Putting Humans in Their Place
The Ecological Ethics of Genesis 1 & 2
The Orroral Valley Fire, ACT, January 2020. Source. Nick-D, Wikimedia.
When I wrote the first version of this article in 2020, bushfires of an unprecedented scale and intensity were burning across the east coast of Australia, and temperature records were tumbling everywhere. Those fires were quickly followed by floods and, as I write now, another round of dramatic floods in New South Wales and Queensland is receding. This is what dangerous climate change looks like. It is happening and, short of dramatic action, it will continue to worsen.
The gut-churning grief and fear that accompanies this knowledge is magnified by the scale of the human capacity for denial that is also being laid bare. And at the heart of this grief and fear is the consciousness that we have done this. It is now a commonplace that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the product of “anthropocentrism”: humanity’s colossal failure to acknowledge that it is part of a whole, of which it is not the centre.
Although terrifying, this is true self-knowledge; the sort that is necessary to repentance and hope. But there is an additional element to this narrative that is widespread in both secular and religious circles where there is a concern for the state of the planet: it is Christianity that is largely to blame for this disastrous anthropocentrism. Is this also true self-knowledge or is it another tragic twist in a tragic tale?
A little over 50 years ago, Science magazine published the now classic article of Medieval historian Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. White’s bold and provocative thesis has been hugely influential, widely cited and played a key role in catalysing new fields of academic scholarship, including environmental ethics and eco-theology. White’s passion for the non-human world, his critique of the onward march of civilisation, and his broad-ranging historical insights make his article a stimulating and even inspiring read. His goal was to seek a deep shift in the way in which modern humans view their place in nature.
Ostensibly a committed Christian, White nevertheless held a profoundly negative understanding of the Judaeo-Christian ecological worldview, so much so that he considered it needed wholesale abandonment. In White’s view, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” It not only licensed human exploitation of nature, but virtually demanded it. Ultimately, White felt that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for our present ecological crisis.
I think White’s historical claims about Christianity are wrong: I think modernity and capitalism - that is, the repudiation of Christianity - are the real sources of our ecological crisis, but that is a story for another day.
Instead, I want to focus on one particularly tragic element of Lynn White’s thesis: his presumptions about the ecological meaning of the creation myths of the Hebrew Bible. For White, the meaning of these stories was simple and clear: they “established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”. The widespread acceptance of his simplistic thesis has contributed to a significant amount of hostility and suspicion of Christianity in sectors of the environmental movement, and has contributed to a crisis of self-confidence in many ecologically concerned Christians.
Literature, Meaning, Context
Certainly it is true that an exploitative reading of Genesis has indeed been present in some strands of Christianity. But this is a profound misreading of the Bible’s creation stories, more a product of modernity and capitalism than of the texts themselves. When we focus on the texts and the larger narrative within which they are situated, it is clear that, rather than licensing exploitation, the creation myths of Hebrew scripture offer prescient, challenging and instructive wisdom for our present ecological crisis. I will suggest that there is indeed a certain sort of “anthropocentrism” (putting humans at the centre) in the Biblical creation myths, but one with quite a different meaning and implication from what is usually inferred by that term.
For modern hearers to properly understand the Hebrew creation myths, we need to try to appreciate what form of literature they represent, and what meaning they communicated to a marginal, ancient, Semitic, agrarian people. A pathway towards this perspective has been opened up to us by the first peoples of this continent - another marginalised people whose worldview has, until recently, been largely ignored or denigrated. But in recent years we have seen a growing appreciation of the richness of meaning, and especially the ecological wisdom, contained within the story-world and law of indigenous cultures. Writing of indigenous Australian creation myths, Bill Gammage writes: "Aboriginal landscape awareness is rightly seen as drenched in religious sensibility, but equally the Dreaming is saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused."
As with most creation myths, the key purpose of the stories in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is not to provide a historical account of causality, but is rather to convey the meaning of experienced reality - the world that is. Creation myths communicate about the nature of nature, and locate the human place within it. For the Hebrews, as for the First Australians, creation myths provide the foundations of the moral order - the foundation of Law.
Genesis, in fact, contains two different creation stories. The first (chapter 1) is a highly structured poetic liturgy, the second (chapter 2), generally considered the older, is more in the form of an aetiological myth: a story that explains why things are the way they are. They have been arranged by the compilers of the Biblical canon in such a way that suggests they were seen as each contributing necessary and complementary perspectives.
