|one of Edward Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings|
I love the lyrics of the old hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King." They reflect the picture in Psalm 148, which depicts the whole creation offering praise to its Creator:
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! (148:7-10)
And on it goes. This is a different way than many of us are probably used to thinking about the animals and the natural world around us. The hymn echos these lines and gives us a chance to join in creation's song of praise.
But, the lyrics get a little weird when you start singing about "O brother sun," "O sister moon," "O sister water," and, of course, "dear mother earth." When a pastor is already afraid his congregation will blow off his emphasis on creation care as liberal, hippy gibberish, this doesn't help. (I noticed David Crowder left all of that out of his nice version of the tune.)
Of course, just because something seems weird doesn't mean it isn't true. Christians of all people should know that. ("Turn the other cheek"? "Seventy times seven"? "The Word became flesh"??)
So before we roll our eyes at St. Francis's song, we should ask if there's perhaps something to all this talk of sisters, brothers, and mothers.
I just started reading Richard Bauckham's book, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. For my money, Bauckham is one of the most brilliant and important biblical scholars in the world today. His close attention to the texts and his encyclopedic knowledge of the contexts consistently yield fresh and utterly compelling interpretations.
This particular book aims to highlight the many, frequently overlooked passages and themes in scripture addressing the wider, non-human creation and how we ought to relate to the rest of God's creatures. One of Bauckham's main arguments from the get-go is that "humans are fellow-creatures with other creatures" (ix). Yes, we have unique capabilities, and God's given humanity a special role in the world, but we are still fellow-creatures with the others, sharing this world in community with them.
This is a point, he suggests, that we might have noticed in the first chapters of Genesis, if we could just see beyond chapter 1's talk of human dominion (1:26-28).
For instance: we all know that God forms Adam "from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (2:7). Sometimes that very personal, physical picture is used to emphasize humanity's uniqueness among the things God made. But maybe we need to notice a few other things here:
- You may have heard about the connection in the Hebrew language between the man and the dirt he's formed from. The word for man is 'adam, while the word for ground or soil is 'adamah. There's a connection between the man and the dirt that you miss in translation. God made people out of peat. Or, "God made humans out of humus," as Loren Wilkinson put it. (And that's "humus," not "hummus.") According to Bauckham, "this earthiness of humans signifies a kinship with the Earth itself" (21).
- And not just a kinship with the earth, but with the animals too. A few verses after the Lord forms the man, he goes to work again: "out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air" (2:19 - and compare that to 1:24). The man and the animals are cut from the same cloth! They're cousins of some kind, you might say.
- Now, the Lord doesn't breathe the breath of life into the animals here in Genesis 2, but, if you look ahead to Genesis 7, notice how the cataclysmic destruction of the Flood is described: "All flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings [that reads like a summary of 1:20-27]; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died" (7:21-22). Verse 22 is simply a reiteration of verse 21, but it makes clear that every creature has received the breath of life from God. Which makes sense. How else would things be alive?
Right there are three connections that Genesis makes between human beings and the other creatures of the earth. Humanity is certainly distinct in several ways and even has "dominion" over the other creatures (whatever exactly that means), but there's a relatedness we can't miss. We're related to the soil; we're related to the animals - we all received the gift of life in our nostrils from the Lord.
Our connection to our fellow-creatures is even implied by our very call to have dominion over them, Bauckham suggests. How is that? "Since Genesis 1 presents this authority as a kind of kingly rule, it is relevant to recall the only kind of human rule over other humans that the Old Testament approves" (32). This takes us to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, where the Lord describes the kind of kingship that will be permitted in Israel. These stipulations begin and end with one particular emphasis: "One of your own community you may set as king over you... [not] exalting himself above other members of the community" (17:15, 20). The vertical relationship of having authority over others must be founded on the horizontal relationship of being members of the same community. That's the sort of authority God approves. And so our dominion "is rightly practiced only when we recognise it to be dominion over fellow-creatures" (33). We are called to have dominion over the creatures of the earth precisely as fellow-creatures of the earth. We are all members of the community of creation together.
Maybe, just maybe, it's not so crazy to talk about "brother sun," "sister moon," or "sister water." Maybe there's a biblical truth there we forget, that all of God's creatures are members of one community of creation, all children of one Creator.
Maybe, the next time we hear Jesus answer the man's question - "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) - we need to think more about what that animal is doing in the story.