“Subdue the Earth” and “Till It and Keep It”: Responding to God’s Cultural Commands

In the middle of our cultural crisis, issues such as politics, economics, and education may come immediately to mind. Though these issues are vital to our culture, the crisis stems in part from something even more fundamental. We’ve lost touch with the most basic aspects of culture.

An important answer to our crisis can be found at the beginning of Scripture. The first command addressed to humanity in the entire Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Gen 1:28). This command is addressed to man and woman in the first creation story and is addressed to all of humanity. In the second story, Adam is said to have been placed in the Garden “to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). God’s first commands are cultural commands. This reveals his primal will for all human beings: to be fruitful in themselves and to enhance the fruitfulness of the earth by their efforts.

There are many ways to respond to this primal call. I will describe one way it is relevant to me by providing a short theology of gardening. I will then broaden the discussion to show the relevancy of God’s cultural commands more generally.

I bought my first house last year, which contained a large patch of weeds that had served as a dog pen. It looked like a perfect place for a garden, our first, so I rented a tiller and went to work. About half way through I stopped and the primal command I mentioned above just hit me out of nowhere. I realized that I had finally responded to the most basic command that God had given us. It felt good!

As I mentioned, this patch was completely covered by weeds. Grappling with those weeds also took me back to the Garden. They weren’t meant to be part of the plan, but came after Adam had already disrupted his first mission. Tilling the earth would never be the same and now we have to work by the sweat of our brow. The weeds are a reminder of what human work is meant to be after the Fall: not just a work of human culture, but also a work of reparation, or more positively of restoration.

Since my yard was in disarray, I felt the restoration aspect of gardening very strongly. In this work, I have seen so many parallels to the spiritual life. Looking around at the house, inside and out, I had a clear image of what happens when you neglect to care for something. What you want to be there, such as grass, begins to die without proper care, and things you do not want just creep in without anyone noticing, until they begin to take over. Once the weeds are established it seems that no matter how much you pull, they keep coming back. What a great image for virtue and vice! Forming virtue takes constant care and vigilance, while forming vice comes so easily and is so hard to root out.

There are many other parallels as well. Pope Benedict XVI referred to prayer as a kind of oxygen for the soul (cf. Meeting with Priests, Sep. 14, 2006). One could not live without it. The thought keeps coming back to me as I water my garden. When you live in a desert region (the high desert for me), if you miss one watering you immediately notice it. Seeing the plants wilt so quickly makes me think of what goes on inside of me when I miss prayer.

I also think a lot of Jesus’s parables and images when I am gardening. Living in an area that is not ideal for gardening, I realize how important it is to prepare the soil for seeds. It makes the parable of the sower more vivid, watching plants languish in poor soil and fighting against weeds. Other parables come to mind as well, such as weeds mixing with what’s sown and the growth of the mustard seed (which like the parable of sower can be seen in Matthew 13). It is one thing to know the reality of sowing seeds intellectually and another to experience it, which makes the words of Jesus more striking and present.

From the theology of gardening, we can also see how things like gardening and other works of culture can help us respond to our current crisis of culture.

The first is that working with plants teaches us something about ourselves. Aristotle distinguished different kind of souls: vegetative, animal, and rational. The rational soul contains the powers of the other two souls (this was affirmed by the Council of Vienne when it said the soul was the only form of the body [Decree 1]), which means that we have vegetative/nutritive functions. Cultivating growing things reminds us of these very basic and overlooked human functions.

The vegetative aspects of human life may sound trite, in general, but given the fact that our culture has become so abstract and removed from nature, it is actually quite important. Christopher Dawson identified four foundational aspects of culture: land, people, social functions, and beliefs. All of these areas are in jeopardy in modern culture, but even the most fundamental aspect of culture, from which we cultivate things, the land, is so far removed from our everyday lives. Think of all the children that think food just comes from the grocery store. Deliberately reemphasizing culture’s link to the land puts us back in touch with a fundamental aspect of life.

If we share the nutritive connection to the land with plants, the animal powers of the soul build upon this foundation. We are desperately losing sight of how God’s primal command also entails fertility and reproduction. No one has made this clearer than the agrarian writer, Wendell Berry. Berry insightfully notes: “There is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. Between our relation to our own sexuality and our relation to the reproductivity of the earth, for instance…” (The Art of the Commonplace, 118).  This latter relation can be seen in “the household, which was the formal bond between marriage and the earth, between human sexuality and its sources in the sexuality of Creation” (ibid., 119). The crisis we are experiencing in marriage and the family can be linked to a prior cultural crisis in which the family has been removed from its roots and has lost sight of its central mission.