To catch the full narrative impact of Genesis 1, we need to realise that it was a story told by a people conquered and living in exile within the Babylonian Empire, for whom the dominant creation myth was the Enuma Elish. In that story, the world is created out of the gore and violence of the conflict by which the god Marduk slays his mother, Tiamat. As a concession to the other gods who are worried about Marduk’s dominance, he then creates humans to be their slaves and to do all their bidding. Of course, this service is rendered to the gods through service to Marduk’s representative on earth, the Babylonian king. The Babylonian creation myth provided the meaning and justification for a system of domination and oppression.
Bas-relief at the entrance to a temple in the ruins of Nimroud, believed by some scholars to depict Marduk slaying Tiamat.
Into this story-world of violence, domination and empire, the Hebrews tell a counter-myth of a world created entirely out of a good God’s intention; that is, out of love. The creator God expresses delighted pleasure in the diversity of life that has come into being, pronouncing it good seven times, which is the number of completeness. This is as strong a statement as you can find of what we call “intrinsic worth”. In stark contrast to the Canaanite baalim cults, in which the fertility of the soil had to be purchased each year by sacrifices to the gods (even, sometimes, by human sacrifices), this creation story falls over itself to describe a world in which fecundity is in-built and overflowing.
Parallel to the Enuma Elish, in Genesis 1 the creator God also sees fit to create a representative of the divine on earth. But whereas in other Near Eastern cosmologies (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia), this place of divine representation was reserved for kings, in the Hebrew creation story that representation is given to all human beings: pointedly men and women. Divine representation is denoted by the imparting of “the image of God” to every human. Here is an ancient statement of radical equality that goes far beyond even the Athenian idea of democracy.
But this also brings us to the sticking point for Lynn White, and for many since him: the accompanying attribution of “dominion” or “rule” to humans, as the corollary of bearing the image of God. Much of our trouble comes from the choice of the English word “dominion” to translate the Hebrew word, radah. The quick assumption of White and so many others has been that dominion is a license to dominate. But even if we stick with this problematic English translation, it is resoundingly clear from the rest of Biblical narrative that the political concept of dominion or rule is never understood as licence to dominate, but rather an injunction to the polar opposite: it is an injunction to servanthood. The Hebrew Bible contains a variety of contested traditions about the politics of kingship, but all of them agree that rule has failed once it becomes domination. In the prophetic critique, the measure of rule is frequently the care of the weak and vulnerable. This is even more profoundly evident once we get to the New Testament. There, the concept of dominion/rule is located firmly with the figure of Christ, who pointedly told his followers, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them. […] But I am among you as one who serves.”
Hebrew Bible scholar, Ellen Davis, has argued that “dominion” is an inadequate translation of the Hebrew, radah. She proposes that rather than “dominion over”, the English phrase “mastery among” gives a more faithful rendering of the sense of the Hebrew poem. The term “mastery” has the sense of that quality achieved by a master of a craft who has an intimate understanding of the possibilities and limitations of both the materials on which she works and the tools with which she works. And such intimate understanding only comes with love of both materials and tools. Davis notes that throughout Hebrew scripture the best index of human fidelity to their divine mandate is “the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth”. When humans are faithful to their calling, the rains fall in season, the land yields fruit and the wild creatures abound. When humans pursue an independent path, the rain does not fall, the earth suffers and the land is desolate.
This rendering also gives the dual sense of humanity being, on the one hand, a creature like all others and a participant in the community of creatures; but on the other hand, also marks the human as importantly different from other creatures. Here we meet another objection: no matter how beneficent or selfless we grant this injunction laid on humans to be, this is still a story that places humans at the centre of things. It is anthropocentric. And surely it is humanity’s egotism that is the cause of our present crisis? I will take up this objection in a moment, but first let me say a few words about the second Hebrew creation myth.
Adam tilling the earth, from The Foster Bible, 1897.
