Genesis tells us we have a duty to protect the planet

April 5, 2008
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 5th April 2008

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If we understood the first chapter of Genesis, we might put an end to some of the needless arguments between scientists and religious believers.

The first thing to note is its sheer brevity. It takes a mere 34 verses. The Hebrew Bible takes some 15 times as long to describe the Israelites’ creation of the sanctuary in the wilderness. It is astonishing that the world’s greatest and most influential account of the origins of the Universe is so short.

Next is its numerical structure. We know the significance of the number seven. The Universe is made in seven days. Seven times the word “good” is used. But the pattern goes deeper than that. The first verse of Genesis contains seven Hebrew words, the second, fourteen.

The account of the seventh day contains 35. The word “God” appears 35 times; the word “Earth” 21. The entire passage contains 469 (7 x 67) words. By these hints, something is being intimated. The Universe has a structure, and it is mathematical.

Then there is the structure itself. On the first three days God creates domains: light and dark, upper and lower waters, sea and dry land. On the next three days He populates these domains one by one: first the Sun, Moon and stars, then birds and fish, then land animals and human beings. The seventh day is holy. So six (the days of creation) symbolises the natural order, seven the supernatural.

As if by way of unintended confirmation, Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, wrote a book, Just Six Numbers, in which he showed that the entire structure of the physical Universe is determined by six mathematical constants.

Beyond these structural features is a sharp polemic. Most readers of the Bible are only dimly aware of the degree to which it is shaped by a polemic against myth. In the case of Genesis 1 this is obvious. What is missing is the element of struggle between rival gods that dominates all mythical accounts of creation. In the biblical account there is no opposition, no conflict. God speaks and the world comes into being. Max Weber called this the “disenchantment”, the demythologising, of the world. He believed it to be the foundation of Western rationalism.

There are times when the polemic is more subtle. Read the account of the second day, when the waters are divided, and you will see that it alone of the six days lacks the word “good”.

Instead, “good” appears twice on the third day. This is an allusion to one of the most common features of myth: the primal battle against the goddess of the sea, symbol of the forces of chaos. The Bible dismisses this in a single oblique reference, that imposing order on the primal waters took one and a half days instead of one. The creation account is anti-myth.

So Genesis 1 is not a proto-scientific account of the birth of the Universe and the Big Bang. Its purpose is clear. The Universe is good: hence world-denying nihilism is ruled out. It is the result of a single creative will, so myth is eliminated. The Universe is a place of structure and order, so the text is an invitation to science, by implying that the world is not irrational and ruled by capricious powers. Why then is Genesis 1 there? We are puzzled by that question because we forget that the Hebrew Bible is called, in Judaism, Torah, meaning teaching, guidance, or more specifically, law. Genesis 1 is best understood not as pseudo-science, still less as myth, but as jurisprudence; that is to say, as the foundation of the moral law. God created the world; therefore God owns the world. We are His guests — strangers and temporary residents, as the Bible puts it. God has the right to specify the conditions of our tenancy on Earth. The radical message of Genesis 1 is that divine sovereignty is constitutional. God rules not by might but by right, and so must we.

So Genesis 1 can be restated in terms with which even the most avowed secularist might agree. The world does not belong to us. We hold it as trustees on behalf of those who will come after us.

Renouncing our ownership of the Earth is all we need to ground what is surely the fundamental point of the story itself: that we are here to protect, not destroy or endanger, the Earth and all it contains.