Saturday, August 27, 2011

They Shall Have Dominion ...

The day after a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the east coast of the United States, I read this thoughtful article by Rabbi Edward Bernstein of Temple Torah in Boynton Beach, Florida. So, as thoughts all over the east coast turned from the earthquake to an approaching hurricane, my own thoughts, as usual, turned to the Bible.
I had some help. That the Washington, D.C., area was facing a one-two punch of natural disasters had set the political blogosphere and the Facebook populace afire. There were prophecies of doom and of impending salvation based on readings of biblical passages. There were jokes about the founding fathers turning over in their graves because of the sins of the right or the left; there were attempts to label the earthquake fault line “Obama’s fault” or “Bush’s fault”; there was Pat Robertson making his usual pronouncements about the events being signs from God. I got into the act with an observation that the epicenter of the quake was in Rep. Eric Cantor’s district and thus was a Tea Party phenomenon; it was fun for a day or so.

But when I read Rabbi Bernstein’s article, I began to reflect more seriously on humanity’s impact on the Earth. Now anyone who has read this blog knows that I am in no way a believer in the Bible as literal truth. It’s certainly not anything approaching literal history or science. I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God and have no use for the idea that He sends down specific earthly judgments.
But I do believe in providence. And I believe that the Bible supports the idea of providence. I’m also a believer in a concept of universal law and justice that is not wholly based on biblical teaching but is in part expressed through the teachings of Jesus, Paul, James, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other biblical figures. All those ancient Middle Eastern philosophers were on to something big, in my opinion.

The Sh’ma – the topic of Rabbi Bernstein’s piece – is one place in which the Bible gives us a poetic portrait of humanity’s responsibility for the “behavior” of the Earth. The paragraphs on which Bernstein focuses read (in the translation available online in the JewishVirtual Library:

And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love HaShem your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which HaShem giveth you. Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land which HaShem swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.

(HaShem, literally “The Name,” is a Hebrew term for God that Jews often use as a way of referring to Yahweh while avoiding other names that are limited to ritual use).

This passage -- part of Moses’ grand valedictory address to the Israelites who are approaching the Holy Land after 40 years in the wilderness – suggests a direct relationship between the Israelites’ behavior and weather events in the Holy Land. We may reject that one-to-one correspondence – I do – and yet, as Bernstein points out, find in it a broader truth: That humanity’s behavior toward the Earth does have an impact on the Earth’s “behavior” toward humanity.
To explore that, we might go back to Genesis 1:26, in which God, having created humanity in His image, gives our species a level of control over the rest of creation:

And G-d blessed them; and G-d said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth'.

This passage was famously cited a few years ago by the political provocateur Ann Coulter (I’m never sure how to refer to Coulter, but provocateur seems as good a term as any) in an anti-environmental rant:
God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.’
Giving Coulter the benefit of a great degree of doubt, I will assume this was one of her typical attempts to start a fire by exaggerating a position. But it’s a particularly feeble one, even for her. Coulter is representative of a small, vocal minority that rejects environmental science, using a misrepresentation of scripture to support right wing political/economic ends. I’m pretty sure there’s no implication in Genesis that we should rape the Earth.

Indeed, we are told to replenish the Earth, a command that I think is best read broadly. Although it is coupled with the instruction to “be fruitful and multiply,” I would argue that the injunction to “replenish the Earth” is not limited to promoting the survival of humanity. And while “dominion” is a term implying rule – it shares an etymological root with “dominate” and “domain” – I don’t think it in any way suggests reckless rule.

I share with a lot of religious people a belief that when God placed his creation in our hands, he did so in the sense that we should care for it and protect it as something holy, something to be revered. And in this sense, taking responsibility for human behaviors that have exacerbated global warming is entirely consistent with the Bible.
It’s important to point out that Genesis 1 is attributed by most biblical scholars to the Priestly source, a person or group of writers who worked during the post-exilic period, around 500 B.C., a time when the Jews, recently allowed to return to the Holy Land from forced exile in Babylonia, were rebuilding their cities and places of worship, in particular the Temple in Jerusalem. The God depicted by the Priestly source is one who values law and order; this source is also deemed responsible for Leviticus and the portions of Numbers that are concerned with laws of human behavior.

The Sh’ma, the passage of Deuteronomy cited earlier, is attributed, in contrast, to the Deuteronomist, who is also believed to be the author(s) of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. This author, who wrote in the years prior to the conquest and exile, was focused on telling the story of the founding of the Jewish nation.
And the second creation story, in Genesis 2, is attributed to the Yahwist source, or J, who wrote something very different, a narrative focused on humanity in which God plays an important role but human behavior is really in control of events. It is through J’s narrative that we learn about Adam, Eve and the serpent; Abram and Sarai’s wanderings; the complex family dynamic of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and Moses’ leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

I know that many people reject this standard scholarship and believe that the  Torah was handed down by God to Moses in its current form (notwithstanding the fact that there is no universal agreement on that current form). For those who hold to this belief, there is a compelling sequence in the events of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, culminating in the Fall of humanity.
After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the whole concept of dominion over the Earth seems to fly out the door. Instead of being overlods, we are told, humanity will be at the mercy of the Earth. The angry God, after condemning the serpent to wander on its belly and Eve to endure labor pains, passes sentence on Adam:

And unto Adam He said: 'Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying: Thou shalt not eat of it; cursed is the ground for thy sake; in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.'

We’re no longer above the rest of creation. We came from the Earth and we will return to be part of the greater whole upon our deaths. Disrespect for the environment – the Earth – is disrespect for ourselves, for our roots and for our destination.

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