Chapter 2: The Genesis of Eco-Theology — Is Christianity to Blame for our “Ecologic Crisis”?

2.3 Human-Divine-Land Relations in Genesis 2

One of my favorite commentaries on the relation between humans, God, and nature is a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson showing a countryside scene, like unto a newly created world. A big jar labeled “humans” has fallen from the sky and broken open in the center of the frame, releasing a small flock of naked humans into the wild. A deer and a squirrel look on tentatively while the humans run off into the hills with a posture of “woo hoo!” and a voice from heaven says: “uh-oh.” Perhaps a creator God who had prepared a very good creation, and had humans in mind as a possible addition, must always have been aware that there could be liabilities associated with releasing humans into an otherwise earthly paradise.

With this thought in mind, let’s move to Genesis chapter 2. Remember that in Genesis chapter 1, the humans have been created vegetarian. They’ve been given dominion (to care for what belongs to God like a steward would tend to the master’s property), but that dominion has not meant that they should eat any other creatures. {Footnote for my Ohio State students[1]}

So far we’ve looked at all of chapter 1 in Genesis, where verse 28 has been the most famous supposedly “anti-environmental” verse, and we can see that this verse is set within a creation story that distinctly proclaims the goodness of God’s creation, charges humans to take responsibility through careful dominion, and seems to imagine a human role where ecological abundance and fruitfulness will be maintained. I’ve emphasized several points that run counter to Lynn White’s interpretations, but to be clear: most commentators who defend these verses against environmental criticism mainly do so with reference to Genesis chapter 2, and for good reason.

What we’ve read in chapter 1 is considered by scholars of biblical literature to be the “priestly” account, while the Adam and Eve creation story in the garden of Eden in chapter 2 is considered to be a more ancient story, the “Yahwist” account. Regardless of potentially different frames of reference, both accounts have been preserved in the scriptures and refer to many of the same questions. Any claim about what Genesis says about creation clearly can’t ignore one chapter and only focus on another. There are other differences and similarities between the two chapters, but this basic frame change remains significant. While chapter 1 has God saying “let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” and then confirms that God created humans, both male and female, chapter 2 provides more detail about God’s creation of humans. As verses 7 and 8 say:

“…then the Lord God formed man [adam] from the dust of the ground [adama], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being [nephesh hayah]. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden…”

Most English translations say that God formed the man, Adam, from the soil, though at this point, the term adam is not gendered. The more environmentally interesting linguistic detail, however, is the word play of the human, the adam, being formed from the soil, the adama. Perhaps the human from the humus is a good way to say this in English, or as some have suggested as a way to capture the non-gendered status of this soil creature, we might say God created the earthling from the earth. And after God breathes into its nostrils (like the wind/spirit/breath that hovered over the waters in chapter 1), the earthling becomes a living being, nephesh hayah. Notably, trees and other animals are also considered nephesh hayah, so though the story doesn’t mention God similarly breathing into other beings, they too are called nephesh hayah, living creatures, living souls, through whom life takes flesh. In chapter 1, it was the soil, the earth, that brought forth all the land creatures (and the plants), and the Jahwist account of chapter 2 seems to add the detail of how God also brought forth humans from the earth.

It won’t be our focus here, but note that there is a whole different ordering of the process of creation in this chapter. Verse 4 suggests that the earth and heavens were made, but as yet there were no plants, as God had not yet sent rain nor made humans to work the ground. So, streams came up from the earth and watered all the land, and then God formed the adam from the dust of the ground, as noted above. God then places the adam in the garden God had planted in Eden, makes all kinds of trees grow there, and then offers what has often been the mother of all sources for the environmentally positive interpretation of “dominion and subdue” in Genesis: The Lord God took the adam and put him in the garden of Eden to till (abad) it and keep (shamar) it (Gen 2:15, emphasis added).

As a quick note,[2] God realized that it wasn’t good for adam to be alone, so then made all manner of animals as potentially suitable helpers/partners, and adam named them. But none were suitable, so God put adam in a deep sleep and formed another human from adam’s rib (or side – the Hebrew term could be understood as dividing the adam in half and making another being from the other side. Here is where gender differentiation occurs for the adam, and we get ish and isha, the word play suggesting similarity, perhaps like two sides of the same coin)[3]. In any case, there is a powerful sense that humans are fundamentally relational beings who need other humans and other beings as partners to avoid isolation and being alone, which God could see was not good.[4] So if we are still thinking about how obviously good all of creation is made out to be in chapter 1, now God is saying that it is not good for humans to be alone in the garden. Again, echoing Gen 1:31, it’s apparently very good when all of creation is together, humans and plants and animals and earth and all.

So if the human is placed in the garden, on earth, to till (abad) it and keep (shamar) it, let’s look at those words:

  • Till (abad) – work, cultivate, serve, dress (implying adorn, embellish, improve)
  • Keep (shamar) – exercise care for, guard, watch, protect, preserve

Most eco-theology commentators see this as a complement to the instructions in Genesis 1, where the blessing there was to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion, while here in the role of gardener, the human vocation is apparently best described as working/cultivating/improving and keeping/preserving/protecting the land. Thus, whatever one thinks “dominion” and “subdue” imply, Genesis 2:15 provides a further charge, though it does not appear too difficult to reconcile the two. Blessed to be fruitful and have dominion in chapter 1, humans would seem to be charged with careful stewardship of keeping the earth full and abundant in life; in chapter 2 the narrator simply tells us that the human was placed in the garden to care for it.[5]

  1. Clearly there is a disconnect here between basic predator-prey biology and the biblical/Genesis 1 vision where apparently no one eats meat, not even the lions (the other animals have been given plants to eat, and note that the beatific vision of the "lion lying down with the lamb" (when all things are eventually reconciled to God) apparently returns to such a vision). Yet there is also evidence that on islands where species interactions are limited, some plants have never evolved the basic protections that they do in the face of competition and predation (thorns, for instance). How might a biologist who feels strongly about the preservation of biodiversity, or a vegan who idealizes a non-predatory lifestyle, wrestle with these contrasts between an ancient science/biblical view of nature, modern-science-informed views, and ethical concerns for the well-being of all life? That would make a great term paper topic.
  2. And keeping in mind that this basic order of when things were created differs from the order specified in Genesis 1 (for instance, in Genesis 1 other animals are created before humans, but in Genesis 2, humans are created before other animals)...
  3. The classic source of a provocative reading of gender relations in Genesis 2 and 3 is Phyllis Trible’s article: Trible, Phyllis. “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread.” Andover Newton Quarterly. 13 (1973): 74-81 (a copy is available here).
  4. Gen 2:18: The Lord God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone…”
  5. This is the conclusion of the vast majority of commentators and theologians. However, there is a tiny minority interpretation, generated by E. Calvin Beisner, the spokesperson for the free market think tank I mentioned in chapter one, whose theology dissertation was funded in part by Exxon (no joke!). Conveniently, he arrives at a slightly different conclusion; he says that in chapter 1, God orders the chaos/wilderness and tells humans to have dominion; in chapter 2, by contrast, he notes that humans are placed in a garden, a developed area, and that’s where they’re told to till and keep. So by Beisner’s logic, wilderness areas and other lands rich in natural resources are there for humans to develop, whereas once we develop areas, then we should take care of them. I don’t think the garden of Eden as described in the Bible sounds at all like a humanly developed area, and the chaos of Genesis 1 (the primordial waters above which God’s spirit hovered) sounds nothing like a typical wilderness area, but I can definitely see how Beisner's interpretation would be a nice justification for an oil company to keep on drilling in pristine wilderness areas, all for the small price of a graduate school tuition!


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