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The Bible and our topsoil

By Ellen F. Davis
Prairie Writers Circle

(Monday, Nov. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In what could accurately be termed a disaster of biblical style and proportion, industrial agriculture in this country is taking away soil faster than it is producing food.

We lose 2.5 tons of topsoil for every ton of grain or hay harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I say this is a disaster of biblical style because the Bible shows that from the beginning of human history, poor choices about eating have damaged the fundamental link between humankind and fertile soil.

The first human story shows both the linkage and the damage. God uses fertile soil -- in Hebrew, "adamah"-- to form the human creature, and even to come up with an appropriate name: adam, with a lower case "a" because the word designates not just one individual but the whole species. But when the first couple decide to eat against the rules that God has established, they get kicked out of the garden, and the soil turns against them The once pleasant work of producing food becomes a bitter struggle against thorns and briars. The first 11 chapters of Genesis, that quick and dirty history of early humankind, is in fact the story of adam's progressive alienation from God and fertile soil.

In the next generation, the farmer Cain makes the soil drink the blood of his brother the herdsman. This is a short reflection on human cultural history. The Bible doesn't shy away from the recognition that the practice of agriculture, which began in the Middle East, had from the beginning a potential for violence. Cain himself wanders away from the land, and tellingly, his offspring become the founders of cities -- another Middle Eastern invention.

The story of the tower of Babel mocks the great urban culture of Babylon rising out of the Tigris and Euphrates flood plains, plains that were disastrously overirrigated even in ancient times. So the centers of Mesopotamian civilization moved steadily farther north through the centuries, to escape the creeping salinization that destroyed the soil near the old capitals on the Persian Gulf. The Israelite story makes fun of a people so deluded that they take their eyes off the ground and build a tower "with its head in the heavens." "The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the earth he gave to human beings," says Psalm 115:16. Forgetting their own proper domain, the Babel-onians laid it waste.

Against this background, God's assurance to Abraham acquires fresh urgency. Genesis 12:3: "In you all the families of the fertile soil shall be blessed." Abraham represents those around the world who understand that God's blessing is ineluctably connected with topsoil; it is the indispensable medium for communication of God's goodness to all the peoples of the world.

When you think about it, this is a striking account of the world's history, one that could be produced only by a people like the ancient Israelites, an agrarian people who occupied an ecological niche they knew to be precarious. Israel-Palestine is semiarid, habitable over the long term only when water is harvested and used sparingly. The highlands around Jerusalem are steep, and a growing population quickly deforested them. Erosion and desertification were the enemies against which the Israelite farmer fought steadily. It is no wonder that the Bible's writers, blessed with that fragile land, cite the condition of the soil as the best index of the health -- or the erosion -- of the relationship between Israel and its God. All this is to say that the Bible could never have been written in America. Having a large margin for error, we have always had trouble seeing fertile soil as a blessing whose continuance depends on our observing and accepting the way God set things up, observing what we call "nature." Abundantly fertile soil seems to us a birthright, and we have treated it the same way Esau treated his. Heedless of the future, we have sold it for what meets our immediate hunger: cheap food.

We could never have written the Bible, yet a lot of us read or hear or even quote it with regularity. What if we started listening for what it says about our relationship to the Earth's topsoil? We would quickly discover that almost every page of the Old Testament sheds light on that relationship, and that Jesus' agrarian parables are something more than local color. Who knows? Maybe today's sad statistics on soil loss would become a religious issue.

Ellen F. Davis (edavis@div.duke.edu) is associate professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School. She is the author of "Imagination Shaped: Old Testament Preaching in the Anglican Tradition" and "Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament."

She is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. The Land Institute, founded in 1976, is a nonprofit research organization devoted to developing an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that of annual crops. The Prairie Writers Circle aims to encourage public awareness of ecological problems, especially those at the intersection of agriculture and the environment.

This essay is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Land Institute. The institute reserves the right to reprint Prairie Writers Circle work in its own publications and Web site.

For more information about the Prairie Writers Circle or the Land Institute, please see http://www.landinstitute.org