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Ecocritical Bible Reading


Rarely does a day pass that climate change is not on my mind. It worries me, saddens and scares me. The findings and warnings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, which was released in October 2018, is to understate it, alarming. The consequences of not succeeding at halting the temperature rise are dire. The UN website dedicated to climate change have these sentences at the very top:

Climate Change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale (

The topic concerns us all, yet in my observation, climate change, ecology, and nature are rarely, to my knowledge, topics discussed in Adventist, and Adventist theological, circles. There are of course exceptions. While doing my undergraduate studies at Andrews University I had the privilege of taking an excellent theology class from Dr. Josef Greig on God and the environment, and Sigve Tonstad takes on the topic in his thorough book on the Sabbath, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh-day. I am sure there are other scholars, authors, and works out there as well that have slipped under my radar.

However, inspired by the recent focus on ecocriticism in literary circles I decided to experiment with ecocritical Bible reading. This exercise has undoubtedly been done before, but since I have not seen much writing on the topic, I shall dare to share some of my findings.

Greg Garrard, the leading critic within ecocriticism, supplies this definition in his introductory discussion of the history of ecocriticism in Ecocriticism: “Indeed, the widest definition of the subject of ecocriticism is the study of the relationship of the human and the non-human, throughout human cultural history and entailing critical analysis of the term ‘human’ itself” (5). Exposing the relationship between the human and non-human was precisely what I set out to do while experimenting with ecocritical Bible reading. (Keep in mind that I have my academic background in literature studies and my religious and theological background as a layperson of Adventism.) This is a sample of what I found in my broad sweep through the Bible: 1) Human life is dependent on other forms of life, 2) Sin and natural disaster go together and natural disaster is the consequence of sin, 3) The Sabbath is the guarantee for sustainability, 4) When Jesus is suffering, the earth is suffering.

Starting with the creation story in Genesis, examining it through the lens of the relationship between the human and the non-human, what really sticks out is the order of creation. There is a hierarchy of need. Light is created first, then sky and water, dry land, vegetation and plants, and sea creatures, land creatures, and finally humankind. Humankind here emerges as the part of creation that is dependent on all of the rest of creation, light is not enough for the human, just dry land, just vegetation and plants, or just sea is not enough and just land animals is not enough. In short: the human needs it all. In turn, reading on in Genesis about how the human is given stewardship over Eden, the underlying premise is that the humans are dependent on the whole ecosystem for their survival.

Moving on in Genesis to the story of the Flood, in the relationship between the human and the non-human, a destructive spiral arises where the consequence of sin, human evil, results in the mother of all natural disasters, the Flood.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled of violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth (Genesis 6:11-13, New Revised Standard Version).

The New Testament counterpart we find in the lake of fire in Revelation chapter 20. Here the ultimate consequence of human sin is not a devastating flood, but a devastating fire. Phrased differently, the final consequence of sin is all-destructive natural catastrophe.

Looking at Exodus, we also see that there is a close connection between faulty human decision-making and natural disasters. The best example being the ten plagues. The result of refusing to liberate the Hebrews from slavery is increasingly devastating catastrophes, gradually destroying the foundation for successful human life, following a hierarchical pattern similar to that of the creation story in Genesis. Again, we see a repetition of this in Revelation in the description of the seven last plagues. However, here the plagues are directly connected to sin, which can be read as plagues harming the people refusing to receive the seal of God. The people refusing the seal of God, in traditional Adventist interpretation, being synonymous with the people refusing to keep the seventh day as Sabbath, which brings us directly to the next point.

Focusing on the relationship between the human and the non-human, the texts concerning the Sabbath stand out as the greenest texts in the entire Bible. What is most interesting, and traditionally seldom brought to the forefront, is the focus on servants and animals in the Sabbath commandment. In Exodus, we read:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns (Exodus 20:8-10, New Revised Standard Version).

