commented on the story it was as if I was hearing it again for the first time. Genesis chapter 2, the account of creation that Christians and Jews hold as sacred text, says that God planted a garden in Eden to the east. Professor Wirzba then simply asked if we had ever heard a sermon about God, the gardener.
In fact, I have not. Nor have I ever considered what such an identity of God might mean to me or to the world around me. Yet here is one of the first passages in the Bible where we are introduced to who God is—and God is not a warrior or a judge or a sovereign, but first a gardener, a nurturer of all life, protector and planter, a designer, keeper, and pruner concerned with life’s flourishing. My own experiences with gardening remind me of an entirely different set of emotions and dispositions than I typically consider God having—delight in dirty hands and my own investment into the life I’ve planted, the thrill of fruit, the gentle attention to life, the compilation and cooperation with so many different factors—wind and rain, sun and predators. Significantly, the language of God as gardener at creation’s beginning can be traced throughout the Old Testament, in the psalms and in the prophets. And stirringly, the place of the tomb and resurrection is also described as a garden, and Jesus himself is mistaken as the gardener on that creative morning.
I share these two seemingly unconnected encounters to suggest that our imagining of God is often a complicated collection of stories, images, memories, and emotions, some of which may well be more accurate—or heightened in our minds for whatever reason—than others. I have always read God’s response to Job’s pain and questions with the sting of an angry or weary parent. But what if it is a cry of a gardener wanting Job to see a far more creative process of care? What if these words aren’t said angrily, but with gentle lament for the created world in the life of even one wilting soul? What if these words respond to both the vast pain of creation where it’s gone awry and the vast beauty of creation where it remains a wonder of good? Such a reading of the world’s creation and the gardener behind it stirs, in me at least, a response more akin to that of the man after God’s own heart:
When I survey this vast world, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars and all that you have established, what are mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings in whatever state of despair or joy or smallness that you still care for them?
Magnificent and intimate, powerful and gentle, God as gardener, whose deepest concern is life’s flourishing, makes no clearer a case for this than in Easter’s undoing of death and the vicarious humanity of the resurrected Son.
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