New Economy Journal

The Ecological Ethics of the Hebrew Dreaming

Volume 3, Issue August 2022

August 30, 2022

By - Jonathan Cornford

Piece length: 3,182 words

Article Theme : New Stories for the New Economy

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I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken nature’s social union
And justifies that ill opinion
That makes thee startle, at me
Thy poor earthbound companion
And fellow mortal.

Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

A little over 50 years ago, Science magazine published the now classic article by historian Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”.[1] White’s bold and provocative thesis has been hugely influential, widely cited and played a key role in catalysing new fields of academic scholarship, including environmental ethics and eco-theology. White’s passion for the non-human world, his critique of the onward march of civilisation, and his broad-ranging historical insights make his article a stimulating and even inspiring read. His goal was to seek a deep shift in the way in which modern humans view their place in nature.

A church-goer, White nevertheless held a profoundly negative understanding of the Judaeo-Christian ecological worldview, so much so that he considered it needed wholesale abandonment. In White’s view, “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” It not only licensed human exploitation of nature, but virtually demanded it. Ultimately, White felt that “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt” for our present ecological crisis.

I think White’s historical claims about Christianity are wrong: I think modernity and capitalism are the real sources of our ecological crisis, but that is not my concern here.[2]

Instead, I want to focus on one particularly tragic element of Lynn White’s thesis: his presumptions about the ecological meaning of the creation myths of the Hebrew Bible, found in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2. For White, the meaning of these stories was simple and clear: they “established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”. The widespread acceptance of White’s simplistic thesis has contributed to a significant amount of hostility towards Christianity in sectors of the environmental movement, and has contributed to a crisis of self-confidence among many ecologically-concerned Christians.

Why does this matter to anyone other than those of the Christian faith? Firstly, from a purely instrumental perspective of the New Economy movement as a broad-based grassroots social movement, churches can and should be making much more of a contribution than has hitherto been the case. I have argued elsewhere that there is indeed a familial affinity between the New Economy and Christian movements and that Christianity might even be considered an old new economy movement.[3] As will become evident below, recovering the ecological-economic-ethical meanings at the heart of the Christian narrative goes some way to helping Christians rediscover this affinity. Secondly, one of the things which I believe has been well supported within New Economy circles is the value in recovering ancient wisdom, described by G.K. Chesterton as “the democracy of the dead”. Below I argue that, irrespective of one’s view of the divine inspiration of the Judeao-Christian scriptures, they present a profound and deeply “earthed” wrestling with the “human problem” at the heart of the ecological crisis.


It is true that an exploitative reading of the Genesis 1 creation story has indeed been present in some strands of Christianity, especially in the US, but also present here in Australia. However, this derives from a profound misreading of these stories which is more a product of modernity and capitalism than of the texts themselves. When we focus on the texts and the larger narrative within which they are situated, it is clear that rather than licensing exploitation, the creation myths of Hebrew scripture offer prescient, challenging and instructive wisdom for our present ecological crisis. I will suggest that, while there is indeed a certain sort of “anthropocentrism” in the Biblical creation myths, it is one with quite a different meaning and implication from what is usually inferred by the term.

Constructive appraisal of the Genesis creation stories has been significantly impeded by the creationist movement within conservative Christianity, which has insisted on reading these ancient stories through a modernist lens, treating them as “factual” scientific description. This has had the dual impact of turning away appreciative enquiry of non-creationists and evacuating the ecological meaning of these texts for the creationists themselves.

For modern hearers to properly understand the Hebrew creation myths, we need to try to appreciate what form of literature they represent, and what meaning they communicated to an ancient, marginal, agrarian Semitic people. A pathway towards this perspective has been opened up to us by the First Nations of this continent − another marginalised people whose worldview has, until recently, been largely ignored or denigrated. But in recent years we have seen a growing appreciation of the richness of meaning, especially the ecological wisdom, contained within the story-world and law of Indigenous cultures.[4] Bill Gammage writes of Indigenous Australian creation myths: "Aboriginal landscape awareness is rightly seen as drenched in religious sensibility, but equally the Dreaming is saturated with environmental consciousness. Theology and ecology are fused." This has strong parallels in the Hebrew story-world, as Indigenous theologians have long pointed out.[5]

As with most ancient creation myths, the key purpose of the “Hebrew Dreaming” in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 is not to provide a “factual account” of origins, but is rather to hearers convey the meaning of experienced reality − the world that is rather than the world that was. Creation myths communicate the nature of nature, and locate the human place within it. For the Hebrews, as for the First Australians, creation myths provide the foundations of the moral order − the foundation of Law.

Genesis contains two different creation stories. The first (chapter 1) is a highly structured poetic liturgy, the second (chapter 2) is generally considered older and takes the form of an aetiological myth: a story that explains why things are the way they are. They have been arranged by the compilers of the Biblical canon in such a way that suggests they were seen as each contributing necessary and complimentary perspectives.

