by Allen Johnson (written February 2012)
The relationship and responsibility of humanity to the environment is a theme that marches throughout much of The Bible. The very first words testify to God as Creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The text continues on to describe various stages of creation as “good.” Humanity is also created, and given the responsibility of overseeing creation as God’s image-bearer (Genesis 1:26-27).
The controversial term often translated as “dominion” does not at all mean “dominate” but rather involves “acting in the stead of,” as when parents hand their child over to a schoolteacher for classroom instruction. Then, in a few concise lines in Genesis 2:15-17, God gives humanity the opportunity to help shape creation, the responsibility to protect it, the privilege to be sustained by it, and the warning that humans must live within limits. The core meaning of the limit, as expressed in the infamous story of Adam, Eve, the apple, and the serpent, is that when we people attempt to be gods, that we spiral down to estrangement from nature and from one another.
A key theological term for God’s purpose for humanity is “covenant.” God gives people the privilege as a co-creator, that is, to help shape creation as a positive act. And indeed, people have domesticated animals and plants, developed beautiful gardens, constructed magnificent architecture, fashioned beautiful works of art, composed a panoply of music, and written powerful lyrical poetry. Furthermore, the capacity for people and their societies to care for the poor and distressed, to sacrifice their own good for another, and to respect past generations while preparing for the good of future generations is the “good side” of humanity. Covenant is the constant of trust, faithfulness, and love that glues relationships together even in times of testing.
God’s covenant extends to future generations as well as to living creatures of all species (Genesis 9:8-16). Biblical narratives continually reflect on covenants with respect to the poor, the land, and with justice. “Sin” involves breaking covenant with God, with other people, with nature, even with one’s own self. Sin reaps a destructive path, for it “goes against the grain of the universe,” that is, God’s creative order or judgment. For example, when driving eastbound on an Interstate highway, we need to drive on the eastbound lanes. To cross the median strip and drive east on the westbound lanes is to incur our quick judgment as well as to drag some innocents along as well.
The Bible connects collective human sin with environmental degradation. The famous story of “Noah, the Ark, and the Flood,” is a prime example. The prophets are sent by God to alert society to its self-induced destructive trajectory and to call humanity back to covenant. The prophet Isaiah, for example, says in a passage that might admonish the modern reader to global warming,
“The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish with the earth. The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt. Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up, and very few are left” (Isaiah 24:4-6).
The Sabbath is a prominent theme throughout the Bible. Sabbath is intended to be liberating. Sabbath is rest for workers, for animals, for the land. Sabbath is emancipation from servitude, redistribution of land to its former owners, and ultimately, a time to “smell the roses” and to trust in God’s provident hand. The entire Earth and all it contains ultimately belong to its Creator (Psalm 24L1). God intends good things for creation. As God liberates us, we, too, should liberate others.
As sentient beings, we humans have choices. Jesus makes one of these choices crystal clear. One cannot serve both God and money (mammon). One will love one and hate the other (Matthew 6:24). Paul says that “the love of money is the root of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). The defilement of nature (creation) too often is a story of “follow the money.”
Much more can be written on biblical principles concerning responsibility to creation. Suffice to say, the Bible commends “feet on the floor” faith. God has given us humans a job to do with God’s creation, and if we do that job well, that creation will do a great job of taking care of us.