Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Bible and Ecology (Richard Bauckham).

Preacher: Veronica


From Genesis 6

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch... For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

From Genesis 9

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

An old man was working in his garden, and a passer by began to admire it. ‘Isn’t it wonderful’, she said, ‘what God and you have achieved together’. ‘Ah,’ replied the old man, ‘but you should have seen the state of it when God had it to himself’.

This is the second of our sermons on the environment, and the first based on Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. The main thesis of the book, is that the concept of ‘stewardship‘ which Christians often use to talk about our responsibility for the environment, is too narrow and takes too little account of the wider Biblical picture. Instead , Bauckham proposes the concept of ‘the community of creation’, a phrase I’m sure will come up frequently as we study the book.

For various reasons we are looking today at the second half of the first chapter, focusing on Genesis 2 and the Flood, and we’ll look at the first half, and Genesis 1, in the next sermon. Genesis 1 and 2 are of course alternative accounts of creation, but Bauckham thinks they harmonise with each other, rather than contradicting each other.


The first point Bauckham makes about Genesis 2 is that it affirms human solidarity with the rest of creation. The man, or to translate it literally, the ‘earth-creature’ is made from what you Americans call the ‘dirt’. In fact there is a linguistic link made in the Hebrew : the (at this point genderless) man is called Adam, and the name for the earth is ‘adamah’. One commentator rendered it as ‘God made humans out of humus’ (not hummus, I hasten to add!). Human beings are intimately linked to the ground we stand on.

If we read on we find that the animals too are made out of the ground, and presumably God breathes life into the animals just as into Adam. This chimes in with Bauckham’s interpretation of Genesis 1, where the structure suggests that humanity and the land creatures, made on the same day, are of the same kind. Humankind is ‘of the earth, earthy’ and there is nothing to suggest that there is anything wrong with that - in fact we know from Genesis 1 that it is ‘very good’.

One of the problems Bauckham sees with the stewardship model is that it sets humanity over against the rest of creation, with a special right to make use of it. This can easily lead to a human fantasy of taking complete control of creation. Indeed some modern scientists talk exactly in these terms, of being able to create artificial life, intelligence and even food, so that humanity is no longer dependent on the rest of creation but it is dependent on us. Genesis on the other hand sets out a situation in which human beings are intimately tied to the rest of creation, with God beyond both and keeping control of both.

This emphasis on our ‘earthiness’ is a valuable corrective to excessive ambition about controlling creation. I think it also speaks about what it means to be fully human. Nowadays we live largely divorced from the processes which bring us our food and our clothes. We have begun to live virtual lives - I now don’t even go to the supermarket to buy my food, I order it online. Genesis 2 tells us that it is inherent in humanity to need a relationship with the physical world around us, to feel its soil and to breathe its air. Not to do so is literally ‘unnatural’.

Job creation

Bauckham’s second point, and this is where we come back to the joke at the beginning, is that humans are given a task to do: to ‘till and keep’ the garden of Eden. There are two terms here, one meaning to cultivate, and one meaning to preserve. So humankind has a mandate to develop the land, but also a duty to keep it from destruction.

Adam’s task of tilling the earth, Bauckham says, gives him the right to usufruct - and no, I didn’t know what that meant either, so I looked it up. Apparently it means the right to derive profit or benefit from property belonging to another. So that’s your word of the day: usufruct. .If you remember nothing else from this sermon you can remember that.

Adam is mandated to enjoy the fruits of the land. But he is also to ‘keep’ it, and that means maintaining it in its fruitful state, and not exhausting it. To put it in a popular slogan, ‘Please leave this earth the way you would like to find it.’ You could almost say, if you only had Genesis 2, that the ‘earth-creature’ or human is created for the sake of the land, not the other way around (and this is my thought rather than Bauckham’s, so I hope I haven’t pushed it too far).

Man gave names

The third point is to do with Adam’s naming of the animals. This has often been interpreted to mean humanity has authority over the other animals and is allowed to use them for any purpose. This is the aspect of the biblical concept of ‘dominion’ that some environmentalists have a big problem with.

