GENESIS 1:26-31

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             While I was an undergraduate student at UCLA an article came out in the periodical Science,  written by a UCLA professor, Lynn White, Jr.  Professor White entitled the article, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.”   In the article Professor White traced back the ecological crisis of 1967 to this passage of scripture from Genesis.  White claimed that with these verses ringing in their ears humankind set out to conquer and subdue the earth. 

            He went on to say that historically considered, the Judeo-Christian view of “man,” and let’s update that word to “humankind,” where we are seen as lords of creation, is by far Christianity’s most potent legacy to the world.  Professor White said, “Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe.  Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process.  We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.”  He said Christians and the Book of Genesis have a lot to answer for.

            That’s a scary indictment, made all the more so by the fact that Professor White was and is a practicing Christian. 

            This morning we begin a short sermon series on the subject of stewardship.  When we think of stewardship, we most often think of money, but it is a much broader concept than money and finances. Synonyms include words like “manager” or “trustee.”  It’s the idea of managing something, taking care of something, that is not our own, and our responsibility as stewards stretches to all sorts of areas, and today we will begin with one of the them.  We are called by God to be stewards of God’s creation. 

            But where does that word appear in our passage for today, you might ask?  The author of Genesis does not mention our being stewards at all.  Instead, the author of Genesis talks about our having “dominion” and “subduing” the earth.   In fact, the literal meanings of these words seem to say just the opposite of being good stewards, of taking care of what God have created.  Listen to the directive once again,


            God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over living thing that moves upon the earth.”


            The Hebrew word translated here as “having dominion” appears other places in the Old Testament scriptures, and it carries with it the ideas of “dominating” or “lording it over” someone or something.  It carries with it the sort of action, the attitued of a football player scoring a touchdown and then taunting the defender after the score.  It’s not a particularly becoming word.  “Lording it over” someone is not a particularly attractive character trait.

            The other word translated here as “subdue” means literally “to trample on.”  Needless to say, it is another one of those “unbecoming” words.  Think about it.  We are to “lord it over” creation.  We are to “trample on it.”  In other words, it seems as we have been given carte blanche in our verses today to do what we want with creation.  Given the literal meanings of those words, we understand Professor White’s indictment of these verses of Genesis.  Taking this directive at face value, it seems as if the created order is there for our pleasure, not there for our care. 

            So given the literal translation of these verses where do I come up with our being stewards, caregivers, trustees, managers of our environment?  Well, I go back to Genesis 1:1 where we read In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  In other words, the opening line of the Bible reminds us that the environment in which we live didn’t come along by accident.  It reminds us that the creation has God’s fingerprints all over it, and because of that, it’s good.  The heavens and the earth are good.  Then I move ahead to Genesis 2:15.  Look there with me.  We read, The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.    In other words, humankind was put on earth to manage it, to keep it in good order.  Our calling is to manage the earth for God, to be God’s trustee.  So, from the beginning of our faith journey, our mothers and fathers in the faith were appointed as managers, agents, trustees in the administration of the creation.  Then I go beyond Genesis to the opening line of Psalm 24, The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.   The earth does not belong to us, to do with as we please.  It belongs to God and we are to keep it, till it, manage it, care for it.

            We have to read our verses for today, in the context of these other verses of Scripture.  Yes, we been given dominion over the earth.  We have been given permission to subdue the earth, but as God’s representatives, as God’s lord’s if you will. We have not been given the earth as gift to do with as we please, but instead to manage the earth in a way that pleases God. 

            So, that’s where I get the idea of our being stewards of the earth.  And I’ve seen us getting better at this.  I particularly remember the “Don’t Be a Litter Bug” campaign back in the 60’s.  I can remember before that campaign driving with my parents down the road and seeing cigarette packs, cups, trash bags going out the window of the car in front of us.  Litter was all over the sides of the roads.  Now, I know we still find trash on the streets, but it’s a lot better than it used to be.  It’s a lot better because of the “Don’t Be  a Litter Bug” campaign. 

