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

2.4 Filling the Earth Without Overdoing it

If humans are uniquely charged to be caretakers (perhaps because as beings created in the image of God, they have capacities to manage and make judgments that other creatures do not), let’s not forget that on a wild, abundant planet earth, living and flourishing still require hard work. Especially when we think of the basic food-providing vocations that make life sustainable for humans (agriculture, fishing, etc), the work is demanding, yet you can’t overwork the land or overtax resources – abundance must be replenished; so tilling, cultivating and improving the land will involve restorative work. The fruitfulness of creatures and plants and ecosystems must not be diminished lest God’s blessing be obscured and our physical livelihood diminished, so we must keep, protect, and preserve creation.

If this is what human dominion means, it is no wonder why after God created all things, including humans, and saw all of it together, God saw all these things as very good. We humans can care for what God has made – we can tend to our common home while remembering that in the end, the earth and all its fullness is the Lord’s, so we have a distinct responsibility as stewards and caretakers.[1]

Sometimes critics mention the passages where adam names all the creatures that God brings to him (Gen 2:19) and suggest that this is an arrogant display of taking power over those creatures. But when I think of naming, I have two main reference points – one is as a parent, expecting our two boys when they were in the womb. We were delightfully focused on finding a name that would be suitable, that would capture who we hoped our children would be, a name that we’d love to call. I also have a lot of friends and colleagues who have backgrounds in biology (my wife is a high school biology teacher), and their experience around naming species may be more relevant. One of the coolest things a biologist or zoologist can do is discover a new species and get to name it. No doubt, the ideal of species naming is usually either to honor someone or something (thus a species name that includes a researcher or celebrity’s surname – maybe this is a little akin to naming a child after a family member) or the latin genus and species name designed to help describe the character of that species. As Cal DeWitt has said, in order to properly name a creature, you have to study it, know it, and respect it. So while those looking for criticisms of the Genesis text might want to claim this as an example of humans showing power over creatures to highlight the anti-environmental dominion they imagine being promoted in these texts, I find that view convenient for critics but not very compelling.

Another point that gets attention from environmental critics of biblical texts is the cursing of the ground in Genesis 3:17-19:

“…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life…By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

While this passage reaffirms human kinship with the earth/dust, the mention of cursed ground is what draws attention, and in this case, not from environmentalists being critical of the Bible, but usually from Christians reacting against the views of environmentalists, or at least from developers reacting against environmentalists who are trying to force them to protect rather than develop land. Similar to the “end times” type of argument associated with James Watt (that was debunked in Hitzhusen (2007)), the claim here is that because God has cursed the ground, there is no sense wasting extra time, money, and energy trying to heal land that is already fated to be cursed. This is a curious justification for not preserving land, but note that the charge to humans to be good stewards is nowhere revoked in this story.

The point that becomes clearer and clearer, however, is that humans turn out to be quite imperfect stewards. This is where no smaller concept than the “fall of man” comes into play; the ground is cursed, women will have pain in childbirth, thorns and thistles will sprout. We will keep reading to see how this story turns out, because humanity starts looking pretty bad at this point in the biblical narrative. Picking up on the instructions of the blessing in Genesis 1, Chapter 6 begins to reveal what happens as the people multiply:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground… The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:1,5,6)

Things are starting to go badly, and God, ever watchful, sees this, and the divine “uh-oh” in the Far Side cartoon mentioned above might be apt. To channel another popular cartoon character, a Homer Simpson version of this would be a divine “D’oh!” But this is really more than just a sigh of “oops” from God. The text continues:

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…” (Genesis 6:11, emphasis added)

The creator is angry, aggrieved. Wondering why he ever made humans, God decides to blot them out – how dare they profane what God created good, what God intended, what God blessed? So, it’s not all good when humans begin to multiply. What God sees now is corruption, not goodness. Instead of multiplying and filling the earth and subduing it with care and keeping through good work or replenishing the earth, the humans have filled (this is the same Hebrew word from Chapter 1 of Genesis) the earth with violence. So as most Americans are probably aware, this is the start of the flood story with Noah’s ark. The text explains that thankfully, Noah was a good and righteous man, or that might have been the end of the human experiment. Unlike the rest of disobedient humanity, over and over the text tells us in Chapters 6 and 7 that Noah does all that God commands him (Gen 6:22; 7:5,9,16). The general state of disobedience has become a commentary on what humanity is like in contrast to what God intends or desires.

Image obtained through the public domain.

