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Retrieving an Ancient Sacramental Ecology, Part 2: The Cultural Mandate

The doctrine of Creation may be the most basic, fundamental, and even essential doctrine of Christianity—in the sense that if we get creation wrong, everything else about our Christian faith will be marred, flawed, and disfigured. Genesis 1-2 may be the most striking account of creation in the Bible, but there are others (Ps. 8, 19, 24, 33, 74, 104, 136; Prov. 3:19-20; 8:22-21; Job 38:4-11) that offer us additional insights. Moreover, as biblical scholar and theologian Richard Bauckham has suggested in his Living with Other Creatures, these creation narratives form the “basis on which the whole discussion of stewardship ultimately rests.”

In this sense the doctrine of Creation is intimately connected with what has been called the “cultural mandate,” the theology and practice of caring for the earth and all its creatures. Analogous to the way God creates, humanity is called not only to “fill the earth” but also to “subdue it,” which suggests a certain resistance and need for taming. This biblical injunction does not imply, however, humanity’s permission to exploit the creation for its own gain. On the contrary, humanity must preserve creation. As we saw in our earlier post, one finds the foundation of much of the “sacramental ecology” of the early church in the biblical text itself. The cultural mandate, in short, is an injunction calling humanity to take care of God’s creation. Indeed, humanity’s first job involved stewardship. But as we shall see below, while creation has been given to us to enjoy and have dominion over, we own none of it. As God’s representatives on earth, humanity is merely a tenant, not a landowner.The cultural mandate, in short, is an injunction calling humanity to take care of God’s creation. Click To Tweet

Creation in the Ancient Near East

When critics like Lynn White Jr. accuse the Judeo-Christian tradition of ushering in our current ecological crisis, most of the time they point to the language of “dominion” found in Genesis 1:26-29.

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

Little attention is paid, however, to the literary context of those verses, immediate or otherwise more broadly construed. The first thing we must address, then, is the context of ancient Israel. There are several ways to do this. Here we will talk about whether or not the Genesis narrative was at all distinct from other Ancient Near East (ANE) creation accounts. This has been summarized well in Sandra L. Richter’s recent book, Stewards of Eden. This comparison will not only bring out more fully the distinct message of the Genesis narrative but will also show that the doctrine of Creation is inseparable from what has been called the “cultural mandate.”

Perhaps stating the obvious, Israel was not alone in formulating explanations for the origins of the cosmos. Israel’s neighbors—which includes, e.g., Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, ancient Iran, Anatolia/Asia Minor, the Armenian Highlands, the Levant, and so on—all had accounts or narratives of creation. These great civilizations had very elaborate mythologies describing the earliest events of primeval history, which almost always included a cosmogony, or a description of how the world was made.

Now, some evangelical Old Testament scholars emphasize the similarities and parallels between ANE literature and biblical writings. John H. Walton in particular has published several popular books on the topic. It is certainly undeniable that the historical, geographical, and cultural context of the Old Testament is the ANE, and that studying the era has much to add to our understanding of the Genesis creation account. But it is also true that the Old Testament worldview is utterly unique in the ANE world, and this is immediately confirmed by its all-pervasive monotheism. Indeed, there is an absolute intolerance of polytheism. In this sense, there is nothing like Genesis in the ANE. Thus some scholars and the wider public may have emphasized similarities at the expense of distinctives. Since most of us already assume the oneness of the sovereign God we usually fail to grasp the innovative contribution these early verses made as theological foundations for the rest of Scripture—for the whole of the Abrahamic faith traditions. Ideas expressed in these early sentences were truly revolutionary. John Currid, for example, in his Against the Gods, refers to the Israelite creation account as “polemical theology.” That is, the biblical writers may have used the thought forms and stories that were common in the ANE but filled them with radically new meaning. They may have borrowed certain ideas, but, it seems, only to mock or deride the ANE worldview.

