In the Bible-studying Protestant circles I travel in when I am not fighting court battles for NRDC, we occasionally engage in lame Bible-geek humor about the Book of 2 Hesitations. For those of you whose background does not include vacation Bible school, that’s not actually in the Bible. But we pretend it is whenever we need to fabricate a Bible verse to sanction minor acts of moral turpitude, like taking 11 items in the express checkout line at the supermarket. Or to sanctify snippets of biblical truthiness that are assumed to be in Scripture but are really not, such as, God helps those who help themselves.
Lately, it appears that 2 Hesitations is enjoying a surge of popularity in Tea Party circles. At least, that’s the only way to explain the response of an Indiana Tea Party leader quoted in the New York Times yesterday to a speech concerning the threat of climate change. Noting that he based his views regarding the matter on Rush Limbaugh and the Bible, he declared, “It’s a flat-out lie . . . . I read my Bible. He made this earth for us to utilize.”
The Tea Party gentleman did not actually cite a Biblical chapter and verse to support this statement , for the simple reason that he can’t. Unless he’s relying on the Book of Hesitations, it is simply not there. What is more, the true Biblical message that we can derive from reading the Judeo-Christian Scriptures on the subject of humankind’s relationship to the Earth is utterly, 180 degrees different. The consistent message throughout the Bible is that the Earth, and all of nature, has intrinsic value completely separate and apart from human use of it. While the Bible allows that we may sometimes make use of nature’s bounty, the notion that God’s wondrous creation was put here solely for humans to “utilize” and exploit is, to use an archaic but rather useful word, heretical.
Let’s start with that well-known phrase from the Book of Genesis, “and God saw that it was good.” The interesting thing about that proclamation is that the Genesis creation story has God making it before He created humans. That’s right – creation was “good” after God made the sea and the land and all the myriad creatures that roam them, but before humans ever even entered the scene.
Centuries later, the Psalmists gave poetic expression to the Biblical theme of nature’s intrinsic value apart from humankind. Psalm 104 describes God’s relationship with his creation this way:
He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst….He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate — bringing forth food from the earth; wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. ….The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys….
What is important to note, beyond the sheer beauty of the imagery, is that it expresses the value of nature separate from the use we make of it. God provides not only for human needs through nature (wine, oil, bread), but also the needs of wild creatures that had fundamentally no practical usefulness at all to the psalmist’s contemporaries: the wild donkeys, wild goats, and coneys (rock badgers). For the psalmist, God treasures and cares for His creation regardless of whether it happens to be exploitable by us.
Similarly, the Psalms speak of nature not as a source of material wealth but as a song of praise to its creator, as in Psalm 148: “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightening and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds. . . .”
I suppose the Tea Party gentleman might bring up Genesis 1:28, the verse that has at many unfortunate points of Christian history been dragged out to justify all manner of thuggery toward the Earth. Yet that passage –
…fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground
— is not, if read fairly and accurately, anything like the license to exploit that so many have made it out to be. Since when is “dominion” – a word that essentially means authority – synonymous with exploitation? Parents have authority – dominion – over their children, which is the metaphor that the Bible uses to describe God’s relationship with us. Those “dominion” relationships are characterized by self-sacrificial love, not extraction and greed.
Perhaps most importantly, where the Bible does speak specifically to our relationship with the Earth, the directive is to care, not exploit. The first humans in the Genesis story were instructed to take care of the garden, not lay waste to it extracting its resources. The ancient Israelites, when they became landowners for the first time in the Promised Land, were commanded to manage the land not for their own material benefit, but for the benefit of their poorer neighbors and of wild nature. In Exodus 23, for instance, they are told, “During the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave.”
It saddens me, but does not on some level surprise me, that the Tea Party leader quoted in the Times could be so adamantly and completely wrong about what the Bible says about humankind’s relationship to the Earth. The biblical truthiness that God created the Earth for humans to use has overtaken the biblical truth about nature’s intrinsic value, so much so that people are blinded to what’s actually written. One of my favorite exercises when teaching a Bible class on nature is to ask, “with whom did God make His covenant after the Noah’s ark flood?” The roomful of vacation Bible school graduates, thinking that this is a question in the nature of, “who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”, will invariably pump their hands in the air and answer “Noah.” They are semi-shocked to find out that what the Genesis passage at issue actually says is,
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you — the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you–every living creature on earth. . . .This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
God’s saving covenant, the Bible tells us, is a 3-way contract that includes not just humans but the whole Earth.
Above all, Scripture tells us, in the words of Christ, “The truth shall set you free.” Blind climate change denial, which angrily ignores the overwhelming scientific consensus, is not truth. Nor are claims that the Bible justifies rapacious exploitation of our planet. The truth is that our society has taken a serious wrong turn away from the Biblical ideal of renouncing material greed and caring for the Earth. Acknowledging that truth could set us free from our reckless fossil-fuel consumptive habits, and the grim climatic future they portend.