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A Biblical Perspective on Land Stewardship

(draft notes)

Eugene Loh, December 1997

The Bible opens with an account of creation and immediately turns to stewardship, to God's entrusting of creation to humanity. In Genesis 2, God created Adam and Eve, a "suitable helper." Why a helper? Because they had work to do. They were called to work Eden and take care of it. (Genesis 2.15) Often, discussion of Genesis is clouded by debates of whether to understand the text literally or allegorically. Either way, however, the message is clear. God called humanity to be custodians of the earth.

After "the Fall," Adam and Eve were banished from Eden. Curses were pronounced on the three actors, Adam, Eve, and the serpent, in Genesis 3. Adam's curse was that he would only eat the fruits of creation through toil. It describes an antagonist relationship between mankind and earth as a natural consequence of humanity's sin, a recurrent theme throughout the Bible. Consider also the phrase, "Cursed is the ground because of you," and imagine pictures of smokestacks, clear-cut forests, and landfills. Creation is an innocent victim of humanity's sin.

The term "Torah" refers to different things. The word is Hebrew for "law" and often is taken to mean the first five books of the Bible, the Books of Moses. Much of the Torah is a "priestly manual," epitomized by the book of Leviticus. It talks a lot about Jewish ritualistic law, describing sacrifices and offerings, holy days, kosher practices, and so on. Thus, many people view it as arcane, but it has some very interesting things to say about land use.

Land is implicitly and explicitly personified. Laws providing for justice and championing the oppressed also applied to land. For example, the Sabbath laws, that called for rest on seventh days and seventh years, applied to households, animals, resident aliens, and the land (Exodus 20.10, 23.10-11, 25.4-5).

Leviticus 26 is a wonderful chapter that speaks rather poetically about the natural ramifications of obeying -- or disregarding -- God's law and, like Genesis 3, ties obedience to God with relationship to land. One might almost imagine an addition to the Beatitudes, "Blessed is the land that is polluted, for God will redeem it from your sickening abuse."

The chapter talks about the rewards of following God's decrees. In particular, it paints a picture of harmony between humanity and the land, with the land providing both abundant crops and sanctuary. (Leviticus 26.4-6)

In contrast, rebellion will result in enmity between mankind and the land. The people who turn away from God will be persecuted and afflicted, but "the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths." (Leviticus 26.34-35) Not only will the land no longer be safe haven, it will actually "devour" its former oppressors. (Leviticus 26.38) I imagine "the land" sipping drinks by the pool, making up for lost time, while polluters are tormented in Hades. (See also 2 Samuel 21.1-14, especially the first and last verses, and 2 Chronicles 7.13-14. The state of the land is a sign of our state with God.)

Land was not so much a commodity. Rather, it was an inheritance for the Israelites and it was core to the covenantal promises that God made to them. God's people are not to abuse their inheritance, but to treasure it. It cannot be bought and sold. (Leviticus 25. Actually, the land could be bought and sold, but every fifty years, it reverted to its "owners" or "inheritors." What term to use is problematic, because we are inclined to use labels that imply dominance over the land. Instead, Leviticus 25.23 proves helpful: "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine [God's] and you are but aliens and my tenants." This verse clearly assumes that mankind is custodian or caretaker of land.)

The land was a promise to Abraham (e.g., Genesis 12.7, but really throughout the Bible). The "promised land," a "land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3.17), figures prominently in Jewish thinking (e.g., Psalm 137.1-6, Ezekiel 36.24) and Christian metaphor (e.g., Revelation 21.1). It is "home." Moses, the great prophet, longed even just to see the promised land, as if it were a glimpse of heaven. (Deuteronomy 34)

Abusing the land is like chopping the leg on which you stand. The people of the Bible were invariably farmers, vintners, shepherds. They did not "mine" the land and so deplete it. Rather, they relied on the land as a sustaining resource, year after year.

Numbers 35.33-34 has an interesting nuance. It reads,

          Do not pollute the land where you
          are...  Do not defile the land where
          you live and where I [God] dwell.

It seems like the environmentalist's dream verse. Well, actually, the "pollution" and "defilement" refer to ritualistic abuse (committing sins, like murders, on the land), but I think this helps make the case: God's people are called to treat the land as holy. Worship of God means nurturing the land even more than tending a church building.

These references are not isolated texts. Rather, they illustrate themes that run throughout the Bible.

Eugene Loh has a doctorate in physics and now works in the computer industry. He lives in Monterey County.

LandWatch's mission is to protect Monterey County's future by addressing climate change, community health, and social inequities in housing and infrastructure. By encouraging greater public participation in planning, we connect people to government, address human needs and inspire conservation of natural resources.



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