Caring and Working: An Agrarian Perspective

By Wirzba, Norman | The Christian Century, September 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Caring and Working: An Agrarian Perspective


Wirzba, Norman, The Christian Century


IT IS HARD to know which was more difficult for Noah: to build the ark when there was no sign of rain, or to be in the ark with the animals for an entire year. As rabbinic tradition has it, during those 12 months Noah was so busy tending to the needs of all those animals that he had no time to sleep. The ark represents much more than an escape vessel. It is a laboratory of sorts, a messy, exhausting and illuminating experiment in which Noah learns the lessons of care and compassion, attention and responsibility.

Can you imagine the labor and foresight involved in providing and serving a menu for such an assortment of mute guests for an entire year? No wonder, then, that the midrash Tanhuma refers to the Righteous One as one who knows the needs of others, even the needs of animals. Noah emerged from the ark, say the rabbis, as a sustainer of life because the ark served as the crucible within which the wisdom of sympathy and nurture could develop.

There is some room for speculation on the particulars that caused God's wrath and thus also the flood. One rabbinic tradition has it that the people of the time were guilty of robbery, callous disregard for others and a rapacious sexuality that led to cohabitation between humans and semidivine beings. We are told in Genesis 6 that these people, the Nephilim, came to be renowned as mighty, but in God's view they were wicked because they refused to acknowledge and live within the bounds of creation. Rather than accepting the limits and dependencies of creatureliness, they aspired to become gods and thus creators of their own worlds. God's judgment was swift and decisive. A deluge would turn this fragile mixture of dust and divine breath into mud.

Noah's building of the ark and his care of the life teeming within it are of crucial significance for our own time. In many respects we have become as the Nephilim, denying our creaturely status and playing the role of gods. We'd rather have a world of our own making and within our own control than acknowledge God's ownership and control of creation. What we have not made we simply take and claim. We think of the word's mineral and biological resources as possessions that we can use against others. We ignore the divine injunction, uttered first to Adam and later more fully realized in the ark, to take care of the earth and its creatures.

The practice of caring for the earth has traditionally fallen upon farmers. In the past the vast majority of people were directly or indirectly involved in agriculture; but in the past few centuries farms have been transformed into agribusinesses, becoming a branch of the ever-growing industrial-technological economy. Fewer and fewer people have any direct experience of food production.

How can Christians be responsible caretakers of the earth if they are not familiar with farming practices? Farming is not simply about food production. Farming is a way of being, a concrete practice in which the lessons' of creatureliness can be learned. In taking care of the life that God has given us, we enter Noah's theological-agricultural laboratory.

In thinking about farming there are at least two revolutions that need to be considered: the revolution of agriculture, and the more recent industrial revolution within agriculture. Wes Jackson, founder and director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, says that the plow may well be the most significant and far-reaching artifact in human history. While we often think of the plow as a tool of peace and prosperity, few other instruments compare in their ability to put the long-term survival of life forms at risk. The reason is simple: tillage agriculture tears open and makes vulnerable the soft membrane that supports all life. Soil loss due to erosion (it is estimated that we lose 25 billion tons of topsoil every year, an amount that greatly outstrips nature's ability to replenish it), as well as water loss due to runoff (with cultivation the root structures that hold and absorb water are destroyed), lead to the eventual transformation of fertile ground into desert. …

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