Earlier this winter over coffee at Wendy’s in Hillsboro, Kansas, I fielded a question from one of the Ebenfeld MB Church farmers crowded around the table: “What does the Bible say about environmental issues? Is care of the earth part of the gospel?”
Discerning that the question was not designed to pin me to (or, alternatively, free me from) “MCC tree-huggers,” I dove into my answer with relish.
“Yes,” I replied, “care of the land—also translated earth—is a primary element of God’s Design,” alluding to Elmer Martens’ Old Testament theology textbook based on Exod. 6:6-8. God’s plan is framed by the words “I am the Lord, Yahweh” (Exod. 6:6a, 8b).
God’s design is encapsulated in the four-fold promise to (1) deliver slaves, (2) create covenant community, (3) empower people to “know that I am God” and (4) land. Land is the fourth most frequent noun in the Hebrew Bible, connecting God’s gift with God’s demanding lifestyle. Earth, both gift and responsibility, grounds (sorry for the pun) God’s saving purpose.
Anticipating the Exodus salvation plan, the Bible opens, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” All humans are blessed as they are created “in the image of God,” a phrase connected to God’s mandate to rule, fill and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). To be created in God’s image is to represent God’s sovereign interests as a faithful community on earth. Created in the image of God, the human community is to rule (steward) the earth as God does. Humans imitate God by blessing the earth with their “earth care.”
While Genesis 1 pictures God the poet ordering and filling chaos, in Genesis 2 the Lord God is portrayed as an intimate potter who mentors Adam (the Hebrew term also translated man). The Lord God places Adam in the garden of Eden to till the land and keep it (Gen. 2:15; NRSV).
God calls Christians to earth stewardship. Obedient Christians prioritize ecology education. While the Bible doesn’t prescribe specific policies, faithful stewards protect the earth from pollution and the climate from global warming. Stewardship replaces maximum profit-taking through exploitation of land and soil for developers and farmers. Consumers avoid waste and seek healthy supply systems. The Creator, who is neither Republican nor Democrat, provides the model for earth care.
The Ebenfeld farmers had been listening respectfully but were getting a bit restless. They hadn’t bargained on an Old Testament theology lesson early Monday morning. My reference to Professor Ted Hiebert’s explanation of the Hebrew words he translates “take care of [the land] and look after it” (CEV) shook them out of their doldrums.
When the farmers heard that the Hebrew word usually translated till (cultivate; NASB) in Genesis 2 is translated serve in 90 percent of its other Old Testament uses, two of them exploded out of their chairs. “See!” they said, “I knew it! The Bible favors no-till agriculture.”
When they learned that keep is usually guard (as when the cherubim guard the way to the tree of life in Eden; Gen. 3:24), the farmers pounced on the one who had asked the first question about earth-care and the gospel.
“When we plant fall cover crops, we are creating a guard of the soil which allowed us to harvest in the wet conditions that kept you high-till farmers out of the fields,” they said.
While I’m not arguing that the Bible can be forced into the role of agricultural textbook, the farmers’ enthusiastic response to the new translation reinforced my growing awareness that land care not only matters to God but is also important for us, God’s kingdom-citizens. Deuteronomy, the covenant sermon Moses preached as Israel entered the land, prescribes land use that is liberative and justice-centered. As the fundamental economic equity and resource, land is to be shared. Earth ecology is essential to God’s saving plan, mandated at creation and stipulated in Torah, God’s instruction recorded in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Levitical Jubilee laws are based on the Lord’s declaration, “The land is mine” (Lev. 25:23). Equity in use of the basic resource of land is essential. Jubilee is Sabbath-keeping on steroids! Every 50 years, at the send of seven sabbaths of years, land is to be returned to the family that received it when Israel entered the land. When Jesus announces “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19), it is good news of Jubilee for the poor with all its economic implications.
Jubilee practices protect marginalized persons. Doing justice gives preference to strangers. We obey God rather than human rulers when the law exploits orphans and widows and aliens. Jesus teaches us that Sabbath is not about legalistic rule-keeping but about extending justice. Jesus doesn’t endorse American political platforms, but his Jubilee message (Luke 4:18-19) prioritizes hospitality despite personal risk or financial cost. Kingdom citizens seek just solutions for border issues, care for non-citizens and wages and working conditions.
Sabbath and land use are linked both in creation and in God’s salvation plan. When I told an Old Testament theology class that humans are the high point and goal of creation in Genesis 1, one of three Seventh Day Adventist students corrected me. In her class research project, she demonstrated from Gen. 2:2-3 that the goal of creation is not humans and their rule of the earth but God and God’s commitment to blessing, relationship and Sabbath rest. The 10 commandments link Sabbath to God’s example in creation in Exod. 20:8-11. In Deut. 5:12-15, however, the 10 commandments link Sabbath to the Lord’s freeing slaves from exploitation. The Lord’s example transforms labor management.
Life in the land is abundant and free, Scripture teaches. Land is the Lord’s possession (Ps. 24:1). God’s mandate orders land use. Following the flood, God’s covenant with Noah includes not only humans but all life on earth (Gen. 9:8-17). Though strict interpretation of Deut. 7:1-5 would require “the Final Solution” for all non-Israelites, the story of Israel in the land suggests otherwise. Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, exercises covenant loyalty, confesses faith in the Lord and becomes the forebear of David. Ruth the Moabite widow shows covenant loyalty and meets Boaz the kinsman-redeemer as she gleans the crop on his land. When Israel returns to the land from exile, the Lord promises inclusion for both eunuchs and foreigners (Is. 56:1-8). The land is not surrounded by walls that keep others out. It is a beacon of light that offers a home to aliens and strangers.
Earth stewardship is anchored in the creation order. Land use is linked to God’s liberating justice. While biblical narrative and law does not prescribe timeless agricultural policies, Moses’s sermon as Israel enters the land confesses that the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome executes justice for orphans and widows and loves strangers. God’s example mandates that God’s people shall also love the stranger (Deut. 10:17-19).
Returning to the question raised by the Kansas farmers, I am persuaded that land use is central to the Gospel. God guards the land and calls on humans to serve it. God loves strangers and mandates God’s people to use land to provide for the marginalized. If God values the earth that much, and in that way, we who are created in the image of God can do no less.
Lynn Jost is professor of Old Testament and director of the Center for Anabaptist Studies at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.