March 15, 2006

Is the Earth Still the Lord's?

eventh-day Adventists love the creation story. But, paradoxically, we have only begun to develop a theology of creation.
We love what the Creation story tells us about God. We are inspired to think of God personally designing our planet, rather than belieaving it emerged from a murky, by-chance process.
We love what the Creation story says about us. If we human beings, male and female, are custom-made in the image of God, our lives have amazing meaning and potential.
We love what the Creation story says about the Sabbath. If the Creator rested on the seventh day, and asks us to rest also, we endorse it as a holy obligation.
We even love the numbers associated with the Creation story. We forcefully assert that the earth was made in seven days, each day just 24 hours in length, one literal week, about 6,000 years ago. We cherish the belief that we are linked directly to Creation week through an unbroken chain of sacred seventh-day Sabbaths.
In fact, Adventist literature devotes much more space to defending these numbers than to defending the earth. We love the resounding poetry of the psalm that claims, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1, KJV), but many of us lack the conviction that the earth, today, is still the Lord’s.
Earth seems inanimate and expendable. Since the Bible says God gave humans dominion over the earth, we may shrug as forests are plundered and industry spills toxic waste into rivers and seas. We may also think it’s a big stretch to connect our degenerating environment with Jesus’ prayer--“Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, KJV).
By contrast, however, we argue that because God created human beings, our physical bodies are temples. We teach that physical health enhances spiritual health. We invest in a large hospital system and train nurses and doctors. We promote proper diet and exercise, breathing deeply, drinking water, and enjoying sunshine.
Since we are convinced that our physical bodies are sacred because God created them, it seems logical that we would also care for the physical world. And if we commemorate the Creation by keeping Sabbath, shouldn’t we also keep the earth?
It is in our self-interest to care as much for our habitat as we do our bodies. How healthy is it to breathe polluted air? Or to drink eight glasses of contaminated water each day? How safe is it to bask in sunlight that pours, unbuffered, through a hole in the ozone?
Cognitively, we realize that our personal survival is linked to the physical world. Spiritually, we may not have seen environmental protection as a moral imperative.
Taking another look at Scripture will, I believe, reveal to us how much God cares about our earth and wants us to do likewise.


“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” The words of Genesis 1:1 shimmer with majesty and meaning.

Drawing open the misty curtains of time, they portray a powerful, personal Creator at work. The Spirit of God hovers over the void. One writer suggests that the Hebrew word for “hover” (merachefet) is associated with a mother eagle hovering at her nest. It is a nesting God, one who loves and has aspirations for what is created, who hovers over the chaotic abyss and establishes order.1
It is also instructive to see that for Creation to thrive, it is given limits. God both divides and connects, building systems and networks, boundaries and habitats. Light splits from darkness, air separates from water, land emerges from the sea. And to thrive, Creation must also be diverse. Each habitat supports its own unique array of creatures. There is both interdependence and balance.
The Creation story also declares the noble origins of ha-adam--earthlings. It asserts that man and woman together embody God’s image. God blesses them equally, and gives them the same charge--be “fruitful and multiply” and share “dominion” over the earth and its creatures. They are to love together and work together. Genesis 2:15 describes this shared dominion not as dogmatic rulership or hierarchical command, but as mutually beneficial service. Humans are in Eden not to flaunt power or gain profit but to foster growth and harmony. “To dress and keep” a place suggests caring for the environment, not raiding its resources.
In a final act of Creation God announces that the seventh day is for rest. Everyone is to stop. Although productivity and creativity are “very good,” rest and doing “no-thing” are also essential.
As any child can tell us, we must stop before we can truly look and listen. So that humans will not be tempted to overwork themselves or the creation, God exalts the Sabbath rest as holy. We are invited to put away distractions and be fully present to one another--to enjoy, reflect, delight. This is the day to bask in the life-giving affection of the Creator and the whole creation.
The Sabbath Commandment 
The Scripture records the Ten Commandments twice, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The phrasing of the Sabbath commandment is similar but not identical.
Both versions establish a rhythm of six days of work to one day of rest. Both versions cut across class, race, gender, and economic barriers. Children--sons and daughters, servants--male and female, animals, and foreigners have the same right to rest from labor as the landowners. In this, the Sabbath promotes equality.
The two versions of the commandments differ on an interesting point. Exodus 20:8-11 cites the Creation story as the rationale for Sabbath. “For in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (verse 11, KJV).
Deuteronomy 5:12-15 cites the Exodus story as the reason God sanctified the Sabbath. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (verse 15, NRSV).
At Creation God made a new planet and its inhabitants. The earth was fertile and responsive. Humans could “dress and keep it” without great effort. Yet, even in this perfect world where no one was weary or exhausted, God generously provided rest and enjoyment on the seventh day.
At the Exodus God created a new people and outlined new relationships for them to observe with one another and their environment. The earth itself was no longer friendly; planting and harvesting took hard labor. In addition, the Israelites had become slaves. They worked endlessly, without hope of relief and without the satisfaction of reward.
Responding to their physical and spiritual plight, the God of the exodus intervened. Through mighty miracles the Israelites were delivered from their oppressors and freed from bondage. In their new economy work had boundaries. After six days of toil they rested. The Sabbath provided refreshment for body and soul.
But there was more. The weary earth needed deliverance as well. This brings us to Leviticus 25, the Sabbatical year and jubilee.

