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Humanity and Nature According to the Jewish Scriptures
Environmental concerns touch the lives of all peoples and corners of the earth, in subtler but no less real terms than the shadow of nuclear disaster. Those in industrialized nations, from the high executives in the industrial-military complex to very ordinary people in their family life, bear a heavy responsibility for the present widespread problems of pollution and misuse of resources. How can they be reached so that their consciences will be informed?
Educations' efforts should be made on as many fronts as possible. The issues are discussed at the highest levels in the agencies of the United Nations and in addresses of both the Soviet Union and «third-world» nations in recent meetings of that body. Ecological disasters receive considerable attention in the political sphere, but creative policies for avoiding such problems in the future are legislated only with great difficulty. Even when laws are enacted in regard to simple questions such as garbage disposal, a monumental effort must be made to alert people to the importance of a conscious effort to process wastes responsibly.
It may be difficult to penetrate the circles of influence within some organizations directly. However, within virtually every industry, research laboratory or factory there are many individuals who belong to a church or synagogue. They can be educated to grapple with the principles that underlie proper approaches to environmental concerns from the study of our common spiritual heritage.1 Of course, this same point may be made with regard to other world religions and philosophies. As the World Wildlife Fund demonstrated in the Assisi conference of September 1986, concern for our environment and all species of living creatures provides a bond among the major world religions.2
I. The Biblical Doctrine
Strong arguments have been presented to show that the biblical theology of creation and its development in traditional Christianity provide the foundation for modern science and technology.3 In 1967 this thesis was turned on its head by an historian of the Middle Ages; he blamed Christianity for the predicament caused by the Industrial Revolution! (4) Lynn White, Jr. provoked considerately discussion of the influence religion exercises on human attitudes toward nature. A number of scholars focused on the doctrine of the human being created in the image and likeness of God; the blessing-and-command to «increase, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it» (Genesis 1:26-28) has been interpreted as a license for human exploitation of nature. However, this very definition of the human implies the basis for imitation of God and cooperation with the divine purpose for all creation.
A recent commentary on the Book of Genesis notes that the verb «to subdue» (kabas) means «to master», «to bring forcefully under control». Force may be necessary lo make the untamed land serve humanity. «Humans nonetheless are to respect the entheless are to respect the environment; they are not to kill for food but are to treat all life with respect».5
The commission to have dominion (radah) over all living creatures (Gen. 1:26, 28) employs a verb otten associated with royalty. It implies that the human species is viceroy or agent of God in regard to the world as a divine kingdom. «This means, in modem terms, a rational, sensible, humane, intelligent, and thoughtful ordering of God's ordered world... Dominion is not a license to caprice and tyranny but, in its best sense, a challenge to responsibility and the duty to make right prevail. If Genesis is attended to carefully, we see that it gives every encouragement to the present-day ecologist who believes that the earth has been delivered into man's hand as sacred trust that he can perpetuate in a nature – or God – given order which he has been given the capacity to learn and improve upon».6
The hymn al the beginning of Genesis places the human couple at the apex of creation, a teaching which occurs also in Psalm 8 and Sira 17:1-10. It should be noted that a two-fold role is implied: human beings are agents of God when they act responsibly in their use of creation; they also exercise a priestly function by offering elements of their work to God in worship? «They will praise his holy name, to proclaim the grandeur of his work» (Sira 17:10).
