Western Friend logo

Serve The Land

Virginia Colvig
On Words (November 2021)
Inward Light

Words transmit ideas. Ideas found in sacred writings lead to ideals, and ideals lead to actions. I began life within faith traditions that venerate the Bible as the source for seeking and understanding God’s will. I’ve found some truth by that approach; but . . . have you ever read the Bible? It can be confusing, a confounding muddle, capable of twisting one’s mind into a tangled mess. And yet, there are also moments when Spirit opens a window on something profound. That’s what happened when I began examining context surrounding one small Hebrew word that’s written “abad” in the English alphabet. This word appears 290 times in the Old Testament, and mostly gets translated into English as “serve.” I came to realize that translations had short-circuited an ancient ideal that we need right now.

To understand this small piece of the Bible, consider with me those ancient times. A tale begun even before the Genesis stories were written in the sacred Hebrew Torah. A time when the quiet night sky sparkled brightly with stars and a soft breeze carried the voice of Spirit through the land to a small group of people. Imagine the people gathered around a crackling fire. Perhaps a furry wolf pup edges closer, toward a discarded bone. Someone admonishes a small child to be careful, even as another adult surreptitiously reaches down to touch the animal’s soft warm fur. An elder senses Spirit’s prompt:

“The ground whispers her story across the hills this night.” The stillness deepens. Expectant ears listen.

“Once, upon the beginning of the world, there was no one to serve the ground. So, God took a bit of mother earth, just a small amount of her dust, and created the first humans. God put them into the sacred garden to serve it and to keep it. Of course, they disobeyed and fell from grace. You know how humans are. . .  So, the LORD God sent them forth from the sacred garden to serve the first ground from whence they were taken.”

The listening people nod and smile at this already familiar story. They remember and recognize once again their connection with the earth and all of life. 

Alas, in our time, the well-meaning believer, and faithful studier of the Bible, might balk. In English, they would object, “But that’s not what the Bible says!”

And they would have a point. In English versions of the Bible, “abad” is translated into terms different from “serve” in the three verses that tell this story. The King James Version reads: “. . . there was not a man to till the ground.” (Genesis 2:5) “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) “Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” (Genesis 3:23) In fact, as you can see from the words I have bolded here, virtually all English translations of these verses replace the Hebrew “abad” with words like till, cultivate, farm, work, and even dress; but not serve.

When I first found and followed the ancient Hebrew word “abad” (via Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, tracking number H5647), I had been tipped off by the word “dress,” which I saw as a clue that something was amiss. Who dresses a garden, anyway?

The idea of serving the land made perfect sense to me, as one raised by a farmer who loved his profession. I wondered when in the series of translations this break with the idea of “service” to the ground occurred. Not being a linguist, I found a Greek-to-English text of the Septuagint on the Internet. This reference tool indicated that “serve the ground” could have shifted meaning as early as 250 BCE, when the first five books of the Torah were translated from Hebrew to the Hellenistic Greek of the Septuagint.

I wondered why translators cut the idea of service to the land. Context helped me to feel sympathy. Shortly before “abad” is translated as “till” in Genesis 2:5, the King James Version employs the term “dominion.” “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion . . .” (Genesis 1:26 KJV). I imagined scholars translating Genesis 1:26, then moving on a few lines and encountering “abad,” and wondering, “Now here’s this word ‘abad,’ which I thought meant ‘service,’ but how can that be? How does dominion over creation connect with serving the ground?”  This question gave me pause, too. So, I went to www.biblegateway.com and quickly discovered that the word “dominion” is generally substituted by “rule” or “authority” in more modern translations.

The word “authority” resonated perfectly for me with the word “service.” You see, I drove a school bus for twenty-seven years. Washington State Code says, “. . . the school bus driver shall have final authority and responsibility.”

I felt the weight of that responsibility for each and every precious child entrusted to my care. I’ve seen the faithful service most drivers give. We served, even as we received the gifts children gave, just by being themselves. Despite all this mushy stuff, school bus drivers also know the importance of authority. Begin with a schedule to keep; add traffic snarls, worsening weather, and kids behaving, well, like kids. Sometimes, “domination” started looking like a better strategy than mere “authority.” But believe me, it wouldn’t work in the long-term.

Firm, consistent use of power does work. It actually creates a happier environment, not only a safer one.  True authority, the kind most kids innately understand, focuses on a good environment for all. True authority is based in loving service. Mere dominion sends power in all kinds of wrong directions. We humans might even come to think it is our right to destroy and plunder!

It’s easy now, in the 21st Century, to imagine that human power is capable of destroying the earth. We can also imagine using our power to promote progress and to heal our planet. But I wonder sometimes if it isn’t a broken model to accept our power without also understanding and deeply feeling our responsibility for serving the land. Words transmit ideas, and words from the Bible do generate values. A restored connection to the original text, sacred to so many, could help transmit an ideal of service to our planet.

The small word “abad” as “service” places an expectation on humans’ ears to listen for and hear, once again, the still small voice wafting from the ground. “Dust you were, and dust you will become,” the voice might say. “You are my child. I hold you and bring forth life for you. I do not control or coerce. I only serve, because that is who I am. And that is who you were meant to be, too.”  ~~~

Virginia Colvig learns and lives among the rolling hills of the Palouse Country with her husband and an old dog who likes to think she’s a wolf pup. She attends Pullman-Moscow Friends Meeting (NPYM).


A Word Nerd’s Resources for Bible Study

Strong’s Concordance of the Bible

This reference book (an early database, actually), first published in 1890, alphabetically lists virtually all the words used in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). It also provides a list of verse references showing where the word appears in the KJV. For example, the first reference for “serve” in my Concordance reads:

Ge (Genesis) 15:13 in a land that is not theirs, and shall  s(serve) them     5647

The numeral at the end, #5647, is called the “Strong’s number” and represents the ancient Hebrew word “abad” translated as “serve” in this verse.

The Blue Letter Bible

You can access an online site that utilizes Strong’s work here:  www.blueletterbible.org

Notice the search box at the top of the page, and remember that Strong’s numbers are based on the KJV. Searching the term “serve” in KJV brings up a list of 193 verses.

Clicking on the first verse in the list, Genesis 15:13, brings up all of Chapter 15.

Click on “Genesis 15:13” again, and a box pops open that analyzes the whole verse phrase-by-phrase and word-by-word.

If you scan down the list of words and phrases you will quickly see: “and shall serve them”  #H5647. The added “H” indicates an Old Testament word.

Click on #H5647 and you will find a treasure trove of information about the word “abad,” including 262 verses that hold this word.

Bible Gateway

Go online to biblegateway.com, and notice that you can search for any verse or term within scores of Bible translations in English, Spanish, and other languages.

If you type one verse (example: Genesis 2:5) in the search box, your results will include the text of that verse, along with links that can take you to “read full chapter,” “cross references” (related verses in other parts of the Bible), and “Genesis 2:5 in all English translations.”

I hope these resources help you to follow leadings and gain insight, as they have me.


Bible study earth care Christian history

Return to "On Words" issue