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.

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.

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.

There are three specific regulations in Chapter 9. In the first, humans are told to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, probably the only command of God that we’ve ever fully obeyed. Next, they are told to refrain from eating blood because that is the life [ of the animal]: hierarchy does not imply total domination. The third regulation emphasizes that no one (human or animal) can kill human beings, those responsible for the earth, and demands the death penalty for that terrible crime. These laws do not eliminate violence, indeed they include violence, the violence of the law. Violence is ordered and sanctioned as the antidote to violence: “whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human his blood will be shed” (Genesis 9:6). The blood of the murder is not expurgated except with the blood of the murderer.

These laws do not prevent violence. However, they do protect the earth from being polluted by lawless behavior. The laws are meant to protect the earth. God makes it very clear that God no longer wants to have the earth cursed because of human deeds. Why God wants an earth, we have no idea; for God [unlike the Mesopotamian gods] has no need to eat food. Chapter 2 links the creation of humans with the earth: they are to tend it; but it never tells us why God wants an earth. Chapter 9, a priestly text, explains that God gives the whole legal structure of the world to protect the earth from suffering, but once again it doesn’t tell us why God wants the earth. The entire creation is an act of absolute divine desire (“grace”); we don’t know what motivates it.

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