Nature and Holiness in the Writings of Priests and Prophets

To the Israelite prophets, humans are central to the relationship of God and the created world...

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In all these passages, the Bible presents a very strong statement of human responsibility. The centrality of humanity means that human beings are the intermediaries who influence the condition of the earth both directly, by the immediate polluting impact of their misdeeds, and indirectly by causing a divine reaction that ends the rain and further pollutes the earth. Humanity has long run away from facing this responsibility, but it has become hard to ignore now that technology increasingly gives us the power to impact on the environment and really create destruction by our social misdeeds. At this point a statement that what humans do determines whether the earth continues or not is a simple statement of fact.

The Earth's Survival May Not Be a Biblical Question

Of course, a statement that human actions determine whether the world continues is only a statement of fact if our definition of the world includes humanity. However, even if (horrors to contemplate) we thoroughly pollute the soil or deplete the ozone; even if we bring a nuclear disaster (God and humanity forbid), it may be that the earth will stand and the cockroaches will still survive as they have survived since the age of the dinosaurs, and so in a sense the world will still continue. We will not have destroyed it utterly: we will only have eradicated it as a habitable place for humanity. The earth, Gaia, the ecosystem, existed before us and will continue after us. Somehow, such thinking, characteristic of the Gaia-thinkers, is supposed to make us feel better.

We should note that this approach is almost totally unbiblical. The late biblical prophetic tradition does consider the question. The prophet Zephaniah's terrible prediction of doom might envision earth remaining even though life has gone: "I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, I will sweep away humans and beasts, I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.... I will cut off humankind from the face of the earth (Zephaniah 1:2-3)." But this is not a prophecy that Zephaniah utters with any consolation. Deutero-Isaiah constantly emphasizes the importance of human life in the creation scheme: "[God] who creates heavens and stretches them out, who hammers out the sky and its teeming life, who gives breath to humankind and life-spirit to those who walk upon it (Isaiah 42:5)." Isaiah further tells us that when God created the world, God didn't create it to be unformed (tohu) but to be inhabited and inhabitable (la-shevet) (Isaiah 45:18). God's ultimate purpose for the earth, whatever it may be, includes a functioning human and animal community.

The Priestly Voice: An Awesome Earth

I would also like to praise another voice in the Bible, one which is very often maligned in all contexts, including the ecological discussion: "P," the priestly tradition of ancient Israel. It is in priestly writings and in temple writings that we find a profound sense of the awesomeness of nature, of the revelation of God through the beauty of nature, and of the place of humanity as a creature within nature. This love of nature is explicit in such Psalms as 104 and 98. It also underlies priestly legislation, where it is concerned with the land of Israel.

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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.