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Feb 7th 2010: Genesis 1 and human equality  


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Genesis 1 is a claim for freedom and human social justice by the Jews whilst imprisoned in Babylon, encoded in a story. Although it has one blindspot, it was originally a call to human equality, which we might reclaim. In modern times, powerful humans have turned the story on its head.

To use a horrible misquote, "This is a story Hugh Morgan stole from the Bible. We're stealing it back."

This reflection, and next week's, started as a chapter for a book on Earth Law, or Earth Judisprudence (giving rights to the Earth in Law). After submitting it I rethought Genesis 1 substantially, and have incorporated that below...

Today I want to explore the creation stories in Genesis, and what these faith stories say about the Earth and our place on it.  There are two creation stories in Genesis, and we lose a lot if we try to harmonise them into one, let alone try to harmonise them with the science stories. 

This is the passage classically blamed for the destruction of the environment by Judeo-Christian societies. I am persuaded by arguments that it is, rather, the passage most co-opted by people in Judeo-Christian societies who were going to plunder the environment anyway,

‘God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (tie it up, tread it down, bind it); and have dominion over (rule over, control) the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28)’

The story culminates in Genesis 9 with the tale of Noah and the ark, where God blesses Noah and his sons,
"God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. "

It gives me the shudders.  Unless I remember that this is a story, written in Babylon during exile, which is primarily aimed at asserting an egalitarian vision in which all humans, not just the king of Babylon, are created in God’s image. All people have been given the earth and its creatures for food, not just the king of Babylon. All humans, not just the foreign king, have the divine right to exercise dominion.
This is a powerful social justice story: to the extent that some people are exercising control over large parts of the earth, and denying others the ability to exercise their God-given mandate to dominion over their patch, they are disobeying God’s will as expressed in Genesis 1. 
Also in earliest Christian times, the statement that humans are created in the image of God was emphasised in a Roman society where many humans were considered to be of no value whatsoever. In both its original setting and subsequent use, the motivation was to widen the egalitarian circle. There is a trajectory being established which we will come back to later.
This is where the notion that all people are created equal, with a right to freedom to pursue their own liberty, emerges from.  Reading the American declaration of independence gives a sense of how revolutionary Genesis 1 itself was when written, in captivity in Bablyon,
It opens by stating that all people are entitled to a separate and equal station according to the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God

Then follows:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (which is to exercise dominion or rulership over their own lives). That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it...
Genesis 1 expresses, and inspires, egalitarian revolution.
Nonetheless, in modern times it has been cited as a divine sanction, even command, to exercise dominion or control of the planet, because humans are the only ones of any great worth, since we alone bear God’s image. As one head of an Australian mining company said in the 90s,
...bridges, railway stations, even large dump trucks and front end loaders. These things are the results of carrying out the injunction given in the first chapter of Genesis 1, verse 28 .
The new kings of this world, those who control multinational businesses, have twisted the very story which was meant to bring them down to size, and instead used it to justify their exercise of dominion over vast swathes of creation, its resources, and the people who rely on them.  And all of us, to the extent of our ability to wield power, that fall for the temptation to exercise power over creation and other humans, even if just in our shopping choices.

I suspect that whenever we say “I’m going to get it because I can afford it,” and stop there, we are toying with exercising dominion and treading down creation.  When I bought a cheap target tshirt instead of a fare trade organic cotton one because it was quicker and more convenient, I was doing the same. 

But there is a difference between backsliding into a treading down mindset, and pursuing it as a religion.

If we meet someone who is doing that, you might be able to persuade them that actually Genesis 1 is a radical story which undermines their position.  But probably not.  We might have more luck moving straight onto the second creation story. If like the mining magnate they cite the bible as some kind of justification, now its our turn!

P. Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, Thorsons, London, 1991, p. 191.

A. Wansbrough, Environment and Compassion: Caring for our Earth, ELM, New South Wales, 1996, p. 5.

An initiative of the Uniting Church Mid North Coast Presbytery, NSW.
Continuing as part of the Uniting Earth Ministry NSW/ACT

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