Bob Dylan once sang, “The times are a changin’.” According to most scientists the planets a changin’ too. Yet, as much as the environmental alarmists are championing extreme climate change, there is another side, called the climate change deniers. If you’re just the average person, it can be hard to navigate what is true or not. It seems we would rather fight than finding common ground. However, whether you are on one side or the other, or stuck in the middle with me, what the Scriptures teach us about caring for the earth is the same. In fact, whether you believe in climate change or not should have no bearing on Biblical care for the environment.
The two verses from the two creation accounts in the book of Genesis speak of what we call, the Cultural Mandate.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. Genesis 1:28
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:15
These verses are the commission of Adam and Eve to subdue, rule, work, and care for the earth. We will address these words in a second. These Scriptures, at the very beginning, the very first things God tells his people, are too often forgotten. God is inviting us into his creative work. The Apostle Paul writes to the Church in Colossae,
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” Colossians 1:16
The world has not only been created by Jesus but for Jesus, and he invites us into the process. The call goes out to subdue, rule, work, and take care. The “subdue” in Genesis 1 means bring into bondage and press. It’s the same Hebrew word for “oppress” and “beat or make a path.” The word rule doesn’t paint warm and fuzzy pictures either, it means “dominate.” Yet in Genesis 2, the work means to serve and take care means to “keep watch, preserve, to be a watchman.” It appears that these two accounts differ in how they depict how we are to respond to the earth.
I would argue that the only reason we see subdue and rule as negative is because of the view of our broken world as it is now. In this portion of Scripture, it is a very different story. This is before the fall of mankind, which happens in the next chapter. Jim Ball writes,
“yet this granting of dominion in Genesis 1 occurred before the Fall in Genesis 3 before we became warped images, distorted reflections.”
When people try to use these as reasons to squeeze every ounce of life out of the earth, they are grossly taking it out of context. The idea of bringing into bondage has to do with tending. A plants natural reaction is to spread, dominate (in a negative way), and kill anything that gets in its way. God’s call to us is to cultivate protect, set up boundaries–this is what subdue means. To rule is much the same. Don’t think of “rule” as injustice, think of it as benevolent and perfect. Everyone wants a perfect ruler. At that time, we were. Perversion had yet to take place in our hearts. If we look at these words through the lens of Jesus, they become powerful. Jesus’ form of ruling is to serve. Jesus’ form of subduing is defeating evil.
To sum up what the Scripture says is, “Give a Hoot.”
Think of it as your house, do you just throw garbage around, no. People who do are usually children who have yet to learn or adults with some sort of psychosis. It means we need to carefully, and thoughtfully use the resources the earth supplies. Ron Snider writes,
“Our survival depends on agriculture. We need food to live. Yet, agricultural lands are threatened by desertification, land degradation, and drought, 12 million hectares (the size of Mississippi) of agricultural land are lost each year. Globally, half of all agricultural land is moderately or severely degraded. The poorest are mote vulnerable, with 74 percent suffering from land degradation.”
This doesn’t sound like we are giving a hoot. This is the wrong end of dominate. This is selfish domination. This isn’t tending, this is taking all we can.
The science may be clear to you, or it may be murky, but whether the climate is changing or not has nothing to do with responsible resource use, caring for plants and animals, and making sure we are not polluting the earth.
We have been called to be stewards. That means we defend endangered species, we protect our oceans and forests, we campaign to have harmful chemicals removed from our foods and water supplies, and it means we do what we can to care for our portion of the earth.
We have vast resources to care for. In the wealthier countries our earth is cleaner, and our waters are cleaner. This gives us a false sense of accomplishment. Developed nations are responsible for nearly all CO2 emissions. This is a big part of what we can do to change. We can rely on solar and wind for our power. As much as fossil fuels have saved trees (we have more trees on the earth than we did 100 years ago) it is far from the solution. This is where God invites us in to steward and make decisions for ourselves. We get the joy of not only being but finding the solution. If we don’t the consequences could be catastrophic. Ball writes,
“Global Warming will increase hunger and malnutrition by damaging rain-fed agriculture. The amount of agricultural land experiencing extreme drought will grow from 1-3 percent today to 30 percent by 2090. Tens, perhaps hundreds of millions will experience increased risk of hunger and malnutrition.”
The hard question to ask ourselves is, if God made everything good, as it says in Genesis 1, and we have been given the mandate to care for the earth, have we maintained the goodness? That should be our goal.
While we in developed countries carry the weight of global warming, developing and underdeveloped countries are dealing with extreme pollution. While they have the packaging for products like we do, they do not have the infrastructure to deal with their trash. There is also a lack of consequences for bad practices. Snider points out,
“Developing nations often use less-sophisticated technology and consequently consume fossil fuels less efficiently. Desperately poor people also try to farm marginal land and destroy tropical forests.”
There is an epidemic of deforestation in African countries. As they try to develop and increase their tourism, they are clearing vital forests to build resorts to attract wealthy northern hemisphere patrons and build factories. They do this as our countries sit by idly as they rape their land and make many of the same mistakes we have. After all, if we keep them in poverty we can get clothes, fruit, and vacations cheap.
What we see is that as the livelihood of a person increases their pollution footprint decreases. The scriptures clearly teach us to care for the poor. This means that as we care for the poor, we also help with planet care. Snider again points out what incredible power Christians could have,
“Imagine what one quarter of the world’s Christians could do if they became truly generous. A few of us could move to desperately poor areas to help combat poverty. The rest of us could defy surrounding materialism. We could refuse to let our affluent world squeeze us into its consumeristic mold. Instead, we could become generous nonconformists who love Jesus more than wealth. In obedience to our Lord, we could empower the poor through generous giving, community development, and better societal systems. And in the process, we would learn again his paradoxical truth that true happiness flows from generosity.”
Whether you are earthy or not, our mandate from God is evident, tend the earth. We need to care for creation, after all, we are a part of the planet. The word Adam in Hebrew is taken for the word dirt. The difference between us and all other creation is that we were made in the image of Elohim, the God of creative works–who invites us into the responsibility for caring for his planet. We are the watchmen. Paul states to the Romans,
“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”Romans 8:22
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