Parashat Bereshit

September 28, 2010 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, News

Seven  Principles of a Biblical  Environmental Ethic

While many people delight in the high drama of the first stories of the Bible in this weeks’ parashah, we can also derive a profound and far-reaching  environmental ethic from these stories – and in particular from Genesis 1.  Outlined below are 7 principles of an environmental ethic found embedded in our first creation story.

1. Integrity of all living things

Everything that is created-light; the sky and water; earth, grasses and fruit trees; sun and stars; days and years; fish, sea monsters and birds; crawly creatures, wild animals and men and women-is called “good.” Each has integrity and value by virtue of its very existence, and each owes its existence to God. We human beings are not called to assign value to the creatures-this is God’s job, and herein lies the sacred value of all of nature.

2. Habitat: A Sense of Place

The critical value of habitat is essential to an ecological vision.In our creation account, God’s very first actions involve dividing up the tohu vavohu (chaos or “unformed and void”) to create the habitats of the world: air, water and earth.   Only then can the fish, birds and animals appear. Without habitat, without a home providing food, shelter, and air; no creature can exist. Place matters; habitat matters. “If you build it, they will come.”

3.  The Earth is alive

In Genesis 1, God depends on the habitats to help in the process of creation. On day three, the text states, “Let the earth put forth vegetation,” rather than “Let there be vegetation” (Genesis 1:11). Note also Gen 1:20. The earth and sea have generative capability; they did not come into existence simply to be tread upon or used to human advantage.They are essential partners in the creation of God’s world.

4.  Fruitfulness and Sustainability

Genesis 1 offers a vision of a healthy world that is able to maintain and diversify itself in perpetuity (with no help from people)–a world that is intrinsically sustainable. Genesis speaks about sustainability using the language of “seeds” (the way that plants replicate and perpetuate), “fertility” and “blessing.”  In Genesis 1:11-12, the Hebrew root z-r-a or “seed” is repeated six times in two verses-indicating we should pay attention to this word. The phrase “after its kind” (Genesis 1:11, 12, 21, 24 and 25) and the explicit blessing for fertility in Genesis 1:22 and Genesis 1:28 also speak to the Bible’s abiding interest in sustainability. The ending of Genesis 2:3, literally translated  “God created to make”-in other words make more of itself-provides further indication for God’s primary concern with the creation’s ability to sustain itself into the future.

5.  Interdependence

While all the individual creations are called “good,” the creations of the sixth day are described as “very good”-extra special.  This “very goodness” is a function of God’s completion of the entire biologic and material world, which now functions as one interdependent organism (Gaia in ecological language).  The uniqueness of this day is further indicated in that it is the only one referred to as the day. “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

6.  Humanity’s Place: Dominion and Service
Many environmentalists read the Bible’s blessing of human dominion (Gen 1:28) in anthropocentric terms and see it as a mandate for people to control nature and use it for human advantage, as if the creations have no life of their own.   But in fact, Genesis 1 offers an elegant environmental ethic: it balances human dominion and human service with an entirely creation-centric view of the world-that is Shabbat.   Reading this verse in context, dominion means that we are to act as God’s deputies on earth and to help lift up the creation to its highest purpose.  It is humanity’s honor-indeed our blessing-to insure the continuity and unfolding of creation on God’s behalf.

7. Shabbat: Time Out

While the work-week encourages an active stance in the world and the “use” of the creation, Shabbat is reserved for simply “being” and celebrating the creation. On Shabbat we, along with all the other creatures, are called to recognize our creatureliness, our earthliness, refrain from our use of nature and simply rest in creation–content in the deep peace of an interdependent universe.

A day of rest built into the fabric of the week can be a profound environmental practice.

While these ecological principles are introduced and come alive in Genesis 1, they recur as a subtext over and over throughout the Bible.  If we pay attention, they can serve to wake us up to our responsibility to God’s world.

Ellen Bernstein is a rabbinical student at AJR, founder of Shomrei Adamah, the first national Jewish environmental organization, and author of The Splendor of Creation, A Biblical Ecology.  To learn more visit