Chapter 2: The Genesis of Eco-Theology — Is Christianity to Blame for our “Ecologic Crisis”?
2.5 A Covenant with All Creatures
This isn’t the end of the story, however, at least not for our purposes. The real ending to this particular piece of the story comes next, as the flood event ends, and humanity moves forward with a new beginning. Not content to simply give instructions to be fruitful and multiply, God now establishes a covenant with Noah and with all peoples to follow. Remember that the White Thesis said that biblical traditions were extremely anthropocentric, as though humans are the measure of all things. If so, we might expect that this covenant which sets the tone for the new start of humanity would in some way anticipate, establish, reinforce, or at least reflect this apparent human-centric focus. Take a close look at what is emphasized in the covenant, remembering that in biblical Hebrew, things that are repeated are being explicitly emphasized:
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 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. 11 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.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen 9:8-17, emphasis added)
It should be obvious based on the bolded text that a major point here is that God wants humans to understand themselves as in covenant with God and with all life. Perhaps, just in case Noah and his family were prone to become as self-centered as humans had before the flood, God repeats that the covenant is with all creatures (and with the earth) six times! Does anyone remember the last time the Bible repeated something six times? Yes, it was in the creation story when chapter 1 emphasized the goodness of creation. There, the point was that creation was good, good, good, and very good. Now the point is that God is covenanting with humans and with all other life – not just with humans, but with humans and with all other life. This covenant reaffirms the passage above (Gen 8:22) that God will not again cause such destruction with a flood – God cares about humans and the earth and all life, desires to protect creation, and affirms its endurance.
A few more points will round out our attention to eco-theology in Genesis. I have argued that these Genesis passages don’t actually promote human “dominion” (particularly not the sort of environmentally disrespectful “dominion” that White’s thesis imagines), that they in fact critique it and explicitly demote dominion (even the more benign sort that God intended), by toning it down in the charge to Noah. These passages (“the fear and the dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth”…) acknowledge that humans do have dominion-like power – it’s hard to imagine that we would be able to have so much negative impact on the planet if we didn’t have some power of this sort – but they caution the reader about the potential destructiveness of humans.
I have used this overview to show that if we focus beyond just one or two verses in Genesis 1, we can see that even the passages in Genesis 1 are not bent toward environmental disregard. But readers may still wonder, what about the rest of the Bible? I quoted Wendell Berry above as saying that a “dominion” interpretation requires ignoring most of the Bible, but what if it goes the other way – what if there are later passages that re-encourage dominion? Well, great question: when does the Bible mention human dominion over earth and creatures again?
The quick answer is that the Bible does not ever again encourage humans to have “dominion” or subdue the earth (no doubt this is also confirming evidence of the theological incoherence of the White thesis, though it should come as no surprise after realizing that Genesis intentionally writes the dominion charge out of the human story). You’d think if “dominion” was the intent for humans that the prophets might encourage it, the 10 commandments might have included it, that Jesus would mention it (in the New Testament), or at the very least that it would be recalled in a fond way. Nope.
There are, however, a few allusions to human dominion, the power that humans seem, for good or ill, to have. Probably the most familiar mention is in the humble and reverent lines of Psalm 8, where the psalmist wonders in awe at the heavens whose greatness make humans seem small and cause wonderment that God would give humans dominion. And Solomon, the wisest human of all time, is acknowledged as having a dominion that stretched from sea to sea (I Kings 4:24-25) – notably the text then says he had “peace on all sides”. So dominion does get mentioned again in the context of a wonderment at the creation that causes humility, and in the context of the wisest of all humans overseeing peace from sea to sea. Solomon is also noted as having unsurpassed knowledge of trees and all creatures, such that people would come from all nations to hear him (I Kings 4:33-34) – here, the dominion-holding king who brings world peace would apparently have been a great biologist and likely would have done well at naming the animals had he been around when God made adam. As far as the Christian New Testament goes, there are exactly zero scriptures referring to humans subduing the earth or having dominion – Jesus never mentions that people should have dominion – there are only references to God or Christ having dominion.
And what about the prophets? There are many books of the Bible that report the visions of the most revered prophets – surely they would refer to something as important as “dominion” if it was meant to be a key function for humans. By now we are not surprised, however, to find that the prophets never once encourage or chastise the people to “get back to subduing the earth and having dominion,” nor fault them for failing to fulfill such a charge. Rather, over and over in the prophets we see the opposite – we see the echoes of the sort of destruction that caused God to wipe out humanity with the flood. A key example is in Hosea 4:1-3:
Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying.”
The prophets echo and warn against the destructiveness of human wickedness. Time and again they note that when humans are wicked and unjust, the land mourns, the animals perish, and creation starts to unravel. Over and over the prophets attend to the problem of human sin perverting God’s intentions and bringing violence and disharmony to the world. These sentiments echo the view of Gus Speth, former Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Dean, when he said he’d realized that rather than biodiversity, climate and pollution, it seems that pride, apathy, and greed are the toughest environmental problems; and indeed, problems of the sort that religions seek to address.