Take for example the fascinating “animation” ritual of the mīs-pî found in the ancient Mesopotamian world. The ancients believed that they could animate their idols. These skilled craftsmen and priests would, according to strict, confidential guidelines, “incarnate” the gods into divine statues to be worshipped. When the statue was complete, the priests would place the statue in a sacred garden, go home, and when they came back the next morning at dawn, would wash out its eyes and its mouth. That’s where the phrase mīs-pî comes from, the “washing of the mouth.” Once this deity was “animate,” a living manifestation of the divine, they would install it in the temple and then the craftsmen would ritually cut off their hands, declaring they had never touched the statue. All of the tools that were necessary for the creation of that particular idol would then be placed inside the temple. They would sacrifice a sheep, which would then be thrown into the sacred river, and all memory that this piece had ever been crafted by human hands would be washed away.He animates him, and once He animates him, He installs him in the garden, which also happens to be the dwelling place of God—i.e., the great cosmic temple. Click To Tweet

Take that ancient ritual and apply it to Genesis. Yahweh plants a sacred garden in the east. He then crafts humanity out of dirt and mud. Moreover, He crafts an image (ṣelem) of Himself, and then breathes the breath of life into this image. In other words, He animates him, and once He animates him, He installs him in the garden, which also happens to be the dwelling place of God—i.e., the great cosmic temple.

Without a doubt Genesis is a highly sophisticated critique targeted at Israel’s neighbors. It is not humans who should be making gods. It is God who made humans. Israel’s God has indeed created His image, His reflection, animated and installed in His cosmic garden. In short, what we are looking at here, in the creation account in Genesis, is a polemic of magnitude proportions. No other principle or power can be coequal or coeternal with God. God as sole Creator also means that nothing else should be worshipped. All forms of idolatry are prohibited.

The profound implications of humanity being fashioned and animated as God’s physical representatives on this planet cannot be overstated. In the language of covenant, God has identified Himself as the suzerain and humanity as His vassal. This message is reiterated in Psalm 8:

1  O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory above the heavens.

2  Out of the mouths of babes and infants

you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,

to silence the enemy and the avenger.

3  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

4  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

5  Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

and crowned them with glory and honor.

6  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

you have put all things under their feet,

7  all sheep and oxen,

and also the beasts of the field,

8  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

9  O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Guests, Not Landlords

The message in the text is quite explicit. Whereas the ongoing flourishing of the created order is dependent on the sovereignty of the Creator, it is the privilege and responsibility of the Creator’s stewards (i.e., us) to facilitate this plan. And here is a key point: we own none of it.

Indeed, the theme is an important part of the history of Israel. The ancient Israelites had always understood that Yahweh owned the land of the Canaan, which was then distributed to the tribes, as stipulated in their bylaws. These conditions are absolutely clear: If the nation will keep Yahweh’s commandments, they will keep the land (Deut. 4:40; 12:10-12; 26:1-11). There is indeed a continual chorus throughout the Old Testament: if the people will remember the law of God and obey it, they will live and prosper; but if they forget and disobey, they will not. Although the descendants of Abraham were invited to live on the land with joy and productivity, the book of Deuteronomy is perfectly clear that the land would never truly be theirs. They were guests, not landlords.Although the descendants of Abraham were invited to live on the land with joy and productivity, the book of Deuteronomy is perfectly clear that the land would never truly be theirs. They were guests, not landlords. Click To Tweet

Guests, however, with an important mission. We see this in the law of the Tithes and First Fruits (Deut. 14:22-23; 15:19-20; 18:3-5). To give the “first” away of anything is a sign of both great sacrifice and profound confidence, sacrifice in that the farmer and his family have waited a long time for the harvest, and confidence that they have no real assurance, outside their trust in God.

Part of this mission also included following the mandate of the Sabbath rest—a mandate to humanity to regularly cease production so that the land may be allowed an opportunity to replenish itself (Ex. 23:10-12). As Richter observes, fallowing “breaks the natural cycle of species-specific pests and diseases.” Crop rotation, moreover, restores the soil’s nitrogen content, which ultimately yields a fuller harvest. In these practices and more the Israelites supported and enhanced the microbiology of the soil, dodging the disaster of a sterile land, famine, and forced relocation.

The Israelites did all this because, simply stated,

“because I am Yahweh says your God” (Lev. 25.17)


“the land is mine” (Lev. 25.23).

Because this is Yahweh’s land and Yahweh’s produce, and because Yahweh intends His land to be fruitful for the next generation of tenants, the Israelites had to allow the land to rest. Don’t take everything you can. Take only what you need. Leave enough so that the land might be able to restore itself for future harvesters and future generations.

