Eco-Theology in the Biblical Tradition

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow, Ph.D.

Most Jewish theology of Earth is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and becomes fruitful again in the last 20 years. Its biblical origins come from Earth-based people, shepherds and farmers, who saw their connection with Earth and land as their most sacred connection with God.

All Christian traditions assert that the Hebrew Bible — what they often call the “Old Testament” — is sacred. But some Christian strands give more or less weight to the Hebrew Bible as a source of theology and therefore of guidance to the most profound questions of life. The Hebrew Bible is far more involved in relationships with Earth than either the New Testament or the Talmud, so at least until recently, teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures have not been the focus of Christian theology.

In our own generation, the planetary climate crisis and extinction crisis have brought about an attempt among some Jews and Christians to look more fully at the biblical worldview in a new light for a new kind society.

This way of living through a spiral — always looking back in order to move forward, always looking at an old text in order to see in it teachings toward a new reality — is what Jews call “midrash.”

What we might call “biblical eco-theology” occurs in the Bible at four levels:

  1. One of these puts in God’s mouth the most basic of all the Bible’s views on God-Human-Earth relationships. It comes after the tale of the Great Flood, a global holocaust, the death of almost all life on Planet Earth.

The Flood story begins with God assigning some responsibility to destructive human behavior as the cause of Earth-wide fatal consequence. (Exactly what the destructive behavior was is never made clear.) But with Earth strewn with carcasses and corpses, God is said to reverse causality: Precisely because Humanity is so prone to destructive behavior, all other living beings, as well as Humankind, must be protected:

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: As for me-here, I am about to establish my covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with all living beings that are with you: fowl, herd-animals, and all the wildlife of the earth with you; all those going out of the Ark, of all the living-beings of the earth. I will establish my covenant with you: All flesh shall never be cut off again by waters of the Deluge, never again shall there be Deluge, to bring the earth to ruin! (Genesis 9: 8-11)

For millennia, most Jewish commentary focused on the God-Human aspect of the covenant, distilling seven commands that bind all human beings in the “Noahide Covenant.” But in the emergency created by the danger of a threatening actual Great Flood of Heat, Fire and Water, the third corner of this covenant has been rediscovered, and God’s concern for other-than-human life has taken on much more gravity.

Indeed, just as the story of life-destroying reality leads to a story of new protection for all life, so in our own generation, the danger leads to efforts to create and efforts to revive such protections.

But will the efforts be forceful enough to be effective? Will enough human beings exert enough power to protect all life despite the greedy power of those who profit from burning earth? In biblical terms, will Humanity remember the breadth of the covenant even if the rhetoric that urges it to do so is that of science? Can the warnings of science reignite the faithful to act upon the covenant? Could such a wave of faith-filled activism be a crucial factor in actually healing Earth and humankind?

If we see God as the process of consequence rather than the Supernal Person filled with anger and pleasure, dispensing rewards and punishments, then the question “Will Humanity act to affirm the covenant?” is crucial.

II. The second great fount of biblical eco-theology flows from two parables and a poem: the parables of the Garden of Eden; the parable of Manna coming with Shabbat; and the great Poem of the “Song of Songs.”

The second biblical story of Creation (beginning Gen. 2: 4) describes the birth of adam (reddish-human) from adamah(reddish soil) as a mammalian birth. At first the almost-born human has no breath of their androgynous own. “Their” breath comes from Mother Earth just as the fetus breathes the mother’s breath through the placenta. It becomes audible through the “ahhh” sound in the “adamah” name of Earth.

Once born, the Earth-born Human becomes “adam,” losing this breath and needing an independent breath from YHWH (pronounceable only as a breath) from the One Who is all Breath: YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh.

Then, after being split into male and female, the Humans enter the Garden of Delight: Eden.

To summarize that parable: The humans begin as children, “naked and not ashamed.” They hear the Voice, speaking for Reality: The Garden abounds in joyful abundance. They should eat but should also restrain themselves. They must refrain from eating the fruit of one tree on pain of death. They must not gobble up everything in sight.

