Let’s think about our place in ecology. The vast majority of people in today’s world do not till the ground or kill the animals they eat. We remove ourselves far away from the dirt and the death that sustain us—as if we could remove ourselves from nature entirely.
In a skyscraper, a tower of glass surrounded in every direction by concrete and rebar, a place where there is not a pasture for hundreds of miles, or a banana tree for thousands of miles, there are people toting bananas and roast beef sandwiches to eat during their lunch break. You can walk into a fast food restaurant in the middle of a concrete jungle and find meat and vegetables. It’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity that this is even possible, but we hardly ever stop to think if living this way is moral. It is, if nothing else, bizarre that the animals that inhabit this planet known as humans esteem themselves as hierarchically superior to the plants and animals they rely upon for survival.
Let’s look at what scripture says about our place in nature. We’ll find that the general idea of being able to do whatever we want to the planet because we’ve been given dominion over it does not have a scriptural foundation.
(Much of the following information on Genesis 1-2 comes from Theodore Hiebert, a professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.)
Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 in the Bible offer surprisingly different perspectives on the Creation. It is widely believed among the theological community that these first two chapters of the Bible were written by different people at different times.
Genesis 1 is likely to have been written by an Israelite priest, or priest community. This account uses the ancient Hebrew words rada, “have dominion” (Genesis 1:26, 28), and kabas, “subdue” (Genesis 1:28) to describe humanity’s relationship to the earth. Rada is used in other places of the Bible to refer to the rule of kings, heads of households, and even the priests themselves. This verb was likely used to describe humanity’s relationship to nature because of the priest’s position of authority over declaring which animals were clean or unclean. It could also refer to Israel’s practice of domesticating and herding animals.
Kabas, or subdue, is much more forceful. It is also used to describe subjugation, enslavement, and forcing another into subordination. Using such a harsh word as this to describe man’s relationship to nature might make more sense when you realize how living conditions in the Mediterranean highlands were sometimes very harsh, and getting things to grow in that environment was not always easy. It could also be understood from the perspective of the priests whose responsibility it was to kill animals as sacrificial offerings.
These couple of verses in Genesis 1 have been used a lot to justify all sorts of mistreatment of the earth, but to do so is not accurate, especially when compared to other scriptures about God’s creation.
This account is usually referred to as the Yahwist’s account because the author used the word Yahweh as the name of God. Yahweh is translated as LORD into English. Another way in which it differs from Genesis 1 is that it also gives us the names of the first man and woman.
Humanity’s relationship to nature is talked about in a very different way in this chapter. The words rada and kabas are not used. Instead, we get an insight into man’s relationship with nature via the first man’s name: Adam. The Hebrew word Adam’s name is derived from, adama, means arable land, or the soil used for growing crops. So, when God says to Adam, “for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19), it is a reference to Adam’s name. He’s telling Adam that he’s made from the same stuff that plants and animals are made of. He’s telling Adam that he is one with the earth.
Furthermore, in ancient Israel, it was a man’s responsibility to name their children. The implication was that a man takes responsibility for the well-being of another life when he gives it a name. In Genesis 2:19, God brought every living creature before Adam so could name every living thing. Adam’s took upon himself the responsibility of the well-being of every creature. We can also see from Genesis 2:23 that Adam also named Eve, taking on the responsibility to care for her physical and emotional well-being as well. Man’s role, therefore, is just as much a nurturer and caretaker as it is a leader.
What about other Scriptures?
Once you start to understand the language behind Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, they start to sound really different from each other. The priestly account describes humans dominating and supervising nature, while the Yahwist account describes humans as tending, serving, and nurturing nature. So, what do other scriptures say? Is there more insight to be gained from modern revelation?
“For it is expedient that I, the Lord, shall make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine” (D&C 104:13-15). This is saying that we’ll be held accountable for the way we treat the earth and all its creatures, because, in the end, they don’t belong to us. They belong to God. Adam’s responsibility to care for the earth and its creatures has extended to the entire human family.
For more information on the Church’s stance on environmentalism, please visit this page:
What is our Stewardship?
When God gathered together the waters and called them seas, he saw that it was good. When God brought forth grass, herbs, and trees of every kind, he saw that they were good. When God made all the animal kingdom, fish, birds, etc., He saw that they were good. I believe that when humankind destroys or pollutes those things which already were intrinsically “good” before Adam was even created beyond a reasonable ecological footprint, it is morally wrong.
Every living thing leaves both a literal and a figurative footprint on the world. This is a good thing, and I think it was part of God’s design. Squirrels store nuts. Beavers make dams. Wolves control the population of deer. Hawks control the population of field mice. Dung beetles roll poop around for some hilarious reason. When left to its own design, nature lives harmoniously with all the footprints of different animals… except when it comes to humans.
Wendell Berry describes this problem this way: “Whereas animals are usually restrained by the limits of physical appetites, humans have mental appetites that can be far more gross and capacious than physical ones. Only humans squander and hoard, murder and pillage because of notions.” In other words, when humans aren’t in control of their appetites (or “natural man”) it is nature that suffers; and when nature suffers, all living things suffer, which is something we will be held accountable for.
Obviously, the ways we hurt the earth are massively systemic and out of control, but there are still things we can do on an individual level to magnify our callings as stewards of the earth. Here are some questions to consider:
Can I reduce the amount of trash we produce?
Can I do more to recycle?
How can I encourage green energy and cleaner air?
Do I know where my food comes from?
Do I support humane treatment of animals?
Can I do more to support local farms?
How do these things tie into my personal stewardship, and what will I be held accountable for?