Biodiversity is God’s Glory

The Bible portrays 'the earth and the fullness thereof' as the stuff of the divine presence. Diminishing biodiversity, then, diminishes God's glory.

Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book” in The Jerusalem Report, February 19, 1998. This article is a commentary to the Haftarah for the weekly Torah portion “Yitro,” Isaiah 6:1-7:6 and 9:5-6.

The time had much in common with ours: When Isaiah was called to prophesy in the eighth century BCE, there’d been relative prosperity under King Uzziah, including territorial expansion. But Judea faced constant threats from without; and newfound comfort and luxury led to decadence and immorality from within. Isaiah describes abuses from political corruption to ignoring the underprivileged to exploitation of dwindling land resources by rich estate owners: “Ah, those who add house to house, and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land!” (Isaiah 5:8).
jewish biodiversity
Against this background, Isaiah has the remarkable vision that initiates his mission: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne…” (6:1). In a rare example of visual human-divine contact, Isaiah sees God. And he sees the seraphim in attendance, proclaiming God’s holiness in words that have become a centerpiece of Jewish liturgy. The verse (6:3) has been rendered: “Holy, holy holy, is the Lord of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory” (old JPS translation) or: “Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” (new JPS version). Those translations and their like bolster mainstream transcendental theology that sees God’s glory as something separate from the world, that comes “down” from God to fill the earthly vessel, inspiring awe in the creatures below.

No Dichotomy of God and World

But the simple Hebrew points in another direction. The key phrase, melo kol ha’aretz, is better read not as an adjective – “the whole earth is full of” God’s glory – but rather as a noun: “the fullness of the whole earth” – that is God’s glory! This suggests a very different theology, one more immanental, which does not draw a dichotomy between God and the world. God’s glory does not descend from on high to suffuse the otherwise purely physical created world. The earth  and the fullness thereof are the stuff of the divine presence; the material is spiritual. God’s glory and presence don’t fill the world – they are the world!

Compare Isaiah with Job, who also received an unexpected revelation: In answer to the question of why a wholly righteous man such as Job suffers so, God answers Job “out of the whirlwind” with a cosmic tour designed to impress upon him the universe’s vastness and mysteries. The earth and its creatures become sources of divine wisdom: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the sky, they will tell you; or speak to the earth, it will teach you; the fish of the sea they will inform you” (Job 12:7-8). Job realizes the infinitesimal place of human beings within the divine whole and is rendered speechless: “See, I am of small worth… I clap my hand to my mouth… I had heard of you with my ears, but now I see you with my eyes.  Therefore I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (40:4; 42:3-6).

Isaiah, in response “to seeing with his eyes,” also becomes aware of his imperfection and inability to communicate: “I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5). But for Isaiah, speech is action. As prophet, he can change the world with words. For Isaiah the challenge is not how to live with personal suffering but how to fight the corruption and decadence that come from comfort and prosperity. Isaiah responds to a call to go forth: “…my Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ And I said, “‘Here am I; send me’“ (6:8).

Needed: Job’s Humility and Isaiah’s Passion

In our day the lessons of Job and Isaiah complement each other. For many, modernity has muted the experience of the vast natural world that taught Job and the ancients humility. We may have more “knowledge,” but we have attained it at the expense of wisdom. And how many of us behave as if “the fullness of the whole earth” were truly God’s own presence and glory? That fullness is being tragically diminished in our lifetimes. If the taking of a single human life, created in the image of God, is understood in Jewish tradition as a diminution of the divine, how much more so the global decimation of biodiversity, the loss of many hundreds of whole species every year? Isaiah’s political challenges may have been different than these particularly modern threats, but God’s answer to his question of “How long?” is eerily apt: “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people; and the ground lies waste and desolate…” (6:11). Isaiah’s response was “Here I am,” passionately dedicated to repairing the world. What will ours be?

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