The creation story of Genesis 2 serves to significantly underline the human vocation of beneficent care. In that story, Adam is a creature who is created from the adamma, the fertile soil (not “the dirt”), and animated with the breath of God. Adam, the earth-creature, is placed in the garden and instructed to “work and to keep it”. Here, the Hebrew word for “work”, abad, means working for someone: it denotes service. The word translated as “to keep” is the rich Hebrew term, shamar. This word denotes protection and nurture, but the same word is also used in the injunctions to “keep” God’s commandments, or even more pointedly, to “observe” the commandments. In both the English and the Hebrew, the meaning of observing commandments means both to stay within their bounds, but also to contemplate them closely. The two are interdependent. Staying within certain bounds requires paying close attention to what those bounds may be. That is, the vocation of shamar is a calling to observe limits, which requires understanding limits. So the calling of Adam to work and keep the earth might also be rendered as a vocation “to serve and observe” the earth.
In the giving of the Law in the books of Torah, following this story, significant attention is given to the practice of what we would now call human economy, addressing agriculture, labour, commerce and finance. The consistent theme underlying the Torah’s diverse discussions of economic practice is a call to observe limits for the sake of the health of the human community, and the sake of the health of the land itself. This ancient injunction is central to what Kate Raworth calls “thinking like a 21st-century economist” (see Doughnut Economics).
The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet, 1857.
Anthropocentrism in perspective
But still there is the objection of anthropocentrism. However wise, however beautiful the calling, the human is still given a central role in the Biblical creation stories.
But this is a simplistic and superficial critique that misses a number of points. The first is simply to note that creation myths were stories told by ancient humans, to humans, for the purpose of instructing humans. (By “stories” I do not mean mere stories - all attempts to communicate truth are couched in a narrative form of some kind.) It is inevitable and indeed proper that these stories give their key focus to humans. The key question is just what they say to humans about their place in relation to the rest of the natural world.
Secondly, an obvious retort to the charge of anthropocentrism is that the clear and obvious point of the Genesis accounts is to affirm that humans are not central to the ordering of the cosmos, God is. They are pointedly theocentric stories. Any special role attributed to humans (which we shall come to) is not self-ordained but given, and it is given within, not over, an already established created order that has its own integrity and intrinsic value.
Thirdly, and this brings me to the key point, the very charge that our ecological crisis is the product of anthropocentrism is in fact admitting a certain kind of anthropocentrism. It is stating, correctly in my view, that humans are the central problem, and as such any “solution” is dependent upon some change in the thought-world and conduct of humans. This admits that humans are somehow different to all other creatures, and certainly more powerful.
Both of the creation stories of Genesis ascribe a special role to humans because of the special power that humans hold. This special power is not a doctrinal assertion of moral superiority, it is an empirical observation, and this same empirical observation is now being made repeatedly by the world’s scientists. Biologist Edward Wilson has commented: “Homo sapiens has become a geophysical force, the first species in the history of the planet to attain that dubious distinction.” The magnitude of human impact is attested by the naming of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. As the Living Planet Report notes: “This is the first time a new geological epoch may be marked by what a single species (Homo sapiens) has consciously done to the planet – as opposed to what the planet has imposed on resident species.”
We live every day with confirmation of the fact of the special power of humans. What we have not heeded, and the central message of the Hebrew creation stories, is that with special power comes special responsibility. And in those stories, the special responsibility is marked by the vocation to serve the whole, to master the power we wield, and to do so by observing limits. Special power without special responsibility, as the Bible tells us, inclines inexorably to uncreation, the unwinding of the good that God has wrought.
Whatever our ideological position, the reality is that in virtually every bio-region on the planet, ecologists are now insisting that the health of ecosystems is now dependent upon human action of some sort. Charles Massy, in his inspiring Call of the Reed Warbler, which is a manifesto for the reconfiguring of agriculture, has come to something like this position. In describing the conditions for a regenerative (rather than an exploitative) practice of agriculture, Massy outlines five “landscape functions” that combine to determine the health of ecological systems. Strikingly, the fifth of these “landscape functions”, is the human mind. Massy writes: “The greatest of all determining factors on the healthy regeneration or else degradation of those very landscapes boils down to the way we think, what we believe, and how we model in our minds the way the world and our landscapes work.” Massy’s great plea is that we become ecologically literate landscape managers. It is a modern version of the Genesis call to mastery, and to serve and observe the earth.
As dangerous climate change unfolds before our eyes, it is patently evident that the best possible outcome for us and the whole community of creation is entirely dependent upon humanity coming to a full acknowledgement of its special power (what we have done) and its special responsibility (what we now must do), which must centrally involve mastering our power. For the Christian, this is more than an ethical responsibility, it is an evangelical responsibility, for we know that the only way to master ourselves is to acknowledge the rule of another…^ back to top