Ellen Davis: An Eco-friendly Bible Scholar You Should Know

Ellen Davis: An Eco-friendly Bible Scholar You Should Know July 7, 2012

I recently had the opportunity to attend a morning workshop with Ellen Davis on “Honest Grief and Realistic Hope: Teaching and Preaching about Creation in 2012.” Ellen is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School.

She is perhaps best know for her excellent book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009):

Photo Credit: Carl Gregg

This book examines the theology and ethics of land use, especially the practices of modern industrialized agriculture, in light of critical biblical exegesis. Nine interrelated essays explore the biblical writers’ pervasive concern for the care of arable land against the background of the geography, social structures, and religious thought of ancient Israel. This approach consistently brings out neglected aspects of texts, both poetry and prose, that are central to Jewish and Christian traditions. Rather than seeking solutions from the past, Davis creates a conversation between ancient texts and contemporary agrarian writers; thus she provides a fresh perspective from which to view the destructive practices and assumptions that now dominate the global food economy. The biblical exegesis is wide-ranging and sophisticated; the language is literate and accessible to a broad audience.

I find her close readings of the Hebrew Bible to be fascinating, historically-grounded, and ecologically-minded.

We opened the morning’s workshop with “A Prayer for Monday Morning” from John Philip Newell’s Praying with the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace.

Her remarks were framed by her current writing project, “Biblical Prophecy and Contemporary Ministry,” which reminded me of James Luther Adams’ powerful essay, “The Prophethood of All Believers.” The following are my notes from the session. (Her commentary on the scripture readings is often in brackets.):

A core prophetic concern in the Bible is integrity of created order. Five principles or themes that may govern the prophetic understanding of God, humanity, and the earth. Five key ideas for understanding of God-Creation-Humanity relationship:

1. There exists a triangular relationship among God, humanity, and creation.

Amos 8:8, “Shall not the land tremble on this account?”

Hosea 2:18-19, 20-23 [perhaps speaking to Earth…to adamah, the fertile soil. Singular, 2nd person]:

18 I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. 19 And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.

The main problem is that there is no knowledge of God. Jezreel is richest agricultural valley; it means, “God sows.”

20 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord. 21 On that day I will answer, says the Lord, I will answer the heavens and they shall answer the earth; 22 and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel; 23 and I will sow him for myself in the land. And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah, and I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people”; and he shall say, “You are my God.”

Language of response is unexpected. It would be more expected in the inter-responsiveness of pre-Israelite Caanaanite poetry.

Earth has an interiority, is a character. Earth is capable of moral agency. Reminds me of “Rocks will cry out”…if humans neglect their responsive capacity (Luke 19:40).

Similar to Buber’s I & Thou: trees, for example, better thought of as “Thou,” than “it” to be thoughtlessly manipulated.

2. Humans and non-humans together are “the poor and vulnerable,” in need of salvation and redemption

Psalm 36, referring to humans and beasts being saved: “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.” As Sallie McFague says in her book The Body of God: An Ecological Theology. “Nature is the new poor and vulnerable…include it.”

Joel 1:10-12 is under-appreciated:

The field is laid waste. The fertile soil mourns/drys up [4 out of 10 years in Israel are drought years] for the land is laid waste. The vintage is withered. The oil crop has failed. Farmers wither [same word as for what happened to vintage]. Vitners howl over the wheat and over the barley. For the harvest of the field is gone. The vine is withered. the fig has pfailed. Pomegranate, date plam, …all the trees withered…human job withered.

Notice that the same language is used for what happens to humans and to creation.

3. God feels pain and anger (Heschel’s “pathos“) when the earth suffers.

Jer 12:7-12,

7 I have forsaken my house, I have abandoned my heritage [inheritance]; I have given the beloved of my heart into the hands of her enemies. 8 My heritage has become to me like a lion in the forest; she has lifted up her voice against me— therefore I hate her. 9 Is the hyena greedy for my heritage at my command? Are the birds of prey all around her? [My inheritances acts to me like a hyena or bird of prey — God is in the Lear, roadkill position.] Go, assemble all the wild animals; bring them to devour her. 10 Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant [delightful] portion a desolate [devastated] wilderness. 11 They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays [takes] it to heart [or pays attention to it]. 12 Upon all the bare heights in the desert spoilers have come; for the sword of the Lord devours from one end of the land to the other; no one shall be safe.

God is vulnerable to human sin/greed.

After Darwin, do humans really know where we are in the economy of salvation?

4. The suffering of the earth itself may be the chief index of the brokennesness in our relationship with God.

Jer 14,

1 The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought: 2 Judah mourns and her gates languish; they lie in gloom on the ground, and the cry of Jerusalem goes up. 3 Her nobles send their servants for water; they come to the cisterns, they find no water, they return with their vessels empty. They are ashamed and dismayed [humiliated] and cover their heads, 4 because the ground is cracked. Because there has been no rain on the land the farmers are dismayed [ashamed]; they cover their heads. 5 Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn [gives birth adn abandons] because there is no grass.

Why “humiliated” and not desperate/disappointed? They are complicit. The language is similar to Gen 3:17, “Cursed be the soil because of you. And now because of the soil, there is dismay [humiliation]” — when humans act outside of their covenant relationship. [Not the same as Jer 14.]

5. God already intends a new/restored creation.

Creation is the necessary reality from which Creation emerges (Fretheim).

Joel 2:21-3:2,

21 Do not fear, O soil [fertile soil]; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things [somethign really bid]! 22 Do not fear, you animals of the field [beasts], for the pastures of the wilderness are green [putting forth grass]; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine [grape] give their full yield [strength/might]. 23 O children [inhabitants] of Zion, be glad and rejoice [parallel as command to soil] in the Lord your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication [in his kindness], he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before [as it used to be].

Soil is first to rejoin, then beasts, and only later humans. All those named are sentient. All are capable of rejoicing in God’s action. [Joel begins w/ locust plague…like army.]

24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 Then afterward [after that…there is an order] [THEN that Pentecost verse quoted in Acts 2] I will pour out my spirit on all flesh [Noahic covenant is with ALL FLESH..all living things on face on adamah]; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy [Is that just humans? in light of all that has gone before], your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible [awesome] day of the Lord comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

Translate tsedagah as “sustainability” instead of righteousness. (Note: Marcus Borg has made similar points about alternative translations to the English word “righteousness.”)


The closing reading was Anne Porter’s poem, “A Short Testament“:

Whatever harm I may have done

In all my life in all your wide creation creation

If I cannot repair it

I beg you to repair it,


And then there are all the wounded

The poor the deaf the lonely and the old

Whom I have roughly dismissed

As if I were not one of them.

Where I have wronged them by it

And cannot make amends

I ask you

To comfort them to overflowing,


And where there are lives I may have withered around me,

Or lives of strangers far or near

That I’ve destroyed in blind complicity,

And if I cannot find them

Or have no way to serve them,


Remember them. I beg you to remember them


When winter is over

And all your unimaginable promises

Burst into song on death’s bare branches.


Ellen Davis’ Book recommendations


The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. On July 9, 2012, he will start as the Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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