Priestly Stewards in God's Good Creation: A Christian Perspective on Environmental Stewardship
One of my passions in life is being outdoors in nature. I love hiking and backpacking, especially if I have my camera and binoculars. I’m repeatedly awestruck by God’s wisdom, power and beauty as I see these reflected in what he has made. It’s something I’ve been passionate about since I was a child hiking with my family in around Mt. Diablo in California in the 1970s. God’s creation provoked in me the desire to see his creation preserved and sustained, so that our activities would not bring harm to God’s creatures. And yet as I’ve grown as a Christian, I’ve also sought to develop my theological convictions from the faithful interpretation of Scripture. Admittedly, the Scriptures tell us very little directly about how we should care for the environment. The Bible was written in a time when human population was not large enough and humanity did not possess the technology to cause anywhere near the impact we can cause today. However, I’d like to focus here on two general principles that are clearly found in Scripture that we can use to set parameters on how we ought to treat God’s creation, and by implication, the environment.
"And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1)
On the one hand, the creation account repeatedly tells us that God’s creation is good. At the end of every day of creation he declares that what he made was “good.” The word “good” here is the Hebrew word tov, which also means “beautiful.” Every day, God declared that what he made was good and beautiful. God was pleased with what he had made, just as it was. From the very beginning of God’s creation, God saw his world as good, beautiful and pleasing to him, even before he created humanity and set us in the Garden.
The rest of Scripture supports this notion that creation is good just as He originally made it. In fact, the Bible often uses metaphorical language to speak of the earth as his temple. In the language of Scripture, the earth is laid on foundations (1 Ki 16:34; Ps 102:25; 137:7; Isa 44:28; 51:13; 54:11, 12; Lam 4:11; Mic 1:6.) This foundation has “footings” and a “cornerstone” (Job 38:6). On these foundations are pillars (Job 26:11; Ps 75:3) and built on these pillars is the expanse or sky. The Hebrew word for “sky” is raqia, often used to describe a flattened material thinly stretched out (Ps 136:6; Isa 42:5). The implication here is that God has stretched out the heavens by his wisdom (Job 9:4-10; see also 38:1-41; Amos 9:6; Ps 104:2-3; Isa 42:5; 44:24; 45:12; 51:13; Jer 10:12; 51:15) like a tent (Ps 104:2), a veil or a curtain (Isa 40:22). This raqia is also said to have “windows” and “doors” (Ps 78:23) or portals to the “waters above” (2 Kings 7:2; Mal 3:10; Gen 7:11; 8:2; cf. Isa 24:18). And finally, above the raqia is God’s chambers (Ps 104:3) or heavenly throne room (Ps 11:4).
We sometimes gloss over this language as simply metaphorical. But what we need to understand is that these are divinely inspired metaphors that God designed to teach us about how we ought to view his world. God is describing creation as his divine temple, complete with foundations, a floor, pillars holding up a ceiling, and lights that shine by day and night. The world is not our own. It belongs to him and was intended to be the fitting arena for his glory to be displayed among his creatures. If we looked only at this teaching in Scripture, we might conclude that God wants us to keep our hands off his temple. God made it good and pleasing as it is, and we can do nothing but mess it up if we interact too much with his world. However, Genesis 1 has more to teach us about our role in the world.
"Fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28)
On the other hand, God tells us to subdue his creation and cultivate the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 2:15 we read, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to take care of it.” God intended Adam and Eve to cultivate, protect and develop the Garden of Eden. But they were not supposed to stay within the confines of the garden. In Genesis 1:26 and 28, God said, “Let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” In other words, Adam and Eve were to function as stewards over God’s creation to spread the boundaries of Eden to fill the whole earth.
At first glance, we might think that God simply ordained Adam and Eve to be kingly gardeners, but they were much more than this. But the expression “to work it and to take care of it” is unusual and had special significance for Moses and the Israelites who first read this story. In Numbers 3:8, we’re told that Adam and Eve are to “take care of all the furnishings of the Tent of Meeting, fulfilling the obligations of the Israelites by doing the work of the tabernacle.” Adam and Eve were to take care of the garden in the same way that priests were to take care of the temple. Adam and Eve’s role in the garden is described in ways that reflect this technical description of the Levites’ role in their priestly service to God. In other words, Adam and Eve were to function as priests in the “temple” of God’s creation. God placed Adam and Eve in his holy garden, the place of God’s special presence on earth. They performed priestly work in the worshipful service of the great king by beautifying and maintaining his holy garden. Adam and Eve served God as priests as they worked in his holy dwelling. And all human beings today have a priestly calling from God to serve him and worship him by beautifying and maintaining God’s creation. God created this world for the display of his glory, and human beings are called to beautify his creation by expanding the borders of Eden to fill the whole earth.
Bringing Both Together
Genesis 1 and 2 provide for us two theological principles to guide us as we interact with the environment: the goodness of God’s creation and the priestly stewardship we are to exercise over his world. And each of these principles, properly understood, should constrain us from overly emphasizing the other. The theological principle of the goodness of God’s original creation should constrain us from exploiting the earth’s natural resources in ways that benefit us but are destructive to God’s world. And the theological principle of our role as priestly stewards of God’s creation should prevent us from having no impact on the created order. We are called to develop God’s creation and expand our influence in his world. But we are called to do so for his glory as well as for human flourishing. The original calling of humanity was to act as priestly stewards of God’s temple, not to exploit the world for our own ends. We should preserve habitats and the diversity of life in this world – after all, God created them and called them “good.”