In less than two weeks, we will be reading Genesis 1, starting again our annual round of sacred storytelling.
Four decades ago, Genesis 1:28 was targeted as a principal cause of the western world's ethic of environmental abuse and resource degradation. This in turn led to hundreds of articles arguing about whether the western environmental ethic can be blamed on biblical religion. The debate continues to this very day. Yet, even assuming that such an interpretation of this verse is technically defensible, that is, that one can literally read those words in a way that gives unbridled license for humanity to use nature as it pleases, there are two significant challenges we can offer: (1) it clearly disregards the rest of the narratives and laws in the Torah that more precisely define the biblical land ethic and biblical economic traditions; (2) and it assigns a level of attention and influence to an otherwise an arcane verse that is enjoyed by almost no other verse in the Bible save, perhaps, the Ten Commandments.
So what is this brouhaha all about? Let's begin with the verse that is at the epicenter of this debate:
[And to the man and woman God said:] "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth." (Genesis 1:28)
Whatever the origin of the Genesis story, we should take it seriously, for no matter what the "truth" of the events, the story still holds sacred meaning. That is the task of Torah - to provide meaning through law and narrative, its own version of truth.
The question we must ask, then, is: what is this bit of the story, this bit of truth, trying to teach us?
Casting ourselves into the place of the first humans, we can understand why the story has this be God's first communication with humanity. Before we can build civilizations, before we can create a system of justice, before we can design laws of equity, pursue ethics, act fairly, before we could even honor and praise God or see the awe in the world that God created and gave to us, we needed to know that we would be alright. We needed to know we could survive, that our environment was friendly, that we could lay down in peace and rise up in peace; that we could eat and be warm and protected from the things that go bump in the night.
Imagine, then, being plunked down in this gorgeous but foreign, potentially dangerous wilderness. The first thing we would need to do is get the lay of the land; see what it was and what it had to offer, in both blessings and dangers. We would need to find a way to live with, and live from, the wonders and riches and surprises around us. We would need to learn what could we eat, and what we couldn't. We would need to learn how to avoid being eaten, maimed, made sick or otherwise harmed by the elements, vegetation and animals around us. We would need a way to understand and successfully manage the world around us.
That is what we learn from the story: that our ancestors saw the world both potentially as an Eden, full of verdancy and fertility and goodness. And that they saw it as a place of danger and challenge that needed taming for us to survive.
Today, we rarely if ever feel the raw, engulfing, overwhelming power of nature. We rarely are in a place so lost, so helpless, that there is no hope that others will find us. Rarely do we feel the terror of aloneness, just us, our wits and the physical world all around.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, nor'easters, tzunamis are all awesome and devastating episodes of nature. But they are just that: episodes. At most, thank goodness, they happen only now and then (though the "then" seems to be increasing in frequency and vigor given the climate change we are experiencing and creating).
Imagine, though, living in a world where it is all wilderness, all strange, all raw, all engulfing. That is the world that the first humans found themselves in. Even more, that it is the world that the tellers of this tale felt they lived in. To be vulnerable to attack by predatory animals, criminals, illness, infection, a pregnancy gone wrong, mental illness, accidents, drought, floods, fire, heat, cold were everyday fears that defined their lives.
How comforting it must have been to know that from the moment of creation, we have been given the right, the mandate, to control and manage our environment so that we can hedge against being constantly threatened by the whim of nature's harsh indifference.
Genesis 1:28 was not license to ravage the world, but a mandate to understand and manage it well.
Samson Raphael Hirsh, a 19th century rabbinic scholar and populist, reminds us to look at what comes immediately after this command in this chapter of Genesis. Remember that the first man and woman were created on the afternoon of the sixth day of the week of creation. Immediately after creating humanity and charging them with knowing, exploring and managing themselves in this world, God rests. For the man and woman, then, their first day, their first experience of the world was, Shabbat.
What does this teach us? That humanity's first act, first experience, was not to do but to look and see and be with the earth. Before they undertook any act of managing and controlling, they had to experience, and feel a part of, the cycles and rhythms and pulse of the earth.
That is a lesson we need to learn even today.
Labels: God, Nature, Torah