Rethinking Scripture, Humans, and Creation: Human Violence

My previous post discussed the biblical claim, derived from Genesis, Job, and Psalms, that God made the whole creation to flourish, and loves every being in it. In this post I’ll describe the deep relationship scriptural writers draw between violence against humans and violence against the earth. 

I used to have Hebrew students translate the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4. A word that Hebrew students encounter more than once in a passage is celebrated as one less word to look up. So they would always notice the two words repeated over and over in this story: “brother” akh, appears seven times. And “ground,” adamah, is repeated six times. In addition, the words “field” and “earth” each appear twice.

In the past, readers have often paid attention to “brother” (as in, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”). But they haven’t often noticed the story’s focus on the land: “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” Cain’s violence against his brother, it turns out, also pollutes the land, demonstrating the deep biblical connection between violence against neighbors and ecological violence. 

In his encyclical, Pope Francis quotes the Orthodox patriarch Bartholomew making precisely this point about modern violence: 

“For human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life–these are sins.” For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”

Scripture speaks often about the land being polluted with violence. According to Hosea 4:2-3, multiple human violations cause the land to “dry up,” (according to the NIV) or to “mourn” (according to the NRSV) and the creatures to perish. The same Hebrew word means both. People grieve through our voices, and the Hebrew imagines the earth grieving by becoming uninhabitable. Violations against neighbors violates the land itself, and its creatures. 

Isaiah 5:8-10 likewise connects violence against neighbors with the land’s infertility, saying that people who practice what some might call eminent domain, and others, environmental injustice—taking other’s land and fields to enrich themselves—will end up with nothing, Isaiah warns.

Ezekiel 34:17-19 discusses environmental justice directly, describing it as the spoiling of land and water so others can no longer eat or drink. Here, violence done to the land becomes violence also to neighbors. The two are inseparable.

So here is a second biblical claim, rooted in the Cain and Abel story, and articulated by prophets: “Violence against humans and violence against nature are inseparable.” Because humans are so closely connected to the earth, we cannot harm one without harming the other. Fortunately, flipping this idea upside down, when we heal or prevent environmental pollution, human health improves. When we heal societies, the earth’s conditions improve. 

To be continued…

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