What does the Bible say about the natural world and the place of humans in it? :Rev Richard Clarkson

Richard Clarkson
Richard Clarkson

The overarching biblical approach to the natural world is summed up in the words of the psalmist, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ (Ps 24:1). The Bible begins with two creation accounts, both emphasising that God created (Gen 1:1) and made (Gen 2:4) the earth. In Leviticus God makes it clear to the Israelites that ‘The land is mine’ (Lev 25:23), and at the giving of the law he reminds them that ‘The heavens belong to the Lord, the earth with all that is in it’ (Dt 10:14). God’s reply to Job’s distress is to point him towards the wilderness and wild animals which are outside human experience or comprehension but which God created and cares for (Job 38-41), a theme which is echoed by the psalmist, ‘you…give drink to every wild animal…The high mountains are for the wild goats’ (Ps 104:10-11,18).

In the New Testament Jesus teaches his disciples that ‘not one [sparrow] falls to the ground without your father’ (Mat 10:29). Paul writes that ‘In [Jesus] all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him’ (Col 1:16) and in John’s vision of Heaven he sees the living creatures singing ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created’ (Rev 4:11).

God has set humans firmly within this creation (Genesis 2:15), and following the flood God makes his covenant not just with humans but with all creatures (Gen 9:9-11; Hos 2:18). Nevertheless humans, made in God’s image (Gen 1:27; 9:6; Ja 3:9), do have a particular role to play, first expressed in Adam’s charge to ‘fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth’ (Gen 1:28) and to ’till and keep’ the garden (Gen 2:15), a calling echoed later by the psalmist (Ps 8:6). In giving humans ‘Dominion…over every living thing’ (Gen 1:28) God is making explicit that which is implied in the ‘Image of God’ language, humans are, in some sense, to rule the world on God’s behalf. However this delegated dominion should not be taken to mean that humans can do whatever they want with the natural world, rather they are to follow the example of the servant king, treating their fellow creatures with the same love and care shown by their creator. Human actions do affect the rest of creation, not always for good as Isaiah writes, ‘The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants’ (Isa 24:5), with consequences expressed starkly in Revelation, ‘Your wrath has come, and the time…for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Rev 11:18). Part of this calling then is redemptive ‘for the creation waits in eager expectation for the revealing of the children of God…that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:19,21).

God’s people are therefore marked by the way that they act with compassion and justice towards the rest of creation. The Sabbath laws ensured that both the land and the domesticated animals which farmed it would not be overworked and that there would be enough food for the wild animals to eat as well (Lev 25:1-7; Ex 21:10-12). The book of Proverbs reminds us that ‘the righteous know the needs of their animals’ (Prov 12:10). When the Israelites laid siege to a town they were commanded not to destroy its trees for, ‘are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you?’ (Dt 20:19). The fulfilment of the biblical vision for this relationship between humans and animals, which was perhaps glimpsed when Jesus was ‘with the wild beasts’ (Mk 1:13) during his temptation in the wilderness, is a time when ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’ (Isa 11:6).

Rev. Richard Clarkson grew up in Shropshire. After completing a Physics degree in Nottingham he returned to Shropshire and spent several years as a Music Outreach Minister as well as teaching guitar and singing. He then studied Theology in Bristol, during which time he became a JRI Associate, before returning to Shropshire once more where he serves as a priest following his ordination in June 2014.

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