“Till the Ground”? or “Serve the Ground?” … a Hebrew Word Study

Hemenway_Agriculture1I am fascinated with Permaculture, which means “permanent culture.” Why? Because our culture is NOT permanent presently. It is dying primarily because of our destructive agricultural practices and policies.  (Click pic at left for larger version) Search my blog with the keyword “Sahara” and you will get several articles on this topic. So my studies in permaculture have caused me to think long and hard about the Biblical statements about “subduing the earth” and “having dominion” and “tilling the ground” and so forth. You guys know these verses, right? But have you studied the Hebrew words? I had not until just recently.  But thanks to a Christian man I met at Permies.com, Dan Grubbs who has a blog called “It’s the Soil Stupid,” I now have some cool new insights into these verses.  Let me share with you. Dan says

“… the Hebrew word aw-bad that is translated as “till” or “cultivate” in reference to the land or soil is the word for “serve.”

Hmm … I didn’t know that.  Let’s check it out … Googling the term “till awbad strongs concordance hebrew” we get the following link … http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=H5647.  …

The KJV translates Strongs H5647 in the following manner: serve (227x), do (15x), till (9x), servant (5x), work (5x), worshippers (5x), service (4x), dress (2x), labour (2x), ear (2x), misc (14x).

Sure enough. 227 times ‘awbad’ is translated ‘serve’ and only 9 times as ’till.’ Looks like my friend Dan has done his homework.  So the big question for me is …

Why did the KJV translators choose the word ’till’ those 9 times? Instead of ‘serve’? ChiefTwoEagles

Well, I don’t know … I’m not inside their heads. But I have to wonder if perhaps their English mindset of ’tilling the soil’ – i.e. digging it up and planting annual crops every year, a practice inherited from the Romans (I think) which we now know is responsible for destroying topsoil faster than anything and apparently is well suited for dominating and enslaving people – influenced them to choose this word ’till’ instead of ‘serve.’

I don’t have definitive answers here, but I will leave you with a quote from ‘Chief Two Eagles’ (pic at bottom right) which pretty much (except for a bit of hyperbole) sums up my view of North America about the time the KJV was produced (1611) … link to larger version HERE.

And I hope you will consider the words of Toby Hemenway, a keynote speaker at the recent Permaculture Voices conference, on the subject of English agriculture – tillage – summarized neatly in a list at top left. See the following LINK to view Toby’s video from whence this list came.

One Response to ““Till the Ground”? or “Serve the Ground?” … a Hebrew Word Study”

  1. Dan Grubbs says:

    Crawling inside the head of translators and editors of versions of the Bible can be a tricky business. So, I try to follow the principle of letting the Bible interpret the Bible. As you mentioned, the significant difference in the number of times aw-bad is used to mean serve and its other translations is a pretty good indicator. However, I will also admit that it’s no guarantee that in the early Genesis usage, it means serve. But, I feel pretty good about accepting that it means serve in the Genesis usage because of the overall nature of God’s creation and Adam’s role therein.

    Some would claim the agricultural context would determine that it meant till. But, even Adam’s care of the garden and then growing food in a post-fall setting didn’t include tilling as 17th Centrury minds would have understood it.

    I am tempted to claim that the 17th Century mind would have logically translated aw-bad as till in the early Genesis usage because of the nature of society and how agrarian humans had become. Largely I claim this because how Adam and his son husbanded the ground was not the same as the agricultural practices of the farmers of King James’ era.

    I also think of what is more like God’s nature in His mercy and provision for us? Yes, in a post-fall curse, we are enslaved to work to produce for our living. But, what would have God’s creation been like for Adam if they had not sinned? Do we think it is more in line with God’s nature to have a creation where we were in a servant relationship with the land modeled after our servant relationship with Him? Or do we think it is more like God to create Eden and want Adam to toil in it? I suggest the former. And it is my limited understanding of God’s nature that reinforces my choice to view aw-bad in early Genesis usage to mean serve, just as it does more than 200 times in the rest of scripture.

    Finally, I understand Hebrew to be less literal than English and the Hebrew mind thinks and communicates more in images than literal discription. So, for the Hebrew, the picture of man serving the ground is more likely than man tilling the ground.

    Is all this definitive? I can’t claim it to be. But, I can rest easy in my decision to view aw-bad to mean serve based on the evidence.

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