Ecological Matters

The final instance of theological use of the Old Testament is taken from the context of renewed general concern about the environment, and the rise of so-called creation spiritualities. The passage in Genesis 1:26-30, with its command to the humans to fill the earth, subdue it and have dominion over it, has brought the accusation that the Judeo-Christian tradition, obedient to this passage, is responsible for the current ecological crisis in the world. This is, of course, nonsense; and the main culprits are Stalinist-type socialism in the East and a type of capitalism in the West that is concerned only with profiteering. But the accusation has made scholars examine the meaning of the Hebrew verbs translated as 'subdue' and 'have dominion', and it has been argued that the latter has a primary 'shepherding' sense, while the former should be understood to mean to take legal possession of the earth by setting foot on it (Rogerson 1991:19-20).

Whether or not Genesis 1:26-30 can be 'rescued' in this way, there is no doubt that the Old Testament can contribute to the debate about whether we need a spirituality that will enable people to 'get close' to nature. According to the Old Testament, the Canaanites tried to be close to nature by using sacred prostitution to imitate and stimulate the cycle of fertility. Further, Canaanite kings, and Israelite kings who imitated them, were not afraid to exercise their power for their own advantage. Perhaps they had noticed that, in the natural world, bigger and stronger animals generally prey on smaller and weaker ones.

Prophetic religion in particular opposed the abuse of power by rulers; and in the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy we can see how Israel's belief in a God of liberation shaped their view of what society should be like and how that should affect the natural order also. Thus in Exodus 23:9-13, Israel's existence as a collection of homeless aliens before the Exodus is invoked as the reason why they must not oppress homeless aliens in Israel. There follow regulations about leaving fields, vineyards and olive trees 'fallow' every seventh year. This is not an agricultural necessity; vineyards and olives do not need to be fallowed, and fields had to be fallowed on a two- to three-year cycle in Iron Age Israel. The produce of the fallowed items are to be for the poor and needy and also for the wild animals. The next regulation is a version of the sabbath commandment and the main beneficiaries are the oxen and donkeys, the domesticated beasts of burden that could so easily be worked for seven days a week. Thus we see that the Old Testament expected ancient Israel to adopt a spirituality for ordering society and dealing with nature. It was rooted in the redemptive work of God, and in response to that redemption sought to bring graciousness to bear on all dealings between humans and between humans and the natural world.

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