Is there a biblical basis for the teaching that each creature offers its own praise to God by virtue of its very being and activities, in total independence from humanity? Lynn White credited this idea to Francis of Assisi. «The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility – no/merely for the individual but for a man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God's creatures».9 Elsewhere I have traced the origins of Francis' beautiful «Canticle of all Creatures» to the Church's use of the psalms and biblical canticles.9 Nothing is taken from the saint's genius to acknowledge the source of his insight. A passage such as «The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God (Psalm 104:21) may be merely a poetic image, but should we think that no reference to nature's praise of God has a theological value? Creatures are personified at prayer in a number of passages (Psalm 96; 114; 148).10 This is developed in the Greek version of Daniel with the Canticle of the Three Youths (3:58-90).11 All of these texts were used in worship by Jewish and Christian communities and there is considerable evidence of this usage in subsequent centuries. Pereq Shira, a compilation from the period of the Mishnah which places a biblical verse in the mouth of various creatures, is an instructive example of this piety in the Jewish community.12
The Book of Job is a treasure house of reflections on the marvels of divine creation, as Robert Gordis has shown. The speeches out of the whirlwind (Job 38-41) make the world pass before Job, who is challenged to understand even some aspects of their marvels. «They are expressions of God's creative will and have been called into being without any reference to man's desires or needs, or even his existence».13 After reflecting on the description of seven animate creatures in Job 38:3839:30, Gordis finds «a religious foundation for the inherent rights of animals as co-inhabitants of the earth... the book of Job presents a basis in religion for opposing and ultimately eliminating the needless destruction of life and the pollution of the natural resources in the world».14
Why should these //No approaches to the biblical vision merely remain parallel or even seem antithetical /o each other? The human being is very much part of creation or the natural world. If each person grasped the importance of the human vocation in the image of God, the result would bring an end to all forms of idolatry – including that self-worship that is the cause of many human problems, including environmental abuses. The resulting harmony of service should allow each creature to be, and also to become part of the symphony of praise that responds to the marvellous variety of God's gifts.15
Il. The Biblical Commandments
The heritage of the Hebrew people grounds morality in God's revelation. The foundation for a responsible way of life is the teaching about Creator and creature and the all-embracing web of relationships that bind them together. A balanced view of the commandments governing human responsibilities toward animate and inanimate creation requires that these be connected to the commandments relating /o God and neighbour. I offered a succinct presentation of Torah's norms for governing all relationships in another issue of this review.I6
The hymn of creation (Gen. 1:1- 2:4) has several purposes, one being to encourage observance of the Sabbath as an act of imitating God's holiness (Leviticus 19:2 and Exodus 20:11). it is noteworthy, then, that the law of the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 governs the individual's relationship with God, neighbour and the animal world. No work should be done that day, even by a servant or a domestic animal. Thus a peaceful harmony is achieved that should spread throughout all creation.17
Although Rabbi Gordis has been quoted as speaking about the inherent rights of animals», it should be noted that it is debated whether animals can be the subject of rights as such. If it is understood that, in the strict sense, rights adhere to persons, then we may rather speak of human responsibility toward animals. In any case, the Law of Moses demands great sensitivity toward the animal world.
Arguing that the teacher has a right to remuneration, Paul of Tarsus quotes the commandment, You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain» (Deut. 25:4). Then he asks, is it for oxen that God is concerned?» Probably the urbanite Paul would acknowledge the original intention of the command and state that he is using rule of moving from the less important to the more significant. However important the analogy for the citizens of Corinth, the original meaning of the commandment carries a lesson for every generation. The word of God in the Hebrew Scriptures remains permanently valuable (Vatican Council II, Constitution on Divine Revelation, 14); Christians may find in the Torah and in the way it has been interpreted and lived by Jews over the centuries insights that will prove useful for understanding how to deal with our present situation.
In ancient times the rabbis noted that there are only two commandments with a promise attached. The great commandment to honour one's parents (Ex. 20:12 and Deut. 5:16) and the minor one concerning a mother bird and her offspring (Deut. 22:6-7) have the same reward, «that it may go well with you and that you may live long”.
