Throughout my graduate studies I joked that it takes a dirty mind to be a biblical scholar, especially of the more earthy Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. An agrarian viewpoint pervades much of it; there are laws for the protection of the earth, reminding the Israelites that God, not human beings, is the true owner of all land (see especially Leviticus 25-27). The Hebrew Bible also contains a lot of R-rated material: the scatological story of Ehud and Eglon (Judges 3.12-25), the eroticism of the Song of Songs, Ezekiel 16 . . . You have to come to grips with the dirt, sex, and murder in what many (myself included) consider to be a sacred text. There are jokes and ironies, prophets who get vomited out of fish (Jonah 2.11) and who make bread over a fire fueled by poo (Ezekiel 4.9-15). Yes, there are moments of profound truth and beauty. But some of that truth is only reached on the other side of the muck, such as David’s crisis of conscience when the prophet Nathan confronts the king with his rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. And some of that beauty grows out of dirt. What is the prophet Micah’s vision of the perfected world? Instruments of war will be turned into tools for farming and every man will rest in his own orchard with no one to bother him.
Studying the Hebrew Bible has transformed my relationship with the soil. I love the life of the mind, and I am at home there, but more and more I need the life of the earth to sustain me, connecting with those prophets who sing the beauties of a restored creation. More and more I encounter the divine when I am turning earth, planting seeds, following the tracks of a fisher or finding the scat of a black bear. I become, more and more, a person of thanksgiving, blessing the Creator for the richness of the soil, for the friendliness of the chickadees who take seeds from my hand, for the wild foods that I do nothing to plant or grow, but that feed me throughout the year.
More and more I see that I cannot live by words alone, but need bread as well: the soil that fed the grain; the living wheat itself; the hands that tended, harvested, ground it and baked it in loaves. The mystery that connects seeds and soil to bread and body also feeds the soul.
“Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of All That Is, who brings forth bread from the earth.” (Traditional Jewish blessing over bread; my translation)