The Canadian environmental activist, David Suzuki, has suggested that the teachings of the Old Testament encourage us to have a low view of creation, allowing us to exploit it thoughtlessly for our own gain. It has also been suggested that by destroying animism (the worship of created things in nature such as trees and rivers) Christianity made it possible for Christians to exploit nature without scruple.
Despite the teaching of great Christian saints like Francis of Assisi (who called all created things his “brother”), Christianity has been seen by some as not being very “green”. We need to take these criticisms seriously and learn what the Bible really says to help us discover our responsibility for the environment. Our task is nothing less than that described in the title of one of Tony Campolo’s books “How to rescue the earth without worshipping nature” (Thomas Nelson, 1992).
The Old Testament is a story of how people’s understanding of God developed. The finer details of their understanding were continually revised in the light of new experiences. Much of their understanding about the land reflected a time when good productivity (and military victory) was seen to be God’s reward for faithfulness, and desolation and defeat the result of unfaithfulness.
Not caring for God and not caring for the land go hand in hand
The national identity of the Jews was defined by their relationship with the land – a land they understood God had given to them. This conviction played out in a number of ways in their military campaigns. On one occasion, God instructed the Jews to engage in an act of environmental vandalism in support of a military objective. They were told to despoil the lands of the rebelling Moabites (2 Kings 3:18-19,24-25). God also instructed them to undertake acts of environmental conservation in support of a military objective. They were not to cut down the fruit trees outside the cities they besieged (Deuteronomy 20:19).
The Old Testament teaches that there is one factor that determines the wellbeing of the lands belonging to God’s people, and that was faithfulness to God. Right in the beginning, the Genesis story taught that sin against God resulted in the land being cursed (Genesis 3:17-19). This set a consistent pattern in Old Testament Jewish history. Rebellion against God resulted in good land becoming wasteland (Psalm 107:33-34; Jeremiah 9:12-13; Hosea 4:1-3). In a very real sense; sin defiled the land (Isaiah 24:4-6; Jeremiah 2:7). Not caring for God and not caring for the land go hand in hand (Jeremiah 12:10-13).
The Old Testament does allude to environmental conservation, but it does so in the context of the ancient laws surrounding the worship of Yahweh. It taught that God did not want his people to work the land on the Sabbath (Friday night to Saturday night). The Sabbath was to be a day of rest and worship. Similarly, God commanded his people to ‘rest’ the land every seventh year (Leviticus 25:2-4). God even threatened to drive the people off the land by an invading force if they failed to do it. This would allow the land to catch up on the Sabbath rests it never had (Leviticus 26:33-35). Again, the prosperity of the land was linked with faithfulness. Repentance and forgiveness never failed to result in the restoration of the land (2 Chronicles 7:13-14; Ezekiel 36:33-36).
The apostle Paul understood that the ecology of the earth was cursed because of the sin of humankind (Genesis 3:17-19). That is why he taught that all of creation is waiting to be rescued from its blighted existence, (Romans 8:22). Christians are waiting for God to combine a renewed earth to a new heaven… and make it into his eternal kingdom (Revelation 21:1-4). However, whilst we wait for this, we are not to abdicate our responsibility for the present. We are to honour God’s creation and care for it. Christians must be the first to reduce, recycle and re-use.
The book of Genesis teaches that God is responsible for creating our environment and that God considers every aspect of his creation (before it was spoilt by our disobedience) to be ‘good’. The Hebrew word for ‘good’ is towb, which means “good/pleasant/precious (Genesis 1:12-25). As such, we are not free to despoil God’s creation. We, as God’s stewards, have been given God’s authority to rule and bring into subjection a creation that has gone partly awry due to sin. We are to do this much as a gardener would make an unruly garden fruitful. (Genesis 1:27-28). The Hebrew word kabash, meaning “subdue” used in Genesis 1:28 can mean “violate” but that is not the meaning here. God’s command to Adam and Eve was for them to work the land and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). That’s why industrious work on the land is extolled in the Old Testament (Proverbs 28:19; Leviticus 19:23-25).
Despoiling the land for greed is therefore a sin. We are to honour God by honouring his creation. We are to care for the land as God’s tenants. So please do so.
Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.
Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.
He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net
Nick told his life story to Eternity https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/deadly-storms-heroin-addicts-cancer-and-my-faith/