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Sunday, January 18, 2009

In the beginning...

Reading: Genesis 1
(I am using the New King James Version)

The beginning of a story sets the scene for the rest of the action and can be essential to understanding the relationships between the characters. Genesis is no exception. Genesis chapter one is possibly the most important chapter in the entire Bible when it comes to the relationship between man and nature, nature and God and God and man.

Let's take a look at some of the significant passages:

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

Simple, but very important. The earth is God's creation; his workmanship and craft. Just as you can learn about a person by studying their work, we can learn about God by studying the earth.

God then creates light, separates day and night; divides the waters with a firmament; and creates dry land from the sea. Basically, God creates the conditions needed for his next creation - life. He begins with plants "grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit". He then creates the sun and moon and sets them to "rule" over the day and night (I will get back to the significance of this in a minute)

Now he creates the animals, and he blesses them, saying "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the waters in the seas...". Afterward he "saw that it was good". This is important - remember man has not been created yet. This timing refutes a belief held by many people (both Christian and non) about where animals obtain their value. This belief is that animals receive their value from their usefulness to man. Therefore cattle are more valuable than wild kangaroos, edible fish more valuable than inedible, and predatory species that occasionally take human lives should be killed.

This worldview influences even our conservation efforts. We often justify the preservation of rainforests by stating that there is a chance the ‘cure for cancer’ could be found in one of the plants or animals living in that environment. We justify the conservation of species and habitats in developing nations by noting how it helps the poor. We may even allow the hunting of endangered species by indigenous people for cultural value. Value to mankind seems like a reasonable way to decide upon our actions towards God’s creatures.

But look at the passage again. You will note that God declares the animals good before he even creates humans. He does not wait until the animals are of use to humankind and then declare them good. No! According to God, animals are good. They have intrinsic value, in and of themselves, completely independent of mankind. The value of animals comes from God, and from being a part of his creation- much the same as ours does.

Finally, God creates man. "Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over....every living thing." (emphasis mine)

This passage is famous for the contention surrounding it and for being blamed by many as the reason Christians have exploited and abused the earth for at least the last 200 years.

So, the first thing I have always wanted to know about this verse is what is the exact translation of the hebrew word here quoted as dominion. I took the opportunity a few years ago to ask the (then) Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburne- George Browning- about this. He explained to me that the hebrew word in verse 26 translated as dominion or rule is the same word used earlier in verses 16-18 where God "made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night." (emphasis mine) I was quite inspired by this idea of ruling earth. It inspires the kind of leadership where a monarch serves his people, consistant with the servant leadership demonstrated by Jesus. For the sun does not take anything from the earth, rather it provides light and energy to enable life to thrive. It is my belief that humanity should contribute positively to the earth and not negatively or even neutrally.

How do you think we might achieve this?

The other really interesting thing about this verse is the phrase "in our image". That we are made in God’s image and likeness, is a big clue as to how we are to rule the earth. We need simply look at God and how he treats the animals. There are many answers throughout the Bible, but perhaps the best illustration can be found in Psalms 104. This entire Psalm tells of God’s provision for his creatures, but the following passage is a nice summary:

10 He sends the springs into the valleys,

They flow among the hills.
11 They give drink to every beast of the field;
The wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 By them the birds of the heavens have their home;
They sing among the branches.
13 He waters the hills from His upper chambers;
The earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works.

This is an interesting contrast to the Snowy Hydro scheme I visited on an excursion one year. They had placed a dam on a raging stream; completely swallowing it up. They just took the stream away to water crops and make electricity. Now the trees and animals have only a dry streambed.

The well known passage of Matthew 6:25-34 in the Sermon on the Mount also tells of God’s provision for his creatures- clothing the lillies of the field and feeding the birds of the air.

Before I finish I would like to note two more interesting things about Genesis 1.

Firstly, have a look at verse 29-30 "See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food." Likewise for animals. Yes, as a vegetarian I am pointing this out slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it would seem that before the fall all people and animals ate only herbs and fruit. I understand why many people find the decision to become vegetarian too difficult; which is why for me it is a personal choice and not something I would impose upon others. However, it is undenyable that we would use considerably less resources in the western world if we were to at least significantly cut down on our meat consumption. In the defence of meat-eaters though, do not let vegetarians lord it over you too much. Our oh-so-environmentally-friendly tofu burger is probably made from soybeans grown in what was the Amazon and cooked in palm oil to make sure we kill the orang-utans as well.

Lastly, one theory I have heard about why some Christians avoid the environmental movement is because of the debate over evolution. Apparently they think that since they disagree with scientists about the evolution vs creation issue, they have to disagree with scientists about everything- including climate change and environmental issues. All I can say is I disagree with my best friend on lots of things- that doesn't mean I don't agree with her the rest of the time, or that I don't trust her word.

I am not going to go any further into the evolution debate- it has been done many times and I don't want to cover such old ground again.

If anyone would like to make a contribution to this commentary on Genesis 1 comments are most welcome. This blog is not just about me talking, it is about learning from God's word together. After all, I don't have any qualifications in theology and I am writing this blog as much to learn myself as to teach.

Please also feel free to reproduce anything in this blog and change it to make it appropriate for your church group or Bible study.

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Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+