But humanity is more than just our nutritive/vegetative and animalistic/reproductive elements. We stand above plants and animals as rational creatures toward which they are ordered. In our cultural crisis, some people overreact to our separation from nature and make nature an end in itself. Nature is not a regular part of most of our lives and the environmental movement is actually another symptom of this isolation. Rather than recognizing the purpose of nature, some environmentalists hold it up as something for its own sake. We are all too familiar with politicians seeking to limit births and using the environment in order to manipulate and control. Producing works of culture, on the other hand, clearly reminds us that the rest of creation is subordinate to us and is meant for us. Agriculturally speaking, planting seeds, tending plants, and harvesting give us a glimpse of God’s creation being cultivated in order to sustain and uphold us.

Another problem in modern culture is our dependency on the mass state, in which economics and politics are large scale with the individual as subordinate and dependent. Agriculture itself has become something that is now industrialized and even has become subject to manipulation at the genetic level. Gardening is one small but important way among many to break absolute dependence upon “the system.” This kind of relative self-sufficiency is a crucial element of subsidiarity, the principle by which things should be done on the lowest level without intervention from above, unless necessary. Most people in human history were able to support themselves, at least in part. There are many ways that we can become more self-reliant and live a more human lifestyle.

We would not want to take self-reliance too far or we’re right back in another modern problem, the isolated self. Rather, works of culture should be acts of love for God. How? He has given us a cultural vocation and he intends all of us to respond to this call. We can get so caught up in our desires and ambitions that we lose sight of the most basic elements of our life and vocation. From this perspective working with our hands in building or caring for something helps our humility. God wants us to focus on the simple, to get our hands dirty, to bend over, and to perform menial tasks. It is good for us and keeps us “grounded.” At the same time, as rational beings we need to express ourselves creatively, sharing in God’s own creation by continuing to shape it through culture. I think this is why God’s first commands are cultural ones!

There are many ways to respond to God’s cultural commands. I have found that gardening is an important image for our broader cultural vocation. This thought has been confirmed by the recent words of Pope Francis on responding to God’s primal command:

Cultivating and caring for creation is an instruction of God which he gave not only at the beginning of history, but has also given to each one of us; it is part of his plan; it means making the world increase with responsibility, transforming it so that it may be a garden, an inhabitable place for us all (General Audience, June 5, 2013).

According to Francis, everyone needs to be a gardener!  This literally can mean putting one’s hands in the soil or, more generally speaking, cultivating the goods of creation and even our own lives to make them more human and in accord with God’s will. We are all called to be cultural creators and by doing so we explicitly follow the Lord’s commands to “subdue the earth” and to “till it and keep it.”

R. Jared Staudt


R. Jared Staudt works in the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the Augustine Institute and the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

  • Jim

    The universities tell me that I am not allowed to garden until I have completed my undergraduate basic education requirements. I must pass with a C or better, organic chemistry, and also statistics before I am allowed to hold a hoe. I must pass with a C or better Basic Human Nutrition before moving onto the core requirements such as Food Delivery Systems, Hydrology, and Caloric Marketing, and have a semester of field knowledge in a restaurant. And, demonstrate my writing ability, and prove that I have taken a class on Ethics before I am allowed to fill the drill with seed. And, of upon graduating one must be certified in HACCP, a Food Worker Certificate, a Fat-Oil-Grease Certificate, and of course an Information Sytems Security Awareness Certificate.

    Then and only then are you allowed to pick an apple from a tree.

    We can thank the lawyers, professors, and careerists.

    • Valentin

      I find it crazy when my mom tries to convince me that it’s important to get a phd in agriculture or something goofy like that, as far as I am concerned If I had the money and the freedom I would start a farm over in northern Delaware close to where a lot of my old friends live the problem is how expensive land is in Delaware along with the permits and taxes(I mean theft) involved in selling produce.

  • J. Craig

    What a great article! I’m glad to hear of your garden since it was your talk about gardening that drove me and my family back to the land! So, are you ready to start St. Benedict’s Ranch?

