What does the Bible say about looking after the earth?
In the beginning…
Some people have told me that they feel that being ‘Green’ feels at odds with their Christian beliefs and so it’s hard for them to take on board current messages about looking after the environment. After all, doesn’t Genesis 1 talk about us dominating and subduing the land? I’d like to explore this some more, but first …
I remember one time when I took my sons to a playgroup and the older one spent a long time making an amazing castle out of some large wooden blocks. Just after he finished, and was showing me with great pride what he had created, another child came over and ran through it, destroying it. He was absolutely devastated! We can all remember times when something we have created has been ruined by someone else. The feelings of frustration, sadness and anger come surging to the surface.
Psalm 104 is essentially a song about God creating the heavens and the earth. Mankind plays a small role, but the creation of the earth and its ecosystems are the main theme of the psalm. The psalm talks about the Lord caring for his creation, providing water and grass for the animals. It even talks about him opening his hand to feed them all. It’s no surprise then to see in verse 31 (NLT) that ‘The Lord takes pleasure in all he has made.’ He clearly delights in his creation.
If you read Job 38 and 39 you can also see God’s relationship with his creation on display. He is strongly challenging Job about his understanding and basically saying, it’s not all about you, human!
We often look to the creation accounts to understand what our relationship with the earth is supposed to be like. Christians have often quoted Genesis 1:28 (NIV): ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”’ However, we need to bear in mind the context of this passage. It was written at a time when people were dependent on small-scale subsistence agriculture, with wild animals roaming nearby, where it was very difficult to grow sufficient crops to support one’s family, and where a marauding army could come and destroy a family’s crops at any time. God was saying he would give his people power to survive in that threatening world. In that context it would have made sense.
However, in our modern world with massive urbanisation, industrialisation and factory farming we are now at the point where we are the threatening ones, and our world is suffering. We need to look at Genesis 1 in a new light. If we view Genesis 1 through the lens of the other passages above and Genesis 2 (below) we see that it is not a licence for exploitation of the earth.
People often overlook the creation story in Genesis 2, although this is thought to be from an older source than the Genesis 1 story and focusses more on humanity’s relationship with the land. In verse 15 (NLT) it says that ‘The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.’ Even on the surface, this passage seems to give us a more of a caring role, to look after the land (the earth).
Earlier, in verse 5, it says, ‘neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil.’ In this verse, it paints a picture of an arid, sterile wasteland before God created mankind. But it also suggests that we work in a collaborative partnership with God as he provides the rain and we cultivate the earth.
It also helps when we understand that the word translated ‘watch over’ in verse 15 is ‘shamar’ which means to ‘guard’ or ‘protect’. Moreover, the words that are translated ‘tend’ (v15) and ‘cultivate’ (v5) are ‘avad’ which means ‘serve’. Interestingly, this is often the word used to describe the priest’s job in the temple before God. So not only did God put us here to look after (serve and protect) the land that he has given us, but it is also a sacred duty.
Some people express concern that protecting or serving the earth could turn to worshipping the earth or things that God has created, rather than the Creator Himself. This is an important question and deserves more examination. It is a line I wouldn’t want to cross so I will look at it further in a future blog. However, taking steps to look after the earth as good stewards of the land and protecting ourselves from giving our heart, mind and soul over to serving the earth, without regard to God’s role in our lives would be a good first principle.
Taking all the above together, in the words of Dr Richard Goode ‘If God delights in his creation and humans are placed here to care for that creation, it makes total sense that we take all possible measures not to damage it in any way – and, as those whose role is to avad/’serve’ it – that we actually (and perhaps at times sacrificially) put the needs of the creation before our own!’
In my next blog, I’ll be looking at how Christian values compare to environmental values and whether they agree.
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This is an excellent video from Katharine Hayhoe, a Christian climate scientist, on the same subject.
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