Earthkeeping and the Bible
In debates among Christians concerning our responsibility toward the earth, the Bible is often cited to support various positions. To justify their right to exploit the earth, some point to the command in Genesis 1:26–28 to have dominion and subdue the nonhuman creatures.
Others refer to Matthew 24:36–42 to sanction a careless ethic for the Earth, since Christians will (on this view) be whisked off the planet when Jesus comes again; so why care for something that will (soon) be destroyed. Others cite 2 Peter 3:1–10 to legitimate the wholesale destruction of the Earth and its replacement by something entirely new.
Those who beg to differ with these views usually offer different interpretations of these texts and also refer to other biblical texts, such as Psalm 104 and Romans 8, to support their position that humans are created to care for the Earth and its plethora of creatures and that God will in the future redeem, not destroy, the Earth.
It is important to carefully examine and interpret these oft-cited texts. I and others have been doing this for years. Properly understood, Genesis 1 does not equate dominion with domination, Matthew 24 is not about “the Rapture,” and 2 Peter does not legitimate the destruction of the Earth. But in these debates some important biblical texts are often ignored. What follows is a (very) short list of some of these illuminating but neglected texts.
Humans from the Humus: Genesis 2:4–15
Who are we humans? Answers have been given for as long as we have drawn breath. Some say we are souls trapped in bodies. Others that we are thinking mind hitched to extended matter. Or that we are nothing more than $27.63 worth of carbon, hydrogen, calcium, and the like.
This text insists that we humans are Earthy and earthly creatures. In a Hebrew pun the text states that we are ’adam from the ’adamah. We are Adam because we are made from the ’adamah, or arable Earth. God scoops up some soil and breathes into it his life-giving Spirit. We are animated Earth, Spirit-enlivened dirt. We are also, of course, made in God’s image. But this text reminds us that we image-bearers are Earthy. We are humble humans from the humus.
Furthermore, what are we supposed to do? What is our God-given human calling? This text insists that we humans from the humus are called to serve and protect the Earth. This is the translation of the last part of Genesis 2:15. God took the human Earth- creature and placed us in the garden to ’abad (to serve) and shamar (to protect) it. Just as it says on every Chicago police car: to serve and protect. Our calling is to be creation’s cops, serving and protecting this our earthly home so that it and we may flourish. Our God-given vocation is to bring about shalom — not only the absence of conflict but the flourishing of all things.
Covenant with Creation: Genesis 8:1–9:17
In this passage it is clear that God remembers Noah and his human kinfolk. But what we often overlook or ignore is that God also remembers the animals — wild and domestic — with Noah in that floating species preserve of an ark. God’s remembrance includes more than humans. We should not be surprised, since in Genesis 6:18-22 the text tells us that God commanded Noah to take two of every species of every living thing into the ark, male and female, with adequate food not only for the human but also for the nonhuman passengers. God remembers us and God remembers all our nonhuman kin.
Many read this story as a story about the covenant with Noah, but like a steady drumbeat, eight times in ten verses (9:8–17), Scripture tells us that God’s covenant is with more than humans. Indeed, it is with the Earth itself. We tend to think that God is interested only in us humans, but this covenant with creation tells us otherwise. And while we think the rainbow is for us — to remind us of God’s mercy — the text tells us that the rainbow serves as a re- minder primarily to God. As Frederick Buechner puts it, the rainbow is like a string tied around God’s pinky, lest God forget his everlasting covenant. God sees the rainbow and remembers his covenant with creation.
Sabbath Rest: Leviticus 25:1–7
This passage from Leviticus reminds us that in addition to the seventh day, in which all are to rest, in God’s prescription for the good life there is also a seventh year. During this sabbatical year the land must be allowed to rest. Give the land some time off. Don’t push the limits of what the land can bear. The purpose of this command is clear: if God’s people follow these statutes, then they will flourish. The land will be productive. The trees will be fruitful. There will be peace. Shalom will reign.
The underlying principle here contains much wisdom. We all need rest. Short times of sabbath rest on a regular basis and longer times less frequently are part of wise living. And the land and animals under our care also need rest. So that all will go well with us. So that we and all God’s creatures will flourish.
All Creatures Praise The Lord: Psalm 148
Can sea monsters and cedars, snakes and sandpipers give praise to God? Can trees and rivers clap their hands in praise to God? Is this talk of nonhuman creatures praising God just a figure of speech? Perhaps this is just an example of the psalmist getting carried away.
