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The Bible and the environment: from dominion to destruction
This page represents the views of the author, not of the World Pantheist Movement as a whole.
All religions must develop an ethic in which environment is central. To do so Judaism and Christianity must jettison the Genesis tradition of human dominion over nature, and the Apocalypse tradition of God as earth- destroyer. Christianity must search beyond the New Testament, which enjoins not one single environmental duty.
Concern about the environment is now universal. If humans and other species on earth are to survive, then every ethical code must find within its own resources the backing for environmental action. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Islamall have strong statements about kindness to animals and concern for nature. These would be quite adequate to make concern for environment a central part of human duties on earth.
Judaism and Christianity have a much harder task.
The Old Testament tradition: Fill the earth and subdue it
Modern scholars have made heroic efforts to reinterpret God's messages to Adam in Genesis, to show that God meant us to have stewardship over the earth rather than unconditional mastery.
But these efforts struggle against the evidence.
"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness," says God in Genesis 1:26 "and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."
The word used for dominion is the Hebrew radah, which means "tread down, subjugate, prevail against, rule over." [Strong's concordance]
Two verses later he instructs Adam and Eve: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it." The word translated as subdue is the Hebrew kabash, which means to tread down, conquer, subjugate, violate, bring into bondage.
When God blesses Noah and his family after the flood, he says
"The fear of you and the dread [chath - terror] of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered." [Genesis 9:1-4]
These statements could not be clearer. God has made man complete master of all living things on earth. There is no question of stewardship, not a whisper that animals may have inherent value in themselves. Humans are cast in the role of conqueror and master, not of steward. There is no hint that they are expected to care for the earth and for animals as a condition of God's favour.
The Old Testament does have some useful environmental prescriptions to do with proper care for land and animals. Fruit-bearing trees should not be cut down in siege warfare [Deuteronomy 20:19]. The Lord commands a fallow year for fields and vineyards every seven years [Leviticus 25:3-5]. People are required to help distressed animals [Deuteronomy 22:1-4]; not to muzzle an ox when it treads the grain [ibid., 25:4]; and to allow beasts of burden to rest on the sabbath [Exodus, 20:10]. Animal sacrifices - though common in the early days - are condemned by later prophets such as Isaiah II [Isaiah 66:3]
The New Testament tradition:
humans are superior to animals and plants.
Christianity is perhaps unique among the major world religions in having not one single reference to any environmental duty in its core scriptures.
The reason for this has to do with the historical roots of Christianity. Where Judaism and Islam developed as the religions of real communities with fragile natural ecologies to preserve, Christianity developed as an isolated movement, outside of Jewish and later of Roman society.
It did not have to concern itself in any way with the functioning of this world. Indeed in its first century it had an urgent sense that this world was passing away, and would be superseded at any moment by a magical kingdom instituted by God. The non-human environment had no role to play in this drama, indeed God would subject it to appalling tribulations in the "birth pangs" of the Son of Man.
Christian scholars make heroic attempts to show that Jesus loved nature. It is true that he made frequent use of natural and agricultural images. But this is hardly surprising: he came from a rural community in an age when at least 80 per cent of the population worked in agriculture. These were images that both he and his audiences would have been most familiar with.
Passages regularly cited to show Jesus' concern about nature, when read in context, actually prove his belief that humans are far superior. He gave examples of people watering their cattle, or of pulling their animals out of ditches, not to enjoin people to do these things, but to show that it must be alright to heal humans on the sabbath. The implication is not that humans and animals are alike, but that humans are superior to animals:
And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. [Luke 14:11-12]
Two of the most often cited images are used when Jesus is telling his disciples that they can follow him without concern about their food and clothing. If God has provided for animals, how much more will he provide for humans, who are more valuable.
The full passages show that Jesus believed that God was aware of and took care of plants and animals. But he also clearly believed in human superiority over animals.
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell, you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you? [Matthew 6:26-30]
The other quotation comes when Jesus is telling his disciples not to fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without my Father's will … Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:29-31]
Contemptuous treatment of plants and animals by Jesus.
There is in the New Testament not one single example of Jesus being kind or considerate to plants or animals. But there are examples of what might be considered indifference or even cruelty.
Take the tale of Jesus and the fig tree, as retold by Mark, usually considered to be the oldest gospel:
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it "May no-one ever eat fruit from you again… . And as they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, "Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered." [Mark 11:12-25]
It's worth noting that the fig was not even guilty of anything - since it wasn't the fig season, the tree could not possibly have produced fruit. But Jesus killed it vindictively just the same. He used this "miracle" to show that prayer made with faith and without doubt can move mountains and cast them into the sea, and achieve whatever you ask for.