            Yet, we still have a long way to go when it comes to being stewards of creation.  No matter where we look we see things that should concern us as trustees, managers, stewards of God’s creation.  There are animals that have been used for food by people since the dawn of history that are now being seriously depleted.  It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about oysters or cod or crabs or other kinds of animals because in every case there is a very real danger that we might kill off part of our food supply. 

            Not only that, pollution affects cities all over the world.  We have acid rain, greenhouse gases, agricultural run-off, mercury in fish, lead in paint, asbestos in the air.  We hear alarming news about the condition of rain forests, coral reefs, estuaries, lakes, and polar ice caps.  We have the Exxon Valdez, and Chernobyl.  All kinds of scary things have happened to the environment in the lifetimes of all of us sitting here.  In fact, listen to what another professor, a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio had to say,


            If today is a typical day on planet earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rain forest, or about an acre a second.  We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, the results of human mismanagement and overpopulation.  We will lose 40 to 250 species and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 250.  Today the human population will increase by 250,000.  And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons and 15 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  Tonight the earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.[1]


            As Christians, we have a two-fold mandate from God.  We have an evangelistic mandate where we are supposed to understand something about Jesus Christ and live it out and proclaim Christ to other people.  We call that the evangelistic mandate.  But we also have a mandate to live as a transforming presence inside whatever society in which we find ourselves.  That means we are to be a transforming presence in science, in politics, in social services, in all of what our society is.  We call this the cultural mandate, and as we care for the environment we fulfill this second mandate. 

            And what can we do to fulfill this second mandate?  First, we have to learn things.  We learn what the Scriptures say about the environment, the created order.  We learn three or four biblical verses that we can tick off to remind us why recycling is important or why it’s important to use cloth bags instead of plastic bags or paper bags when grocery shopping.  We learn about issues facing us here in Nebraska, in the United States, and around the world.  Are we learning about this because we are granola’s, tree-huggers, spotted-owl sympathizers?  No, we are learning about this because we are stewards, trustees, managers of the created order.  We learn what the best minds in science say about the long-term implications of  our present actions.  We learn how to fight the urge to use the creation in a selfish way, and instead manage what God has given us for everyone’s good, not just our own.

            Second, we do little things.  We do little things like recycling and reusing things.  We car pool.  We do more walking or bicycling when we only have a short distance to go.  We pick up trash in our neighborhood when we walk. We properly insulate our homes.  We drive energy efficient vehicles instead of gas guzzlers. 

            Third, we support ecological causes even when it affects our short-term pocket book. 

            Let me close with this.  Imagine a long time ago your grandfather buying you a car.  He saved up, and he bought you a used car.  He put it in his backyard.  He fixed it up.  He cleaned it up, and he gave it to you.  And you have been driving the car for awhile now, and then you pulled into his driveway and he looked into the car and it was waste deep in candy wrappers, and old hamburger bags, and plastic cups.  Imagine the look on his face.  And months later he asked you if you had changed the oil.  Another time he asked, “Have you regularly been checking your tires?”  Of course, you had done neither.  What do you think his emotions might have been concerning how you were treating the car he had worked so hard to give to you? 

            I think sometimes God feels that way about us as he watches us trash what he has given to us.  He put us right in the middle of his good creation.  He created the heavens and the earth, he worked hard on it, and he put us in the middle of it and said, “fill it, rule it, care for it,” and as a human race we as whole have not cared properly cared for what God has given us and that hurts God, it hurts us, and it hurts others, and it hurts future generations.  It hurts creation and it disrespects God. 

            We have to do better.  It’s not new age whacko issue, it’s not a granola Greg issue, it’s not a Greenpeace issue, it’s a biblical issue.  As Christians, when it comes to caring for the creation, we need to step up our game.

            Listen to the words of a 19th century Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his book The Brother’s Karamosov:


            Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it.  Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.  If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.  Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.


            The earth is the Lord’s and all that’s within it.


[1] As reported at the “Pedagogy in a Just and Sustainable World” conference, Claremont School of Theology, November 1997.