Genesis 1:26-31; 2:15-20;

April 7, 2002
Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church
Genesis 1:26-31; 2:15-20; 3:17-19

In his wonderful children’s story, The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein describes the friendship that develops between a young boy and an apple tree. At the beginning of the story, the boy finds great delight in climbing the tree, eating her apples, swinging from her branches, and sleeping in her shade. “The boy loved the tree very much,” Silverstein writes, “and the tree was happy.” As the boy grows older, however, his wants and interests change. For a period of time, he simply busies himself elsewhere, leaving the tree standing alone. When he finally returns, the tree excitedly invites him to relive the past–“climb my trunk, eat my apples, swing on my branches, and rest in my shade.” “I am too big,” the boy responds, “and I need some money to buy things. Can you give me some money?” the boy asks the tree. “No,” the tree replies, “but take my apples and sell them in the city.” So the boy does.

Much the same thing happens each time the boy returns. On his next visit, he wants to build a house, so the tree gives up her branches. A great while later, the boy returns again, desiring a boat. “Cut down my trunk and make a boat,” the tree cheerfully suggests. Then you can sail away...and be happy.” And that’s precisely what the boy proceeds to do. Finally, after years and years pass, the boy returns once more, an old and wrinkled man. Recognizing him immediately, the tree apologizes that she has nothing left to give. “All I need is a place to sit down,” the old man replies. “Well,” the tree answers as she straightens up the little

bit that is left of her, “an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down and rest.” So he does. “And the tree,” Silverstein concludes, “was happy.”

It’s a moving story, one that I have read many times. It depicts a warm relationship between a tree and a boy, between nature and humanity. The tree and the boy are co-actors on the same stage, fellow participants in the drama of life. They talk to each other, care about each other, and enjoy each other’s company. The story also depicts grace and generosity–the tree simply gives and gives and gives until it has nothing left to call its own.

Yet, with each reading, I become increasingly aware of the story’s downside–its anti-climax, so to speak. In contrast to the tree, the boy never has quite enough, and he will literally strip the tree bare in order to satisfy his own desires. In so doing, the tree becomes little more than an object, a means to the boy’s selfish ends. The boy, in fact, reminds me now of one of the lumberjacks in a Gary Larson cartoon. Sitting with his buddy on one of many tree stumps in a forest they had just destroyed with their chainsaws, he says, “I couldn’t work in some stuffy office...the outdoors just calls to me.”

Our texts here in Genesis 1-3 portray a similar progression. In chapters one and two, the boy climbs the tree and swings on her branches. The mood is festive, and nature and humanity work together. In chapter three, however, things have changed. Having had its fruit picked, the tree appears virtually lifeless, and the boy lies drained and exhausted by the stump. What happened? What went wrong?

In the opening chapter of Genesis, God creates the world and everything in it. After climatically creating human beings, God gives them dominion over all living things and instructs them to subdue the earth. In effect, the same God who fashions the world and its inhabitants now delegates responsibility to the human race to supervise it–no, to rule over it. The words are powerful, the images vivid. God is entrusting his creation into humanity’s hands.

To have dominion, to begin with, unmistakably conjures up pictures of kings exercising control over their territories and subjects. Solomon had dominion over all of the land west of the Euphrates, the writer of 1 Kings informs us (4:24). Likewise, the Psalmist prays that his king might have dominion “from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (72:8).” Kings have dominion. They call the shots. They determine policy. Kings are entrusted with considerable responsibility, and their actions directly affect the welfare of everyone under them. “Have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth,” God says to these newly created people.

In a similar sense, to subdue something involves total subjugation. In various contexts, the word depicts the act of trampling something under your feet. Following their deliverance from Egypt, the Israelites are led to the land that God had promised them. “Subdue these territories,” they are repeatedly told (Numb. 32:29; Josh. 18:1). “Take possession of them and drive out the inhabitants.” Later, David “subdued” additional areas, stretching his kingdom in every direction (2 Sam. 8:11). This idea of subduing relates not only to territory, but also to people. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, criticized the rulers living in Jerusalem for recapturing formerly released slaves and forcing them once again to work against their will. “You subdued these people,” Jeremiah cries.

What we find, then, in Genesis 1:28, is nothing less than a coronation ceremony in which human beings are installed as rulers over creation. Rulers over apes and aardvarks, kangaroos and katydids, glaciers and Gloxinia, rhinos and rhododendron. While other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts outside of the Bible typically depict men and women as the slaves and “luggage-carrying” bus boys of the gods, Genesis shoots for the moon–people become kings over creation.

