The Genesis Creation Story: Permission to Despoil?

A Bible scholar takes issue with those who blame the Book of Genesis for Western culture's exploitative disregard for nature.

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An 1967 article in the prestigious journal Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” by Lynn White, blamed the Bible, especially the first chapters of Genesis, for fostering an exploitative and, ultimately, fatally destructive attitude toward the natural realm in Western culture. The article has drawn many critical responses. Here, a prominent scholar of Ancient Near Eastern cultures and the Hebrew Bible offers her counterassessment of how the Book of Genesis portrays the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. This selection follows her exposition of the Babylonian creation myths, where the gods use the mutilation of the earth as a weapon to punish humanity.

Reprinted with permission of the author from “Ecology in a Biblical Perspective,” in Torah of the Earth, Volume I published by Jewish Lights.

Genesis 1: Earth Is Created Fertile

When we look at biblical mythology, the situation is much more complicated [than in comparable creation stories from the Ancient Near East]. I will concentrate on the much-discussed creation story in Genesis, Chapter 1, in order to point out one facet that has been overlooked.

In this chapter, the priestly celebration of creation, God creates by introducing distinctions, divisions, and hierarchies: the very essence of creation is the bringing of order to the formless mass of chaos, depicted as the featureless deep. On the first day, God creates light and declares it good. On the second day God creates the firmament and declares it good. On both days there has been a one step process and one thing has been created, making one distinction: light/dark, waters above/below, and pronouncing this new creation good. On the third day, God creates the division between the seas and the dry land and pronounces it good, but the third day doesn’t end with the creation of earth. On that very same day, God has the earth bring forth vegetation, which is self-perpetuating and seedbearing and will maintain its own distinct varieties. Only then does the third day end.

genesis and natureThis compositional strategy has a significant implication: there is not one moment in cosmic time that the earth exists barren. The earth is created as a fertile, self-sustaining unit. In Genesis 1, there is no need for fertility rituals and no need for humanity to produce a fertile earth: this is the way that earth was created and this is the way it remains if it is not interfered with. (This is not the view of Genesis 2, where the earth is barren until humanity is created. Genesis 2 is a farmer's myth; Genesis 1 is not.) By doubling the creations of the third day, Genesis 1 conveys an important theological point. The cult neither has to produce fertility nor even to offer thanksgiving for the fertility because a good universe is fertile, and God created a well-ordered universe.

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.