Creation and Natural Resources

A. THE EARTH: DIVINE GIFT AND DIVINE OWNERSHIP IN THE OT (PSALM 24: 1, PSALM 115: 16)

God’s earth: divine ownership (Deuteronomy 10: 14)

The goodness of creation: Genesis 1, 2
Creation is distinct from, but dependent upon, God: Genesis 1: 1, Psalm 33: 6-9, Psalm 65: 9-13.
Creation de-divinized (compare Psalm 19: 1-6)
Creation exists to the glory and praise of God:  Psalms 145: 10, 21, 150: 6

  1. Our earth: divine gift and human responsibility (Psalm 115: 16)
    Earth as the place of human habitation for all God’s creatures (Psalm 104)
    Humanity created from the ground but in ‘the image of God’: Genesis 1, 2

Subdue and rule: Genesis 1: 26, 28

‘.. to work (the garden) and take care of it.’ (Genesis 2: 15), naming the animals (Genesis 2: 19-20)
The model of servant-kingship (shepherd): Psalm 95: 1-7

Human priority: image of God, authority over creation (Psalm 8: 5, 6), sanctity of human life (Genesis 9: 4-6)
God’s rest as the climax of creation (Genesis 2: 2,3), leading to rest for humankind (Exodus 20: 8-11)

Cursed earth: human sin and the natural order

The Fall and the natural order: Genesis 3
The cosmic covenant: Genesis 9

New creation: the natural order and eschatology

Redemption in OT involved the Land (Psalm 85: 1, 12)
Creation and redemption: the renewal of nature (Jeremiah 31: 12, Ezekiel 47: 1-12, Isaiah 49: 8-33)
Eschatology: redemption including all creation: Isaiah 65: 17-25 (compare Romans 8: 18-25, Colossians 1: 15-20,  Revelation 21: 1-4).

B. THE LAND IN THE STORY OF ISRAEL

The Land and the covenant promise

The covenant with Abraham: Genesis 12: 7, 15: 7, 18-21
The promised Land: Deuteronomy 8: 1-20
Settlement of the Land: Joshua, Judges, Samuel – David’s kingdom

The Land as divine gift

Land as God’s gracious gift: Deuteronomy 7: 7-8, 8: 17-18
God’s dependability – the promise of fruitfulness: Deuteronomy 26: 5-10
Proof of relationship between God and Israel: Deuteronomy 4: 21, 28
Land gift tradition – division of the Land: Numbers 26, 34, Joshua 13-19, 1 Kings 21
Limits on, and prophetic anger at, accumulation of land: Deuteronomy 19: 14, Micah 2: 1-2, Isaiah 5: 8
The year of Jubilee: Leviticus 25: 8-28

The Land under divine ownership

Land as YHWH’s land: Leviticus 25: 23

Land as a grant under covenant: Deuteronomy
Property responsibilities:
  to God: tithes and firstfruits (Deuteronomy 14: 22-29, 26: 1-15)
  to family: the Jubilee (Leviticus 25: 8-24)
  to neighbour: gleaning rights (Deuteronomy 24: 19-22), triennial tithe (Deuteronomy 14: 28-29)
  to land: sabbatical for the land (Leviticus 25: 1-7), animals (Deuteronomy 22: 1-4, 25: 4)

The Land as an indicator of the covenant between God and his people

Trusting God or trusting the Baals: the blessings of obedience (Exodus 3: 8, Deuteronomy 4: 1-21, 28: 1-14).
Laws concerning the Land: Leviticus 25: 18-22, Deuteronomy 24: 19-22
Land and people: the monarchy, land, and economic life
Disobedience and exile: Deuteronomy 28: 58, 63-65
The promise of restoration after exile: Jeremiah 31: 1-14, 23-28. 

C. THE LAND IN THE NT

C J H Wright comments: ‘In the New Testament, land ceases to have any covenantal significance. Hebrews sums up all the issues that Christ carries over from the Old Testament, that is, we have a High Priest (Jesus Christ), an altar (Hebrews 13: 10), access to the Holy Place (Hebrews 10: 19), a kingdom (Hebrews 12: 28) etc.. The only thing we do not have is an earthly territorial city (Hebrews 13: 14)’. 
One suggestion is that just as the NT kingdom of God is open to all peoples, so the gift of land is the whole earth for all humankind, as implied in the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3. Eschatologically, all creation is to be renewed: Isaiah 65: 17-25, Romans 8: 18-25, Colossians 1: 15-20, Revelation 21: 1-4.

D. T=> Derived Social Principles

[Suggested DSPs in italics, with explanation following]

  1. The natural order is God’s good creation: it is abundant and fruitful. This is evident from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, and from various passages in the Psalms listed above. The pattern of creation survives despite the Fall, notably in the promise to Noah (Genesis 8: 22). It will itself be redeemed eschatologically (see, for example, the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, and New Testament passages such as Romans 8: 18-25).

  2. The natural order is God’s gift to humankind, but it remains his not ours. This is most starkly stated in Leviticus 25: 23, where the Lord tells the people, ‘The land is mine and you are but aliens and tenants’. This is the basis of the covenant between Yahweh and the people in respect of the Land. It is to be acknowledged by tithes and first fruits – thanking God for his goodness in giving us the created order.

  3. Humankind, created in the image of God, is given ‘dominion’ to subdue and rule the earth, to be fruitful and multiply: but we are also required to care for the natural order (environment), not destroy it. ‘Dominion’ is defined in Genesis 2 as work and care for the garden, and naming (that is, understanding) the animals; and this responsibility is renewed after the Fall (see Genesis 9). The dominion language suggests that humankind is God’s vice-regent (that is, rules in God’s place, with his authority). The OT model is that of the servant king, who is idealised as a shepherd. The shepherd metaphor, with its strong overtones of care, is better than the widely used ‘stewardship’ model, which could suggest a more exploitative relationship with the natural order. The natural order is given for our use, not our exploitation, since it remains as God’s possession. Adam is required to ‘care for’ the garden. The Israelites were required to give ‘rest’ to the land every seven years, and animals were to be well treated.

