Stewardship and the Environment

Jimmy JoSermons, Thinking about TheologyLeave a Comment

Read Genesis 1: 26-31 here.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Genesis 2:15

Read Genesis 3: 17-24 here.

Today we are continuing our series on questions/topics submitted by our church community.  Presumably these are things that we are wrestling with – or things that we at least think are worth pondering – and therefore can benefit more than just the individual that posed them.  In other words, we are hoping to explore these things as a community. 

I should also say that because of the nature of the submissions – which is to say, mostly topical – there tends not to be definitive answers available to us.  Mostly, what I am hoping to do is help us find a way to think about such things from a biblical perspective.  However, I should also note that because these are questions/topics that I am trying to address, you as a congregation are (for better or for worse) subject to my biases, concerns, and theological approaches which also should not be taken as definitive. 

So having said all that, the topic that I am addressing this week has to do with the environment.  That is, how should we as Christians, as people of God, think about the environment, environmentalism, and taking care of creation (or, how should we think about the nature of our relationship with creation or the environment)? 

Now one might think that this is a reasonably straightforward question.  The opening paragraph of a Time magazine article from just over a year ago reads: 

Highly religious people are very likely to believe that the Earth is sacred and that humans have a duty to protect it. Yet many of them—and particularly those in certain Christian denominations—do not think that climate change is a big problem or that humans are causing it.

( Nov. 2022)

Now today, we are not talking about climate change per se.  However – and this seems broadly to be the perspective that Time magazine is taking – given that climate change is ostensibly an environmental issue, it is noteworthy that so many Christians are not only ambivalent about acting on climate change, but vehemently opposed to it.  Do some Christians not believe that the earth is “sacred”?  Do we not believe that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it?  And if we do, then why don’t we care about taking care of it?  (This, following the Time article – obviously, many Christians do believe that we have such a responsibility). 

Now there may be a number of reasons why this is so, some of which have little or nothing to do with a theology of creation care.  And I’m going to touch on some of these, but I also don’t want to get side-tracked from the actual issue at hand.  So I’ll do my best to focus on what the bible says about the environment, or how might we approach a theology of creation care. 

So then, what does the bible say about taking care of the environment?  And unfortunately, like many things, the bible doesn’t answer the question in the way that we often want to ask it (i.e. “do this”/ “don’t do that”).  Nevertheless, I believe that the Bible is relatively clear in that human beings are called to care for creation.  Specifically, that we are appointed as or called to be stewards of God’s creation.  Usually when we think about this topic, and this is what we’re doing today, we start with the Genesis creation accounts. 

In Genesis 1:26-31, we read: 

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Genesis 1: 26-31

As we can see, in the Genesis 1 account, human beings’ relationship with the rest of creation is marked by the word “rule” or “rule over” and the phrase, “fill the earth and [especially] subdue it.”  Now both of these terms (rule and subdue) may give us the impression of dominion (which is used in other translations).  It may give us the impression that human beings are superior to creation and are free to make use of creation as they see fit. 

And indeed, human beings are uniquely loved by God and hold a special place in the order of creation.  But it would be a mistake, I believe, to think that gives us free rein to do whatever we want with the rest of creation. 

I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but my train of thought has to do with what is meant by the image of God.  Verse 26 says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over [the rest of creation].”  According to biblical scholars like John Walton, Iain Provan, and others, the creation account that we’re given in Genesis 1 echoes the structure of temples in the ancient near east.  Temples in the ancient near east were built to represent creation.  At the center of these temples, an idol – an image of the god of the temple – was placed.  Thus, the temple was a physical representation of the scope of the rule of the god that was worshiped.  But in the temple of Yahweh, there is no idol – there is no image.  So Walton, Provan, et. al argue that what we get in the Genesis creation account parallels the structure of the temples of the ancient near east, with human beings placed at the center.  This then is essentially a theological statement that human beings are meant to be the image – not an idol to be worshipped, but a representation of the true God who created them. 

Again, we could explore this further, but essentially what I’m saying is that the Genesis account shows (among other things) that human beings function as God’s image in creation – that human beings “stand in” for God, do God’s work, that is, that human beings are God’s stewards of God’s creation. 

So what I want to argue is that the words, “rule” or “rule over,” and “fill and subdue” should be read with this larger picture in mind.  Our relationship with the rest of creation is not as owners or possessors, but as caretakers – as stewards of God’s creation.