A few notes from Christian scriptures will round out our investigation, as there are related themes of Christocentric cosmic salvation that extend these ideas further into Christian theology. John’s gospel begins with echoes of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word…” and adds that “all things have been created through him…”(John 1:1, 3). The famous passage (often seen on placards between the uprights in football games), John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” uses the term kosmos for “world,” meaning that Christian salvation stems from God’s love of all creation. Colossians 1:15-20 brings many of these themes around somewhat like the covenant with Noah – these verses mention six times that all things (ta panta) were created by Christ, through Christ, for Christ; he is before all things, and as verse 20 concludes: “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” For Christians who wonder what Jesus Christ has to do with saving the earth, these passages suggest that Christian salvation is intended as a reconciliation of all things, not just humans (anyone feeling like we’re back in Genesis 9?). In the words of Romans 8:19, which is one of the key New Testament bases for eco-theology, “all of creation is eagerly waiting for the revealing of the children of God, so that creation itself can obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God.” The sort of liberation and freedom that Christians associate with salvation in Christ is thus a freedom that all of creation might enjoy, if humans could just note how creation is groaning in travail (Romans 8:22), and reveal themselves to be the children of God that they are – articulate caretakers of creation.
If humans were to fulfill such a calling, then Gary Larson’s vision of God’s great mistake – his cartoon where the release of humans into the wild appears to have been a mistake – might be revised. The divine “uh-oh” of the cartoon seems a great match for the Genesis story, as clearly humans can foul their nest (and that of other creatures) now more than ever. But imagine if these humans then stopped to notice the stars, were humbled, and then marveled that they should have such a station in life as to be able to care for God’s creation. Undoubtedly, God would be pleased, and would think such an outcome was very good. The birds and beasts and the trees and mountains, in fact, rather than tentatively looking on as in the cartoon, might even celebrate and rejoice. Something along these lines, in any case, and not a notion of “dominion” as divine sanction to do as one pleases with the earth, is the sort of direction pointed by biblical sources.
Lynn White’s thesis is now over 50 years old, and much of eco-theology and the field of religion and ecology has thankfully moved beyond the assumptions and expectations that White’s thesis helped generate among many environmentalists. That biblical religions are bad for the environment turns out to have been a case of fake news. Perhaps it should have been obvious sooner that the “White thesis” as pursued by environmentalists was thin, since it didn’t even match White’s own conclusions, which commended a Western, Christian model for moving forward. It may be that many environmentalists wanted White’s thesis (or their interpretation of it) to be true, so that they could justify disregarding biblical views. Regardless, there are now many Christians who resist any affiliation with “environmentalists” – not, it seems, because they feel a need to disregard the environment, but rather, because they wish to distance themselves from a movement that has so often blamed them unfairly for the world’s environmental ills, and treated them like second-class environmental citizens. Perhaps better understanding the values and beliefs of faith communities can help environmentalists become less alienating and more inclusive of those whose beliefs are different from their own.
- There is a seventh “I establish my covenant with you” in these verses that only mentions the humans (Gen 9:11), which tempts me to wonder whether the seven “goods” of Genesis 1 (six “goods” and one “very good”) are being balanced here by seven “I establish my covenant”s... ↵
- The following quote seems apt here: "What is man that he has been given dominion over the creatures? It is the man “who has first looked up to the stars, and realized how small he is in comparison with the glory of the Heavens. It is the man who knows his place in the creation....This Adam is no strong ruler, trampling the earth; this is the shepherd king or the gardener.” Margaret Barker, 2002, “Paradise Lost: Religion, Science and the Environment.” ↵
- Jeremiah 4:22-28 and 5:23-25 provide particularly good examples of the undoing of creation, with the elements that came together in Genesis chapter 1 at creation getting un-done because of human wickedness. So contrary to the “religious” claims of some current politicians who have said that they think God is in control of nature and won’t let humans destroy the earth (harkening, ironically, to God’s promise after the flood not to destroy the earth again) – and thus they needn’t fret so much about environmental degradations – the message of the prophets seems to be that the undoing of creation continues when people are wicked and unjust, greedy and power-seeking, and (surprise!) rather than saying “don’t worry about it, God won’t destroy the earth again,” the prophets are at pains to call humans to repentance and faithfulness, to turn from their unjust and greedy ways and work toward peace. ↵
- In Christian theology, when humans and God are reconciled, as in the person of Jesus Christ, then even the stones might cry out! ↵
- In 1998, Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, joined Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew at a forum, and apologized on behalf of the American environmental community for not realizing sooner what an ally faith communities had been for environmental work. He acknowledged that many environmentalists had read Lynn White, and totally missed the fact that White concluded his famous paper by suggesting that a direction forward could be found in St. Francis, a Western, Christian saint (see: https://vault.sierraclub.org/sierra/199811/ways.asp). ↵