Do Not Fear, O Soil

Isaac Villegas

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice,” Joel says the to ground, to the land, to the earth under his feet, passing on a message from God. And there’s a reassurance in Joel’s prophecy for the animals too: “Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green” (Joel 2:21).

In this passage from the book of Joel, we hear God speaking, not to human beings, but to soil and animals. We get to eavesdrop on their conversation, to listen to the sorts of things they talk about, God and the soil, God and the animals, when they chat.

I talk to animals too, mostly my cat and my neighbors’ dogs, and the birds. I have a complicated relationship with the birds. I like them a lot, and I let them know my feelings, when I see them in my yard—the hummingbird, for example, that visits the salvia flowers as I pull weeds nearby. I don’t understand why they dart away, when I try to get a little closer. I’m a nice person. I let them know that I mean no harm. But my assurances don’t seem to matter very much.

The same goes for the neighborhood bluebirds, and the goldfinches and wrens, the sparrows and warblers. They don’t seem to like me very much, even with my gestures of friendship, like finding plants that they like, to grow what they need to live, my attempt at hospitality, to convince them that I’m harmless.

There was a red-tailed hawk that landed on the deck in my backyard. She flew away when I started to say some words. The same for the barred owl who came at dusk. The birds are always afraid of me. Apparently I’m not very convincing, when I try to build a relationship. It’s probably my own fault. I’m sure they’ve figured out my eating habits, that I eat chicken on occasion, their bird kinfolk.

God tells the animals not to fear, because they will have plenty to eat, all they need for food. And that makes complete sense to me, this communication with animals, because I do that, and I know you’ve done that too—maybe not with birds, like I do, but perhaps with a friendly dog or a cat.

The part that surprised me, in this passage from Joel, is where God talks to the soil. I’ve never done that. I admit that I’ve talked to plants, which I know is weird, but I’ve done it, in secret, as I water them in my yard or clear out the weeds that choke their stems shooting up from the ground.

But, in all my weirdness, I’ve never thought to have a conversation with the soil, the mud and clay, the dirt and compost, the substance of life squishing up through my toes when I walk and lodging under my fingernails when I dig.

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice.” That’s what the prophet Joel says, on God’s behalf. They have a relationship, the soil and God, and the prophet Joel is entrusted to share God’s words with the ground. “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice.”

At the beginning of Genesis, the story of human life begins with a personal moment between God and soil, with God digging in the ground, shaping a clump of earth together, like a potter with clay, and bending down to breath into it, to breath over the lump of soil, in an intimate moment of creation, between God and the ground, where the first human being comes forth—Adam from Adamah. The earthling from the earth.

A few chapters later, in Genesis 4, when Cain kills his brother Abel, the ground becomes Abel’s keeper, a responsibility Cain refuses—Cain rejects Abel’s kinship, while the earth welcomes him, the earth takes on the responsibility of being kin to Abel. After his murder, the soil takes Abel’s life into its care. There is a mutual belonging between earth and earthling, the ground cries out to God on Abel’s behalf, and God listens to the soil. “Listen,” God says to Cain, “Listen, your brother’s blood, his life, is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10).

From the beginning of the biblical story, God and the land are in a relationship, they communicate, one crying out to the other. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel later in the story, the covenant includes the land as a partner (e.g., Leviticus 26:42-43)—the ground as deserving rest and joy, the soil as bound up in mutual belonging with human beings, all of them together in a relationship with God.

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice.” The ground is promised gladness and joy. Redemption involves the joyful communion of earth and earthlings, plants and animals, people and birds, rivers and landscapes—a restored community among all creatures, included us, as human beings.

I’ve been wondering about the joy of the ground, after reading this passage this week. What makes the soil glad? Obviously this has everything to do with environmental protections, as we learned about this past summer in our Sunday school series—the soil has plenty to be afraid of, in terms of pesticides and agricultural pollution, with the mining hills and moutains for the rare minerals in our phones, with storm water washing oil and waste and toxins into streams and lakes.

Yes, there is much for the soil to be afraid of, and all of that should make us afraid too, because our lives are bound together, the earth and the earthling as members of God’s community together.

But what about joy and gladness? That’s the part that stuck out to me this week—the ground in delight, the happiness of earth under our feet. I didn’t quite ask it, because I wouldn’t know what language to speak or what communication would be like, but I did take notice. I paid attention to the soil and wondered—like at a soccer game I went to yesterday, where children ran and jumped across fields, and I wondered if that’s what joy looks like for the soil, the thrill of life at play, of holding the feet of children, of bouncing them across the grass. I wondered if that’s what gladness feels like for the earth, as its layers like limbs reach up to dance with the playfulness of creation.

“The pastures of the wilderness overflow,” the Psalmist says, “the meadows clothe themselves with flocks… they shout and sing together for joy” (Psalm 65:12-13).

This week, as we celebrate the ancient traditions of All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints Day, this is also a time to notice the earth, to pay attention to the ground, because the bodies of our loved ones, people who have departed from us,they have been entrusted the soil, for the earth to remember them, to hold their memory. As Nick Estes, an Indigenous writer puts it, “the earth cradles the bones of the ancestors.” This week, as we remember the dead, our loved ones who have passed away, we also remember the ground who holds their remains, the soil who cradles their memory.

The last surprise I will mention, from this passage from Joel, has to do with grace, with the grace of God as what gives life to these verses. Unlike other prophecies we’ve read over the past several months, there’s no call to repentance in this vision, no summons to confess our sins. There’s nothing here about a call to repentance from sin as a condition for restoration from exile. Instead, there’s a promise, only a promise, without conditions, without prerequisites. What we have, what we see, what we hear in this prophecy is the abundance of God’s benevolence—fig trees and grape vines, threshing floors full of grain, wine and olive oil overflowing their containers, all because that’s what God wants, all because that’s what God likes: a world abounding in life, for you to live in God’s joy, for grace to overwhelm our sin with God’s goodness.

That’s the promise, that’s the hope of redemption: for delight in the goodness of God to feed our spirits with hope, for the grace of God to restore creation with gladness and joy, and for love to console us in the midst of overwhelming loss, that we may live.