Not only humans, who in the creation story were given stewardship over creation, but also the animals are granted rest on the seventh day. However, it is in the descriptions of the larger concept of the Sabbath with its Sabbath years and the year of the Jubilee that the green punch is really strong. The instruction for the Sabbath year in Leviticus is clear:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its Sabbath — you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound laborers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food (Leviticus 25:1-7, New Revised Standard Version).

Note that it is not only the cultivated land that is granted rest; also the wild and untouched nature is included. By this nature is given value not merely as a source of food, but as something that in itself deserves the respect entailed in Sabbath rest. The importance of respecting the need to let the cultivated land rest is also very much underlined at the very end of 2 Chronicles where the Babylonian exile is directly connected to Israel’s negligence of the sabbath years:

He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had made up for its sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years (2 Chronicles 36:20-21, New Revised Standard Version).

When reading this passage ecocritically it seems like the consequence of neglecting looking after nature is diaspora and imprisonment. Additionally that return to the Promised Land is impossible until nature has healed and caught up on its sabbath rest. In this sense, this serves as warning against exploitation.

Reading more about the sabbath concept and the year of the jubilee, what stands out is the safeguard against human exploitation and the focus on sustainability. Like with the sabbath year the land is granted rest in the year of the jubilee. The major difference concerning nature is that land and property is to be returned to its original owner:

In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 25:13-17, New Revised Standard Version).

The genius of this is quite simple; it renders large-scale farming and exploitative agriculture impossible.

Leaping to the New Testament and the gospels it is interesting to look at the life of Jesus through the ecocritical lens. There seems to be an intimate connection between the incarnated God and creation. We see this several times, as He quiets the storm on the Sea of Galilee, as He heals a number of people from various illnesses, and wakes, for instance, Lazarus up from the dead. In all these situations, Jesus displays an access to, and command over nature unknown to the common person. The strength of this connection between God and creation becomes particularly fascinating when looking at Jesus’ death on the cross. The book of Matthew depicts His death as follows:

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”(Matthew 27:45-54, New Revised Standard Version).

Three points stand out as particularly interesting. First, nature seems to go into shutdown-dark-mode as Jesus is literally about to die, his last breath seems to have started an earthquake and the awakening of dead people! Read with the ecocritical filter, it appears that the relationship between Jesus and nature is so close that the earth, and life on it, responds literally and physically to his death. Consequentially, the question follows naturally: is Jesus suffering when nature is suffering?

As demonstrated, reading the Bible ecocritically will not bring us any closer to the intentions of the authors of the biblical texts, nor will it necessarily bring us any closer to a better understanding of the cultures the biblical texts were produced in. In fact, reading the Bible this way can be quite narrow and restricted, and in the paragraphs above I have not made an effort to highlight how catastrophe and disaster sometimes, as in the book of Job, is not a consequence of sin or human behavior, but the consequence of evil non-human intervention. I would still argue, however, that looking at the Bible ecocritically will unveil previous and present prejudices, flares and attitudes of exploitation in our lives and readings of the Bible. An ecocritical reading of the Bible shows us that using the Bible as a free pass to exploitation of nature is not credible.

The Judeo-Christian tradition does not have a good reputation when it comes to taking care of the environment and the natural world. Garrard makes a point of this in Ecocriticism in the chapter titled “Apocalypse” under the heading “Apocalypse and the Millennium.” Here he outlines the focus on eschatology in Christianity and explains the difference between what is termed comic and tragic agency in the context of apocalypse and millennium. Using Augustine as one of his examples, he explains:

Augustine’s eschatology is therefore comic and non-catastrophic, emphasizing a drawn-out moral struggle going on not between forces of light and darkness, but within the faithful themselves. This ethical subtlety, along with an emphasis upon free will, supplies a sounder moral ideology for a church wary of millennial enthusiasm: if the End may or not be nigh, believers must live in the light of its possibility whilst refraining from relinquishing their worldly duties in a fit of utopian hysteria. Tragic narratives of the End, on the other hand are radically dualistic, deterministic and catastrophic, and have tended historically to issue in suicidal, homicidal or even genocidal frenzies (96).

