Climate change is a hotly contested topic in our society. Though this charged issue can be polarizing, environmental ethics long predate political policies. Some might be surprised to learn that the Jewish Scriptures and traditions actually have quite a few things to say about our environmental responsibilities.
The Talmud tells a legend concerning the sage Choni, who once came across a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him how long it would take before the tree bore fruit. The man told him it would take 70 years. Choni asked the man if he expected to live long enough to eat the carob from this tree. The man responded that the fruit he enjoys now was planted by his ancestors. Therefore, while he may never eat of this particular tree, he has an obligation to make sure there is food for his descendants to enjoy.1
The Talmud’s concern with sustainability and the environment is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. One of God’s first commands to Adam and Eve was to take care of their environment:
And 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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
A few verses later (2:15), God reiterates the role humankind is to play in the garden. They are to work it and keep it. The Hebrew words used here are ‘avad (serve) and shamar (guard) – the same words that are later used to pertain to the priests performing their duties and work in the tabernacle.2 In other words, Adam and Eve’s mandate to care for the earth is sacred, just as the work of the priests is sacred.
And this mandate is still sacred – to serve God’s creation and to guard it from exploitation and desecration.
Joseph interpreted a dream God gave Pharaoh which predicted devastating changes coming to Egypt. He foresaw seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:25–33).
Joseph did not ignore the signs of this coming catastrophe, and Pharaoh was wise enough to heed his warning. He placed Joseph in a position of leadership enabling him to address the situation, and as it turned out, to save many lives in the process.
Joseph’s example is one we should strive to emulate. As we know from recent events like the bushfires in Australia or the earthquakes in Puerto Rico, natural disasters can strike at any time. We should always be prepared to serve in whatever capacity we are able so we can protect the earth God gave us and the humanity He placed on it.
In Leviticus 25:1–5, God gives us instructions regarding Israel’s agricultural practices to ensure the land would never be permanently ruined. We were to sow our fields for six years, but every seventh was to be a sabbatical year during which we could not sow or harvest. The land had to rest just as Israel rested on the Sabbath. Allowing the earth to take a sabbatical year demonstrates God’s desire concerning the sustainability of the environment.3
While the Bible itself is not written as a science textbook, this particular command turns out to have some scientific backing. There were several reasons for the sabbatical year provision, but as far as climate is concerned, there is a real benefit of resting the land to restore optimum sodium content in the soil. “Large areas in Mesopotamia were actually left abandoned due to exhaustion of the soil and a disastrously high salt content.”4
No doubt, exhausting the soil would eventually cause problems that, given enough time, could be conducive to larger-scale environmental issues. Resting the earth in this way was good land management and a way to ensure future generations would not inherit a crisis they did not create.
Another example of a commandment given by God in the best interest of the earth comes from the rules for warfare in Deuteronomy 20:19–20. When a city was besieged, it was forbidden to cut down trees that provide food, though it was allowed to eat their fruit. One commentator notes, “Even the use of non-fruit-bearing trees for siege-works, though permitted, seems to be limited by the strict needs of the occasion. The environment as such – God’s creation – is therefore respected.”5
This one is a little harder to swallow because it includes us rather directly. The prophet Isaiah tackled the issue of pride head on when he wrote a poem about a certain “king of Babylon.” A part of ancient warfare was to destroy the agriculture and environment that sustained a city along with its inhabitants.6 This king had no more regard for the nature and landscapes he destroyed in his pillaging than he did for the humanity he wantonly slaughtered. Because of this, God issues a harsh judgement against him:
All the kings of the nations lie in glory,
each in his own tomb;…
You will not be joined with them in burial,
because you have destroyed your land,
you have slain your people. [author’s bold]
– Isaiah 14:18, 20
Rashi, the medieval commentator, writes that this poem is speaking about the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar.7 We know from the book of Daniel that Nebuchadnezzar was humiliated because of his pride and for failing to acknowledge God’s hand in his achievements (Daniel 4:28–33).
Theological scholar John Oswalt has a different opinion and remarks that “no single individual is being addressed here. This ‘king of Babylon’ is a composite of all the proud, despotic kings who have ruled on the earth…. This is not a historical narrative but a poem about human pride.”8
Whether it’s tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar, the empty promises of a politician, your coworker who is always stirring up drama, or your teenager who refuses to take out the trash, we don’t have far to look in our own society or lives to see how human pride seems to be standing in the way when it comes to action on anything, including climate change and earth care in general.
While this ancient poem is not about the current climate crisis, it certainly feels relevant today: destruction of the land is coupled with destruction of people. When hubris gets in the way, future generations will suffer.
The prophet Jeremiah once wrote a poem imagining an earth devoid of God’s creation. At first, this seems to be just vivid imagination at play, until Jeremiah mentions that this is a result of God’s anger, and that without repentance, perhaps such a world is not far off:
“For my people are foolish;
they know me not;
they are stupid children;
they have no understanding.
They are ‘wise’ – in doing evil!
But how to do good they know not.”
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.
For thus says the LORD, “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.”
– Jeremiah 4:22–27
In the Midrash on Ecclesiastes, the rabbis tell us that when God made the first man, He gave him the grand tour of the garden of Eden, and said, “When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you.’”9
Why did the Midrash say this? Because it is emphasizing the importance of each individual to make a difference. Of course, the rabbis were aware that Adam had descendants. Nevertheless, in the Midrash, God asks Adam to consider his responsibility as if there would be no one besides him to steward the environment.
While the Midrash focuses on individual responsibility, Jeremiah focuses on the environment itself. Of course, in his poem, Jeremiah did not mean that the entire fabric of the universe would be destroyed by Israel’s sins; but his poetry reminds us that our own “foolishness” leads to undesirable results. And his metaphor about the reversal of creation rings eerily true in the twenty-first century.
In light of these responsibilities God has given us concerning environmental sustainability, and with the challenges our planet faces today, one can’t help but pose the question: how should we respond to the topic of climate change?
Caring for our planet is not solely the obligation of the government, or religious institutions, or environmental organizations. This task falls upon all of our shoulders. No matter what our political leanings may be, those of us who love God and His Word should care about what happens to this beautiful earth that He gave to us, and take pride in its preservation.
1. Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 31b.
2. Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception, Discovering Biblical Texts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 66.
4. John H. Walton et al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), under Leviticus 25:2–7.
5. J. Wenham, ed. et al., New Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).
6. Reinhard Pimgruber, The Economy of Late Achaemenid and Seleucid Babylonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
8. John Oswalt, Isaiah, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), Kindle edition locations 4452–4453, 4461.