Three Biblical Principles For Environmental Stewardship

Dr. Calvin B. DeWitt

1. Earthkeeping Principle:


Genesis 2:15 expects Adam and Adam's descendants to serve and keep the garden. The Hebrew word upon which the translation of keep is based is the word "shamar" and "shamar" means a loving, caring, sustaining keeping. This word also is used in the Aaronic blessing, from Numbers 6:24, "The Lord bless you and keep you." When we invoke God's blessing to keep us, it is not merely that God would keep us in a kind of preserved, inactive, uninteresting state. Instead, it is that God would keep us in all of our vitality, with all our energy and beauty. The keeping we expect of God when we invoke the Aaronic blessing is one that nurtures all of our life-staining and life-fulfilling relationships-- with our family, spouse, and children, with our neighbors and our friends, with the land and creatures that sustain us, with the air and water, and with our God.

And so too with our keeping of the Garden-- in our keeping of God's Creation. When Adam, Eve, and we, keep the Creation, we make sure that the creatures under our care and keeping are maintained with all their proper connections-- connections with members of the same species, with the many other species with which they interact, with the soil, air and water upon which they depend. The rich and full keeping that we invoke with the Aaronic blessing is the kind of rich and full keeping that we should bring to the garden of God-- to God's creatures and to all of Creation. As God keeps believing people, so should God's people keep Creation.

2. Sabbath Principle:


Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 require that one day in seven be set aside as a day of rest for people and for animals. As human beings and animals are to be given their times of sabbath rest, so also is the land. Exodus 23 commands, "For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild beasts may eat." "You may ask, 'What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?'" God's answer in Leviticus 25 and 26 is: "I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years," so do not worry, but practice this law so that your land will be fruitful. "If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit"

Christ in the New Testament clearly teaches that the Sabbath is made for the ones served by it-- not the other way around. Thus, the sabbath year is given to protect the land from relentless exploitation, to help the land rejuvenate, to help it get things together again; it is a time of rest and restoration. This sabbath is not merely a legalistic requirement; rather, it is a profound principle. Thus in some Christian farming communities, the sabbath principle is practiced by letting the land rest every second year, "because that is what the land needs." And of course, it is not therefore restricted to agriculture but applies to all Creation. The Bible warns in Leviticus 26, "...if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, ...Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins... Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time it lies desolate... then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it."

3. Fruitfulness Principle:


The fish of the sea and the birds of the air, as well as people, are given God's blessing of fruitfulness. In Genesis 1:20 and 22 God declares, "Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky." And then God blesses these creatures with fruitfulness: "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth." God's Creation reflects God's fruitful work-- God's fruitful work of giving to land and life what satisfies. As it is written in Psalm 104, "He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among its branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work." And Psalm 23 describes how our providing God "... makes me lie down in green pastures, ... leads me beside quiet waters, ... restores my soul."

As God's fruitful work brings fruit to Creation, so too should ours. As God provides for the creatures, so should we people who were created to reflect God whose image we bear. Imaging God, we too should provide for the creatures. And, as Noah spared no time, expense, or reputation when God's creatures were threatened with extinction, neither should we. Deluges-- in Noah's time of water, and in our time of floods of people-- sprawl over the land, displacing God's creatures, limiting their potential to obey God's command, "be fruitful and increase in number." To those who would allow a human flood across the land at the expense of all other creatures, the prophet Isaiah warns: "Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land" (Isa. 5:8).

Thus, while expected to enjoy Creation, while expected to partake of Creation's fruit, we may not destroy the fruitfulness upon which Creation's fullness depends. We must, with Noah, save the species whose interactions with each other, and with land and water, form the fabric of the biosphere. We should let the profound admonition of Ezekiel 34:18 reverberate and echo in our minds:

"Is it not enough for you to feed on the green pastures?
Must you also trample them with your feet?
"Is it not enough for you to drink the pure water?
Must you also muddy it with your feet?"

Copyright Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Calvin B. DeWitt is Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is Director and CEO of Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies which serves 56 Christian colleges and universities with courses and programs in environmental stewardship in Michigan, Puget Sound, India, and Africa. Dr. DeWitt is a member of the Teaching Academy and received the Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching at the University of Wisconsin where he is a member of the graduate faculties of Land Resources, Water Resources Management, Limnology and Marine Science, and Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development. His technical publications are in environmental physiology, wetlands ecology, environmental stewardship, and biblical environmental teachings. His current work is focused on the integration of science and environmental ethics in application to practice and ecological sustainability. His books include Missionary Earthkeeping (Mercer University Press, 1992, with Ghillean T. Prance), EarthWise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues (CRC Publications, 1994) and Caring for Creation (Baker Books, 1997).