Barrenness and Fertility

The Bible starts with the stunning image of God taking a primordial shapeless void and lovingly turning it into the lush green and blue world that we know. Where God is at work, there is life. This is the message of the first chapter of the Scriptures and is the basic premise behind the metaphor for sin and salvation I’d like to talk about today: barrenness and fertility.

Images of sin as a barren wasteland appear throughout the Scriptures. For example, Exodus 3 contrasts the deserts of Egypt with the abundance of the Promised Land, “flowing with milk and honey.” Psalm 1 refers to those who do not follow God’s ways as being dried up and lifeless tumbleweed — “like chaff that the wind drives away.” This is in sharp contrast to ‘the righteous’, who are said to be “like trees planted by streams of water, which bear fruit in their season and whose leaves do not wither.” In Psalm 107, God’s working is described as “turn[ing] a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.” Isaiah 5 describes the rebellious Kingdom of Judah as a vineyard planted on fertile soil and yet which does not bear the good fruit expected of it. And Isaiah 58, discussing the future life of faithful Israel, says that the People of God “will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”

While not as central an image as earthly fertility, the Bible also uses human fertility as a symbol for God’s saving work. This can be seen not only in the divine command in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” but also in the recurring motif of the elderly childless woman bearing a child, with such important examples as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, the mother of Samson, and the Shunammite Woman. The oldest extrabiblical traditions surrounding Mary show her birth as repeating this motif, and according to Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist’s birth to Elizabeth and Zechariah also fits this pattern of God’s doing something big and new in the world being symbolized by an extraordinary birth. This said, Judaism and Christianity have never been fertility cults, and so these miracles are never really about simple biological reproduction. (If anything, these stories seem to be just as much about the removal of stigma and shame as they are about the new life itself.) In fact, elsewhere the motif of fertility is used in ways that ensure that the faithful don’t get confused and think biological reproduction is primarily the fertility God has in mind. This is perhaps most powerfully described later in the Isaiah 5 passage mentioned above:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
He expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
    but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5.7)

When the Scriptures speak of fertility as a symbol for God’s presence and salvation, they don’t mean babies, but the cultivation of personal virtue and structural justice. This is how the metaphor is used in the New Testament as well. The call to be fruitful is at the core of John the Baptist’s message of repentance: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt 3.10). Jesus later takes up the image as his own:

Every good tree produces good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits (Mt 7).

Jesus’ Parable of Sower similarly makes use of the metaphor of barrenness and fertility, showing God as a farmer extravagantly throwing seed over all sorts of terrain in the hope it will grow.

What are the ‘good fruit’ that God’s presence produces? As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5.22f). (And much, much more!)

Perhaps no one in Christian history has taken the image of fertility more to heart than the great mystic St. Hildegaard of Bingen. She used ‘greenness’ as a major descriptor of what God’s work looks like. In my post on her in my series on the Mystics in Lent 2020, I summarized her vision of greenness as: “That persistent, insidious, unstoppable power of Divine Life that is waiting to burst forth when given the smallest opportunity.”

So what do we make of this metaphor? Using barrenness as a metaphor for sin emphasizes the idea that sin is less the presence of something bad than the absence of something critical. And since life begets life, such an absence compounds on itself, making turning our hearts from the lush forests they are created to be into drier grasslands, then scrublands, then deserts. The antithesis of sin in this construct is life itself, which also compounds on itself, laying down good spores and seeds that promote further life.

In recent decades, science has discovered something fascinating about life that I think adds a further beautiful nuance to this metaphor: The more we learn about the planet, the more we see just how pervasive and insistent life is. From the driest desert to the most poisonous ocean vents, there is life. As people who think of salvation as the presence of life, this should give us pause and great hope. No matter how inhospitable a heart may be, God finds a way to make a home there. No one is beyond hope.

Blessed are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1.1-3)

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