An Old Testament scholar finds in the Biblical account of creation a foundation for an environmental ethic that acknowledges the role of otherness and detachment in the apprehension of value.
In the 49 years since Lynn White, Jr., published his influential essay indicting the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its commitment to a God—the ultimate source of value—outside of nature, as the root of “our ecologic crisis”, scholars have spent a great deal of time
examining the Bible and other relevant texts from a “green” perspective. Their task is complicated—and made interesting—by the fact that, in the crucial matter of creation itself, the Bible provides not one, but two side-by-side and in some ways contradictory accounts. For the most part, exegetes with an environmental bent have favored what scholars call the “J” (for Jahwist or Yahwist) account, (Gen. 2:4b-3:24), which depicts humans as created out of earth to be servants of the earth, to the more managerial P (Priestly) account (Gen. 1:1-2;4a), which casts humans as stewards with a measure of authority over nature, whose responsibility is, famously, “to rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on the earth (Gen 1:26).
Until recently, Ted Hiebert, an Old Testament scholar at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, who has written extensively about these matters, felt the same way, and had, he says, devoted much of his energy to the task of “getting us out from under this Priestly image of human agency”. Indeed, he wrote his 1996 book, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel, in part to defend the Biblical tradition from the critique White leveled at it by focusing on the earthier account of J, noting that both John Muir found the J account appealing, and environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott has found its spirit clearly reflected in Aldo Leopold’s idea of membership in the land community. Recently, however, he has made something of a turnaround, and has been making the case for poor old P as offering, as he writes in a paper he delivered at a conference at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia in 2012, the richer and more promising model for the urgent business of “putting the world together”. While he sees wisdom in J’s depiction of humans as, quite
literally, children of the soil, he now argues that it is not the earthy J, but the more detached and scientific P who provides the better model for the integration of science art and theology that underlies a gracious relationship with others and with the environment—and that is a fundamental challenge for us today.
“The Priestly Writer,” he writes, “was a genuine scientist; an ancient one, but, nevertheless, a scientist who took the world of nature seriously and studied it closely and systematically.”
A God who can say “Wow!”
In support of this, he notes the Priestly writer’s taxonomy, focused on plants, organized into ranked groups, like the taxonomy of Linnaeus, and reflecting close observation of specific characters such as fruits and seeds. He quotes with approval E. A. Speiser’s assessment that the story of creation in Genesis 1 “reflected the best that was available in contemporary scientific thinking.” And he adds, noting the “withering criticism” it attracted, Julius Wellhauesn’s argument that
The aim of the narrator is not mainly a religious one. Had he only meant to say that God made the world out of nothing, and made it good, he could have said so in simpler words, and at the same time more distinctly. There is no doubt that he meant to describe the actual course of the genesis of the world, and to be true to nature in doing so; he means to give a cosmogonic theory. But, Hiebert notes, if P took nature seriously enough to observe it closely, he also responded to it as an artist and a priest who renders his account in the poetic, even liturgical cadences that have made it so compelling to congregations and readers for the better part of three millennia.
He notes that it is not J but P who provides the clearest expression of the “goodness” or “beauty” of creation in the phrase, repeated at the end of each day of creation and usually translated “And God saw that it was good”. That’s a pretty positive take on creation. But Hiebert, who drew from extensive linguistic scholarship, when he translated “Genesis” for the recently published Common English Bible makes it even more so, rendering it “God saw how good it was”.
“This,” he notes, is “only a slight change in wording, really, this shift from the conjunction ‘that’ to the adverb ‘how’. But it puts the world’s goodness—its exquisite quality, its value, its beauty—in a new register. In fact, this adverb ‘how’ adds an emotional depth to God’s response to the world and to the poet’s apprehension of its beauty and value. The King James Version’s subordinating conjunction ‘that’ states a simple fact. It’s an intellectual response to creation, an analytical description of the world, a cognitive evaluation we can ascribe to, a bit of knowledge, a fact we may recognize and accept. But the Common English Bible’s adverbial ‘how’ conveys God’s emotions. It contains God’s feelings about the world, God’s surprise, almost, and delight that the world was so perfectly done, so wonderfully new, so completely right. The world evoked in God not only the knowledge of its goodness but the amazement at its goodness.”
This, in other words, is a God who can say “Wow!” And, as Hiebert notes, it suggests a God who is not only, or altogether transcendent, not wholly in charge of or “on top of” creation, but also “present and embedded in its processes”.
Besides that, he notes that the Hebrew word tov, which he rendered into English as “good,” is often used “in an aesthetic sense to describe the beautiful: what is pleasant, excellent, valuable, of high quality. All of these meanings are imbedded in the word tov, and it’s a shame we have to pick just one for a translation. If I were to translate Genesis again, there’s a better than even chance that I would have chosen ‘beautiful’ or ‘exquisitely made’ or ‘valuable’ instead of ‘good.’ Probably ‘beautiful’.”
For Hiebert, the result of this integration of science, art, theology (and I think it’s fair to say, ritual) is a theology that is “world based”, and in which the creator, God, “is conceived in terms of the physical world and the physical world in terms of God”. Moreover, the creator’s designation of humans as created “in our image…so that they may take charge” of creation (as he rendered it for the CEB), does not set us apart from nature as essentially different from it, but constitutes a vocation. And that vocation—“Here,” Hiebert writes, “we have to grab ourselves by the shoulders and shake ourselves a bit.”—“is to be responsible for the world of nature, all of it.”
That, though Prof. Hiebert doesn’t make the point in this essay, seems to me to coincide with—we might say to anticipate (by quite a bit, actually)—Aldo Leopold’s famous land ethic, and his injunction to regard ourselves as plain members of the land community.
