What is our place in the world?

earth

What is our place in the world?

The first two chapters of the Bible present a thought-provoking and soul-provoking perspective on that question.

Genesis 2:7 tells us that “the Lord God formed man [“Adam”] from the dust of the ground….”  There is actually an interesting wordplay taking place in this sentence in the original language: The verse tells us that “the Lord God formed Adam or adam [man or human being] from the dust of the adama [ground].”  It is not just that Adam was made out of the dust of the ground, the very word for “humanity” comes out of the word for “ground.”  Our name, our identity, and the essence of who and what we are is intimately connected to the ground from which we are made.  We are literally “earth creatures” or “beings of the earth.”

In his book, Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer states, “Man’s origin is in a piece of earth.  His bond with the earth belongs to his essential being.  The ‘earth is his mother;’ he comes out of her womb.”

No wonder we speak of “Mother Earth”!

The ethical question we must grapple with is: How should we treat this earth from which we were formed?  (How should we treat our “mother”?)

The answer to that question is addressed in the closing paragraphs of Genesis 1.  After the creation of humanity, Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

The word “subdue” (kabash in Hebrew) is not a soft word.  It can also be translated “enslave” or, in the harshest cases “molest” or “rape.” “But,” as Christopher Brown points out, “here’s the catch: it only means this when the party being subdued is already hostile.  Hence it’s used to speak of military enemies in scripture.  Not to subdue an attacking army would lead to death.  Hence, we subdue the earth because without such subjugation the harshness of nature would yield death for us rather than life.”

This verse recognizes that there is a wildness to this world and to nature that takes wisdom and work from us in order for us to live here safely.  We experience this when we build dams and aqueducts to manage droughts, when we build levees to contain floods, when we domesticate animals, when we cultivate fields, when we fight smog and pollution and the destruction of our ozone layer, even when we weed our gardens.

Another word that comes up in Genesis 1:28 is also of great significance in understanding what is our place in this world and in understanding how we are to treat this earth.  The word “rule” (radah in Hebrew) is a royal word, used to describe the rule of a king.  Psalm 72 was written as a coronation psalm for King Solomon.  Verse 8 uses the same word as Genesis 1:28, declaring, “He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”  In light of this psalm, Genesis 1:28 calls humanity to rule over the earth as Solomon was to rule over his kingdom.

But think about that.  What does Scripture tell us about how a king is to rule (and, thus, how we are to treat this world)?  Psalm 72:12-14 offers this description: “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.  He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death.  He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.”

If a godly king or leader is to look out for and protect the weak and the afflicted and needy in the land and to rescue them from oppression, are we not, as guardians and stewards of this world, to protect this land from oppression and to look out for whatever aspects of creation are most needy and vulnerable?

Indeed, in words of judgment against Israel’s evil leaders in Ezekiel 34:4, God says, “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured.  You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost.  You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”  Sadly, I fear that God may say the same to us about how we have “ruled” the earth.

By God’s design, we are intimately bound to this earth from which we were formed.  Over and over again God declared each aspect of this world to be good.  We have a God-given duty to care well for this world God wisely and lovingly made.

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