God and Nature, Then and Now

Joel Baden

There is no explicit concept of “care for the environment” in the Hebrew Bible. The ancient Israelites who wrote these texts were, quite frankly, in no position to do any substantial damage to their environment in the first place. The heaviest equipment they could muster was the plow. They made their houses of mud brick or stone, with only the grandest dwellings, like the royal palace, requiring lumber. No trees were harmed in the making of this book.

Rather, the ancient Israelites were keenly aware that they were at nature’s mercy. Because of where they settled, in the highlands of Judah and Israel, they were forced to develop technologies that would allow them to preserve every last bit of rain that fell: rock-cut cisterns to capture and store the water, and terracing along the hillsides to prevent the rain from washing the soil and crops down the slopes.

Who’s in Control?

As technology has progressed over the millennia, and with it our capacity to do more and more damage to the environment, that sense of being at nature’s mercy has largely evaporated. When we search the Hebrew Bible for verses that speak to our relationship with nature, all too often Gen 1:28 is invoked: “Fill the earth and subdue it.” Some read this as a mandate for taking advantage of the earth’s natural resources; some as an admonition to care for the earth, as a loving king cares for his people. Both readings, while quite opposite in intention, agree that it is humanity that controls the earth. For the ancient Israelites, it was exactly the reverse.

What we lose by claiming authority over nature – aside from the obvious sense of humility before creation – is the fear that nature could simply turn on us. For most of human history – and certainly in the Hebrew Bible – nature was a manifestation of divine power. It is God who brings the rains or withholds them, or who, once upon a time, brought them far too heavily.

And with the identification of God and the forces of nature, some semblance of human control – or, better, responsibility – is, perhaps unexpectedly, asserted. Though we may not be able to command the rains to fall, or the land to be fruitful, we are charged with creating the conditions that will permit nature to work for our benefit. For the biblical authors, this meant obedience to the divine law. Thus the blessings of nature were a reward for obedience: “If you obey the commandments that I command you this day, to be faithful to the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and all your being, I will grant the rain for your land in its season” (Deut 11:13–14; see also Lev 26:4).

“Dry Earth Shall Fall”

Disobedience, in turn, brought climatological punishment: “The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and dry earth shall fall upon you from the sky until you are destroyed” (Deut 28:24); “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper” (Lev 26:20). At the end of this path was the ultimate horror for the ancient Israelite: the land becoming so polluted that it would no longer tolerate human life (Lev 20:22).

What the biblical authors realized, and what they built into their theological system, was that although these blessings and punishments were collective, it was the responsibility of the individual to safeguard against them. There was no relying on any governmental agency to make things better, nor was there such an organization to blame. Each one of them – and, by extension, each one of us – was obligated to prevent these disasters from transpiring. Individuals were expected to act on behalf of the community.

What was once explained theologically is now understood scientifically and practically. The notions of sin, impurity, and disobedience that were employed by the biblical authors to create a sense of human responsibility for the climate and agricultural success are no longer needed for such a purpose, though they are with us still in many other respects. We know that mishandling an incense offering does not prevent the rains from falling, and we hope that our deity would not use the blunt instrument of drought or famine, flood or mudslide, to punish the innocent along with the guilty.

Owning Up to Misconduct

Rather, we today claim direct human control over the environment, of a kind that the biblical authors could never have imagined – and with that control, responsibility beyond that depicted in the Bible. Surely, however, we must admit how painfully we remain at nature’s mercy: drought and famine, flood and mudslide, and more, and increasingly so, it seems, year upon year.

The ancient Israelites would see this all as a sign of their own misconduct, their failure to obey God’s will. But they had no other explanation. God’s will is perhaps less known to us now than it was to the biblical authors. That the skies are turning to iron and the earth to copper, however, remains very much a sign of our own misconduct.

The more control we appear to have over the environment, the more distant we become from that fundamental fear that ultimately drove the theology of the biblical authors. But we see the world changing for the worse around us, and we seem to be edging ever closer to that turning point when the land will have had enough and spew us out until it can heal itself in our absence.

Surely now, even – or especially – with all the great technological power available to us, we should not triumphantly point to the biblical verse that reaffirms our dominance over the earth. We should instead remember the feelings of powerlessness and humility that constituted the daily existence of the ancient Israelites. And, too, the belief that we bear responsibility, individually and collectively, both for the state of the world and for its future.

Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at YDS, is a specialist in the Pentateuch, biblical Hebrew, and disability theory in biblical studies. His books include The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, 2013), The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford University Press, 2013), and The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale University Press, 2012).