Old Testament and the Environment

One of the modules available on Redcliffe’s MA in Global Issues in Contemporary Mission is ‘The Greening of Mission’. Today I joined the class to look at some material on creation and the environment in the Old Testament.

I gave them three pieces of preparatory reading:

1. Read ch.4 of C.J.H. Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Leicester: IVP, 2004);

2. Read Gordon Wenham’s article, The Bible and the Environment, which is available on the John Ray Initiative website;

3. Have a look at the Old Testament and Ecology blog. This is one I’ve recently discovered, which is written by a Justin Allison, a PhD student in Old Testament based in the States.

Here’s a quote from Wenham’s article:

Two terms are used in Genesis to describe man’s management function vis-a-vis the rest of creation. He is told to ‘have dominion’ (Hebrew radah) over other living creatures, fish, birds, cattle and creeping things and to ‘subdue’ (kabash) the earth. ‘Have dominion’ is quite a positive term for ruling. Whereas many people today have an anarchist streak, or at least an antipathy to those in authority, that was not the official outlook of the ancient Near East, who saw kings as essentially benevolent and concerned with their subjects’ welfare. Psalm 72 puts this message powerfully:

Give the king thy justice, O God,
May he judge thy people with righteousness
and thy poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor!
(Psalm 72: 1-3)

To ‘have dominion’ means to be in charge of something, e.g. workers (1 Kings 4: 24; 9: 23). To be sure some people may abuse their authority and exercise power harshly (Leviticus 25: 43), but that is clearly not the intention here. Man is created in God’s image, and so as his representative is expected to act in a Godlike way, and God throughout Genesis 1 and 2 is portrayed as a thoroughly creation-friendly deity.

Michael Goheen on the Old Testament as a tool of God’s missional purposes

In a recent article (‘Continuing Steps Towards a Missional Hermeneutic’, Fideles (2008), pp.49-99), Michael Goheen makes the point that different texts in the Bible will form God’s missional people for his missional purposes in different ways. Here’s what he says about this in relation to the Old Testament:

The Old Testament Scriptures were written to ‘equip’ God’s people for their missional calling to be a distinctive people. Specifically the Scriptures are an instrument of God’s loving and powerful presence among his people to shape them for their missional calling. N. T. Wright suggests that “a full account of the role of scripture within the life of Israel would appear as a function of Israel’s election by God for the sake of the world. Through scripture, God was equipping his people to serve his purposes.” Equipping, Wright continues, is “inadequate shorthand for the multiple tasks scripture accomplished.”

It is precisely in order that Israel might fulfill her missional calling and be a light to the nations, that the law ordered its national, liturgical, and moral life; that wisdom helped to shape daily conduct in conformity to God’s creational order; that the prophets threatened and warned Israel in their disobedience and promised blessing in obedience; that the psalms brought all of Israel’s life into God’s presence in worship and prayer; that the historical books continued to tell the story of Israel at different points reminding Israel of and calling them to their missional place in the story.

In a similar vein Chris Wright points out that the Old Testament is a missional phenomenon that reflects the struggles of a people called to be a light to the world in their missionary encounter and engagement with competing cultural and religious claims of the surrounding world. Specifically, the story of the exodus in the Torah narrates how the LORD confronts the rival religious claims of the Pharaoh and Egypt; the story of creation is presented as a polemic against the creation myths of the Ancient Near East; the historical narratives and pre-exilic
prophets depict Israel’s struggle with the religious culture of Canaan; the exilic and post-exilic books emerge as Israel’s struggles with their identity in the midst of large empires with competing religious commitments; wisdom texts engage pagan wisdom traditions “with a staunch monotheistic disinfectant”; the psalms and prophets nourish the calling of Israel to be a priestly kingdom in the midst of the nations.

In short, the Old Testament canon was shaped by a people called to be a community of mission, a light to the nations. The various books arose to nurture that calling in various ways. (pp.91-92)

The article as a whole is well worth reading. The books he cites are N.T. Wright’s The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) and C.J.H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006).