Matthew and Luke both follow Mark on matters where Mark has material. So Matthew repeats Mark's fig story without significant alteration [Matthew 21: 18-22]. But Luke seems aware that it shows Jesus in a bad light, and he retells it as a parable in which fruit appears to signify faith. In this parable the tree is given a second chance. [Luke 13:6-9]
In the case of the Gadarene swine, Jesus saves the soul of two men possessed by a legion of demons, by casting the spirits into a herd of pigs innocently grazing nearby. The whole herd rush down the steep bank into the sea, and perish in the waters. [Matthew 8:28-32]
St Paul was no more concerned about animals. Strikingly, he even denies that the Mosaic law about not muzzling an ox while they are treading the grain [Deuteronomy, 25:4] applies to animals. He claims that it was intended to show that preachers like himself deserved to be fed and clothed by the people they preach to:
For it is written in the law of Moses, You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. Is it for the oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the ploughman should plough in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share of the crop. [I Corinthians 9:9-10]
God as earth-destroyer: the apocalyptic tradition.
In both the Old and New Testaments, God himself shows little concern for the natural environment. He destroys plants and animals along with humans whenever its suits his purpose.
In the days of Noah, when humans turn out to be evil, God floods the whole earth and kills off every last animal and plant on earth except the specimens brought into the Ark:
And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground. [Genesis 7:21-23]
To punish Sodom, God rained down brimstone and fire and razed the city to the ground, including the valley around it, and all the plants [Genesis 19:24- 25]. In the plagues of Egypt God caused mass deaths of fish, horses, asses, camels, cattle and sheep. [Exodus chapters 7-9]
The prophet Amos, who was active in Judah around 760 BC, devised another strand of God's environmental destructiveness: a future "Day of Yahweh" when God would wreak vengeance on the oppressors of the poor. The sun would go down at noon, and fire would devour the land and the oceans. Later prophets expanded Amos' vision. Isaiah threatened war and failed harvests. Zephaniah warned [1:15-16]:
A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry,
against the fortified cities
and against the lofty battlement.
Jesus himself seems to have continued the Day of Yahweh tradition. The coming of the Son of Man would be preceded by the ominously named "birth- pangs." There would famines and earthquakes and plagues, the sun would be darkened and the stars would fall from heaven. The earth would be flooded as in the days of Noah, while fire and sulphur would rain from heaven as in the days of Lot. [Mark 13:14-25; Luke 17:22-37]
Revelation completes the Biblical tradition, with a horrific vision of carnage and mass destruction. The sun becomes black as sackcloth, the sky vanishes like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island is removed from its place [6:12-14]. When the seven angels blow their trumpets, hail and fire burn up a third of the earth, trees and grass, the sea becomes blood and a third of the fish die. A blazing star falls into the sea and turns a third of it bitter.
All this is simply a warm-up for the Harvest of the Earth and the seven plagues, brought by angels who are told: "Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God." [16:1] The whole sea turns to blood and every living thing in it dies; all the rivers and springs turn to blood, and the river Euphrates is burned up. At the end of all this "the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more." [21:1]
The Catholic catechism passes over all these predicted tribulations in almost complete silence. As the tale of the fig tree does Jesus, they show God in an appalling light, as a monstrous rampaging force of destruction.
It's true that the destruction of innocent living things is simply a means to the destruction of humans - but it is destruction none the less, reinforcing the Genesis message that nature is only there to play a bit part in the drama of human history.
It's true too that God plans to rebuild a new earth. And yet Revelation's vision of this is entirely urban: a New Jerusalem with walls made of gemstones and gates of pearl and streets of pure gold, with permanent light from God, no more night, and no more death. But all this means that God regarded the "first earth," the natural earth that he first created, this beautiful earth on which we live where death exists, where the earth rotates on its axis and is lit by the sun - as flawed and worthy of destruction.
It's important to confront the implications of apocalyptic for the environment. Can it truly be God's plan at any moment to roll up the heavens like a scroll and wipe out every living thing on earth and replace it with a better earth? That is what the Bible says, with absolute clarity.
If this is so, then how can it be said that God is concerned about nature and the environment? How can it be said that he finds nature good, if he wants to replace it with another, better nature? How can it be said that he requires us to care for the environment?
Christianity must incorporate environmental concern. But it can only do so by jettisoning a significant part of its most holy scriptures, and looking for inspiration elsewhere.
Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: p...@pantheism.net.
© Paul Harrison 1997. Posted 30/6/1997.
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