Opening The Old Testament
A Needed Climate Crisis Conversion: Reflections on Genesis 1:1-2:4a
For far too often and for far too long we human beings have played with the world we have been given as if it could always sustain whatever we decided to do. We are now learning that such activity is no longer sustainable. This is the upshot of the crisis we now face. Our belief that human beings are the center of creation, that all activities and behaviors occur because of our human needs and our human comforts, that the land and soil and water and air are ours to use in any ways we desire, have been based on a jaundiced and finally appalling reading of Genesis 1:26-28. We have in fact "dominated" the non-human creation; we have in fact "subdued" the land and all its gifts. And the result has been disaster: over-fished seas, threatened bees and birds, withering drought, fouled air.
It is time for us, past time, to end this foolish and incorrect notion that it is our world. It is, and always has been, God's world. How dare we claim to be made in the image of this God and act as if God had and has nothing to do with it? How dare we pray to this God for help while we continue to act in God's world as if we were more devils than God-like creatures? I think it is time for us to discard this image of dominators and subduers, bequeathed to us by a misreading of Genesis 1. Even those who would say we are God's "stewards," given the task of caring for earth, has failed. We need a new image, and I think it may be found in Genesis not far from this influential text.
In Genesis 2:15 we read "YHWH God took the 'adam and placed it in the garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it." The older translations of the Hebrew 'abad as "till" or "cultivate" or "dress" all come from the KJV's 17th-century agricultural context. What else could an English farmer in those days do to the land but till it? But the Hebrew word's more basic meaning is "serve," and when that is paired with the other verb "to protect/guard," the image is that we are partners with God and with God's creation, not masters, not dominators, not even stewards. We are finally no more important in God's world than are the ravens, the lions, the mountain goats, even the ostriches, as God taught Job in Job 38-39. The image of servant of God's world has the possibility to make us new creatures, helping us see our rightful place as God's servants for the world. In short, we need conversion to a new way of thinking about the creation, the environment. The world, the cosmos, is not our oyster. Rather it is God's pearl, and we are assigned the twin tasks of serving this pearl and protecting it from all abuse, especially abuse from ourselves.
So happy Father's Day, but more importantly Happy Earth Day! We human fathers and mothers and non-fathers and non-mothers have been at the business of corrupting the earth we have been given. We must stop, and stop now. This is so because the God we Christians know as three in one (look! the Trinity appeared anyway!) calls us not to be subduers of earth but sustainers and servants of it. This is nothing less than an altar call for conversion to this new way of thinking. Imagine a progressive Christian like me calling us to the altar! But we can delay no longer. The lives of my children and my grandchild are at stake.
Author's Note: For further information about the Bible and the environment, let me less than humbly suggest my 2011 book, Preaching Creation, from Wipf and Stock. And if you are looking for a unique retelling of the great Old Testament story of Saul, have a look at my novel, King Saul, from the same publisher.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.