  • Dan

    Love the article!
    Everyone who owns or has access to even the smallest patch of soil was given that piece by God, making all of us gardeners or farmers. Some of us are just very poor at it and don’t produce anything with what we’ve been given, and there is a cultural loss. If one doesn’t work the earth, they should contribute by praying over it and communing with God on it.

  • Vicki

    Excellent article!

  • hombre111

    Thoughtful and worth reading. The next step would involve being part of a large whole and finding what it means to live within its purposes. Ooops! Too scary. Starting to sound liberal.

    • Mark

      “The next step would involve being part of a large whole…”

      Unfortunately, the liberal “whole” usually becomes a huge “hole” for normal and responsible people to repair.

      It’s good to see that Phil Donahue can still operate a key board though.

      • hombre111

        This is not a question of liberal or conservative. It means expanding our vision beyond ourselves and seeing the interconnections that we will ignore at our peril. The earth is a spaceship. If we junk it, there is nowhere to go for new parts.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Going away from society and socialism towards agrarianism is joining a much larger whole.

      • hombre111

        As long as we understand that the larger whole includes living within the possibilities and limits of our natural world. The book “Collapse” explores what happens when people don’t do that, either out if ignorance or out of somebody’s greed.

  • Aaron Harburg

    I wholeheartedly agree with the vast majority of the points made here. Dawson was a genius and there is a lot wrong with the modern culture. That being said I want to make one correction and one addition.
    First, it is a misnomer to say that is a command to “be fruitful and multiply” when it clearly says “God blessed them saying:..” the first command is actually to not eat of the forbidden fruit. It is imperative this be understood otherwise celibates would be violating the first command of God.
    Second, correcting the extreme of dependence on a faceless massive global economic system is not individuals becoming self-reliant as your point out. It is actually community. An interdependence that is more than just social. One of the problems of modern society is we see others simply as a means to satisfying social needs, what if we visibly relied on others for all of our needs in a much more tangible way. That’s where culture really begins to spring. The use of technology and modern science should enable smaller communities to become self-sufficient and sustainable. Few people are willing to make that sacrifice though.

  • DonnaRuth

    Thanks for the reminder of the joy of gardening, a beautiful pastime. There is more to that phrase. In his book, “A Father Who Keeps His Promises,” Dr. Scott Hahn writing on the phrase “till and keep” states that the word “keep” in Hebrew means “to guard.” He suggests that here God is telling Adam that he must guard the garden of Eden. Of course, the next question is “guard from what?” This indicates an enemy or an intruder. As well, it is implied that Adam must guard or protect Eve.

  • dougpruner

    To Mr Staudy and Aaron H:
    From the Knox at newadvent: ” And God pronounced his blessing on them, Increase and multiply and fill the earth, and make it yours; take command of the fishes in the sea, and all that flies through the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”
    It reads like an imperatvie [command] sentence to me. But if not, why not? Where is it made optional? Where did God’s purpose change? Millenia afterwards we find the command form [of Genesis] being favored:
    Isa 45:18, ibid- “The Lord has pronounced it; the Lord who made the heavens, and the whole frame and fashion of earth, moulded to his will. He did not create it to lie idle, he shaped it to be man’s home.”
    Ps 37:28,29- “the Lord is ever just, and will not abandon his faithful servants. Perish the sinner, forgotten be the name of the evil-doer, but these will hold their land, and live on it always at rest.”
    And from our Lord himself- “Blessed are the patient; they shall inherit the land.” (Some inheritance! ‘You can have it until I burn it up.’)
    Not like the God I find in my Bible at Isa 55- “Once fallen from the sky, does rain or snow return to it? Nay, it refreshes earth, soaking into it and making it fruitful, to provide the sower with fresh seed, the hungry mouths with bread. So it is with the word by these lips of mine once uttered; it will not come back, an empty echo, the way it went; all my will it carries out, speeds on its errand.”
    IOW God is powerful enough to see all his original purposes fulfilled, no matter any interference from disobedient men or angels. (Gen 3)
    Go; garden!

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  • Valentin

    We should consider that there are two psychological desires that we have namely solidarity and the longing to be individual and if the longing for solidarity is answered by having almost everyone have the same hobbies, farming practices, et cetera than we end up with people trying to be individual by trying to have their thoughts both seperate and contradictory to others which is a mistake because if everyone disagrees than you’re bound to have atleast one person wrong. That is my pitch for self reliancy tempered and moderated by the faith.

    • Valentin

      I think that what I mean by self reliance may be somewhat more limited than what you might be thinking of.