This joyous psalm is an invitation calling on all creatures — in heaven and on Earth — to offer praise to God the Creator and Redeemer. Angels and shining stars. Mountains and fruit trees. Humans young and old, women and men, royalty and paupers. All creatures are called upon to sing praise to God. This creational doxology is not commanded. Praise is, rather, simply fitting for creatures given life and redeemed by a loving God. So, says the psalmist, let’s sing. Each of us in our own creaturely way joins in the hymn of praise.
We humans are to voice creation’s praise. We are those creatures called and equipped by God to help creation sing its praises to God. We are like a symphony conductor who makes sure all the instruments are present, tuned, and in harmony, working together to make beautiful music. Reality these days, however, is quite different. By analogy, today we are wiping out half the violins and most of the percussion and good bit of the brass section. We are losing important members of the orchestra. And we’ve lost track of the score. We don’t know the music and our attempts to improvise are off key and out of kilter. We need to reclaim our role as creation’s conductor and reimagine the symphony that is our world.
Our Redeemer Is Creator: Isaiah 40:25–31
One of the heresies in the early centuries of the church was the belief that God the Redeemer was different from God the Creator. Some thought that the God who redeemed us in Christ could not possibly be the one who made us, since matter was considered evil and no self-respecting deity would dirty his hands by messing with the stuff of the Earth. There must be two gods, a creator and a redeemer, the former inferior to the latter. This heresy is, sadly, alive and well in the contemporary church. And it is nowhere more evident than in beliefs about our responsibility to care for the Earth, with some assuming we have none because of a split between Redeemer and Creator.
This text clearly affirms that our Redeemer is our Creator. The Redeemer of the Exodus is the same as the Creator of the ends of the Earth. In- deed, it is precisely because God is the Creator of all that he can and will deliver on his redemptive promises. Furthermore, that our Redeemer is our Creator means that matter matters to God. Earth is not foreign territory to the One who took flesh and pitched his tent among us. Our loving Redeemer is the selfsame loving Creator.
God’s Good Future: Isaiah 65:17–25
The daily newspapers give sad testimony to the onslaught of distress we bear: war, famine, poverty, hunger, homelessness. Injustices of various kinds sap the soul and destroy the flesh. We yearn for a time when things will be radically different, when life will be good and right and whole. The prophet, too, yearns for that bright future, when delight abounds and the sounds of weeping will be heard no more. A time when infants grow to old age and the aged grow old with grace. When those who build houses inhabit them and those who plant vineyards eat their fruit. We long, in short, for shalom — the flourishing of all things, the coming together of God and us and our nonhuman neighbors in a rich tapestry of delight, a world no longer bent or broken or out of kilter.
We Christians are to be aching visionaries, says Nicholas Wolterstorff. Like the prophet, we are to yearn for God’s good future of shalom — here on Earth. Our yearning is not to go to heaven, but for heaven to come to Earth, for God’s rule of peace and delight to be made fully real on Earth.
On Earth: Matthew 6:9–13
In the doxology we sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow; / Praise Him all creatures here below.” In the Apostles’ Creed we pledge allegiance to God the “Maker of heaven and earth.” In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Here below. Heaven and Earth. On Earth.
Our faith is earthy and earthly. God’s will is to be done on Earth — in our homes, schools, work- places. Today, right now, at this time may God’s will be done. We pray and work for that day when shalom will be fully realized in this present world. Christian faith is not about going to heaven, but about heaven coming to Earth. It is about God’s will fully realized — that’s what heaven is — here on Earth. Our hymns, creeds, and prayers contain much to inspire us to be faithful earthkeepers, if we have the ears to hear and eyes to see.
Tenting Among Us: John 1:1–14
For over a week we lived together, my students and I, in tents while canoeing and backpacking in upstate New York. When in such close quarters you get to know each other quite well. You know who snores, who likes cold cereal, and who takes joy in hanging up the bear bag. In short, tenting together brings about intimacy.
This text from John is mind-boggling. Literally it says “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” The image refers to the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness. Wherever they would camp they would pitch a big tent — the tabernacle — and God would reside with them. In Jesus God tented among us. Not as a glory cloud inhabiting a tabernacle, but as one of us. We call it the Incarnation, but neither words nor minds can grasp the reality. In taking on human flesh, God knows us and our condition, intimately. And God says that physical flesh per se is not evil. While fallen, our bodiliness as made by God is good. Matter matters, to God, and so it should to us. How then can we who embrace the Incarnation not also take seriously our call to care for the Earth?
