What does it mean to “subdue” the Earth as we are told in the Bible? It has been widely interpreted as meaning that we assert dominion over nature, but there is another sense of the word, one that is nurturing and recognizes how interdependent we are with the environment. As we rediscover this, we also rediscover supposedly archaic Biblical attitudes toward the environment that once served an important ecological purpose, and deserve to be brought back.
This is an excerpt of a sermon given by Sinai and Synapses Fellow Rev. Zack Jackson on July 27, 2017 at Community United Church of Christ in Reading, PA.Read Transcript
Our second reading today comes from Genesis 1, verses 26 – 31. You can find it on page 1 of your Old Testament. That’s probably the easiest verse to find – page 1, very first page.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and of the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God, He created them, male and female he created them.
God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’
God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.
And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the Earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that He had made and indeed it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.”
Here ends our reading.
Henry Ganster. George Moyer. Charles and Sallie Bieber. Howard Potteiger. Heber and Cora Wamsher, the Levan Family, the Manwiller family. Some of you know these names, and some of you who do are probably recoiling at my mispronunciation of them. Some of you may remember these people, some of you may be related to these people. In fact I’m positive that someone is related to someone in this list, because these people were residents of St. Lawrence, members of our community in the early 1900s. People who used to own the beautiful forest that sits behind us, up there on what is not quite a mountain – it is technically a hill – but I like to think of it as my mountain.
They gave or sold about 245 acres worth of that beautiful land in order to create a water company, to preserve the water table, and to tap the spring that was up there for the people of St. Lawrence. Which, from what I hear from people who are around before, was the best water in the world. Unfortunately, St. Lawrence kept growing, or fortunately, St Lawrence kept growing, and that little spring couldn’t give water to the whole borough, and so we started buying water from Mt. Penn instead, and closed down the water system here. And aside from a small bit of logging in ’95, that land has remained untouched – a pristine reminder of the way this whole area used to be.
Well, back in November, your borough council here, in an effort led by our own Warren Lubenow, who is hiding behind the glass right now, worked out an easement deal with Berks Nature to preserve those 245 acres, so that it cannot be logged, it cannot be mined or stripped of its resources, or developed and put fancy condos on top of the mountain. And I plan on raising my sons in St. Lawrence, and this is important to me, because as the poet Wendell Berry said, “We do not so much inherit the world from our ancestors as we borrow it from our children.”
And yes, in the grand scheme of things, 245 acres out of the 36 billion acres in the world is nothing. It’s less than a drop in the ocean. But to us, and to my boys, it is everything. And even more than that, it represents this revolutionary mindset, this mindset that our children’s futures take precedence over our present. It represents obedience to the very first commandment that mankind was ever given, in the first chapter of Genesis, in our reading today.
And now, the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 are really hard to preach in 15 minutes, with all the subtleties inherent in Hebrew poetry and all of that. But here’s the gist, if I can just summarize it down into one statement. Genesis 1 and 2 mean this: the world, the universe, the creation as we know it, is not an accident. God did this on purpose. All of this that you see was done on purpose, with a word, with a command. Now, you can get caught up in trying to reconcile the science of cosmic and biological evolution with the poetry in this chapter, but in doing so, you miss that very important point. You miss the point that the author was trying to convey – that this is not an accident. God made this on purpose, and God loves this on purpose. Every person, every bird, every tree, every rock, every mountain, and yes, every mosquito, is intentional.
And when God made it, God said that it was good. It was good. And if there is a word in the English language that we have destroyed, it is the word “good,” is it not? if there is a word that means basically nothing anymore, it is the English word good, and which is so unfortunate, because the Hebrew word tov – that is in here, that we translate as “good”– is such a deep and important word. Tov means “pleasing.” It means something is as it was created to be. It is fulfilling its purpose, it is perfect, it is pure, it is ideal. You don’t throw the word tov around lightly in this time period.
God made the sun and it was pleasing. God made the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, and took joy in their life. God created the mountains and was just utterly giddy about them. Then when it was all established, when the scene was set, God made humans in God’s own image in order to take care of his pride and joy, and to share in the wonder of all of it. The writer of Hebrews says that humans were created just a little bit below the angels. Given the very Spirit of God, the breath of God, the image of God, that unlike the rest of creation we might be able to see what God is doing, and to see what God sees, to see creation with God’s eyes, and to see the joy, to revel in the beauty, in the wonder of it all, and to see God in God’s Self, within the creation itself – God saw humans. And God said that was very good. And then he gave them the name Adam. But this name was more than just a name. It was an identifier, it was a label, it’s a pun, it’s a play on words – because it’s a shortening of the Hebrew word adema, which means “dirt.” An eternal reminder that you human beings, for all of your divine image and breath of God, your creativity, your big brain and your technology, are just interestingly arranged dirt. Glorified, magnificent, and beloved dirt, but dirt nonetheless.
