Monday, November 28, 2011

Genesis and "Care of the Land"

American Public Media distributes a radio program called "On Being," which showcases issues of religion and spirituality.  In the most recent program, the host, Krista Tippett, interviewed Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke University.  Professor Davis interprets the Old Testament from an agricultural perspective, which of course the Israelites had, being a farming people.  Professor Davis' interpretation is not confined to traditional environmentalism, however.

Professor Davis started by discussing the first chapter of Genesis.  In traditional translations, humanity is given "dominion" over the earth and everything in it.  Professor Davis instead would translate it as "skilled mastery."  The difference between the two translations is that a responsibility is implied in Professor Davis' version.  God, the earth's original master, gave humanity a chance to share in His mastery, but we would be required to care for God's creation as well as He would have.  Other scholars have called this concept "stewardship," but Professor Davis' concept is more nuanced and subtle than that.

According to Professor Davis, Genesis places "tremendous emphasis on the fruitfulness of the earth."  Not only does God create, but every one of His creatures also creates, too.  Plants, animals, and even people are fruitful.

Professor Davis' idea of "skilled mastery" extends to our bodies.  As she said, "I think we are beginning to wake up in this culture from a long period of obliviousness about what we eat. And we're also stepping out of our completely unprecedented lack of awareness that eating has anything to do with our life with God."  What does our eating have to do with our relationship with God?  First, because God gave us our bodies, we have a responsibility to treat them with respect.  Second, because God gave us the earth and all the plants and animals, we are to use them in a careful and mindful way.

In a similar manner, "care of the land" is more than simply about the land.  Professor Davis said, "How we eat and drink, how we sow our land, how we get food to our plates, how we use other bodies, other human bodies, in getting food and drink to sustain us, these are moral issues which cannot be separated from the very basic physical questions."  If we were wonderful environmentalists and took excellent care of the land, but continued to mistreat farm workers to keep food prices low, we would be hardly showing "care of the land" in the greater sense of the term.

Our use of the physical world rebounds to the spiritual world.  Professor Davis noted, "the best index in the Bible of the health of the relationship between God and Israel or between God and humankind is the health of the land of Israel or the earth as a whole, its fertility."  When Israel's relationship with God was unhealthy, then the land was not fruitful.  When Israel showed contempt for the land that God had given Israel, it was a sign that Israel's relationship with God was also troubled.

As reasonable as these observations seem, are they sound as a matter of textual interpretation?  Is Professor Davis uncovering something that the text has to say, or is Professor Davis putting words into the Biblical author's mouth?  First, the theme of good care of the land is mentioned consistently and repetitively throughout the Old Testament.  As Professor Davis put it, "As I started reading text -- well, first I thought that I was going to have to be very careful to find text that would speak to the care of land, and that turned out not to be true at all, that I could open up almost anywhere in the Bible and find something."  Second, Professor Davis appears to be aware of and to guard against her own possible bias.  She said, "I think that if one reads scripture carefully, one is continually challenged to rethink maybe everything that we take for granted.  I sometimes say to my students the best way to find your preaching angle for any text is to ask how it challenges or turns on its head your ordinary way of thinking about how things really are."  In other words, the interpretation of scripture that challenges your assumptions is more probably valid than the interpretation that confirms your assumptions. 

The entire interview with Professor Davis bears careful listening.  Check out the original show here: