What with all the hubbub in the news this week about the killing of Harumbe, an endangered great ape, to save a little boy who fell into this ape’s enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, I thought this might be a good time to talk about Christian Environmentalism. As most of you have probably heard by now, there are a lot of people in an uproar that the ape was killed (murdered, some would say). Some deflect attention by blaming negligent parenting, as if parents are perfectly capable of controlling their children at every waking moment of their lives. The issue at stake here is the relative worth of a child’s life versus an endangered species of animal. You see, our culture is increasingly neo-pagan in its outlook. Not only are all people created equal, but so are animals. A radio poll several years ago found that slightly more people would save their beloved dog from a sinking boat over a human they’ve never met. Many Christians, myself included, are horrified to hear such a thing. But at the same time, I love my cat. To see anything bad happen to her would be really hard for me, and I know lots of Christians feel the same way about their pets. So I figure this is a good time to look at what the Scriptures teach about our relationship with the rest of creation, especially the Animal Kingdom.
The bottom line is that we, the human race, have authority within creation. Exactly what this means and looks like in practice will be explored in three parts. We’ll first look at a couple texts where our authority is instructed by God, then a couple texts where our authority is described in terms of permission, and finally a few examples of what our authority looks like in action.
Genesis 1:27-29 says “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”
This is the first statement in the Bible regarding our authority over nature. We are to subdue the earth and have dominion. These words in Hebrew are said to carry a softer connotation than we often translate them. Perhaps “caretaker” would be a better word to describe our position. Nevertheless it’s clear that we’re in charge. After the great flood of Noah’s day, God makes much the same sort of statement.
In Genesis 8:16-17, God says “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh — birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth — that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.”
The initial instructions here are to make sure the animals multiply. God made a point of saving them on the ark and He wants Noah and the others to be sure to allow the animals to survive and thrive. But shortly after that, in Genesis 9:1-5, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man.”
Now we’ve got an interesting balance between the first two statements. On one hand the human race is called to fill the earth and invited to eat the flesh of animals, which are now said to be afraid (or respectful) of humanity’s power. But on the other hand, when it comes to the “shedding of blood,” God will “require a reckoning” both of man and of beasts! Indiscriminate killing of animals is ruled out. Our authority over the beasts has its limits.
Psalm 104 is a celebration of the beauty of God’s work in creation. Most of its attention is directed at creation without even the human race in sight. Consider these verses, for example.
 Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken.  Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.  At thy rebuke they fled; at the sound of thy thunder they took to flight.  The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place which thou didst appoint for them.  Thou didst set a bound which they should not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.  Thou makest springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,  they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.  By them the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.  From thy lofty abode thou waterest the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy work.  Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth,  and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart.  The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon which he planted.  In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees.  The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the badgers.  Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting.  Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep forth.  The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.  When the sun rises, they get them away and lie down in their dens.  Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until the evening.  O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures.  Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great.  There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it.  These all look to thee, to give them their food in due season.  When thou givest to them, they gather it up; when thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things.  When thou hidest thy face, they are dismayed; when thou takest away their breath, they die and return to their dust.  When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created; and thou renewest the face of the ground.
Notice how it makes a point of describing how God has provided for every part of his creation. Everything has its place and its means of survival. In that sense, we’re just one little piece of the puzzle, a blip in the grand ecosystem. But another Psalm presents a different angle on the matter.
Psalm 147:7-11 says, “Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God upon the lyre! He covers the heavens with clouds, he prepares rain for the earth, he makes grass grow upon the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens which cry. His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man; but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.”
Here it is made bluntly obvious that God’s greatest joy is not in this beautiful creation at large, but specifically in the human race, and even more specifically, in those who are His people. That relationship of given and returned love which God shares with us, now known as Christians, is what God most desires out of all His creation. That makes us precious, compared to the rest of the world, as can also be seen throughout the Bible.
In Genesis 2:18-20, it says, “the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.”
Normally, here, we focus on the quest for woman as the suitable partner to man, but today let us observe two things. First, Adam named all the animals. This is not just the work of a cataloguer, this is the work of an overseer. We name our children; we don’t name our peers. (Perhaps we make nicknames for our favorite friends and enemies, but that’s different.) Second, none of the animals were suitable partners for Adam: we are not equal with the rest of the animal kingdom; humans belong with humans.
Next, in Genesis 3:21, when God is kicking out Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, he “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.” Where did those skins come from? You guessed it – God killed an animal to provide for the well-being of Adam and Eve. This sets up the paradigm for the human-animal relationship for the rest of history to this day. Beginning in Genesis 4:4, Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering.” From then on, animal sacrifices were the primary means of prescribed worship, as you can find commanded throughout the books of Exodus and Leviticus, and carried out throughout the Old Testament. This ceased with Jesus, but even still, our basic relationship with the rest of creation hasn’t changed.
Take, for example, the story in Luke 8:26-39, where Jesus meets one or two men possessed with a Legion of demons. When he casts them out, he permits them to enter a nearby herd of pigs which then proceed to charge into the lake and drown. Jesus essentially allowed roughly 2,000 pigs to die for the sake of the healing of one or two men. Some people today are horrified at the thought, but to God, the human lives are worth the sacrifice.
Perhaps even more callous-seeming is the episode in Matthew 21:19-22 wherein Jesus curses a fig tree such that it withers up and dies. Why does he do it? Simply to teach his disciples that faith is powerful. The destruction of one tree for a life-long object lesson is worth it to God.
But again, there are limits to how far our authority can go. In the Sabbath Laws in the book of Exodus, not only humans but also animals are forbidden from working on the Sabbath Day. Furthermore, in Leviticus 25:2-4, God instructs Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, When you come into the land which I give you, the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” Even the earth needs its rest too!
When the Israelites were taken into captivity into Babylon, one of the statements of judgment over them (in 2 Chronicles 36:21) was they would remain in exile “until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.” So their abuse of the land was one of the many transgressions of which God’s people were guilty.
As Christians, we are no longer bound to the Law of Moses in its civil and religious functions. We don’t sacrifice animals to God anymore. We’re free to manage our crop rotation in cycles other than 7 years if we want. But the underlying principles remain: the animals and the earth need rest too. They deserve respect according to their station in life. Just because they are “beneath” us, that doesn’t mean we get to be tyrants, it means we’ve got responsibilities, and sometimes we have to make hard decisions.
Think about biblical leadership models. A good leader takes charge and bears authority, but is also humble, quick to listen, and attentive to the needs of his followers. As caretakers we both rule and serve creation. Sometimes that’s easy and sometimes that isn’t easy, so it is wise for us to consider our vocation as Caretakers of Creation from time to time, as we learn how better to fulfill this vocation of the human race.