Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
I’ve been reading the Bible for fifty years. I’ve read and studied Genesis 2 at least thirty times: in my personal devotions, while preparing for preaching, and in my grad school Hebrew class. I have pored over every word of this chapter time and again.
Today, I saw something new in this text. I’d never seen it before. Once again, I’ve experienced the fathomless depth of Scripture. I’m eager to share with you what I’ve learned. I will do so beginning in today’s devotion.
Genesis 2:9 reveals the striking priority of beauty. This verse says that God “made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” Notice the order. Every tree is, first of all, “pleasant to the sight” and then “good for food.” Now, if you had asked me before today why God created trees, I would have mentioned their second quality. They provide food for creatures, including human beings. I would not have mentioned what comes first in verse 9. God created trees to be “pleasant to the sight” and then “good for food.”
When I speak of the “priority” of beauty, I’m referring to this ordering of the biblical narrative. I’m not claiming that beauty is somehow more important than food. No matter how attractive the natural world might be, if it were not a source of food, we’d all die in aesthetic delight. The “good for food” attribute of nature is necessary to animal life, including human life. This makes the order of Genesis 2:9 all the more striking. The text puts first that which we might ignore or undervalue, much as I did in my half-century of reading this verse.
In fairness to myself, I was not raised in a culture or Christian tradition that spoke much of beauty. My family did, in fact, delight in the loveliness of the natural world. But I was not raised to recognize that this beauty and my ability to perceive it were essential to God’s intentions for creation in general and me in particular. Nobody ever pointed out that, in the structure of Genesis 2:9, enjoyment of beauty comes before nutrition. (By the way, the phrase “good for food” could well imply the tastiness of fruit.)
I’m grateful that the Christian community of which I am a part has much more appreciation of beauty than it once did. Even we Protestants have begun to realize the inherent value of aesthetic experience and how this reflects God’s intentions for human life. (See, for example, the work of my colleagues at Fuller’s Brehm Center.) God made us with the capacity to admire beauty, both the beauty of the natural world and, by implication, the beauty God has equipped us to make as creatures who bear his image. Today, I’m going to pay more attention to the beauty around me, thanking the Lord especially for trees.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Before today’s devotion, had you ever noticed the priority of beauty in Genesis 2:9? Seeing it now, what difference do you think it makes?
Why is beauty important, so important as to be mentioned as the first reason God created trees?
Gracious God, first of all, we want to thank you for the wisdom of Scripture, for the chance to discover truths that are new to us even after years of study. Thank you for your Spirit, who opens our eyes to see the richness of your revelation.
Thank you for making trees “pleasant to the sight” as well as “good for food.” Thank you for the ordering of these attributes in the text, for the way this reminds us that beauty is not incidental to your intentions for creation.
Help us, Lord, to see and delight in the beauty of this world, both the natural world and the world as shaped by artistic hands. May we lift our eyes from our endeavors long enough to see and say “Thank you.” Amen.
Photo thanks to Catherine Beaton.
P.S. While Mark is on vacation for two weeks in August, we are running “greatest hits” devotions from the past year. New devotions will return on August 26. This devotional was originally published on May 26, 2015.