  4. The purpose of working with God’s gift of the natural order is to provide for human flourishing – food, clothing, shelter, human interaction – in which everyone should have a share. Humankind is enjoined to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. After the Fall, work becomes toil, but its purpose remains the same. The rules for gleaning, provision for the Levites, and the triennial tithe make it clear that these goods should be shared across the community.

  5. Access to natural resources should be available to all and accumulation should be prevented. The basis for ‘property rights’ in the natural order is God’s gift. The initial allocation of the Land achieved equality across Israelite clans and tribes (see section B.2 above: ‘The land as divine gift), and land could not be sold in perpetuity. If an Israelite family lost its land then it should be redeemed for them as soon as possible. The prophets condemned the tendency for the rulers and the powerful to accumulate land for their own wealth.

COMMENTS

  1. Economic analysis focusses on the issue of ‘scarcity’ which appears to contradict the description of the natural order as ‘abundant’ in the first DSP above. There are two related ways of reconciling these viewpoints. The first is to identify scarcity as the result of human sinfulness, though it is not clear that this is explicit anywhere in the biblical text (except perhaps in the context of the judgement on Israel for their disobedience). The second is to note that natural resources may indeed be abundant in regard to human needs but not in regard to wants which are often (because of human sin) literally unlimited, giving rise to the problem of scarcity.

  2. These suggested DSP do not tackle the issue of forms of land ownership. In the OT rules for the Land, land could not be sold in perpetuity, but only leased until the Jubilee, the price reflecting the number of years until that date (Leviticus 25). At the Jubilee it is to be returned to its original family owners. It is not clear how to reflect this rule in DSP for modern economies where the concept of ‘original ownership’ does not hold.

BIBLE STUDY

A1. DIVINE GIFT AND DIVINE OWNERSHIP IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

God’s earth: divine ownership (Deuteronomy 10: 14)

Read Genesis 1 and 2. Put aside any discussion of evolution/creation or science/faith debates, and focus on the following questions:

  • What does this passage tell us about God and his purposes in creation?

  • How should we interpret the recurring phrase ‘And God saw that it was good’? In what senses is the created order ‘good’?

  • It has been suggested that Genesis 1 is about the creation of the natural order, and Genesis 2: 4ff is about the creation of moral order. How much does this help to explain the two very different stories? From chapter 2 identify those themes that address moral ordering.

Our earth: divine gift and human responsibility

Reread Genesis 1 and 2

  • In the context of the human relationship with the natural order, what are the implications of humanity being made in the ‘image of God’.

  • What is the purpose of the natural order as a place for human habitation?

  • Is there any contradiction between the injunction for humanity to subdue and rule in Genesis 1, and the injunctions to care for the Garden and the animals in Genesis 2?

  • Why does God rest at the climax of creation (Genesis 2: 2-3)? Why is that significant for human rest (Exodus 20: 8-11)?

Cursed earth: human sin and the natural order

Read Genesis 3 and 9: 1-17

  • Why does man’s disobedience affect our relationship with the natural order? What are the implications for our interaction with the natural order?

  • Why was it necessary for God to enter into a covenant with Noah? Compare this covenant with the pattern established in Genesis 1 and 2 What has changed? What has been lost or gained?

New creation: the natural order and eschatology

Read Isaiah 65: 17-25 and Romans 8: 18-25

  • What do these passages imply about the future of the created order?

  • Why is it important that redemption includes all creation? How shouldthis affect our attitudes to, and our use of, the natural order?

B. THE LAND IN THE STORY OF ISRAEL

The Land and the covenant promise

Read Genesis 12: 7 and 15: 7, 18-21, Deuteronomy 8: 1-20, and 28: 58-68.

  • Why is the Land so important in God’s covenant with his people in the Old Testament?

  • In what ways was the covenant promise of the Land conditional?

  • Failure to keep the covenant resulted in exile from the Land. What is the significance of this particular consequence?

The division of the Land

Joshua 13-19, Numbers 26, 34, Leviticus 25: 8-28. 

  • What was the significance of the detailed division of the Land between the tribes and families of Israel? Why did the writer of Joshua devote seven whole chapters to this matter? Can you discern any principles underlying the division?

  • Why does Leviticus 25 provide for land to be restored to its original family owner? What would have been the outcomes if these stipulations had been carefully adhered to?

  • What are the implications of Leviticus 25: 23?

The responsibilities of holding land in Israel.

Deuteronomy 14: 22-29; 24: 19-22; 26: 1-15; Leviticus 25. 

  • Occupying the Land brought responsibilities – to God, to family, to neighbour, and to the land itself. Identify these responsibilities from these passages: suggest why they are important; and consider the implications for the economy and social life of Israel.

C. NOTE ON APPLICATION

Christians often find it difficult to see the relevance for contemporary life of Old Testament texts concerning the created order and the Land. The key is to look at the general principles behind the texts, understanding that the texts spell out how those principles were worked out in the particular agrarian economy and society of Ancient Israel. The presumption is that the underlying principles reflect God’s moral ordering of our world, and therefore can be usefully applied in very different contexts. 

What are the general principles that you can discern in these texts, from the stories of Genesis 1-3 and 9, and from the rules for land holding in the Old Testament Law?

[Donald Hay, April 2014]

Donald HayComment