As a geologist, I initially felt no need to connect science with faith; I neatly compartmentalized the two, thinking that science dealt with the external, objective world while faith was concerned with an interior, spiritual world. But the search for ways of living sustainably showed me that the two must be connected. We need good science to understand nature, find resources and use them responsibly; and we need a robust moral vision like that offered by the Bible to convince us to share resources with neighbors and future generations.
Scientists are often surprised when I suggest that we adopt a biblical perspective, but it offers a remarkably useful guide to sustainable living. The Bible emerged from an agrarian community struggling to survive, and offers their reflections on the mysteries of land, humans and God, and on what it means for people to live well in the land. Those reflections turn out to be profoundly relevant to the situation we face today, as we face limits to Earth’s ability to support a growing human population.
An Old Testament partnership
Israel is a land of rocky ridges, fragile soil and sparse rain that requires extraordinary patience to farm. Intractable as their land seemed, the Israelites knew what it was to be without land, and they treasured the land as God’s gift to them and their descendants. In time, they began to understand the meaning of that gift in covenantal terms, expressed as a three-way covenantal partnership between God, land and people.
That heart of that partnership is captured by the Hebrew word nahalah, or “inheritance,” referring to property that God has covenanted to the nation, a tribe or a family to sustain that community. At the level of nation or tribe, nahalah can feel somewhat abstract. But at the family level, it becomes deeply personal. It captures the blend of blessing and responsibility carried by the phrase “the family farm,” and is as tangible as the feel of rich loam running through a grateful farmer’s fingers.
The power of nahalah is captured by the story of Naboth’s vineyard, just outside Ahab’s royal palace in Jezreel (1 Kings 21:1-14). Ahab wanted the land for a vegetable garden, and offered to buy it, putting Naboth in a bind. Naboth knew that refusing a king’s request would cost him his life, but he was committed to preserving the land God had given to sustain his family’s future. That commitment mattered more than life, so he refused to sell, saying, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my nahalah.”
Jeremiah amplifies our understanding of nahalah in two ways. The book opens with a series of speeches in which God angrily indicts Judah for despoiling the land, God’s personal nahalah (Jeremiah 3:19-20). God had invited Judah to share the land, but the people had carelessly turned that beautiful, fertile land into a desert that produced only thorns (Jeremiah 12:7-13). The text is obviously a metaphor for the state of the covenant, but the language is relentlessly realistic, suggesting that the land had become as desolate as the covenant. Later on, Jeremiah demonstrated the hope implicit in nahalah (Jeremiah 32:6-15). A cousin who couldn’t maintain his land as the exile began asked Jeremiah to buy the property to keep it in the family. Jeremiah knew that he would never be able to use the land himself, but still fulfilled his obligation, buying the land and carefully preserving the deed for family members who would return from the exile. (See “Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture” by Ellen Davis for more on nahalah.)
The practice of covenant has a remarkable effect. When we see all creatures as parties to the covenant, we become aware of the pervasive mutuality that grounds all reality. That mutuality makes possible the amazing richness of life on Earth, which the Old Testament writers sensed as an extraordinary generosity in creation, according to Walter Brueggemann in “An Unsettling God.” But there are limits to that generosity. Any attempt to live autonomously undercuts mutuality and leads to chaos; covenant requires humility. That limitation poses a major challenge for people; autonomy is a powerful temptation. At times, Israel did manage to live covenantally, and things went well for them. But that very success periodically tempted them to seek autonomy, leading to chaos and initiating the recurrent pattern Brueggemann has discerned in the Bible, a pattern in which Israel moved from periods of glad covenant acceptance to periods of chaos, then finally to new beginnings grounded once again in humility.
The problem of autonomy surfaces in the first chapter of the Bible as part of the mandate for human dominion over all creation (Genesis 1:26). Some read those words in isolation, and assume that we’re given license to exploit creation for our own benefit; others note the context, which implies that our dominion is to mirror God’s loving dominion over creation, implying that we are to treat Earth as our nahalah, as God intended Judah to treat the land.
A New Testament understanding
The deep sense of our relationship with land conveyed by covenant and nahalah is less apparent in the New Testament, but it’s there too, especially in the agricultural parables Jesus preached by the sea. Those parables are metaphors for God’s kingdom, but they carry an underlying level of reality that resonates with the Old Testament sense of partnership between God, land and people. Jesus’ audience knew the land well, and probably saw the connection quickly; but readers unfamiliar with Galilean land may miss the connection.
The heart of Jesus’ sermon in Mark 4 is the parable in which a sower scatters seed in four common Galilean habitats. Seed falling on the packed soil of a path can’t germinate, and is eaten by birds. Seed falling in thin, rocky soil produces seedlings that spring up quickly, but soon wither because the thin soil holds only a little water. Seed falling in the thicker soil beneath thorns does better, but the thorns prevent the grain from maturing. Seed falling in patches of rich soil grows vigorously, producing an extraordinary yield.