But the young girl-woman, verging on adolescence, hears another voice: the Snake, “most naked of all animals” because it sheds even its skin, tells her she is about to shed her skin in rhythmic pattern. It will be bloody and at first frightening, but she will not die. She will be transformed, more grown-up, a sexual adult. She longs for the tree’s beauty, its aroma, perhaps its taste. She eats. Her partner eats.

And then the Voice interrupts. Like many an adolescent wishing to affirm their own identities, they have made an important mistake. The Voice announces they have brought about the end of abundance. They will have to work every day of their lives for enough to eat because Earth will bring forth thorns and thistles. And hierarchy enters their relationship: Men will rule over women.

But these are not commands. No theologian thinks that humans are forbidden to invent rakes and hoes and harvesters to ease their work. They have grown up into an adulthood of drudgery and subjugation, but they are invited to grow still further into a world of peaceful relationship with each other, with each sacred individual as part of a cultural ecosystem — a jigsaw puzzle where each different individual fits together with the sacred others as part of the Sacred Whole.

How to take the next step is shown in another great parable. The Israelites have lived through Ten Plagues of Earth driven mad by the stubbornness, arrogance and cruelty of a Pharaoh wielding tyrannical power over his own society. He has tried to turn the “foreign” Israelites into scapegoats, deflecting opposition to his own tyranny into enslavement and even genocide of this prosperous tribe.

But his tyranny against humans brought disturbances of Earth. He was surprised and frightened by these plagues, but Israelite leaders — Moses, Aaron, Miriam — knew that the Unity of all life, named YHWH, the Interbreath of Life would make such upheavals inevitable. (More on YHWH later.) The plagues that shattered Egypt freed the Israelites.

And then came the parable that offered a healing from the disastrous mistake on Eden.

When many of the Israelites questioned whether freedom in the Wilderness would mean starvation, the Universe again offered its abundance. It came in the form of Manna, an English word that is a barely changed version of the Hebrew Mahn hu — “What’s that?!” for unprecedented flakes of nourishment.

Now, as in Eden, there was a condition of self-restraint. But this time, says the parable, self-restraint did not mean self-denial. It meant that enough manna fell each day to feed each family, large or small. If one Israelite gathered more than enough (perhaps in hope of profiting from sale), the surplus rotted and stank.

On the sixth day, twice as much as necessary appeared because on the seventh day there was none. Whoever tried to gather more that day — Shabbat, “Pause” — found nothing. Self-restraint was built into the system. Gaining a Shabbat of joy was self-fulfillment, not self-denial.

 A parable to teach more gently that self-restraint would protect abundance, not destroy it. One more stage of growing up.

And in this sequence, an extraordinary poem: the “Song of Songs,” an invitation to live in Eden for a fully grown-up human race. In the song, Earth gives its abundance freely and fruitfully, and humans eat from it with joy and pleasure. Hierarchy within human society is almost gone. Women and men are equally admired, their bodies’ beauty equally affirmed. They are naked and not ashamed because sex does not shame them. It is filled with Spirit, holy Breath. The king’s chariot, with all its courtly decor, is gently and in good humor seen to be less gorgeous than what the daughters of Jerusalem can shape with “only” love.

This garden for grown-ups is not perfect — men assail the poem’s heroine — but the imbalance of love and violence is utterly different from that imbalance in the present world. In our lives at present, violence greatly outweighs love; there, moments of violence persist in a world grown mainly with love. Perhaps the persistence of violence teaches us that the world of the song is achievable, practical, not utopia. And the ethic of love has become so deeply learned that no Poppa/Momma God is any longer needed to insist on it. No Name of God giving orders is mentioned in the song.

  1. And if policy and practice are theology, then four major aspects of biblical life make up an aspect of the biblical God.

One of these is the way of celebrating God, Creator and the Breath of Life. That way was with the foods of the land. Animal (cows, bulls, sheep, goats), vegetable (sheaves of grain, pancakes) and mineral (salt) were eaten by priests and the poor. Some were brought near (korban) to the innards(kravim, the same root) of Human and God, or were “turned into smoke” on the Altar, thereby joining the Interbreath of Life.