You know, the other creations in this poem spring from God’s words. They spring from nothing. God says “Let there be a sun” and there’s a sun, in this Genesis 1 and 2. Humans are the only creation that is created from something else. If you read in Genesis 2, God takes a handful of dirt and breathes into it, and creates humans. We are created from creation. We are what happens when the dirt gets a voice, when the earth gets a conscience, when the world has arms and legs and a thinking, rational mind that can relate to the Creator. We are the earth that gets to worship God.
The ancient writers of this creation poem want us to know that we are the earth, and we have been given a work to do as representatives of God. And what is that work? What is the work that God gave Adam and Eve to do? What is our primary directive, the very first commandment that humans are given?
They are given four commands. They are told to subdue the earth, to rule over it, to work it, and to take care of it. I mean they were also told to be fruitful and multiply, but that has more to do with them than their relationship to the earth (which, by the way, did you notice – on your bulletin cover, there’s literal fruit on there and it says “Be Fruitful.” I thought that was funny… That’s not what they meant!). So the first two commands are connected: to subdue and to rule over the world, which to me feel very imperial, doesn’t it, because when I think of ruling and subduing, I think of it in human terms. It sounds like the plot of a comic book villain more than God. To subdue and control the world. Well, to subdue it simply means to take control of it. We take control of others as humans through violence, typically. Violence or coercion. We force people to do things when we take control. But God never does that, God never controls through violence. God controls through love, through relationship, through getting you to take the steps, instead of forcing you to take the steps. God moves – shepherds – creation towards what is best for that for creation itself, not for God’s own purpose, not by abusing it into submission.
You know, when my son runs headlong towards a busy street, which he does on a daily basis, I subdue him – (laughter) – by grabbing him, and I control him, by holding him tightly so he can’t bend his way out of it. And I move him to a safe location and reaffirm proper boundaries. For his sake – I control him for his sake. And for my sake – I would be legally responsible if he were to run into traffic. But mostly for his sake. I have dominion over my son. He has been put in my charge. The Bible is very clear that having dominion over children does not mean that you’re allowed to abuse children. So I exercise my dominion in love.
Likewise, humans are given this commandment in the beginning of the Bible to cultivate the planet, to take what we need and then replenish it for future generations. So when a logging company cuts down a forest and then replants the forest, so that in a few years they can come back and replenish again, and have a cycle that does not strip bare but keeps growing back, that is subduing the planet. When fishermen and whalers hunt species to the brink of extinction to make money in the short term, that is destroying the planet.
There is a difference, a very important difference. And God’s not kidding about this command either. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy 20, and you can look this up later, this is a fascinating bit – that God commands the armies of Israel: when they are at war with the city – when they are sieging that city, which means parking your soldiers around the outside to starve them out – they are not allowed to cut down fruit trees. God says, very specifically, “you are allowed to eat the fruit from those trees, but you cannot cut them down for firewood or to build your weapons.” God says, basically, to them, “Your fight is with the people. The trees are innocent. They did nothing wrong. Leave them alone.” I’m not kidding. God is concerned with justice for trees in the midst of war.
And then in Leviticus 25, God commands the people of Israel that every seven years, they have to leave their ground fallow. They’re not allowed to plough and till and to plant and to cultivate the earth. Every seven years they have to let it sit and just eat what the earth produces on its own. Every seven years, their soil gets to simply rest. Because the dirt itself deserves justice as much as the people on it.
But then in the next chapter, God says that if they don’t listen to His commands, if they don’t give their ground a rest, if they don’t give justice to the soil, then God will literally send armies to destroy them, to carry them off to slavery, so that the ground will have rest by force.
That’s a little revolutionary. That’s a little extreme. God cares so much about the dirt that he’s threatening entire civilizations if they work it too hard. Whew. The second group of commands that God gives the early humans is to work and to take care of the earth. Now everyone who has a garden understands these commands perfectly and understands why they go together perfectly. The soil does not return a good harvest without plenty of sweat poured into it. First it requires working the soil, removing old roots, improving the soil, pulling weeds, and then watering it when the skies dry up, and then when the skies pour too much, fixing the plants that have broken and fallen over. And every gardener here knows that even if you do all of that perfectly, you get it completely right, your entire harvest can be destroyed by one hungry deer or by a pack of those pesky yellow Mexican bean beetles that destroy my bean harvest every year. You know that you must also protect your garden, you must put up fences to keep the deer out, you must sprinkle cayenne pepper to keep the rabbits out, or even set up one of those motion-controlled sprinkler systems. And if you’ve seen this, you turn it on at night, and then when a deer comes by, it shoots it with water and scares it away. (You all are going to go to Lowe’s after this aren’t you). You know, if you have a garden, that you need to take an active role in defending it against those who would come in and consume it.