The meaning we sense in the parable depends on how we understand land. Most of us see land in simple terms, judging each habitat individually: Habitats that produce a crop seem worthwhile, while those that produce nothing marketable seem useless.
Galilean farmers understood land differently. They knew the land as a dynamic mosaic of interacting habitats that had sustained the landscape long before humans began farming the land. They knew that growing and harvesting grain in quantity removes essential nutrients and leaves the soil vulnerable to erosion. To keep the land productive, farmers spend much of their time nurturing the soil, using the processes at work in nearby habitats. They would have welcomed birds replanting grain that was unable to germinate in hard soil. They would have used manure left by cattle grazing paths through the brush to fertilize the soil. They would have been aware that seedlings withering into thin soils add essential organic material, beginning to turn the soil into rich humus. They knew that thorns put down strong roots, protecting the soil from erosion. They may not have realized that the roots of thorn bushes bring nutrients deep in the soil to the surface, but they certainly recognized that once they cleared the thorns away, they found good, thick soil that could be planted with grain. None of these habitats produce grain, but together they enable a farmer to keep the land productive by exercising a dominion that intends the welfare of all God’s creatures, and allows each to participate as it can. (For more on the ecology of Galilean soil, see “Symbiosis, Partnership, and Restoration in Mark‘s Parable of the Sower“ by George Fisher in Theology Today.)
A symbiotic community
To fully appreciate the partnerships that sustain us today, we need to see our relationship with God, land and creation as a unified whole. But that kind of holistic vision is extremely hard to maintain. It’s easy for us to drift into a self-centered kind of dominion that tempts us to become autonomous. We’re acutely aware of our need for natural resources, but we find it hard to appreciate the processes that sustain those resources. We need to remember that in the long run we can’t satisfy our needs without considering the health of the whole ecosystem. We can’t extract groundwater faster than its natural recharge rate. And, as the Israelites learned, we can’t cultivate land without nurturing the soil.
The temptation of modernity is to take these limitations as a challenge to our ingenuity, and try to redouble our efforts to increase productivity. But focusing only on productivity can be counterproductive. The biblical writers learned that land produces more when allowed to lie fallow on a regular basis, and that society is healthier when a few crops are left in the field for those with no land. They saw that God had enabled creation to flourish by embedding covenantal relations within creation that reflect the natural generosity among creatures, and that ignoring covenant and trying to become autonomous would destroy these relationships and lead to chaos.
Ecologists find similar patterns in the symbiotic relationships that permeate the biological world from the simplest single-celled organism to the global biosphere, reminding us that we all live as members of a symbiotic community. No complex creatures can live alone; all depend on other organisms to provide the food they need, and on still others to consume the waste products they produce. Agrarian writers like Wendell Berry convey a similar sense of partnership that is a palpable reality for a farmer, a reality that guides his work and shapes his spiritual awareness of the blessings that God continues to provide as long as land is treated with respect and generosity.
Here, in the parallels between covenantal community and symbiotic community, we sense faith and science blending into one another. The eye of faith sees covenantal relationships permeating creation, senses God at work in them and delights in expressing its understandings in theological propositions. The eye of science sees symbiotic processes at work on all levels, and delights in quantifying them in equations. Theologians and scientists use different languages to tell their stories, but in the end both seem to be telling the same story. I find that convergence immensely rewarding. Science grounds my faith in the tangible reality of the symbiosis permeating creation, while my faith gives thanks for the generosity embedded in creation that makes life possible. In that convergence, I sense our confident explanations, theological and scientific, melting into a rich cloud of mystery that we cannot fully penetrate. We can only contemplate the mystery, filled with awe and gratitude for the mysteriously generous creativity that has given us life and continues to sustain us.
Discussions of sustainable living have so far been dominated by the scientific community, but the time has come for faith communities to join the conversation. The covenant expressed in the Old Testament offers a powerful sense of the need to sustain the Earth for our descendants, a picture that perfectly complements the importance of symbiosis in nature. To capture the full power of covenant, it helps to ground our commitment in a local place that can become a communal nahalah that we can love with the tenacity of Naboth. Some churches may find that commitment in a piece of land they treasure, others in a local neighborhood they love. The invitation is for each of us to identify a particular place that matters to us, a place where we can experience God as our covenantal partner, a place that can make our sense of covenant with Earth and with God as tangible, personal and passionate as that of a farmer nurturing land that’s been in the family for generations.
George Fisher is professor emeritus of geology at Johns Hopkins University and a ruling elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Baltimore.