The breath and the senses were stirred by incense. Branches and fruits of trees from the varied eco-systems of the land were waved to make and join the wind. Though Levites might sing poetry called psalms, that was a minor aspect of celebration. Consciousness of the fruitfulness of Earth was the major way.

The great festivals of biblical Israel were the result of a love affair between people and Earth. Purim echoed with ribald and ironic laughter the exuberance of early spring. Festivals of the barley and flowers rising up against winter and the sheep giving birth mixed inextricably with memories of plagues and a people rising up against Pharaoh. Shavuot became a celebration of the spring wheat long before the rabbis made it the anniversary of Revelation at Sinai. Sukkot, the festival of Joy and of huts with a leafy, leaky roof, celebrated the fall harvest. Even the post-biblical Hanukkah marked fear and relief as the lights of sun and moon ebbed and returned, and as the people kindled more light and took pleasure in a legend of energy conserved: One day’s worth of olive oil lit the Temple for eight days. The earthiness of these festivals, though often obscured, survived even the people’s separation from the earth where the festivals had been born.

A third way of raising Earth-consciousness was through a sacred system of what foods were proper to eat (Kashrut). The listing of permitted and forbidden foods followed the categories of Creation — sea, land, sky — thus calling every Israelite in every act of eating to be conscious of the pattern by which Earth emerged.

And perhaps most arousing of attention to Earth was the requirement that all the normal process of agriculture must cease for a full year, once every seventh year and then in a climax for the 50th year. The Bible asserts that Earth is entitled, along with Humanity, not only to pause and rest on the seventh day but also during the seventh year. Earth must be released from overwork. That year is called Shmita — Release” or Shabbat Shabbaton, Sabbath to the Exponential power of Sabbath.

Why? Most profoundly, the Bible hears the Breath of Life saying: “For the land is not to be sold in harness; the land is mine. You are but sojourners and resident-settlers with me.”

At the end of that year, people oppressed by debt were released from it, and the whole people — women, men, children, babies, immigrant foreigners — must assemble to recommit themselves to Torah. At one such moment, when those exiled to Babylon 70 years before returned the Land of Israel, the whole people actually voted on whether to accept the rules of Torah.

Torah goes out of its way to assert that the fullest statement of these rules (Leviticus 25-26) comes at Mount Sinai like the Ten Utterances. And that passage also asks and answers the question, “What happens if the people refuse to allow themselves and the Land to rest each year of Shabbat they are entitled and obligated to rest?” Torah answers that then the Land will achieve its rest through what for humans will be calamities — fire, flood, exile — until the time that should have been restful is repaid.

IV: The Name of God is not just a label for Divinity, like “Jake” or “Joanna” for a human being. A “Name of God” is instead a way of understanding the universe. For the House of Jacob, “El Shaddai, God Breasted” meant that the world fed humans freely, like a mother. Instead, at the Burning Bush and again in Egypt the Voice taught Moses that El Shaddai was outmoded, inadequate. Now it would be necessary to call God forth by a new, a revolutionary Name: YHWH.”

That new Name signaled a God Who might bring the consequence of scarcity and plagues (not abundance) upon a tyrannical king. It had no vowels; it was not “Yahweh” or “Yehovah.” When we try to pronounce it with no vowels, all that emerges is a Breath. The Breath of Life, connecting all its elements. Bearing from human behavior consequences joyful or disastrous on Humankind and Earth for what human behavior calls forth. A metaphor of Earth: “What you sow is what you reap.”

When rabbinic Jews adopted the habit of substituting “Adonai, Lord,” that Name taught that the world was ordered by hierarchy. God was “Lord” of all, the King beyond all kings. This Name was both an imitation and a critique of the Roman Empire and all empires.

  • Contemporary Eco-Judaism

Many contemporary Jews, Christians and secularists have been deeply impressed by the path of Indigenous/ Native peoples who have fused their spirituality with daily life and with nonviolent resistance to incursions by fossil-fuel companies on their sacred land and waters.

That discovery has helped some look again at the treasure-house of indigenous wisdom “archived” in their own Hebrew Bible. Some have taken the ancient teachings out of the dusty archives and begun to read them not literally but instructively for wisdom on how to deal with the greatest crisis in all human history between Humanity (adam) and Earth (adamah).