Yet there is one human who seems to be following the model God had intended. Noah is behaving like humans were supposed to – he does what God commands him, including building a huge ark on dry land (at great expense and enduring the ridicule of his neighbors). The ark allows him to undertake a heroic act of dominion and care; as the flood waters rise, Noah and his family and their ark protect/save/serve/rescue all kinds of living creatures. Not just the economically beneficial ones or the cute cuddly ones or the charismatic megafauna. ALL of them. Male and female each, preserving their potential for fruitfulness. No doubt, if they survive the flood as the last of their kind, they’ll need to be fruitful and multiply all over again once dry land has reappeared! And indeed, that is what happens next in the story:

…and God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth. (Gen 8:1-3)

The language of a wind blowing over chaotic waters parallels day 1 from Genesis Chapter 1, and the restraining of heavenly waters and return of dry land parallel days 2 and 3 of creation. By verse 8:11, when the dove returns with the olive leaf, we know that the vegetation has returned, further paralleling day 3. The parallels continue in Gen 8:17 as the ark settles on dry land, and Noah is told to go out of the ark:

“Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh – birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth – so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply.”

Any attentive reader by now should realize that the elements of Genesis Chapter 1 are being repeated, and in biblical Hebrew, any time the text repeats something, we know to pay attention. The animals – all flesh – are now called out of the ark to be fruitful and multiply. If only humans, birds, and fish got the explicit blessing in Genesis 1, now every creature on the ark is given God’s charge to go forth and abound. It seems that all creatures are in the same boat when it comes to needing to be fruitful and multiply in order to abound on earth, especially at times when the earth is depopulated! These themes continue along with some assurance that the earth can be trusted:

And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Genesis 8:21-22)
Image obtained through the public domain.

This passage is interesting on multiple counts. God here ensures and assures stability, which humans cannot do. Humans appear to have the power to disrupt the earth, and in the case of the flood, God allowed human wickedness to carry the disruption to the brink of total destruction, but God’s promise after the flood is never to destroy every living creature as in the flood.[2] Reading further in the Bible, we will see multiple examples of the prophets warning the people and decrying their evil and violence and wickedness and disobedience, and witnessing to how these actions of people are causing an un-doing of creation (land withers, creatures pass away, humans suffer), so it’s clear that as the biblical story goes along, humans retain the ability to cause suffering and destruction by their sin, but God has pledged not to again release a flood of total destruction because of human wickedness.[3] And to the point we raised above, in response to the curse of the ground that some have used as an excuse to downplay the need to care for the earth, the text tells us here that God will never again curse the ground. Noah himself, whose name, Nuach, means rest, brings peace on the land as the curse is relinquished and creation returns from the chaos of the flood to the goodness and flourishing that God intended. And here, God repeats the blessings we recall from Genesis 1, helping us to realize that this story has just come to a point of starting over – this is the new starting point for humanity and all life:

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and the 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.” (Genesis 9:1-2)

An important thing to note here is that we are once again seeing exact lines repeated from Genesis 1, so we know that this is important. But when, such as here, something changes from the earlier usage compared with the new usage, then we should know that the thing that has changed is also particularly important. Note that the blessing to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth has been repeated, but the lines about having dominion over creatures and subduing the earth are not here. In their place is an acknowledgement of a power dynamic between humans and animals; fear and dread of humans will rest on all animals – a sad, fearful effect and an acknowledgement that humans indeed have the power of taking life.

I will say more below about the dynamics of the “dominion” and “subduing” that are not mentioned explicitly here, but one more point of note here has to do with biocentrism. There is no denying that this biblical account is not biocentric or ecocentric, if that implies that all creatures should be considered as complete equals. Biocentrism and ecocentrism have been popular views of environmentalists and make interesting topics in their own right {footnote for OSU students[4]}, but there is also a sense in which unless we are ourselves the biosphere, we can’t truly be biocentric – we are stuck being human.[5] There is another Far Side cartoon that helps get at the tension: three haggard men and a dog are in a life boat, and they’ve just drawn straws. One of the men has drawn the short straw and has a shocked look on his face. The caption reads: “Fair is fair, Larry. We’re out of food, we drew straws–you lost.” The dog looks on smugly.

We will have more to say about animal welfare and animal rights in chapter 7, but some environmental thinkers seem to assume that a biocentric view is necessary for humans to avoid disregard of animals and the planet. At stake in many criticisms of these biblical texts is the deeper question of whether these portrayals of the origins and orientations of humans in relation to the rest of life are generative of exploitation or of care or of some mix of sentiments. Let’s return to the subsequent verses in chapter 9 to see what more this story might be saying. In Gen 9:3-4,6, the text says:

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… Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.

