Green inspiration has come from the Bible

Among the most controversial criticisms of the Hebrew Bible is that it helped cause the current ecological crisis, writes David Aberbach


Among the most controversial criticisms of the Hebrew Bible is that it helped cause the current ecological crisis. In the biblical story of creation, humanity is empowered to “conquer and rule” (Genesis 1: 28: kivshuha u-redu).

According to this view, associated with the American scholar Lynn White Jr., the Bible as interpreted in medieval Christianity, in an age of growing capitalism, exploration of the New World and imperial conquest, gives humanity license to exploit and ruin the natural world — ultimately causing deforestation, disease, climate change, and pollution of rivers and oceans, the earth and skies.

Two biblical stories have especial meaning to environmentalists. First, the account in Genesis (chapters 1-3) of the divine origin of creation, and the paradise lost by Adam and Eve. And second, the story of how war, defeat and exile brought ecological collapse to the land of Israel: destruction of forests, vineyards and olive groves, land abandoned and left to ruin, cypress to thorn, myrtle to briar, a land of “burnt stone and salt, a land unsowed, bare of plants and grass”.

The Hebrew prophets were eyewitnesses of their country laid waste in war and neglected in time of exile. They were drawn to apocalyptic visions of the transformation of desert into fertile land, regenerated and reforested, a “new Eden”, its rivers flowing in formerly dry land, with newly-planted cedars, acacias, myrtles, olive trees, cypresses, plane trees and pines; and they repeatedly link moral and environmental renewal.

Jeremiah prophesies the return of Israelite exiles as an ecological rebirth, with abundant corn, wine and oil, sheep and cattle, as well as spiritual fertility: “their soul will be like a watered garden”. Ezekiel foresees a time when a freshwater river will run from the Temple in Jerusalem through the wilderness of Judah into the Dead Sea valley, the lowest, driest, saltiest, and deadest place on earth, bringing it to life, filling it with fish, making the entire region green with trees and plants.

Isaiah, similarly, prophesies a time when “justice will be in dry land and righteousness as the Carmel — the fruit of eternal peace…”

The rediscovery of the natural world as a living reality in modern Hebrew became a Jewish national aim, inspired by the ecological ideals of the Hebrew Bible, particularly the book of Isaiah with its vision of return from exile and revival of the land: “the desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose… waters will burst into the wilderness…”

For centuries of exile, Jews had largely abandoned agriculture though they preserved the ancient agricultural laws and festivals described extensively in the Bible and Talmud. Writers such as Byron, George Eliot, and James Joyce, immersed in the Bible, were sometimes better able than most Jews to imagine a Jewish national rebirth, and the restoration of a land largely barren and neglected for centuries.

In Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot anticipates Hebrew writers such as Bialik, Tchernichowsky and Greenberg in making the case for fruitful Jewish nationalism over allegedly sterile assimilation: “Is it rational to drain away the sap of special kindred that makes the families of men rich in interchanged wealth, and various as the forests are various with the glory of the cedar and the palm?”

The moral imagination of the Hebrew Bible is more poetry than theology, more universal than national. This is why writers in many different languages and cultures have been drawn to the Bible even when they did not accept its theological underpinnings. Often, in their love of their own land as a new Zion or a new Jerusalem, they could understand more fully the traditional Jewish love of Zion.

In the Psalms and the prophetic works, abstract moral principles, justice above all, are part of the natural world, growing (or impeded, or destroyed) like a forest, a vineyard, a garden or a field of corn. Nature is judge: justice is the ocean and the power of its waves, righteousness is the sun, truth is light, brotherhood is the morning dew, truth is the earth’s fertility, judgement a storm, the mountains peace.

The Bible looks at the ocean, at sunlight, at growing plants, or the distant mountains, and sees justice, righteousness and truth. The natural world, imprinted with divine moral qualities, itself believes: the skies proclaim the glory of God, the earth rejoices, rivers clap hands, mountains sing; the sun shines with righteousness, the earth is fertile with truth, rivers flow with justice, and seas thunder with the might of divine law.

This language, originally part of the ritual of the Temple in Jerusalem, has been embedded in the daily prayers of Jews for 2000 years. In its love for the earth as a sacred creation, the Hebrew Bible has also profoundly influenced environmentalism in Christianity and Islam.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the biblical notion that morality determines ecology, and moral pollution brings environmental catastrophe, is frequent in literature, among writers varied as Blake and Goethe, Dickens and Zola, Gaskell and Ibsen, Chekhov and Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot, Steinbeck and Coetzee.

In his novel, The Rainbow (1915), D.H. Lawrence, a miner’s son, draws on biblical imagery in portraying environmental deterioration as a moral dilemma. In prose richly coloured with biblical cadences, Lawrence depicts a late-19th century Eden in the North of England, where the Bible as taught in local chapels and schools and read at home was a living work, and human beings were still at one with the rhythm and cycle of Nature: “… heaven and earth was teeming around them, and how should this cease?” Into this idyllic rural world, Lawrence writes, industry spewed its poison, among the Nottinghamshire miners buried alive in their coffins, in blackened homes corrupt with pollution, the blackened hills, the “dry, brittle, terrible corruption spreading over the face of the land”. The ending of the novel returns to the Bible in its hope for “the creation of the living God”, a renewal of the biblical covenant symbolized by the rainbow (Genesis 9: 13), “a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven.”

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), perhaps the single most influential poem of the 20th century, echoes the prophets, particularly Isaiah and Ezekiel, in linking moral and environmental pollution after the slaughter in World War I. Eliot portrays a civilization ruined and traumatized, its moral bankruptcy symbolized by biblical imagery of dead land with its stony rubbish, where there is only “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/ And the dry stone no sound of water.”

John Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), also sees environmental ruin — the Dust Bowl in the American Midwest during the Depression — as a moral taint. In language recalling prophetic diatribes against injustice, he condemns corrupt industrial capitalism and affirms a “new germination” of the downtrodden common workers. Science creates enough for all; capitalism, destroying homes and crops for profit, is subject to the biblical curse of the “grapes of wrath”.

The ghastly record of harm done by human beings to others bodes ill for the environment. Human beings may be “little lower than the angels” as the Bible puts it, but so long as nations are in conflict, how can they cooperate to protect the environment?

Primo Levi reminds us that Auschwitz, the total defacement of the human image, was also a total environmental wreck.

Still, the dominant message of the Bible to environmentalists is this: the world was created good and should be kept that way. Biblical poetry and law reject the idea of human ownership, “for the land is Mine and you are strangers and sojourners with me”.

The Bible preserves wisdom of generations in lamenting the environment ruined by human hands, especially in war, and its visions of moral rebirth and a new Eden. Far from causing or justifying destruction, it articulates conviction that humanity has the power to create an environment of health and prosperity, beauty and joy.

David Aberbach is professor of Hebrew and Comparitive Literature at McGill University, Montreal

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