First, and most basic, was realizing that their sacred teachings were not only about the relationships oh human beings with each other but also about their intimate relations with land, water, air. Reading in this light the parables of Eden, Manna, the poetry of “Song of Songs” and the Names of God, the practices of Kashrut, Offerings, Festivals, Shabbat and Shmita/ Sabbatical Year began to illuminate new life-giving possibilities for our own radically different society in existential crisis.

Let us take up several of those teachings that call us to midrash:

In the mid-1970s, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi proposed developing and applying what he called a code of eco-kosher practice. He proposed applying it not to food but the energy extracted from Earth. He suggested that shepherds and farmers had developed a Kashrut for food because their connection with Earth was mediated mostly by food, and so needed a code of proper eating. But in our generation, he said, energy is as crucial as food and we should now create an “eco-kosher” code for consuming energy. “Is electricity from a nuclear power plant eco-kosher?” he asked.

It is notable that the response was much less radical. It seemed that most people could not shake off the notion that “kosher” applied mostly to food. So various “Kosher-Plus” certifications on food appeared in the Jewish community, ranging from ethical standards about the treatment of animals before they were slaughtered to the ethical treatment of workers on farms or food-processing businesses. No effort to rate kosher or treyf sources of energy has arisen, though outside the Jewish community nuclear, fossil, solar, wind and other sources have emerged with different levels of popular acceptability.

Most eco-midrashic energy has gone into the biblical Shmita, or Sabbatical Year. There has been a range of responses. At one end is the notion that releasing Earth from overwork in our generation means ending the overpouring of any CO2 into the atmosphere. At the other end is the much more radical notion that Shmita means changing the entire cultural framework of “economic growth” to one of a pulsating economy, meaning “needs not greeds.” The warnings of Leviticus 26 of disaster befalling society if Earth is prevented rom resting has been compared to the most dire predictions of climate scientists.

Some activists have tried to connect specific sacred days to particular ways of healing Earth — Hanukkah to conserving energy, for example; Passover to preventing “Climate Pharaohs” from ruining Earth and Humanity with Plagues; Tisha B’Av, the fast day in remembrance of destruction of the ancient Jerusalem Temple to seeing it as the day to mourn the wounding of Temple Earth and prevent its destruction.

Perhaps most radical in concept has been the assertion that the definition of God as “Adonai, Lord,” and “Melekh, King” has become a lethal mistake because it defines the world as a Hierarchy. Far truer is an ecological sense of the world, cultural as well as biological. In biology, the Unity of an Ecosystem depends on the uniqueness of every species in the system.

If one species tries to “take over,” it is likely to weaken or destroy the system. In a society, the Unity of the ecosystem depends on the uniqueness of each culture, each individual. The Interbreath is what holds the whole system together.”

From this perspective, it makes a great difference to try to pronounce YHWH with no vowels. What happens for most people is simply a Breath. This may be eco-midrash born of crisis, or it may be precisely what the ancients were trying to teach — God not as the peak of Hierarchy but as the connecting Breath that holds all the pieces of a great jigsaw puzzle together in Unity. Or both.

Meanwhile, in scientific fact and analysis, the constant interchange of oxygen from plants to animals and of CO2 from animals to plants has been the life-breath of Earth for millions of years. The hyper-production of CO2 by burning fossil fuels has choked that breath. Since CO2 is a heat-trapping gas, its hyper-production has heated and scorched Earth, and portends the destruction of its life.

Seeing and hearing YHWH  as an Interbreath — Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Breath/ Wind/ Spirit — could transform our entire culture, bringing the insights of mystics and the calculations of geologists into a coherent whole.

*Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow, Ph.D., directs The Shalom Center, a prophetic voice in the Jewish, multi-religious and American worlds for eco/social justice, peace and the healing of our wounded planet into an Earth of Neighborhoods. He is the author of 27 books on public policy and religious life, including the original Freedom Seder, Seasons of Our Joy and Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. He has been arrested about 26 times in protests against U.S. racism, Soviet antisemitism, U.S. treatment of refugees, U.S. wars against Vietnam and Iraq, and governmental and corporate inaction about global scorching.

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