Bauckham however says that this is not the only and inevitable way to understand these verses. He sees it rather as the human recognizing the animals as his fellow creatures with whom he shares the world. The ‘dominion’ or rule that humans are given in Genesis 1 (and I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the next sermon) is a role of responsible care, rather than one of exploitation. Remember that at this point in Genesis we are still in the situation where God has given every green plant to both humanity and the animals - meat eating is not in view. Eden is unambiguously a vegetarian state.

So we could see in these verses an acknowledgement that human life is inextricably bound up, not only with the soil we cultivate, but with the other animals - mammals, birds, fish, reptiles - who live on it with us. Our Genesis 1 task of being fruitful, multiplying and subduing or taking possession of the earth, is not meant to be undertaken at the expense of other creatures, but in harmony with them. Again we 21st century humans are quite divorced from this - for many of us the nearest we get to it is having pets in our houses and caring for them. And perhaps this too can be seen as an unnatural state.

Another try

This brings us neatly to the story of the Flood, which is a story of salvation not just for humans but for the animal creation, and indeed the plants that provide both with food.

We are used to defining the Fall as a single event described in Genesis 3 - whether we take that as a historical event or a mythical story expressing truths about the world. However Bauckham points out that as we read through Genesis 1-9, there is more of a gradual descent into sin, as human culture evolves with all its benefits but also its corruption. So by the time we get to the story of Noah, asour reading said, ‘the earth was filled with violence’.

‘Filling the earth’ was one of the commands, or you might call them blessings, given to humankind in the Genesis 1 account of creation. However instead of being filled with people, caring for the earth and enjoying its benefits, we find that what the earth has become filled with is violence. (This of course is very interesting from the point of view of a peace church, since it pinpoints violence as the core of disobedience to God. ) As Bauckham observes, one of the kinds of violence that has filled the earth is the killing of animals for food. This includes the animals killing other animals, which is not part of the original creation picture.

Noah, in Bauckham’s view, is the epitome of the responsible care that humanity was meant to have for the earth. He is succeeding where Adam failed. He is, if you like, the first conservationist: God’s rescue plan for Noah takes in not only human beings but the whole of the animal creation, and the plants that feed them. We don’t need to ask questions about whether there were fish or birds in the Ark, or whether the lions ate the lambs and how they kept the rabbits from taking over. It’s not necessary to take this literally, in order to learn from it how much God cares for creation.

Bauckham defines the Flood as a kind of ‘de-creation’, a return to chaos. But at the end of the story there is a ‘re-creation’, in the covenant that God makes not only with Noah and his descendants, but crucially, with ‘every living creature that is with you’. This is not however a complete return to Eden. In the covenant with Noah,God makes concessions to the way the world has become: we are allowed to eat meat, but not with the lifeblood in it - a rule both Jews and Muslims still keep today in kosher or halal meat.

God also proclaims that the animals will now fear the humans, and Bauckham sees this as a measure to protect humans from wild animals in this new, fallen world. Genesis 9 portrays a world in which the unrestrained violence that reigned before the flood is now kept within limits. So it is a better world, but it is no longer the ideal world that Genesis 1 and 2 describe. Indeed the Noah story can be seen as a salvation story, in which God redeems the creation: a salvation where the animal and vegetable world is saved along with its human inhabitants.

The final point Bauckham draws from this is to say that in our theology of the environment, we need to keep in mind both the ideal world of the original creation, and the real world, red in tooth and claw, that we are now living in. We need to know just how far the world is from what God intends for it; and to do that we also need to have a clear view of what it could be. Which returns us to the joke at the beginning again. God does not want to keep the world just for himself, but has chosen that the world should have human beings in it, with the responsibility of caring for it, not instead of God caring for it, but in cooperation with God’s care.

Joni Mitchell told us that ‘we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. But in fact we are earthdust - which does admittedly come from stars - we are fallen, and it’s God’s job to lead us to the new creation.

No comments:

Post a Comment