The biblical tradition, especially in Deuteronomy, stresses that fidelity to the Covenant brings the blessings of the heavens and the earth (Deut. 28:1-6, 30:8-10, etc.). The Code of the Covenant (Ex. 23:10-11) at an early date prescribed that the land (i.e. the fields and orchards) should lie fallow in the seventh year. This is called year of solemn rest, a Sabbath to the Lord» in the Book of Leviticus (25:2-7), which develops this theme in the list of blessings (followed by forty-nine curses in chapter 26). The seventy years of Exile (Jeremiah 29:10) were the time of rest fulfilled for the land that had been denied sabbaticals during the first Temple period of 490 years (see 2 Chronicles 3621). The tragedy of Jerusalem's destruction and the hardships of exile for the survivors of Judah seem to constitute a penalty totally out of proportion to the sin of neglecting to allow the land to lie fallow. However, the insight into the importance of respecting the sources of our food supply should alert our generation to the sins of exploitation, greed and selfishness that ignore both neighbour and nature.
Even the seeming exigencies of war should not take priority over concern for the long term sources of food for an area. ft may have been considered inevitable that crops would be used by the invading army or destroyed so that famine would bring a foe to his knees. Nonetheless, trees should be spared (Deut. 20:19). In building siegeworks, the invader may use local timber but only trees that do not bear fruit may be cut down (Deut. 20:20). How often was this commandment ignored in the history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah? What sanctions could be applied by the victim of an invasion anyway? it is important, nevertheless, that such legislation forms part of the biblical teaching because the study of this message in Torah made people conscious that the environment is always a victim in war. “Are the trees in the field men that they should be besieged by you?» (Deut. 20:19). Nature is the innocent victim of human cruelty and stupidly in many situations, but none is as futile as war.
III. The Insights of Wisdom Literature and the Liturgy
The sages of Israel were the beneficiaries of millennia of International experience, drawing upon the heritage of the many nations which the children of Abraham encountered. The teacher's goal was to challenge others to fulf il their responsibilities and to find happiness by achieving success and renown. The Israelite contribution involved integration of these practical ideals into the service of the one God. The sage par excellence was Solomon (I Kings 4:29-31). After indicating the number of his proverbs and songs, the writer points to the King's knowledge of the natural world as indicative of the content of his wisdom (4:33).
The early traditions of Israel's sapiential literature explore the order of nature as a field al observation from which analogies and principles can be drawn for human life. Economics, the art of using the world's benefits judiciously, has laws which assure prosperity for those who observe them. Misuse or neglect, however, lead to poverty and ruin.18
The books of Job and Qoheleth, along with Proverbs 8:22-36, considered by most scholars to be postexilic, offer more profound reflections on the marvels of creation. It is the later integration of wisdom thought into the worship of Israel that brings the richest veins of theology to the surface. Complementing the Sabbath and the use of psalms in the Temple liturgy, the annual cycle of feasts provides the framework f or the Jewish people to develop a magnificent vision of the cosmos and its component parts in relation to the Creator and redeemer God. The ancient traditions of the three great feasts (Passover, Weeks and Booths) are rooted in agricultural rhythms that are placed at the service of God's saving works in history. The second part of the Book of Wisdom of Solomon (chapter 10-19) may be a homily for Passover. It celebrates the way in which God used the same or similar creatures to punish Israel's enemies and to favour the chosen people during their desert wandering. The Passover Haggadah's theme of joy in redemption was tempered by the sobering thought that other creatures of God died in the sea.
The daily prayers at mealtime are another occasion for the Jewish family to rejoice in their tradition's appreciation of God's gifts. The restrictions imposed by the dietary laws point to the ideal of a vegetarian diet (see Gen. 1:29 and 9:3-7) that points to the restoration of harmony among members of the animal kingdom in the messianic age (Isaiah 11:6-9). Tennyson's dictum that «Nature is red in tooth and claw» has been the human experience of millennia. Yet Israel’s laws seem to hint at a hope that human beings can learn to refrain from brutality.19 In prayer and prophecy people can find poetry and principles that should foster a search for universal peace. To make a daily effort toward living this vision is a challenge, yet within the grasp of all people of good will.
