Alternative facts, the denial of climate change, the unscrupulous exploiting of the earth and its resources – all those recent trends and happenings are more than worrying. And how some people think that is ok for someone who believes in God is beyond my understanding. I can’t find any justification for any of this in the Bible at all. Rather, the opposite is true. At least, in my Bible.
Any Bible believer –Jew or Christian- knows the first story of the Bible, the account of creation. Whether you read it literally or see it as a myth, it serves an important function.
The idea of a beginning is important since it implies a rupture: from this moment on, a new story begins. The Bible doesn’t say that there was nothing before creation, but this “before” belongs to God, and not to us.
If there is a beginning, and a history, there is a sense – and history is the revelation of this sense God has created, and he asks us to continue his work of creation. The reader of the Bible is therefore called to give sense and signification to the world, to his (or her) environment. In this world created by God, both creation and mankind have their place and role, and both are created good, even very good, by God.
Their relation is characterized by different verbs, notably the pairs of verbs “subdue and dominate” as well as “keep and cultivate”.
After a relatively brief description of the cosmos and the world, the Bible is very much attached to the creation of man. Compared to the creation of the stars, plants and animals, we find in Genesis 1 and 2 many details concerning the creation of man. God has given special care to the creation of the human being. But despite his importance, man must share the sixth day with the creation of the animals.
Right away, the Bible therefore shows man his limits. When Genesis speaks of the creation of the animal followed by the creation of man, it immediately shows us that they nourish themselves in the same way: vegetarian. From the point of view of food, man and animal are identical, but man was created, in the short time that separates the sixth day from the seventh day and therefore belongs to both.
Because of this equality between man and animal, man’s permission to eat animals will be limited and surrounded by precautions to impose respect for animals, hunting for fun (trophies, anyone?) being forbidden.
But if man is the brother of the animal, he is of a different nature, and a different kind of divine intervention is needed to create man. Man is created in the image of divine: thus the discontinuity between him and the animal is introduced. Man is in the image of God in that it is he whom God chooses to be his representative in the world.
This idea that man is the representative of God in the world implies that he cannot behave in any way that lacks respect towards the rest of creation. Also, there isn’t a single word in the text that suggests an inequality between man and woman, woman and man. It is man and woman who, together, constitute the true human being. Woman and man are therefore created equal and receive together the gift of blessing.
But let’s look at these verbs. First, we have to subdue or to dominate. The word « dominate » suggests war – if we leave nature to itself, it grows in every direction, and eventually ends up invading everything. There is therefore a certain laissez-faire and respect of nature, but also the order to control this disorderly growth (and not to exploit it!) The blessing of the world is in the hands of man: to dominate without choking, to use without degrading, and to act without polluting.
The issue of food has already been mentioned. If humans were vegetarian at the beginning, for the Rabbis it is clear: in paradise as well as in messianic times, man is a vegetarian – just like all animals.
The verb used here and further on comes from a vocabulary used in royal language, a language centered on the court and its monarch, and express the binding power of the king. This is in connection with what the human being is created in the image of God. In the surrounding ancient civilizations, only the king was said to be « in the image of god or gods »; The Bible gives the same dignity to all men by saying that all are created in the image of God and therefore have that power.
This power, on the other hand, does not in any way imply permission to exploit nature as one sees fit, for various reasons: the human race is not intrinsically sovereign, but can exercise this dominion solely by the grace of God. In addition, the model of underlying kingship is that of the Israelite kingship which is not absolute and in which the king did not have unlimited powers and absolute authority. The limits of his reign were described and defined very precisely by the divine law, so that this royalty was exercised with responsibility. In addition, it was subject to accountability.
Thus, in spite of the power granted to him, the man being still needs divine permission to make use of the resources of the earth; and despite the fact that man dominates the animal world, s/he is not allowed to eat meat.
For the men of the world of antiquity, much of the forces of nature were divinities, or divine forces; the biblical text declares that the human being is a free agent to whom God has given the power to dominate these forces of nature.
The second chapter describes the creation of man, but before that, we find a description of the world before the creation of the human being: « Nothing has yet pushed because it had not yet rained and there was no man to cultivate … »
To transform a desert or a jungle into an oasis and garden, two conditions are necessary: the rain that descends from the sky, and the existence of man who works the earth. We then find two movements, one ascending, the other descending. Rain therefore had no meaning before the creation of man, and Rashi adds: « There was no man to recognize the gifts of God. Thus, for the rabbis, nothing can be produced if there is no collaboration between heaven and earth.
Everything has therefore been created for man, and in view of man, but without man being the absolute master of all that exists. Thus, Judaism never asserted that the earth was the center of the universe. The seventh day, Shabbat… is the center of the world and the essence of the universe. On the level of meaning, on the other hand, man is the center of the universe because it he is (or should be!) a center of responsibility and consciousness.
The man was therefore given the command: to keep the garden. The word gan (גן) which means garden is derived from the verb ganon (גנן) which means « to protect ». God first gives man gan security and only now can he enjoy it: it is Eden. These chapters of Genesis consider agriculture to be the original vocation of man, and his bonds with the earth are an essential part of his being, having been formed from the earth. But if man is in the garden, he must cultivate it and take care of it.
But man does not originate in the garden in which God placed him: he was formed from the earth, and is found in the garden only by the grace of God. His life in this garden is not a sweet idleness: he must keep the garden. This means that it is his responsibility to nurture, maintain and preserve the perfect state of the garden by the work of his hands. He can certainly enjoy the fruits of the garden, but he is not the owner of it – all he is lent, and he is indebted to it.
This double condition of morality corresponds, moreover, to the double polarity of the divine commandments: the prohibitions aim at protection, and the positive commandments aim at the happiness of a surplus of being in a concrete experience.
Here are the key conditions of all life: take root in God -faith also means security- to find joy. Thus, not only is man in the garden, but paradise is in man.
We must not fear or venerate nature as if it were a divine entity, but even more so we cannot dispose of it as we wish. The divine commandment of the domination of nature cannot and must not be understood in this sense. Instead, we must, especially in our present context, take to heart the commandment to keep, even if we are no longer in the Garden of Eden.
Man is not the absolute master of the earth – this is the role of God, and of God alone. If the earth has been created for man and so that he can enjoy and flourish on it, he is equally responsible for taking care of it and cultivating it – and not exploiting and polluting it to obtain its resources, trying to satisfy a greed that will never be satisfied and change facts and figures to twist them to some self-serving purposes.
Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said that you can’t serve two masters?
Let us try to act accordingly.