To catch the full narrative impact of Genesis 1, we need to realise that it was a story told by a conquered people who were living in exile within the Babylonian Empire in the sixth century BC,[6] for whom the dominant creation myth was the Enuma Elish. In that story, the world is created out of the gore and violence of the conflict by which the god Marduk slays his mother, Tiamat. As a concession to the other gods who are worried about Marduk’s dominance, he then creates humans to be their slaves and to do all their bidding. Of course, this service is rendered to the gods through service to Marduk’s representative on earth, the Babylonian King. The Babylonian creation myth provided the meaning and justification for a system of domination and oppression.

Into this story-world of violence, domination and empire, the Hebrews tell a counter-myth of a world created entirely out of the Creator’s good intention; that is, out of love. The Creator expresses delighted pleasure in the diversity of life that has come into being, pronouncing it good seven times, which is the number of completeness. This is as strong a statement as can be found of what we call “intrinsic worth”. In stark contrast to the Canaanite baalim cults, in which the fertility of the soil had to be purchased each year by sacrifices to the gods (even, sometimes, by human sacrifices), this creation poem falls over itself to describe a world in which fruitfulness is in-built and over-flowing.

Parallel to the Enuma Elish, in Genesis 1 the Creator also sees fit to create a representative of the divine on earth. In other Near Eastern cosmologies (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia), this place of divine representation was reserved for kings. However, in the Hebrew creation story that representation is given to all human beings: pointedly men and women. Divine representation is denoted by the imparting of “the image of God” to every human. Here is an ancient statement of radical equality that goes far beyond even the Athenian idea of democracy.

But this also brings us to the sticking point for Lynn White, and for many since: the accompanying attribution of “dominion” or “rule” to humans, as the corollary of bearing the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Much of our trouble comes from the choice of the English word “dominion” to translate the Hebrew word, radah. The quick assumption of White and so many others has been that dominion is a license to dominate. But even if we stick with this problematic English translation, it is resoundingly clear from the rest of Biblical narrative that the political concept of dominion or rule is never understood as license to dominate, but is rather an injunction to the polar opposite. It is an injunction to servanthood. The Hebrew Bible contains a variety of contested traditions about the politics of kingship, but all of them agree that rule has failed once it becomes domination. In the prophetic critique, the measure of rule is frequently the care of the weak and vulnerable. This is even more profoundly evident in the New Testament. There, the concept of dominion/rule is located firmly with the figure of Christ, who pointedly told his followers, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them. […] But I am among you as one who serves.”[7]

Hebrew scholar Ellen Davis has argued that “dominion” is an inadequate translation of the Hebrew, radah. She proposes that rather than “dominion over”, the English phrase “mastery among” gives a more faithful rendering of the sense of the Hebrew poem. The term “mastery” has the sense of that quality achieved by a master of a craft who has an intimate understanding of the possibilities and limitations of both the materials on which she works, and the tools with which she works. Such intimate understanding only comes with love of both materials and tools. Davis notes that throughout Hebrew scripture, the best index of human fidelity to their divine mandate is “the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth”. When humans are faithful to their calling, the rains fall in season, the land yields fruit and the wild creatures abound. When humans pursue an independent path, the rain does not fall, the earth suffers and the land is desolate.

This rendering also reveals the dual sense of humanity. On the one hand, a creature like all others, and a participant in the community of creatures; but on the other hand, it also marks the human as importantly different from other creatures. Here we meet another objection: no matter how beneficent or selfless we grant that the injunction that has been laid on humans, this is still a story that places humans at the centre of things. It is anthropocentric. And surely it is humanity’s egotism that is the cause of our present crisis? I will take up this objection in a moment, but first let me say a few words about the second Hebrew creation myth.

The creation story of Genesis 2 serves to significantly underline the human vocation of beneficent care. In that story, Adam is a creature who is created from the adamma, the fertile soil (not “the dirt”), and animated with the breath of God. Adam, the earth-creature, is placed in the garden and instructed to “work and to keep it”.[8] Here, the Hebrew word for “work”, abad, means working for someone: it denotes service. The word translated as “to keep” is the rich Hebrew term, shamar. This word denotes protection and nurture, but the same word is also used in the injunctions to “keep” God’s commandments, or even more pointedly, to “observe” the commandments.

In both the English and the Hebrew, the meaning of observing commandments means both to stay within their bounds, but also to contemplate them closely. The two are interdependent. Staying within certain bounds requires paying close attention to what those bounds may be. That is, the vocation of shamar is a calling to observe limits, which requires understanding limits. So the calling of Adam to work and keep the earth might also be rendered as a vocation “to serve and observe” the earth.

In the giving of the Law in the books of Torah, following this story, significant attention is given to the practice of what we would now call human economy, addressing agriculture, labour, commerce, finance and the treatment of animals. The consistent theme underlying the Torah’s diverse discussions of economic practice is a call to observe limits for the sake of the health of the human community, and the sake of the health of the land itself.[9] This ancient injunction is central to what Kate Raworth calls “thinking like a 21st-century economist”.[10]

But still there is the objection of anthropocentrism. However beautiful the calling, the human is still given a central role in the Biblical creation stories.