So how have we done in protecting God’s garden? How have we as a species done in guarding God’s garden from those who would seek to devour it? How have we, as a species, done as stewards of God’s creation? Well, seeing as how a third of all soil that was usable a century ago is now unable to be used, to grow anything on, because of pollution or over-fertilization (which, did you know is a thing, you can put too much fertilizer out and trying to restore soil and end up destroying it and making a Dust Bowl)? Or did you know that there is a Texas-sized island of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean right now, or that while you’ve been listening to me speak, over 500 acres of rain forest have been cut down? I’d say we’re not doing great as a species. On the whole, we have not been very good gardeners.
But all the talk about rain forests and dying polar bears – it seems so far away. And that’s the problem with the way that we have talked about this before. We here in this room are thus far untouched by the effects of our planet abuse, but millions and millions of people are not so lucky, and it is always the poor who suffer first and who suffer worst. And the Bible is crystal-clear, in dozens of instances, that God stands with the poor and the oppressed, and practices extreme judgment against those that would benefit knowingly off of their loss. Did you realize that 80 percent of your electronic waste that has been properly recycled – not the stuff you throw away, but your computers and cell phones and electronics and whatnot that you bring to an e-recycling place – 80 percent of that stuff doesn’t actually go to a recycling plant, it actually gets sold and shipped overseas to poor countries in Africa and in Southeast Asia, where poor folk melt them down by hand to extract the gold and precious metals from them. People who have no other option have these massive piles of our electronics, and die early deaths of cancer, because we need to have the newest and best thing every single year instead of learning how to fix the things that we have and reducing our impact.
Or that there is a swath of Brazil the size of Texas that has been cut down and used for grazing lands for cows. Because America’s appetite for beef is so great that we can’t raise enough cows – we need a giant part of of Brazil to do that. And just for every single pound of beef, one pound – one pound – of beef takes 10,000 gallons of water to bring to your table, between giving the water to the cow and then the food and all of that stuff. Or that each individual cow produces more greenhouse gases than a car. Meanwhile, 6.5 million people die every year from polluted water and air because they are too poor to leave the places that they are. Nobody drinks polluted water because they want to – they do so because they have no other option.
And I could go on for the next couple of hours and completely lose everyone with statistics and numbers and stories and faraway, sad stories about people and animals you’ll never see. And I haven’t even started talking about mass extinction, or the terrifying reality of human-caused climate change and all the other consequences of a planet that’s been thrown out of balance.
But I’m not a scientist, I’m not an activist, I’m not a lobbyist, I’m not a lawyer or a politician. I’m a pastor. And as a pastor, I believe that Scripture teaches us that God created the universe on purpose. And that God created it and said that it was good, and that God sees the world and still loves it and still thinks that it is good. I believe that God suffers with the polluted rivers and with the people that are forced to drink it. God weeps with the last of a species that has been hunted to extinction while so many of his children starve to death. Our God demands justice and expects his followers to act accordingly. For too long, we have treated this earth as something to be consumed. When God created humans to protect it, to cultivate it, to take care of it, and we, as followers of Christ, we have a moral imperative to care about God’s creation and to do whatever is in our individual power to care for the corner of the planet that we have been entrusted with, to restore life instead of taking it.
And I don’t have time this morning to share with you any grand actionable steps that you can take today to save the world, or any evidence to prove the claims that I have made today, because I have a limited amount of time, but I promise you. If you come back on August 27th at 1:00, we will be having a picnic out in the pavilion out here. And I will have those things for you, and I will have resources that the United Church of Christ has put together because we have made stances on this as a denomination for decades and decades and decades. We have been at the forefront of this that we are not new. And I invite you to come out, not just so that you can feel guilty about driving your car or throwing plastic away, but so that you can be given actionable steps, that you can be given hope that there is hope for a brighter tomorrow, for a world that will be better for my children than it was for me. There is a path forward, friends, that can heal our broken world that cries out to God. And it is my prayer that the church be at the front of that restorative work as we were created to be. Let us pray.
Image from US Department of Agriculture