Scripture and Ecology Is the Bible a danger to our fragile environment? The Background In a 1967 essay, historian Lynn Townshend White famously blamed The Bible and Judeo-Christian theology for our present day ecological crisis. Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. As early as the 2nd century both Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus of Lyons were insisting that when God shaped Adam, he was foreshadowing the image of the incarnate Christ, the Second Adam. Man shares, in great measure, God's transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. White placed particular emphasis on Genesis 1:26-8.
This presentation will deal with whether or not White was correct in his interpretations of the Bible, and of history, and whether or not the Bible can be used to address our pressing ecological issues. Genesis 1 To begin with, lets deal with Genesis 1:28, which White held to be of particular blame: God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (NRSV) The problem here hinged on the use of two Hebrew verbs; kbs (subdue) and rdh (have dominion) We shall deal with both words.
KBS The word kbs is used 12 times in the Hebrew Bible outside of Genesis 1. In five of those instances it refers to military conquest, in four it refers to enslavement, in two it refers to trampling underfoot. And in one it refers to rape. Clearly then it refers to the possession of something by force, or violence if need be. An Akkadian cognate, Kabasu is equally harsh. Some (e.g. James Barr) have attempted to mitigate the implication of this by suggesting it merely refers to forceful tilling of the ground. But elsewhere the word kbs is used, in conjunction with the Hebrew word for earth (rs), it refers to military conquest of said earth. Take Numbers 32:29 for example: And Moses said to them, If the people of Gad and the people of Reuben, every man who is armed to battle before the LORD, will pass with you over the Jordan and the
land shall be subdued (kbs) before you, then you shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession. The context here is clearly one of warfare. rdh The Hebrew word rdh literally means to rule, but it concerns not the exercise of executive and legislative functions, but rather emphasises the control in which one has over their subjects. In other words, man has total control over the animals. Indeed, man was previously made in the Image of God in verse 26 (which also uses the verb). As the NAB Bible commentary states: Man is presented here as the climax of Gods creative activity; he resembles God primarily because of the dominion God gives him over the rest of creation. So mans authority on earth is akin to that of God. Limitless. Now this does not mean that man can do anything to animals, since
the Hebrews had laws against castration and hitching an ox to a donkey. Rather this merely emphasises the extent of mans dominion. Commandment or Blessing? God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (NRSV) At first, this would seem as a commandment to subdue the earth. This would be extremely problematic as it could demand the destruction of the earths natural habitats. White seemed to take this interpretation by saying Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. Psalm 8
But there is good reason to interpret this passage not as a commandment, but as a blessing, so destruction of the earth is not necessitated. This is supported by a parallel text in Psalm 8. This text does not state man was commanded to subdue the earth, but rather than man was given dominion over the works of Gods hands. Is Interpretation of Genesis responsible for the ecological crisis? A historical survey also reveals that Genesis 1 was (correctly) reinterpreted during the renaissance to justify the exploitation of the earth in the name of science, rather than the other way around. Peter Harrison and Jeremy Cohen point out that the earliest church fathers took Philo of Alexandrias allegorical interpretation of the passage, where it referred to the subduing of ones animal instincts within the heart.
Only with the onset of the scientific revolution was it reinterpreted by figures such as Francis Bacon as a license to use the earth. Philos method was arguably more indebted to Platonic philosophy than Biblical Theology. Yet the point still stands, that Genesis was not used to justify exploitation of the earth under the latter had began. Furthermore, in its essay Parks Need People, the Indigenous Peoples group Survival International gives scientific evidence suggesting land ownership by human tribes has positive effects for biodiversity. These recent findings are turning established preservationist logic on its head. Wildfires, poaching and invasive species often increase following evictions of tribal communities. A study in Chitwan National Park in Nepal showed lower tiger density in the human-free core zone of the park, seemingly because the way communities were managing the outer areas of the park created better habitat for the tigers. So was White correct? White was right to be concerned about the violence implied by the
verbs in the dominion blessing. They are just as violent as he pointed out. As Peet van Dyk states: within its immediate context the Hebrew words kb (subdue/repress) and rdh (rule/tread on) cannot be softened in any way. Even Tucker (1997:7) acknowledged that the term subdue is a potentially violent verb, referring to trampling under ones feet in absolute subjugation. White however wrongly interpreted Genesis 1:28 as a commandment, when in fact it is a blessing. He has also wrongly blamed Genesis 1s interpretation for the modern day ecological crisis. Is the Bible Uniquely Anthropocentric? So far the picture may appear bleak. The Bible gives humans the authority to conquer the animals, and use them for their purposes, as is implied by the Hebrew verbs kbs and rdh respectively.
