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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Genesis 1 uses a similar technique on the sixth day. Both humans and animals are created on the sixth day. The earth did not have animals without humans; the two are interconnected, and humans administrate. The essential position of humankind in the cosmos is not the farmer, but the executive. This is spelled out: humans are to be the tzelem elohim, the image of God. Salmu (cognate of tzelem) is a term we know from Mesopotamian inscriptions, where the king is the “image” of the god. It means the avatar of God on earth, the one who keeps everything going properly. This is humanity’s proper human role in the cosmos.

Contamination, Law and Order

The following chapters, the primeval history of Genesis 2-11, show (among other things) a progressive diminution in the fertility of the world; the world is created fertile, say the priests [the apparent authors of much of the beginning of Genesis, according to Bible scholars], but Chapters 2-11 show us that every time humans do something, the world becomes that much less fertile. From the garden that at most has to be tended, humans go out to the world, which has to be tilled by difficult agriculture. After the murder of Abel, that land is no longer fertile and can no longer be successfully planted: the blood of a murdered victim has ended the life of that soil and Cain is told that if he tills it, it will not answer. By the time of the birth of Noah, Noah is named Noah because, the text says, “this one will give us consolation” “from the ground which God had cursed” (Genesis 5:29). The world has become a very infertile place.

In Chapter 6, God looks at the world and sees that it has become contaminated, nishhatah. Nishhatah is also used to describe the rotten cloth that Jeremiah first buries and then digs up (Jeremiah 13:7-9). God sees that this earth, which was created fertile and beautiful (Chapter 1) or which humans were supposed to guard and cultivate (Chapter 2), this earth has instead become rotten and full of stains. In this context, the flood comes as a response to this problem. Unlike in Mesopotamia, the problem is not too many people And the post-flood solution is not [as it is in the Mesopotamian flood narratives] to build in population safeguards. In Israel the problem is the undirected and lawless activity of humankind and the pollution that results, and the post-flood solution is the giving of law.

After the flood collapsed the old creation by undoing the separation of the waters, then God reasons that God no longer wants to curse the earth because of the deeds of humans. God creates a regular order of nature: summer and winter, cold and heat, so that nature will not constantly fluctuate according to human acts. God also seeks to bring order to human activity, in Chapter 9 by declaring that humans must guard and avenge human life. A clear hierarchy is made very explicit--humans are in control of nature, and their authority reaches over all the animals. Moreover, both animals or humans will forfeit their lives if they kill a human. Humans can kill animals for their own use (without eating the blood), but no one can kill a human being, the avatar of God.

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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.