The Jubilee and Jesus

Protecting the environment is the cornerstone of jubilee.

The words “Sabbath” (or “complete rest”) and “land” are each used six times in Leviticus 25:2-8. Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow. Of course, when humans actually let the earth rest, they and their animals could rest too.
Practicing the Sabbatical year led to jubilee. “Only when this pattern of a yearlong Sabbath for the land--an agricultural fallow year--has become habitual does the Jubilee proper arrive,” says scholar Maria Harris. Jubilee is the culmination of a sustained, 49-year process. “When seven times seven years have passed, the trumpet sounds and liberty is proclaimed throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”2
The weekly Sabbath and the Sabbatical year give rest to human beings, hired workers, animals, strangers, and the land.
Then jubilee crowns them all. Its provisions are nothing short of dramatic. Debts are forgiven! Those who have sold themselves into slavery because of debt go free! Those who have lost their land get it back!
At the jubilee, society makes a U-turn. The human drive to accumulate, exploit, and extort is curbed. Wrongs are righted. Equality is promoted. Justice becomes a creative force, giving special consideration to the marginalized and oppressed. Land not only rests but is redistributed. The cycle of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer is broken.
These jubilee themes reverberate throughout Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus announced, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (verses 18, 19, NRSV).
Jesus places jubilee--“the year of the Lord’s favor”--at the very heart of the gospel.
His mission is both spiritual and physical. Jesus will deliver souls from bondage and heal bodies from disease. Jesus will cut across the barriers of race, gender, age, and economics. Just as the Sabbath rest is for all, so Jesus’ love and forgiveness are for all.
Like a great symphonic crescendo, the gospel jubilee clamors at the barriers that enslave the whole creation. Jubilee calls us to dismantle prejudice and greed, injustice and inequality. Jubilee calls us to forgive our debtors and practice reconciliation.
And jubilee calls us to cherish God’s good earth. It’s time not only to love the Creation story, but to actually love creation--the fields and streams, oceans and sky, plants and animals.
We who believe the world was created by God’s hand are called to keep the earth just as we keep the Sabbath. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.”
1 Ellen Bernstein, The Splendor of Creation (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 5. I am indebted to this author for this and other concepts in this article.
2 Maria Harris, Proclaim Jubilee! A Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 21. Harris comments on five themes of jubilee: rest for the land, forgiveness, proclaiming liberty for all, justice, and celebration.
Kit Watts, a former assistant editor of the Adventist Review, is assistant to the president for communication at the Southeastern California Conference, and special projects director for the La Sierra University Women’s Resource Center.