Themes & Theology of Nature & the Environment

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The Psalmist wrote:

           When I behold Your heavens, the work of your fingers,

            the moon and the stars that You set in place, --

            What is man that You have been mindful of him,

            mortal man that you have taken note of him.

            [….]

O Lord, our God, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth!

(Psalm 8:4-5, 10)nature quiz

The vast expanse of the observable universe, its variety, the orderly cycles of astronomy and of animal and vegetative life as well as nature’s unpredictable rages and calms -- all these have occasioned astonishment and reflection among people in every society. The radical monotheism of biblical Israel, as measured against the other ancient cultures of the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, led to a desacralized view of nature itself, making of it not a realm of gods, but the Creation of God.

For ancient Israelites and for Jews throughout the ages, observation of nature has occasioned praise and wonder at the workings of the Creator. Like the author of Psalm 8, Jewish writers have responded to nature as a reflection of an unfathomable power and, often, as the work of a benevolent sovereign.

Furthermore, as in the verses cited above, the place of human beings in the created universe is also a central concern. In most Jewish understandings of the relationship of that sovereign and the sovereign’s many subjects, custody of the riches of the sovereign’s physical realm has been bestowed upon humanity as a favored class among the subjects. The sovereign/donor has made this provisional gift for the benefit of the subjects/recipients, but at the same time charged them with responsibility for the care and upkeep of the natural world, and for the wellbeing of its other inhabitants. People are told that the earth’s abundance will enable them to sustain themselves and live long lives, but realizing the earth’s potential to provide for them will come at the cost of considerable toil.

beautiful natureThe human creature portrayed in the first Creation story in Genesis learns very quickly that while s/he may be the purpose and pinnacle of creation, the world -- at least outside of the Garden of Eden -- will yield its fruits only if the land is “worked and guarded.” The first verb of this pair implies exploitation; the second balances it with an admonition to care for the natural realm and preserve its abundant fruitfulness. In this sense, humans are not the owners or even co-owners of the world but its stewards. As such, they are entrusted with its care for the benefit of an owner, whose reason for valuing it we may not know, but whose concern for the welfare of all Creation is explicit.

The preceding paragraphs reflect an environmentally aware reading of the many references to the Creation story in the Bible and later Jewish writings. This outlook, while informed by the knowledge and sensitivities of recent decades, remains true to the spirit of Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. They have frequently depicted human beings in such images as guests at a divine banquet, seeking to portray a subtle interplay of subordination, gratitude, and responsibility. The tradition seeks to inculcate these values in human attitudes and actions toward the fecund earth, its non-human inhabitants, and the cosmos beyond.

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