Now the second Genesis account helps us round that out a little bit.  Here, we read that God created “the earth and the heavens,” that He planted a garden in Eden, and then created man and put him in the garden to work it and take care of it.  Genesis 2:4-15 says:

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earthand no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streamscame up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a manfrom the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resinand onyx are also there.) 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

Genesis 2: 4-15

As we can see, here, the phrase “rule over” and “subdue” from Genesis 1 has been replaced by “work it” and “take care of it.”  This probably better fits the difference in tone between the two accounts.  Genesis 1, while undoubtedly earth-bound (that is, it has the Earth as its focus), feels more cosmic in scope (to me).  However, the Genesis 2 account is set in a garden.  As such, the relationship between human beings and the Garden is probably better served by the phrase “work it and take care of it.” 

But in both cases, we should recognize (or at least, I want to frame) the relationship between human beings and creation – or human beings and the environment – as one of stewardship. 

So what do we mean by stewardship?  Or, what kind of stewardship might we be talking about?  Firstly, what I would say is that stewardship is taking care of, or taking responsibility for, someone else’s things.  A steward is given charge over something – but that something does not belong to the steward.  If it did, the steward would just be the owner. 

Again, scripture isn’t really explicit in terms of stewardship of the environment, per se.  But what I want to do is consider just a couple of examples of stewardship in scripture.  Now let me be clear, neither of these examples are about the environment – but they do give us some guidance in thinking about what stewardship means. 

And forgive me because I am going to go over these extremely quickly.  The first example I want to consider is that of Joseph when he is in service to Potiphar.  We know the story – Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers because of their jealousy.  Joseph comes into the service of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials.  And we read that Joseph was well-favoured by Potiphar. 

The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.

Genesis 39: 2-4

As we probably know, Joseph soon after was propositioned by Potiphar’s wife.  But Joseph refused her advances.  And his reasoning was as follows: 

But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”

Genesis 39: 8-9

Now it would seem obvious that Joseph refused Potiphar’s wife because adultery is a sin.  He would not dishonour the marriage bond between Potiphar and his wife.  But the text also seems to indicate that Joseph was not willing to betray the trust that had been placed in him as Potiphar’s steward (or servant, governor, or whatever).  Joseph recognized that his responsibility was to take care of Potiphar’s estate – it was not his own to be used, but his master’s to be treated with care. 

The second passage that I want to consider is Jesus’ well-known parable of the talents (or the “bags of gold” in the NIV).  Again, this passage is definitely not about the environment.  But as we’ve also said before, it may be over-reaching to assume that it has to do specifically with spiritual gifts as it is often used.  Nevertheless, in the parable, the master of the estate goes on a trip and entrusts a certain amount of money with several servants.  When he returns, the servants who did something positive with the money are praised by the Master.  But the servant who does nothing with the money entrusted to him (he hides it away) is rebuked by the master.  The assumption, then, is that the money was given, not just for safe-keeping, but for the flourishing of the master’s estate.  It was meant to be used and to be used well.  The servant’s responsibility, then, is not just safeguarding.  And it’s certainly not to use what the Master has given for his own benefit.  Rather, the servant is called to make the most of what has been given to him (for lack of a better phrase) for the sake of his master’s kingdom. 

Now we have gone over that very quickly.  And obviously there is a lot more to be said about all of this.  But if we are to consider these two examples of stewardship, how might we then think about our responsibility, as stewards of God’s creation, to the environment?  Firstly, we do not take advantage of God’s earth.  It is not ours to do with as we want, but His to take care of and cherish.  And we should probably say something here about the order of creation – that we human beings are a part of it, part of the kosmos, not separate from it (and certainly not above it). 

Secondly, our responsibility is not merely to safeguard (so to speak), but to seek the flourishing of God’s creation.  We have been entrusted/gifted it for His glory.   Now what exactly this looks like, I’m not sure.  But I want to believe that Adam and Eve were told to tend the garden, not just so they would have more food to eat, but for the beauty and glory of the garden.  That is, a flourishing garden gives gory to God, the Creator.  I suspect that when the Israelites were given possession of the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, it wasn’t just so that they could use and consume the milk and honey.  Rather, they were called to make something of the land (as a part of the nation) that would point to the God they served, the God that led them to salvation.  That is, maybe how they lived in the land said something about what kind of people they were.  So at the end of the day, perhaps the question is, how does the way we take care of the earth, the way we relate to creation point to the God that we worship?  How does the way we live in this place and this time speak about the redemptive work of God in history?  And how could it? 

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