This is something of a turning point; as life re-starts after the flood, God grants humans permission to eat meat, though with some restrictions, including a prohibition against eating humans, who, the text confirms, are still considered to be in God’s image. So, two significant differences and similarities with Genesis 1 are clear – as a concession, God now allows a meat-eating diet, but in concert with Genesis 1, humanity’s identity as being made in God’s image is reaffirmed. Finally, the re-starting of human-creaturely-earth-God relations comes to its conclusion in this story with a final re-charging of human expectations, and it’s quite a finish:

“And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:7)

This may sound fairly pedestrian. Again, the language echoes Genesis 1. But take a close look. What would you expect this verse to say if it were exactly paralleling Genesis 1?

Remember that in Genesis 1:28, the verse that exploded environmental worries about the Bible thanks to Lynn White, God told the humans to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the creatures. Here in Genesis 9, when humanity starts all over again, the part about “subdue the earth and have dominion over the creatures” has distinctly been omitted. This is a conspicuous change from Genesis 1, and thus as readers, we should note that an item of particular importance in these texts has just been revealed. When God starts over with humans after all the wickedness and the destruction of the flood, he chooses NOT to charge humans with subduing the earth and having dominion. To be fair, the previous verses have just acknowledged that other creatures will fear humans (rightly, given our power), so the reality of our dominion-like power is not being ignored, but God seems to have learned something about these humans. Telling them they are in charge can backfire; charging humans with “subduing” and having “dominion” led to all manner of destruction, so here, God thinks better of saying that again and simply charges the humans with being fruitful and multiplying, to fill the earth and multiply in it.

If the environmentalist complaint against the Bible was that it encouraged an anthropocentric or arrogant “dominion” over earth, it appears that the Bible itself, if one simply keeps reading the rest of the story, is highlighting the dangers of the arrogance and self-centeredness of humans. Rather than affirm that the main charge of humanity is to have dominion, which White’s thesis seems to assume, the biblical text distinctly removes that charge. It has been deleted as the first charge to humans. Perhaps the biblical writers were trying to make the same point that Lynn White was trying to make.[6]

One of the more compelling reasons to say that Lynn White’s thesis about the import of the word “dominion” in the biblical text is theologically incoherent is that it simply (and completely) misses the fact that the biblical text itself already was providing a critique of that term and its potential destructiveness at the hands of humans.

  1. This might be part of the sense of the important human role Genesis 2:5 describes by God’s hesitance to create plants before there was a human to care for them.
  2. Some have suggested that this doesn’t bar God from destroying all life in the future by some other means (if not by flood, maybe by fire?), but commentators generally agree that this is an assurance of earthly integrity and a pledge to restrain powers of divine destruction.
  3. Some may point to contemporary comments from politicians claiming that they are not worried about climate change or other environmental degradations because they believe God is in charge, and will not allow humans to destroy the earth, but this much seems clear – the biblical witness goes on to describe all sorts of human strife and suffering and land and animal degradations that occur because of human wickedness, which the prophets call people to acknowledge and turn from their sinful, harmful ways in response to these violations of the integrity of creation. It is, however, true that the text claims that God decided never again to bring the end of the world because of such human wickedness.
  4. These make great term paper topics for ENR 3470!
  5. Buddhist views of the interconnectedness of all things will be discussed in chapter 5, but being part of something larger seems not to be the same as being the larger thing itself, though if one sees humans as being one and the same with the biosphere itself, then would biocentrism be a self-centered view? This too might make a good term paper for ENR 3470 students!
  6. There is one other interesting nuance of the text here, and that’s in the specifics of the words “multiply” and “subdue.” Remember that multiply is the translation of the Hebrew word rabah, and subdue is the word radah. Those words look almost the same, and in fact, the only difference is a bet (Hebrew letter “b”: ב) in rabah compared to a dalet (Hebrew letter “d”: ד) in radah. The Hebrew maintains this distinction, but the translators of the Latin Vulgate (which was the translation used most by the early church fathers, and thus would have informed multiple generations of early commentators, especially Catholic theologians) believed that the Hebrew scribes had erred, and added a single line that turned the dalet into a bet. They figured that to repeat “multiply” twice in the same line was probably not intended, and they assumed the biblical authors intended to include the word “subdue” from Genesis 1, so they changed the language to yield: “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and subdue it.” This still didn’t include the word “dominion”, but it did (incorrectly) preserve “subdue” at least for a while.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.