Why do trees clap their hands? (1)
I was bathing Ethel and singing Isaiah 55:12 where he said the mountains will break into singing and the trees of the field with clap their hands. I asked her, “Why do you think the trees will clap their hands?” She said, “Probably because they’re happy!” With that she was done. Her quick response was right on target but I was looking for more and she wasn’t in the position to breathe and discuss theology at the same time.
he biblical witness tells us that at the great Rebellion, when the human race began its runaway madness and thought they’d do better with their self-created destiny—the biblical witness tells us that the earth was cursed (Genesis 3:17). It wasn’t Man that cursed it, though it was the humans that triggered the curse. God cursed it (Genesis 5:29) and he cursed it, he said, “because of you” (Genesis 3:17)!
As the Bible tells it, the non-human creation’s “well-being” and destiny is linked inextricably with the human’s relationship with God. Obviously the creation is not a choosing or self-conscious entity but the human dependence on creation is witnessed by the fact that it was out of the earth that God created the humans and it is out of the earth that God gives humans their sustenance. We can say what we like about wealth and political clout but you can’t eat or drink those things even though the power structures can keep food and drink from the powerless and poor. In the end, what we need to keep us alive at the simple biological level comes from the earth.
By the will of God the creation protests against the human perversion of power. The nature of that protest is that the creation withholds from the human family that which God initially had purposed for it to give. God gave the humans dominion over creation (Genesis 1:26-28) to live with it in his image. The face of God that we see in creation is the face of a life-bringer, a harmony and peace-bringer; we see someone who enables all to flourish and grow in the place he gave them. Creation’s lord (humankind) fell through sin from its place of glory and the creation that was a witness to and an expression of that glory was brought down with mankind. The human family that tumbled down toward futility was matched by a creation that as a consequence reflected the human fall. As the humans withheld from their Lord what was due him so the creation withheld from its lord what was due him. The peace and harmony that was experienced within the created sphere was pretty well shattered.
Paul says in Romans 8:19-22 that the creation groans in its frustration or futility and eagerly looks forward to the time when the children of God are manifested in glory because then it will be liberated from its present futility and frustration. Under its shameful lord it cannot be all that it was created to be but the Lord God made it and tied its fortunes to the human lord. Nevertheless, in withholding from its human lord the glory initially given to him the creation is bearing witness to the judgement of God against that human lord. The creation, whatever its frustration at being implicated in the Fall takes God’s side in the resultant situation.
After we’ve admitted some issues we can’t settle about the Genesis 3:17-19 and get to its central thrust, what’s the text saying to us and what does it mean by what it says to us? Whatever else it says it tells us this. By the will and wisdom of God the creation cannot finally be at peace with the human family as long as the human family is not finally at peace with God. This close tie between the creation and the humans is reflected throughout the entire biblical record.
Leviticus 18:24-28 has God saying this to Israel, “Do not defile yourself in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants...And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” [Note that the punishment of the land is expressed in its vomiting out its people. Land wasn't made for that; that is a frustration of why it exists.]
Yes, I can see there are numerous things to be worked out in such texts. But after we’ve made room for “anthropomorphism” and the like, what does the text tell us about the land and what does it mean by what it tells us about the land? It tells us at least this: land as pictured in such a text is opposed to human wickedness and it acts as God’s instrument in punishing the wickedness.
But we’re to notice how close the relationship is between land and people. The land out of which humans are created and which sustains them is “punished [paqad] for its sins.” What that means, precisely, isn’t spelled out but other texts come to our aid. Just the same, though it is “punished for its sins” the land is related to God in his aversion to human sin and vomits the sinners out. [The entire notion of “visiting” iniquity needs to be looked at with care.]
God “visits” the sins committed in the land on the land itself. The land experiences drought and famine and pestilence and desolation. It is left unattended and becomes wild, people avoid it think it is jinxed; they call it a “devourer of its people.”
Here’s how Ezekiel 36:1-15 has it. God tells Ezekiel to address the land of Israel. He is not to talk about the land but to speak to the land. “Son of man, prophesy to the mountains of Israel and say, ‘O mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord...Because they ravaged and hounded you from every side so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations and the object of people’s malicious talk and slander...This is what the Sovereign Lord says...because you have suffered the scorn of the nations...I swear with uplifted hand that the nations around you will suffer scorn. But you, O mountains of Israel, will produce branches and fruit...I am concerned for you and will look on you with favor; you will be plowed and sown, and I will multiply the number of people on you...I will increase the number of men and animals upon you...I will settle people on you as in the past. I will cause people, my people Israel, to walk upon you. They will posses you, and you will be their inheritance; you will never again deprive them of their children. Because people say to you, ‘You devour men and deprive your nation of its children,’ therefore you will no longer devour or make your nation childless.”
You’d think God was speaking to a person when you read this sort of thing. It looks like the land consciously chose to throw its people out. But 36:16-21 makes it clear that it’s God that makes exiles of his sinning people. But what extraordinary speech it is that ties the land so closely to the sins of the people and the judgement against them.
And what astonishing speech it is that teaches us that when the people of God are manifested in completed glory with their Lord that the eager creation will share in the liberation of God’s people and become the place where righteousness dwells. See Romans 8:16-23.
The intimate relationship between the land and the people, the land and the sins of the people is directly linked to the fact that the land is where God chose to live with the humans. The earth is God’s chosen dwelling place as well as man’s. We hear this in Numbers 35:34 where the people are forbidden to pollute the land because God manifests himself there.