Farmers may struggle with issues like fart tax, city dwellers may complain about rates, but one issue common to rural areas, urban areas and the bits in between is how to use land. It’s something everyone needs to think about – politicians, councillors, landowners, tenants, adults and children – because in some way or another we all interact with the land. We all live on it. And we should know how to live on it properly. It’s really an ethical issue, one that requires careful attention.
We don’t have to go very far to find a working definition of the term “land” for our discussion. The book of Genesis (always a good place to start) has a clear one. In the first chapter we find the narrative of the creation account. It can be divided into two sections: the days of forming and the days of filling. God spends the first two days of creation forming day and night and the sky. On day three He commands, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” Then God names those entities. He calls that dry ground “land”, or “earth” in some translations, and those gathered waters “seas”. And there’s our definition. “Land” is the dry ground. Note that later in the chapter it is clear that God adds to the land vegetation, animals and man. They are distinct from the land, but inextricably bound to it.
Throughout human history, that bond has been cherished by mankind. It still is. Men and women everywhere have understood the critical importance of land to their survival and enrichment. Often it has been a resource to die for. Not all land is valued equally, however. Some land is more equal than others. The value we place on a particular tract of land depends on its perceived qualities. If it’s fertile, it has economic significance. If it’s pretty, it induces us to feelings of wonder and awe. If it holds memories, it has sentimental value. If it occupies a prime location, it’s the envy of have-nots.
There would be very few people who would say that man has always placed the perfect value on land. So where exactly do we find out the true value of land? Well, who better to explain than God himself? After all, He made it.
His word sums it up neatly at the conclusion of the initial creation account in Genesis: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” In fact, the adjective “good” is used seven times as the Lord performs a self-evaluation of His handiwork throughout the creation process. Now if God made the land and He says it’s good, surely it would follow that that should be our attitude. We, too, should see the land as something good, something valuable.
But there’s more to it than that. The creation actually reveals God’s glory. Psalm 19 tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God”, while in the New Testament Paul explains that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). Clearly creation, land included, is important to the Lord.
It’s so important that God takes great pains to ensure its preservation. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that God cares an awful lot about His earth: “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all His splendor was dressed like one of these.” Just take a look out your window and you’ll see what Jesus means.
So, in light of all this, how should we, as humans, value land? It is vital to understand at this point to whom the land actually belongs. The easiest way to look at it is that the land, as part of the earth as a whole, is on loan to us from God. We’ve already seen from Genesis that He created it. It’s His. But in Psalm 115:16 we are let in on a surprise: “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to man.”
Yet this is not a gift to be squandered, because in Romans 8:21 we learn “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”. When God returns in final judgment, He won’t only be coming for us, He will also be coming to redeem His beautiful creation. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19) The land has been given to us as a gift, but it’s a gift that will one day need to be returned to its Maker.
Think of God as the ultimate landlord. In Leviticus 25, when giving property laws to the Israelites, God explains that “the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants”. We must remember that we are effectively visitors in the land we’re given.
God has told us what He want us to do with His property. In Genesis 1 He commands Adam and Eve, the first humans, to “fill the earth and subdue it”. He grants man power over the land. But like all power, this power comes with responsibility. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Other translations use the phrase “keep it”. The authority given is not tyrannical but caring.
So when New Zealanders are confronted by issues like climate change or urban sprawl or ownership of the foreshore and seabed, there is a lot to consider. We have always placed a fairly high value on land, but what has dictated that? Has it been its economic potential, its aesthetic value, or something spiritual? Often it has been a combination of all three, and rarely has it been an appreciation of the land as a gift from God. A shame really, considering it belongs to Him.
Tim Sterne was born in Manukau City (pop. 330,000).
Jonathan M. was born in Lower Hutt (pop. 75,000).