Many years ago, I wrote a paper on the garden as one of the most important tropes in scripture. The project traced its evolution from Eden to the New Jerusalem, and swept broadly through related tropes like the city, the woman and the bride, giving a brief overview of the overlapping roles and epochs of humanity, Israel, and the Church (in this blog I use “church” to refer to human institutions, and “Church” to refer to the universal body of Christ).
The story of the Bible can be analysed from many angles and interpreted in many ways, one of which is linked to the parallel that God draws between man and plant life. Allegorical and metaphorical uses of plants abound in scripture, and as someone who’s always been fascinated with plants and who only recently found success in cultivating them, I find the lure of this relatively uncharted research terrain is growing again.
I find it good to keep in mind while studying the Word that the English translations we hold in our hands are not the original text. Unless you take time and make the effort to look a little deeper by studying a little bit of Hebrew and Greek (the languages of the original texts), I don’t think you will get a truly accurate picture of what we’re supposed to be receiving from it.
Personally, I believe that just as marriage is God’s way of helping finite and limited humans approach an understanding of the mysteries of the soul’s true relationship with God in its final perfection, so too do many of humanity’s interactive relationships with creation and one another point us to other important lessons about the spirit realm.
So what does it mean to be “the planting of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:3), and what can we learn about our role in relation to Him as the planter/gardener by studying and practising the Word and botany?
We start with the plant. What is a plant? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “A living organism of the kind exemplified by trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, and mosses, typically growing in a permanent site, absorbing water and inorganic substances through its roots, and synthesizing nutrients in its leaves by photosynthesis using the green pigment chlorophyll.”
Basically, it’s a living thing that is unable to decide its own location and surroundings, and which needs an anchorage site, sunlight, water and air. None of these necessary things can be affected by the plant in any way – it’s dependent. The only thing the plant does is take in what it needs, and if it doesn’t get what it needs or what it gets is sub-par or contaminated, it will simply suffer. Its only job or reason for existing is to grow and reproduce.
I’m reminded of the title of a friend’s blog, Bloom Where You’re Planted. It’s practically a duty, when you realise that you’re just, well, a cultivar. See? A search through the full text of the New King James Version brings up six different Hebrew words and one Greek word for “plant” (the noun):
chatsiyr – grass, leek, green grass, herbage; of the quickly perishing
yowneq – sucker, suckling, sapling, young plant
neta – plantation, plant, planting
tsemach – sprout, growth, branch, shoot, growth (of process)
shelach – weapon, missile, sprout, shoot
saruwq – vine tendrils or clusters
phyteia – a planting, a thing planted, a plant
Way to go. Exciting definitions. We aren’t often referred to as trees, either. I do find it interesting, though, that shelach also means “weapon” and “missile”. Although I haven’t yet tried to discover when those meanings are used (if at all), it hints of a sort of latent potential: We can be dangerous if we’re properly grown.
Anyway, as cultivated plants, we’re planted somewhere, somewhen (yes I know that’s not really a word, but you get the point). And four Hebrew words and one Greek word that have been translated as “plant” (the verb) or “the planting of” (the noun resulting directly from the verb):
matta – place or act of planting; planting; plantation
nata – to plant, fasten, fix, establish
nathan – to give, bestow, grant, permit, ascribe, employ, devote, consecrate, dedicate, pay wages, sell, exchange, lend, commit, entrust, give over, deliver up, yield produce, requite to, report, mention, utter, stretch out, extend
shathal – to plant, transplant; a poetic word
phyteuo – to plant
It’s interesting how we (the plant/planted) have no active part to play and that even when we’ve been planted, the sense is that even that is undeserved and unearned and only because the gardener has given us permission to live and grow. And with the use of shathal, well – some of us might get moved around. I get the sense that those who refuse to acknowledge Him are living on sufferance.
Like I mentioned in an Aside recently, it’s not a stretch to pick up on the fact that in scripture, Jesus is often referred to as a rock and the Sun of Righteousness, the Holy Spirit is likened to wind or air, God is called the Father of Lights, and Jesus speaks of creating springs of living water in believers – the gift of the Holy Spirit. And the Word itself is often referred to as water. These are all freely available to us – our job is to take them in.
Wherever we are at any particular point in time, there will be available to us what we need to live. “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And that really makes me think of a passage I’d forgotten about till now:
1 Corinthians 7:17–24, NKJV
17But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. 18Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. 19Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. 20Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. 21Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. 22For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. 23You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.
As someone who’s recently started caring for plants, a few things have become quite obvious to me. I really do want to give them what they need to thrive. I do my best to do so. I watch them carefully. I get upset if something harms them (bugs, etc.) and go on a rampage getting rid of the source of the trouble. And I am inordinately pleased when they grow and flower and reproduce.
If I feel this way about the plantings of my hands, how much more does God feel about me, the planting of His hands?