It does not take very much reflection to realize that Adventist culture has been, and is prone to, the tragic mode, in turn resulting in disregard for nature and the environment. Interchangeably, the overtones and the undertones have been “it does not matter, Jesus will return and the earth will be destroyed anyway.”

Further on, Garrard refers to and draws on historian Lynn White Jr.’s criticism of the human centeredness in Christianity. He writes:

White draws attention to the dualistic conception of humanity and nature that the two religions share, but in addition they are both apocalyptic, which may be the key to the quest for Judeo-Christianity’s contribution to environmental problems. Established Christianity balances the long-standing notion of the sanctity of Creation against the dualistic idea of transcendence that White noticed, but millenarian Christianity stresses radical discontinuity: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away (Rev. 21:1). In its emphasis upon Christians as decisive actors in an imminent epochal conflict, millenarians inevitably brush aside the mild anthropocentrism of the established Christian ‘stewardship’ tradition, recommended by ecophilosopher John Passmore on account of its long term, conservationist ethic. Environmental crisis serves modern American conservative evangelists just as natural disasters served mediaeval millenarians: as a sign of the coming End, but not as a warning to avert it (97).

Interestingly, Tonstad addresses White’s criticism in The Lost Meaning of the Seventh-day. Tonstad’s argument is that the core of what White’s criticism arise from is an interpretation failure, or as he phrases it, “the departure of Christianity from the biblical idea.” Tonstad elaborates further: “If Christians have failed to speak up on behalf of nature, the explanation must be sought in the loss of the biblical view of Creation and not in the biblical view itself” (395). Attacking White’s critique, he continues:

To suggest that “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects betrays gross ignorance of the true Judeo-Christian idea of Creation as it is found throughout the Bible and institutionalized in the weekly Sabbath (395).

Again, referring to White, Tonstad argues:

The warning that “we the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man” hits wide of the mark. A more appropriate counsel will instead call for a return to the original biblical affirmation of the worth of non-human creation. Indifference to nature surely cannot be described as a “Christian axiom” (395).

Tonstad’s critique of Lynn is interesting for several reasons, one of them being that his theological foothold is broader than what a mere cultural approach may cover. Furthermore, it is compelling because it affirms that the ecocritical approach to scripture, and the Sabbath in particular, is more in line with the original meaning of the text than not, if such meaning exists. That is not to say, however, that an ecocritical approach to the Bible would be invaluable if other branches of criticism and theology revealed that the biblical texts were innately hostile to nature and the environment.

If one belongs to a religious community that takes Scripture very seriously, a community that searches Scripture for life guidance, it becomes especially important to be critical of the culture that community furthers. It is superfluous, but the Bible should not be used as an excuse to adopt culture that legitimizes exploitation of the natural world.

It is not my perception that anti-environmental messages are commonly preached from Adventist pulpits. I do not believe our clergy wants, or dares, to encourage their audiences to be careless about nature and the environment. Still, I am a little bit worried, and also a little disappointed, that nature and the climate are not amongst our first and foremost concerns as a church community. The question I ask myself is; are we stuck in the tragic mode of eschatology? Have we, if not openly, secretly resigned to indifference, because we believe that the earth will be destroyed regardless?

It is time to take a stand for nature, against the tragic mode of eschatology and for the biblical ideas, sustainability and prosperity.


Notes & References:

“Climate Change.” United Nations, Accessed March 21, 2019.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2012.

The Bible. The New Oxford Annotated Version, 3rd ed., Oxford UP, 2001.

Tonstad, Sigve K. The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day. Andrews University Press, 2009.


Linnea Helgesen teaches Norwegian at Tyrifjord videregående skole in Norway. She is an outdoor enthusiast and enjoys hiking, kayaking and skiing. 

Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash


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