But in what way are we to rule over creation? How is our kingship to be characterized? After all, rulers can be good or evil, caring or tyrannical. In fact, less than a handful of Israel and Judah’s forty-plus kings mentioned in the Old Testament earn passing grades. The rest are rotten to the core. Furthermore, one need only think of the likes of Josef Stalin, Idi Amin, or Pol Pot to realize the devastating effects that corrupt rulers can bring upon their subjects. Such “kings” abuse and mistreat their subjects. They use them solely to advance their own causes and self-interests, extracting every last ounce of energy and life out of them. Earthly kings, sad to say, often turn the privilege of exercising dominion into an opportunity to dominate and destroy. Is that how we humans are to reign over God’s creation? Has God invited us to waste our natural resources and to view the beauty around us primarily as a lifeless commodity to be used however we wish?

Genesis 1:27 provides us with the answer. Our call to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over it grows directly out of our being created in the image of God. We who are fashioned in God’s likeness are to rule, not as corrupt and self-serving earthly kings, but as God himself rules. And how does God rule? The so-called hymns in the Psalter celebrating God’s kingship provide us with a stirring glimpse.

In these Psalms, the people of God celebrate the fact that the Lord rules and reigns over all the earth. With great excitement, they sing and shout together. Note in Psalms 95-100 some of the characteristics of God’s reign that the people are enthusiastic about. God is wonderful and powerful, they shout in Psalm 95. He fashioned the seas and the mountains, yet he shepherds little old us in the very palm of his hand. No one, not even the gods of our neighbors, can compare to him. In Psalm 96, the community celebrates the truthfulness with which God judges both the world in general and his people in particular. He is honest and fair, treating all of his subjects justly. In Psalm 97:10, God guards his people and he rescues them from the hands of their enemies. Rather than oppressing his subjects with an iron fist, God protects his people from harm. In Psalm 98, the congregation sings of God’s love and faithfulness–he is a god of his word, he does what he promises to do. Listen to them–you’ve heard the song before:
O Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his
he has revealed his vindication in
the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love
and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.
In Psalm 99, the people again shout of God’s justice and righteousness, but they add yet another dimension to this escalating depiction of God’s kingship. He is merciful and forgiving. This same God who stands in power over all also reaches out in kindness to even his weakest subjects. Words can hardly capture Israel’s description of God the King. “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise,” the Psalmist declares in 100:4. You need not fear him, nor come before him with trembling. Instead,
Give thanks to him, bless his
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all
What a picture. What a far cry from the corrupt and self-serving rulers that all too quickly come to our minds. God almighty rules with love and kindness, and he seeks in all things the welfare of his many and varied subjects.

How, then, are people to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over all living things? How is humanity to reign over creation? Not as tyrants, who pluck and rob and destroy. On the contrary, we are to rule over creation in the same way that God rules overs us. We are to care for the creation that God has entrusted to us. We are to protect all living things from misuse and abuse. We are to seek the welfare of creation and provide it with all it needs to flourish, not simply use it to satisfy our own never-ending lust for more and more. We are to recognize the infinite beauty and value of God’s world, and to partner with it in bringing God glory. We are, according to Genesis 2:20, to be on a first-name basis with our natural surroundings. We are to care for the world even as God cares for us. In a sense, creation has put its faith in us, just as we have put our faith in God. We don’t want to let it down.
As The Giving Tree comes to a close, all that remains of the once proud and beautiful tree is a small and almost forgettable stump. Yet the stump, Silverstein assures us, is happy. Like much of the natural world around us, it gave and gave and gave until it had nothing left to give, and in giving it experienced great delight.

I can’t help but wonder, however, how the story might have ended had the boy not stripped the tree of all its dignity and left it naked in the field. What if he had planted some of the seeds instead of running off with all of the apples? What if he had pruned the branches rather than turning all of them into building supplies? What if, instead of taking advantage of the tree, he had thought just once about its welfare?

Just imagine with me for one minute, we modern scientific types who rarely talk to trees and cows as we go by, that all of creation could really shout and sing. In celebration of God’s kingship, Israel sang “O come, let us sing to the Lord...For the Lord is a great God, and a great King....” If all of creation really could sing–horned toads and babbling brooks and crickets and oak trees and spotted owls and humpback whales and rain forests–if they really could sing, what song would they sing in response to our kingship?