Do No Harm

In Deuteronomy 20:19 we also find an interesting little law that seems to speak directly to the crisis of warfare.

“If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?”

Many have commented on this verse, all of which recognizes the author’s effort to reduce the collateral damage inflicted by siege warfare. In light of the long-term value of food-bearing trees, it is no surprise that a standard practice of Neo-Assyrian military strategy was the decimation of a besieged enemy’s vineyards and orchards. The objective of such “environmental terrorism,” as Richter puts it, was not only to intimidate but cripple the city’s economic stability for decades to come, regardless of whether the siege was successful. The Assyrian war machine was absolutely brutal. By contract, Deuteronomy forbids the Israelites from such practices.

Why? Israel, the people of God, was commanded to set their sights on the long-term fruitfulness of the land. In God’s government, human enterprise and aggression simply were not worthy excuses for wiping out the future productivity of the land, the precious ecosystems that inhabited it, or the humans whose lives relied on those systems. As God’s royal vice-regents, humanity must not only subdue nature but cultivate and maintain it. As Genesis 2 indicates, Adam was instructed to work and take care of the garden. In Leviticus 26:43, God gives further instruction that the land shall lie deserted for a Sabbath, for it to recover from war. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 permits the Israelites to siege a city, but forbids them to chop down the trees, for their own good as well as their enemies after the war. Deuteronomy 22:6-7 gives man instruction to care for the birds of the sky, as a good king does for his servants. Creation is a gift from God and should be cared for.

The Goodness of Creation

The early church fathers found in Genesis the litany, repeated on each day, that God “saw” that what He had created was “good.” This became especially important in early Christian debates against a variety of dualistic worldviews, such as in Gnosticism or Manichaeism, which saw nature as base and evil. Against these views, which did indeed “devalue” the earth, the early church insisted on the inherent, divinely instituted goodness and beauty of the natural order. Rather than denigrating the body, the early church affirmed that it would be resurrected. As the literature of the New Testament began to appear, at first orally as the sayings of Jesus were circulated, they heard homilies and parables that valorized the natural world as everywhere exhibiting God’s love. They heard that they should live like the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field,” even as they encountered a rich world of symbolism abounding in evocations of nature, from the water of baptism, to the cross as the redeeming “tree” that becomes an Edenic Tree of Life, to the elemental bread and wine, all approaching the natural order as a medium meant for encountering divinity. And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, they were reminded once again that nature is revelatory:

“For from the creation of the world the invisible things of [God] are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made [by God], even His eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:20).

The very first commandment given to our first parents was to “have dominion” over the rest of creation. This command is often taken as justifying unrestrained human plunder of the natural world. But this interpretation is insufficiently precise, for it ignores both the literary context and the wider historical setting. The word translated “dominion” certainly implies “kingly rule,” but the Hebrew model of kingship was of a servant (Psalm 72) not a Neo-Assyrian despot. Moreover the command was given in the context of humanity “made in God’s image,” which implies we are made to exercise this same kingship.The word translated “dominion” certainly implies “kingly rule,” but the Hebrew model of kingship was of a servant (Psalm 72) not a Neo-Assyrian despot. Click To Tweet

The early church did, to be sure, enjoin its followers to beware of entanglement with the “world,” but world here means not the visible world, the created order, the cosmos in our current sense, but rather its opposite: “worldliness” as in society and its preoccupations, the artificial network of vanities and ambitions that humans have everywhere fabricated—the world of human contrivance rather than that of divine creation. In short, authentic Christian faith includes care for the earth and its many creatures. Such stewardship of nature is integral to Christian discipleship. It is embedded in what we sing (doxology) and pray (Lord’s prayer) and confess (Apostles Creed). Such a theology is biblical and sacramental, from the very first to the last chapters, for Scripture begins and ends with rivers and trees, and a God who creates and sustains and will bring to perfection all things with heaven on earth.


*This is article is the second in a five part series on Retrieving an Ancient Sacramental Ecology. Read part 1 here.

James C. Ungureanu

James C. Ungureanu (Ph.D., University of Queensland) is an intellectual historian and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He is the author of Science, Religion, and the Protestant Tradition: Retracing the Origins of Conflict (UPP, 2019). His writing has appeared in such journals as Fides et HistoriaChurch History, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, Science & Christian Belief, and Zygon, among others. He currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two children.

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