But membership, in this reading, based not only on a comfortable identification with soil, as the Biblical J put it, or “the land,” as Leopold put it, but on the detachment, the distancing of the self and attention to the other as other that is part of the human condition, as the key to real connection and the apprehension of value, the expression of that in art, and its realization in ritual. Exactly the idea we are exploring here.
Intrigued, I asked Prof. Hiebert whether he would be willing to respond to a few questions raised by the connection I saw between his defense of P and the ideas we are exploring. He said he would, and what follows is an edited version of the resulting conversation.
WRJ: You have pointed out that it is P who provides the clearest expression of God’s satisfaction at the “goodness” of creation, and in fact does so on the fifth day of creation before turning to the task of creating humans. What do you make of this? Do you think it suggests something about the role apprehension of other as other plays in the experience of value?
TH: Before responding to the idea of nature as Other, just a clarification: in my view, J depicts humans as servants, not stewards, of creation, though this, of course, supports what you have said here about J and P. The word J uses for “till” (or cultivate/farm) in Gen 2:5 and 15 is avad the basic Hebrew word for “serve”, thus the exact opposite of P’s “master”. So the human is at the service of the world, not the ruler of it. I take the word “steward”, though not used by P, to characterize his perspective, since a “steward” is a person given responsibility by one higher than him to supervise one lower than him, and in P God gives humans the responsibility of supervising the earth.
I’m intrigued by your sense of the value of seeing nature as Other, especially since my other big passion these days is unpacking cultural attitudes in Genesis, which means figuring out how the Other is viewed and what positive or negative values are contained in viewing the Other and in the idea of identity and difference in general. The two ways P distinguishes humans from the rest of nature in Gen. 1 are by making him in God’s image (he is the only animal so made) and in giving him rule over the other animals (while, in contrast, J thought humans and animals alike were made out of topsoil). The question is, what’s behind these two distinguishing marks: divine image and rule? Do they introduce a healthy sense of detachment? Or do they simply reflect a need to control? I’m not sure how to answer this yet, but I really like the question and it would be one for more conversation, I believe.
P does value nature, and this is one of the key things I try to say in the Union talk.
WRJ: I’m thinking that the “art” element you find in P might reflect the commitment to ritual by the priestly class. Does that make any sense? And if so, how might that contrast with the perspective of the J editor in a socio-economic sense. I mean, who was J? Do we know anything about that? Anything that is pertinent to this question? Might he (or, per Harold Bloom, she*) have represented some part of ancient Hebrew culture that was perhaps more individualistic or less likely to regard the rituals of the temple as the center of value?
TH: You are right. There is much more interest in ritual in P than in J, hence the scholarly hypothesis that P was a priest. So, in Gen 1, for example, the repetition is sometimes attributed to a worship ritual in which this text might have been recited. While J is very much interested in religion and even altars and such, he does not have the temple at the center of his world as P does. On the basis of his words, I’d judge J to be the epic poet of his people, expressing their agrarian culture, their kinship society, and their constitution as a people under and member of the tribe of Judah, i.e. King David and the Davidic Dynasty.
WRJ: I have thought that the two, in some ways contradictory accounts of creation in “Genesis,” basically the J and P accounts, with their very different portrayals of humans’ relationship with nature, is less an actual contradiction, as it appears if read as history, than a way of dealing with and accounting for the ambiguity of human experience as a self that is both part of nature and apart from it. Does that make any sense from your perspective as an Old Testament scholar?
TH: I feel that J’s and P’s views are both contradictory and complementary. I don’t want to fold them into each other and make them a kind of literary ambiguity. I want us to appreciate first these very distinctive voices. This is the great contribution of historical critical scholarship: uncovering the real, individual voices of scripture. But I do agree that, together, they cover the real complexity of our human situation and the ambiguity of human experience.
WRJ: In an exploration of the role of the Biblical tradition in the shaping of Western thought and culture, literary critic Herbert Schneidau argued (in “Sacred Discontent” (1976)) that the Biblical version of what I’m calling the “detached” perspective on nature emerged from the Hebrews’ idea of a transcendent divinity. Rather than deploring it, however, Schneidau writes “in praise of alienation” in this form, and celebrates it as the basis for the strong current of social criticism that he regards as a distinctive achievement of the Western tradition. What do you make of that? And, with respect to environmental thinking in particular, do you think it is fair to say that environmentalism itself, with its critique of aspects of Western culture, exemplifies this arguably critical aspect of Western thought?
TH: I need to go back and look at Schneidau, whom I read when I was doing The Yahwist’s Landscape. If I remember correctly, he sees the seeds of the notion of detachment and a transcendent god in Israel’s desert origins, an idea I critique directly in the book (pp. 9-12, 19-22). My view is that this desert ideal stuff is wrong and that J and P (and the rest of the Bible) are agricultural through and through.
WRJ: Regarding this more positive take on detachment, or the experience of the otherness of nature—what I have referred to as the distance between souls—what do you make of that? And what implications might it have for environmental thinking and practice?
TH: While we may want to talk about the distance between souls—that’s fine—P and J wouldn’t have. They had a this-worldly view in which human life didn’t have a unique spiritual essence or soul, but possessed the breath of God as did all living things. When God takes back God’s breath, we die (Psalm 104:29-30).
Having said that, I’m still thinking about the idea of identity and difference, the self and the Other, and how we think of that in a healthy way rather than collapsing the two or separating them entirely. That’s the question for me, after hearing your reflections, and one which I’d like to pursue further.
 E. A. Speiser, Genesis (New York: Doubleday, 1962) LV.
 Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (New York: Meridian, 1957) 298, 304; repr. of Prolegomena to the History of Israel (trans. J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies; with preface by W. Robertson Smith; Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885); trans. of Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (2nd ed.; Berlin: Reimer, 1883).
 In his The Book of J (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990).