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Green Like God

Genesis 2:15 tells us why God placed humans in a garden—so we would “work it and take care of it” (NIV). Other translations render that phrase: “cultivate it and keep it” (NASB); “tend it and watch over it” (NLT); “take care of it and to look after it” (CEV).

God takes the time to craft a robust garden, which alone tells of His love for nature, but then He says the reason for putting Adam in it was so he would keep things in order. In Genesis, Adam is both a real person and a representative for all mankind, so the charge for Adam to care for the world is really a charge to us all.

Nowhere in Scripture is it ever revoked. The passage is clear and is reiterated in the chapter that follows (Gen. 3:23): Humans are commanded by the Creator to care for His creation.

Of the verses addressing our responsibility to the natural creation, Genesis 1:28 often gets the most face time among some Christians because it has phrases that can be effective in turning back environmentalists. “Subdue” and “rule over” sound a lot different from “tending” and “watching over.”

Growing up I heard, “Well, the Bible says we are to have dominion over the earth.” They were right, and that idea springs from this verse. When this verse is overemphasized at the exclusion of the rest of Scripture, it can lead us to an imbalanced and human-centered ethic.

For an example of human-centered imbalance, I needed look no further than B. H. Carroll, the early 20th-century Baptist pastor and cofounder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In An Interpretation of the English Bible, an influential commentary popular among pastors in that day, he said:

“In God’s law neither man nor nation can hold title to neither land nor sea and let them remain undeveloped. … Wealth has no right to buy a county, or state, or continent and turn it into a deer park. The earth is man’s.”

Carroll states, “The earth is man’s,” even though Psalm 24:1 clearly says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” It was difficult for me to believe that Carroll, a wonderful Bible scholar, would espouse this erroneous theology, common among Christians of his day, that nature is our enemy who must be conquered and enslaved. This way of thinking is sadly still influential today and contributes to poor teaching and preaching on environmental subjects.

Some environmentalists on the other side have overemphasized Genesis 2:15 at the exclusion of Genesis 1:28. They speak only about tending, caring, and keeping but ignore ruling over and subduing. Just as theologians like Carroll probably never preached on Genesis 2:15, you’ll rarely hear Christian environmentalists reference Genesis 1:28.

The Bible is internally consistent, so a proper understanding of our responsibilities revealed in the creation narrative must harmonize Genesis 1:28 with 2:15. I must understand both as one harmonious command from a consistent God.

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Adapted from Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet by Jonathan Merritt, copyright 2010. Published by FaithWords, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Used by permission. This article may not be republished or redistributed in any form.

is an award-winning writer on religion, culture, and politics. He currently serves as a contributing writer for The Atlantic and contributing editor for The Week.