The Genesis Creation Stories and the Environment

The Genesis Creation Stories and the Environment October 15, 2007

Let me join others who are focusing on the environment for this blog action day. It was the pressure of an unanticipated exam question that forced me to relate the implication of academic (especially source critical) study of the creation stories in Genesis to the issues of environmentalism.

The question asked whether the creation stories justified human exploitation of the environment. I had prepared to talk about a lot of aspects of the creation stories, but that was not one of them. So I started thinking. Here’s the gist of what I came up with:

The earlier of the two creation stories in Genesis, the “J” story which begins in Genesis 2:4. This earlier story focuses on humanity’s close relationship to the earth. The theme of stewardship is also present, since the human is depicted as in some sense a gardener, tending God’s garden.

It is in the later creation story, the “P” story which begins in Genesis 1:1, that we meet the language that has sometimes been used to justify exploiting nature: the language of “dominion”.

Let us not forget, however, that the “P” story is added almost like a prologue to an already-existing and already-known story. It qualifies that story, rather than completely dismissing or rewriting it. The historical context helps explain why its author may have felt it appropriate to emphasize this theme of dominion.

The “P” source is usually dated to the early post-exilic period. At this time, many Jews returned to lands from which their parents or grandparents had been carried off a generation or two before. It would have been overgrown and neglected. The author, in that context, presents readers with a divinely-appointed mission: subdue the earth. In other words, reclaim the land, bring order to the chaos, just as this story depicts God bringing order to chaos in God’s own creation. In context, the language of dominion is a call to reclaim order from chaos, not to exploit.

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