Yet the Bible was surprisingly progressive for the standards of its time, contrary to Whites claims that it was uniquely anthropocentric. An Egyptian text, the instruction of Merikare was even more explicitly anthropocentric: Well-tended is mankind, Gods cattle, He made sky and earth for their sake, He subdued the water monster," He made breath for their noses to live. They are his images, who came from his body, He shines in the sky for their sake; He made for them plants and cattle, Fowl and fish to feed them. A Way Forward As said before, the Bible was not particularly anthropocentric for its time. In fact, uniquely for its time, the Bible had laws regarding the exploitation of the environment. Humans have control over the earth, but not necessarily unlimited power.
In the Ancient Near East, rulers would exploit entire forests (particularly in the Lebanon region) to build monuments. This practice was criticised by the Biblical authors: By your servants you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon, to cut down its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses, to come to its remotest height, its most fruitful forest. (Isaiah 37:24) In contrast, in the Sumerian Poem Bilgames and Huwawa, the title hero sets out to cut down the cedars of Lebanon to establish his fame. The Biblical critique is likely derived from the Deuteronomic prohibition on cutting down fruit trees in war (Deut 20:19), which the Rabbis developed into the principle of Bal Tashhit, against wanton destruction. They reasoned that needless destruction of any resource was a sin. Core Biblical Principles As we have seen, the Bible criticises the hapless ecological destruction caused by Ancient Near
Eastern monarchs. But there are also less overt Biblical reasons for nature conservation and environmentalism. Both Judaism and Christianity agree that the whole of the Torah can be summed up in the golden rule, to treat others as you would be treated. Rabbi Hillel and Jesus of Nazareth were both exponents of this idea. Already poor air quality causes around 29,000 deaths in UK urban areas each year. This is not showing love to our neighbour, and in fact may constitute a violation of the Biblical prohibition on shedding blood (Genesis 9:6), an action which warranted the death penalty! Environmentalist Wendell Berry proposes using nature as a measure. A landscape teeming with nature is much more likely to be more suited to human use. By over-exploiting the earth, it becomes barren, unworkable, and unliveable, contrary to why God created the earth in the first place (Isaiah 45:18). Through nature conservation we can check the earth of the land more easily.
Finally, humans overwhelmingly find nature to be an enjoyable experience, an experience which they can use to thank God. Conclusion The following conclusions can be made regarding the Bible and ecology: 1 The Bible undoubtedly gives humans permission to bring the animals into subjection, and use them for their purposes. 2 - But this is not the main cause of the worlds ecological crisis. In fact, the evidence would suggest that natural reserves are in better condition with indigenous stewardship. 3 The Bible calls for the conservation of natural resources, and condemns needless destruction. See Deuteronomy 20:19, Isaiah
37:24 and Habakkuk 2:17, to give a few examples. Biblical principles such as the golden rule also speak towards preserving the earth to love thy neighbour. Bibliography The Bible New Revised Standard Edition. The Bible - New American Bible Edition. The Bible English Standard Version. White Jr, L T, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. Science, 1967.
Van Dyk: Challenges for Ecotheology OTE 22/1 (2009), 186-204. Van Dyk, Peet. (2017). Eco-theology: In and out of the Wilderness. Old Testament Essays. Joshua John Van Ee, Death and the Garden: An Examination of Original Immortality, Vegetarianism, and Animal Peace in the Hebrew Bible and Mesopotamia, (PhD diss., University of California, 2013). Harrison, Peter. "Subduing the Earth: Genesis 1, Early Modern Science, and the Exploitation of Nature." The Journal of Religion 79, no. 1 (1999): 86-109. Manfred Gerstenfeld. Jewish Environmental Studies: A New Field. JEWISH ENVIRONMENTAL PERSPECTIVES: No 1, April 2001.
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