Sunday, July 14, 2013

Home is where the heart is

5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground…9 And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates (Gen 2:5-6,9-14).

"Edenic" is  a popular adjective. Many folks have a preconception of paradise. For some, "Edenic" is a tropical island. 

I once lived in South Carolina. Sometimes I'd go for walks at Middleton Planation, on the banks of the Ashley river. For many visitors, Middleton Planation was "Edenic," especially in the spring and summertime, when the flowers were out: camellias, magnolias, azaleas, dogwood, wisteria, crape myrtle. With the ponds, river, oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

I once visited a rococo church in Bavaria. I was less impressed by the church than the countryside, nestled in the foothills of the Alps. 

Certain parts of the world are famous for their natural beauty, like Switzerland, New Zealand, Lake Como. On the other hand, some folks have a more rugged conception of paradise. For them, the scenic parts of Montana and Colorado are "Edenic." Georgia O'Keeffe had a passion for the New Mexican desert–the antithesis of a tropical island. 

The Hudson River School used to depict the New World as the New Eden. Europe had been occupied and cultivated for centuries, but America was an unspoiled wilderness. 

But what was Eden really like? Commentators are often less than helpful in answering questions like that. Liberals don't think Eden ever existed. For them, asking what Eden was really like makes no more sense than asking what Shangri-La was really like. And even conservative commentators tend to have a narrowly textual focus. Texts talking to texts, rather than reconstructing the real-world conditions. 

Landmarks change over the millennia. Place-names may change, or be forgotten. Rivers may change course, or dry up. 

However, to judge by the text, and what geographical correlations we are able to make at this distance, Eden was not a lush tropical paradise. Rather, it seems to be hot and dry, situated somewhere in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. Vegetation would crowd along the river banks, but quickly thin out from there.

I once lived in the San Luis Rey river valley. It had verdant growth along the river banks, but the surrounding countryside was rocky and dusty, except when it rained. After a heavy rain, barren patches of land would suddenly burst forth with vegetation. I expect Eden was less like a tropical paradise and more like stretches of the Rio Grande river valley.

If so, there's a sense in which God left room for improvement. Eden had fruit-trees, watered by the river. Dinner lay within easy reach. But Adam and Eve were in a position to develop their natural resources, had they so desired. 

If we could go back in time and place, would returning to Eden feel like returning home? That depends. 

For many people, "home" feels like wherever they grew up. Some folks love living in the big city. Others love the out-of-doors. 

For many people, "home" is less about where than who. Home is wherever their loved ones are.  

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