Shaping the Environment

“Few passages have had a deeper influence on Western civilisation than the first chapter of Bereishit with its momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Humankind, the last and greatest of creations, is given dominion over nature: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.’ There is a sense of wonder here, and more explicitly in Psalm 8, at the smallness yet uniqueness of humankind, vulnerable but also unique in his ability to shape the environment:”

“When I consider Your heavens,
The work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars,
Which You have set in place.
What is man that You are mindful of him,
The son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him little lower than the angels
And crowned him with glory and honour (Tehillim 8:3-5).”

“Bereishit 1 is, however, only one side of the complex biblical equation. It is balanced by a narrative, quite different in tone, in Bereishit 2, in which the first man is set in the garden of Eden ‘to work it and take care of it’. The two Hebrew verbs used here are significant. The first – le’ovdah – literally means ‘to serve it’. Man is thus both master and servant of nature. The second – leshomrah – means ‘to guard it’. This is the verb used in later biblical legislation to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that does not belong to him. He must exercise vigilance in his protection and is liable for loss through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of man’s responsibility for nature as the Bible conceives it.”

“We do not own nature – ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ We are its trustees on behalf of God who made it and owns it, and for the sake of future generations.”

The Dignity of Difference, pp. 164-165