For the past year, I have been editing a quarterly publication called With Love to the World. It provides short commentaries on the biblical passages offered in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by mainstream denominations of the Christian church around the world. There are four passages each week—one each from Hebrew Scriptures, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel.
Every year, during September, there is a focus in the church around the world on the theme of Creation. This year, I’ve expanded that to encompass the full 13 weeks of one issue of With Love to the World, which runs from Pentecost 11 (in mid August) through to Pentecost 23, just before the festival of the Reign of Christ brings the church year to an end in November.
To the four lectionary passages, I’ve added three passages from Hebrew Scripture which offer resources for considering our relationship with the creation, and how we might live responsibly within that creation. I’m really pleased with the quality of what I have received from the contributors for this issue.
If you are looking for a way to focus your thinking on how to live in harmony with the whole creation, and deepen your discipleship practices of sustainability and environmental responsibility, through a daily reflection on a scripture passage—then this issue of With Love to the World will provide that.
The passages relating specifically to creation begin in the first week, Pentecost 11, with the priestly account of creation, a wonderfully crafted narrative shaped during and after the Exile in Babylon. The latter part of this account tells of the creation of all living creatures, culminating in the creation of humanity. This passage (Genesis 1) describes each category of living creature as a nephesh, a concept that signals the inherent interconnectedness of all creation.
Although this is a later (post-exilic) narrative, it is given prime position in the Pentateuch because it so wonderfully articulates so much of the fundamental worldview of the Israelites—a worldview which we have inherited, and which we continue to value. The insight that we are all interrelated and interdependent is central to contemporary understanding of ecosystems on the micro level and the cosmic scope of galaxies and universes alike. It is here in the opening narrative of scripture.
The book of Job contains an important section which makes it clear that the whole of creation was designed to function as a cohesive unity. Human beings have no special and distinctive place in that creation: God cares for all parts of creation equally and uniformly. Accordingly, we have a responsibility neither to claim a special place at “the top of the pyramid” nor to act in disregard of the consequence of our actions on others (Job 38–39).
A part of a wonderful psalm which praises God as creator and provider, Psalm 104, offers a reiteration of the perspective of Genesis 1, that all creatures are nephesh and are created by the inbreathing of God’s spirit (Ps 104:24–30). The Psalm restates in poetic form what the creation narrative that opens the pages of scripture has affirmed about the interconnected nature of all of God’s creation.
The story of Noah concludes with the account of God making a covenant “with every living creature (nephesh)” (Genesis 9), again underling the importance of the interconnected and interrelated creation. That is affirmed also in the first half of Psalm 19, which declares that the creation tells of “the glory of God” and undergirds the covenant with Israel (verses 7 onwards). This covenant is the fundamental agreement that undergirds every moment in the relationship between Israel and the Lord God throughout the centuries.
Three excerpts from the prophet Isaiah extend this theme. Isaiah 11 is usually read as a messianic prophecy during Advent; reading it in this context, with a focus on environmental matters, we can appreciate it as a vision of a fully cooperative creation. This vision, it would seem, undergirds the promise of returning to Zion in a creation which sings in harmony (Isaiah 35 and 40). Crossing the dry desert is enlivened by a lush watery hopefulness.
Then follows a sequence of passages from the Pentateuch. First, some of the Leviticus laws are read: the Jubilee, an important (of perhaps idealised) practice which provides opportunity for the land to recreate (Leviticus 25). We read this alongside one of the closing psalms of praise, in which all creation praises God (Psalm 148)—surely a chapter that provided inspiration for the famous hymn attributed to St Francis.
Next, two passages from Numbers 35 are offered. Here, faithfulness to the covenant establishes the need to respect the creation. The Levitical cities of refuge (Num 35:9–15) indicate the significance of places of sanctuary (oases, perhaps?), places to rest in the presence of God. The chapter ends with clear directions about how to treat the land as a whole (Num 35:33–34), which resonate with what we have learnt from the spirituality of the First Peoples of Australia. Then, the cries of Lamentations 1 and 5 provide further warnings about the dangers of straying from the covenant.
Deuteronomy 19–20 includes a series of laws that also indicate how care and respect are to be shown, even in trying circumstances: through the provision of cities of refuge (only three in this version) and through respect for the land whilst waging war. Then Deuteronomy 22 collates a number of miscellaneous laws, some of which relate directly to care for the land and its creatures, all of which are informed by the priestly view that everything has its own right and correct place in the scheme of things.
In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, we find three complementary passages. Loving care for the people (portrayed as sheep) is undergirded by loving care for the land (Ezek 34). The valley of dry bones (Ezek 37) retells the creation story in a dramatic setting, as God breathes spirit into the people and places them “on [their] own soil”. Then, Ezekiel’s idiosyncratic vision of the restored temple emphasises the importance of its environmental context (Ezek 43)—a nice watery counterpoint to the arid dryness of the valley.
In a well-known section from the prophet Joel, God’s abundance grace is said to be evident in the fruitfulness of creation, culminating in a renewed gifting of spirit (Joel 2:23–32). I have expanded this passage by including the earlier account of the people returning to the Lord, keeping the covenant, offering the first fruits, and being blessed by God in an abundance of care of the land (Joel 2:12–22). As a dramatic counterpoint to this, the prophet Hosea reminds the people of their responsibilities to keep the covenant; when they show no faithfulness, “the land mourns” (Hosea 4:1–10). Hosea 4:3 alludes directly back to the covenant (Gen 9:9–10) and to the creation (Gen 1:20–27).
In Pentecost 21, the prophetic call for justice is emphasised in the lectionary readings provided. The lectionary reading highlights this call in Habakkuk’s call for justice (Hab 1:4) and righteousness (Hab 2:4). The same standard is found in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) while the psalmist praises God for God’s righteous judgements (Ps 119:137–144). So I have added alongside that the call for justice in the parable of Isaiah 5 (an agricultural parable) and the warning about God’s righteous judgement when that call is ignored (Isaiah 24).
This portrayal of righteous judgement continues into the next week, with the dramatic pictures of Isaiah 24:12–20, warning about a global catastrophe when the environment is abused (Isa 24:13). This picture appears also in the lectionary offering, Haggai 1:15–2:9 (see 2:7). The importance of righteousness is evident also in 2 Thessalonians 2. This week also includes Reformation Day (Romans 4) and All Saints Day (Luke 6); the latter particularly offers opportunities for ecotheological reflection.
The issue comes to a close with Pentecost 23, with two sections from the Lukan account of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (Luke 21), provided from the lectionary. This discourse links with the claim made in 2 Thessalonians 3 about the faithfulness of God, which undergirds all that is projected and provides hope for the future.
This also resonates with the closing visions of Trito-Isaiah, looking to the new creation (Isa 65) and the promise of new life, a vision which ends with an image of comfort (Isa 66). So we close this long sequence of passages with Job 12, which affirms that when we look carefully at the creation, we will see that “the hand of the Lord has done this, in his hand is the life of every living thing (nephesh)”—taking us right back to the early affirmations about God’s covenant with every nephesh, and God’s intentional creation of every nephesh within the interconnected environment in which we all live.
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