Meeting the King: 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
The wedding guests rushed out to meet the bride- groom to join his bridal party as he entered the wedding hall (Matt. 25:6). The Christians in Rome journeyed forty-three miles to meet Paul and be- come part of his entourage as he entered the capital city (Acts 28:15). Two joyous meetings. This text from Paul’s first love letter to the Thessalonians proclaims the joyous coming of Christ the King and the ecstatic response of his followers. As in Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, this text is about going “to meet” a visiting dignitary in order to escort him back to where you were. Christ is coming. And those believers who are alive will be caught up, with the dead, to meet Christ in the air, so they all might be part of Christ’s glorious parade to Earth.
This passage does not describe “the Rapture” — believers being whisked off the Earth and the Earth been burned up to nothing. Indeed, contrary to what many Americans believe, there is no “Rapture” in the Bible. Paul’s picture here is not about escaping from the Earth but about greeting the King as he returns to establish shalom on Earth. Christian eschatology is not escapist but earthly and earthy. And since our ethics is shaped by our eschatology, our actions in the present ought to reflect this earthly and earthy view of God’s good future.
A Renewed Earth: Revelation 21:1–5
John’s vision of God’s good future staggers our imagination. He begins, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” The Greek word for “new” used here does not mean absolutely new. It means new in quality. New means renewed, not brand new. John speaks of a renovated heaven and Earth. In keeping with so many previous biblical texts, God does not junk the world and start all over. God renews the Earth and brings it to fulfillment.
Notice also that the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to Earth. We do not go to heaven. Heaven comes to us, just as we should expect from a God who graciously takes the initiative to redeem us with his love. God comes to us when we are un- able or unwilling to go to God.
“Behold,” says the voice from the throne, “the home of God is among humans.” As with the Israelites in the Judean wilderness, as with the Word made flesh, so also here God pitches his tent with the likes of us. Underlying these stories, like a common thread, is the same Greek word. God himself will make his home among us. And because of God’s homemaking presence, God will wipe every tear from our weeping eyes, and death will be no more, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Shalom, at last, will reign. Delight will carry the day.
“Behold,” the voice continues, “I am making all things new.” Not all new things, but all things new. There is, literally, a world of difference between those two — between this world junked and destroyed and this world transfigured and transformed. All things renewed, refurbished, renovated, redeemed. God is the great Recycler.
Healing Leaves: Revelation 22:1–5
In Genesis 2 we read of four rivers and two trees. In Revelation 22 we find one river and one tree. The Bible begins and ends with rivers and trees.
As in Ezekiel 47, the river of the water of life flows, bright as crystal, from the throne of God and the Lamb right through the middle of Main Street. On both sides is the tree of life. This tree puts forth twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month, so there is always food to eat. And the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations. No more trees used to make battering rams to lay siege to medieval cities. No more trees used to make sailing masts for colonial warships. No more trees used to make paper for propaganda to fuel the fires of ethnic cleansing and human hate. These trees are for the healing of the nations. For shalom.
When each of my three daughters was baptized, my minister wife not only baptized them according to the Trinitarian formula, but following the liturgy of our denomination said these words: “You are marked as God’s own forever.” You, little one, with the blessed water of baptism, bear the mark of your loving Maker and faithful Savior. In this last chapter of the Bible we read that in God’s good future his servants will worship him, and they will see God face to face, and his name will be emblazoned on their forehead. In dramatic contrast to the mark of the beast (Rev. 13:16), this mark — God’s name — will identify them. Marked as God’s own forever. We are not our own. And the Earth is not ours to own. All we have is on loan, entrusted to us by God, to use for his glory and for goodly service to our neighbor in need.
The Bible is clear. Being faithful earthkeepers is our human calling. The real question is how we will live out this calling in our individual and collective lives. This is precisely the issue Joseph Sittler identified over thirty years ago:
If in piety the church says, “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and in fact is no different in thought and action from the general community, who will be drawn to her word and worship to “come and see” that her work or salvation has any meaning? Witness-in-saying is irony and bitterness if there be no witness-in-doing.2
May our witness in doing speak volumes about our being shaped by the biblical story and inspired to serve and protect the Earth for the greater glory of God.
Steven Bouma-Prediger, Jacobson Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, is author of For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care.
1 See, for example, Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).
2 From his 1973 essay, “Evangelism and Care of the Earth,” found in Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).