This is a simplistic and superficial critique that misses a number of points. The first is simply to note that creation myths were stories told by ancient humans, to humans, for the purpose of instructing humans. It is inevitable and indeed proper that these stories give their key focus to humans. The key question is just what they say to humans about their place in relation to the rest of the natural world.

Secondly, an obvious retort to the charge of anthropocentrism is that the clear and obvious purpose of the Genesis accounts is to affirm that humans are not central to the ordering of the cosmos, God is. They are pointedly theocentric stories. Any special role attributed to humans (which we shall come to) is not self-ordained but given, and it is given within, not over, an established created order that has its own integrity and intrinsic value.

Thirdly, and most importantly , the very charge that our ecological crisis is the product of anthropocentrism is in fact admitting a certain kind of anthropocentrism. It is stating, correctly in my view, that humans are the central problem, and as such any “solution” is dependent upon some change in the thought-world and conduct of humans. This admits that humans are somehow different to all other creatures, and certainly more powerful.

Both of the creation stories of Genesis ascribe a special role to humans because of the special power that humans hold. This special power is not a doctrinal assertion of moral superiority, it is an empirical observation, and this same empirical observation is now being made repeatedly by the world’s scientists. Biologist Edward Wilson has commented: “Homo sapiens has become a geophysical force, the first species in the history of the planet to attain that dubious distinction.”[11] The magnitude of human impact is attested by the naming of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. As the Living Planet Report notes: “This is the first time a new geological epoch may be marked by what a single species (Homo sapiens) has consciously done to the planet – as opposed to what the planet has imposed on resident species.”[12]

We live everyday with confirmation of the fact of the special power of humans. However, we have failed to heed the central message of the Hebrew creation stories; that with special power comes special responsibility. In those stories, the special responsibility is demarked by the vocation to serve the whole, to master the power we wield, and to do so by observing limits. The Bible tells us that special power without special responsibility inclines inexorably towards uncreation, the unwinding of the fecundity of the created order.

Whatever our ideological position, the reality is that in virtually every bioregion on the planet ecologists are now insisting that the health of ecosystems is now dependent upon human action. Charles Massey in his inspiring Call of the Reed Warbler, which is a manifesto for the reconfiguring of agriculture, has come to a similar position. In describing the conditions for a regenerative practice of agriculture, Massey outlines five “landscape functions” that combine to determine the health of ecological systems. Strikingly, the fifth of these “landscape functions”, is the human mind. Massey writes: “The greatest of all determining factors on the healthy regeneration or else degradation of those very landscapes boils down to the way we think, what we believe, and how we model in our minds the way the world and our landscapes work.”[13] Massey’s great plea is that we become ecologically literate landscape managers. It is a modern version of the Genesis call to mastery, and to serve and observe the earth.

As dangerous climate change unfolds before our eyes, it is patently evident that the best possible outcome for us and the whole community of creation is entirely dependent upon humanity coming to a full acknowledgement of its special power (what we have done) and its special responsibility (what we now must do). This special responsibility must centrally involve mastering our power. While we can always benefit from new knowledge, perhaps we will only ever use it well when we have first listened to ancient wisdom.


  • [1] Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis," Science 155, no. 3766 (1967).
  • [2] Jason Moore: “The crisis today is therefore not multiple but singular and manifold. It is a not a crisis of capitalism and nature but of modernity-in-nature. That modernity is a capitalist world-ecology.” Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015): 15. Economic historian, R.H. Tawney, provided the classic study of the ways in which European Christianity, especially within the Anglosphere, changed in its encounter with capitalism. A different but complimentary account is supplied by philosopher Charles Taylor. R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1926 (1938)); Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).
  • [3] Jonathan Cornford, “An Old New Economy Movement: The idea of Israel as an alternative economic community”, Manna Matters, November 2018 [].
  • [4] See, for example, Deborah Bird Rose, "Dreaming Ecology: Beyond the Between," Religion & Literature 40, no. 1 (2008).
  • [5] See the Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology: Towards an Australian Aboriginal Theology, Second edition. ed. (Hindmarsh: ATF Press, 2007).
  • [6] In the interpretation of Genesis 1 that follows I am drawing on the accounts of Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 42-65; Wes Howard-Brook, "Come Out My People!": God's Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Orbis Books, 2010), 13-29.
  • [7] Luke 22:25-6.
  • [8] Contrary to popular renderings, Adam, the human, is not male, but at this point in this story precedes the gendered division of humanity (ish and ishah).
  • [9] For an account of the economic ethics in Hebrew scripture, see Richard Horsley, Covenental Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
  • [10] Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (London: Penguin, 2017).
  • [11] E.O. Wilson, The Future of Life (Vintage Books, 2003), 23.
  • [12] "Living Planet Report 2016: Risk and Resilience in a New Era," (Gland, Switzerland: World Wildlife Fund, 2016), 10.
  • [13] Charles Massy, The Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A new Earth (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2017), 310.

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