Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wisdom from Dr. Ellen Davis

As a student in Biblical Studies, I was thrilled to find the entire roadtrip kicked off on the right foot -- with in-depth Biblical study. Way to go, Presbyterians! We do not neglect our foundations.

Dr Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School presented to us her agrarian reading of the Old Testament, recently published as "Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture." She took us carefully through her points, from the creation of humankind in the color and word of "fertile soil" (don't let them fool you that it's "dust" - we are humans from humus); through the first law and the first sin -- regarding how we shall and shall not eat; to the creation of the nation Israel, new-born out of the waters of the Red Sea with two commandments, to take only as much manna as they needed, and to rest on the Sabbath; through the law codes regarding land use; and to the harsh words of the prophets crying against injustice, telling the people to look to their infertile land as evidence of God's judgment.
What she did that I had never encountered before was to compare these thoroughly agrarian texts of the Old Testament to the surviving texts from Israel's neighbors, Egypt and Babylon. Both these nations lacked much literature on agrarian issues. They both dwelt in agricultural security, Egypt from the abundance of the Nile, Babylon through irrigating out of the Tigris and Euphrates. It may have been that they actually had all they needed, and did not need divine commands for their land use. Israel, on the other hand, lived in a fragile ecosystem where four out of ten years were drought or dry -- and they developed complicated codes of divinely sanctioned land use.
Wendell Berry said, "in order to be a true agrarian, you need to have just a little land." If you have an unlimited supply, or if your land appears to be infinitely fertile (like in Egypt), you will never learn to care in the way the ancient Israelites had to. Dr. Davis pointed out that ever since Europeans began pushing out Native Americans, we have been living under the delusion that our land is secure and limitless. Therefore we have exploited it, to the degradation of our topsoil, our water, our seed diversity, and even our own rapidly decreasing set of skills in the arts (not just the sciences) of land care and management.
She helped us understand that we are on the brink of something new (and very old). As our land and ecosystems begin to deteriorate all over the world, are suddenly and with a new urgency called back to the words of the Bible we have so long been reading without our agrarian glasses on. Suddenly we are called to account by the God who made us in God's image, soil-colored, with the wind of the Spirit in our lungs. These images and words take on a new urgency as we finally realize we are no Egypt, we are no Babel(-on) with our invincible heads in the clouds. Once again we are returning to see that our soil is fragile, not to be taken for granted, and only as fertile as God gives it blessing.

This challenging but hopeful reading of the "signs of the times" is one I can put my weight into. A return to Biblical wisdom on land use? We can do this. This, however, contrasts markedly with another, more doomsday-ical interpretation which we heard today in Berea Kentucky, about which I will challenge any of the other tripmates to blog...

Stay tuned at http://presbyterian.typepad.com/foodandfaith/


  1. Excellent, challenging and beautifully-written post, Tails. I'm excited to read more about your road trip and the conference!

  2. I love your "soil colored" line! That is so cool!