1. This is the explicit goal of the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology, which publishes a quarterly Firmament(P.O. Box 14305, San Francisco, Ca. 94114). The first conterence was held in August 1987; its proceedings, Christian Ecology: Building an environmental ethic for the twenty-firsicentuiyisavailable for $12 U.S. In 1988 Shomrei Adamah (Guraclians of the Earth) was founded for similar purposes, with an emphasis on Tu Beshevat, the Jewish New Year of Trees. The address is The Reconstructionist Seminary, Church Road and Greenwood Avenue, Wyncote, Pa. 19095.
2. Excerpts of the declarations al Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Moslem leaders may be obtained from Envinonrnental Sabbath: United Nations Environment Programme, Twa U.N. Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10017; many other pertinent materials are available there as well.
3. Cansult the numerous publications of Stanley L. Jaki, 0.S.B.; The Savior of Science (Washington' Regnery Gateway, 1988) is a synthesis of his work for a wide readership.
4. Lynn White, Jr., «The historical roots of our ecologic crisis», Science 1955 (March 10, 1967) p. 1203-7. The test is reproduced along with several reactions by David and Eileen Spring (editors), Ecology and Religion in History (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974).
5. Richard K. Cliflord, «Genesis», The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (edited by Raymond E. Brown et alii) (Englewood Cliffs: Pretice Hall, 1990)
6. Bruca Vawter, 0/7 Genesis: A New Reading (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977) p. 59. see Douglas John Hall, Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).
7. The Issue of sacrificial worship cannot be treated here. The use of ad and music inliturgical prayer elevates the gifts of the earth, transformed by human activity, to a higher level.
8. Spring, op. cit, p. 29.
9 «Biblical themes in St. Francis' Song of Brother Sun», ADIO 15 (no 31982) p. 14-17 and St. Francis of Assisi, in The World Encyclopedia of Peace (Oxford: Pergamon, 1986).
10. See Alfons Deissier, «The theology ol Psalm 104», Standing Belare God: Studies in honor of John M. °asterreicher (Edited by Asher FInkel and Lawrence Frizzell (New York: Ktav, 1981) p. 31-40, and Terence E. Fretheim, «Nature's praise of God in the psalms», Ex Auditu (Princeton) 3 (1988) p. 1630.
11. hymn of creation in Daniel«, SIDIC (Vol. XI no. 3-1978), Standing Belare Godo. 41-52, Ctn Use of a Prayer from Daniel.
12. A translation is published in The Jewish Almanac, compiled and edited,by Richard Siegel and Carl Rheins (Bantam Books, 1980) p. 323-327.
13. Robert Gordis, «Job and ecology (and the significance of Job 40-15)«, Hebrew Annua! Review 9 (1985) p. 189201; citing p. 195.
14. Art. cit. p. 200.
15. Various works consider the Hebrew Bible in detail; su Yehuda Fe/iks, Nature and Man in the Bible; Chapters in Biblica! Ecology (New York: Sancirla, 1981), Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblica! Heritage(lerusalem: Neot Kedumim, 1980), Odil H. Steck, World and Environment (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980). Richard Cartwright Austin, Hope for the Land: Nature in the Bible Atlanta; John Knox, 1988); Eu-gene C/ Hargrove (deotor), Religion and Environmental Crisis (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).
16. «Law at the service of humankind», SIDIC 19 (no. 3-1986)
17. See Asher Finkel, «Sabbath as the way to shalom (peace) in the biblica) tradition', Journal o! Dharma 11 (1986).
18. See Nyeme Tese, -L'aspect mora) dans Senseignement de Proverbes X-XXII et XXV-XXIX, Revue Alricame de Théologie (1977) p. 185-206.
19. The Leder of Aristeas (nQ 130-168) & Philo (Legum Allegoria III 100-131) interpret the distindion between clean and unclean animals (Lev. Il, Deut. 14) in relation to the violence of certain species. This characteristic would be transmitted to those who eat the carnivorous animals and birds.
Lawrence Frizzell D.Phil is a Priest of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Canada. He is Associate Professor in the Department of Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey, USA. Fr. Frizzell is a member of the Board of Consultants to the SIDIC Center and a consultant to the Editorial Board of the SIDIC periodical