Ecology and Bible – Green & Grey


Our reading of the Bible from the perspective of Earth, by employing the principles enunciated under Ecology and Bible – Principles throws up a number of challenges for interpreting key passages in the Bible. In my book An Inconvenient Text I outline the criteria employed to distinguish between green texts which value Earth and grey texts which de-value Earth and the Earth community.

An Inconvenient Text

Is a Green Reading of the
Bible Possible?

Norman Habel

ATF Press




  1. The Mandate to Dominate
  2. The Mighty Acts of God
  3. The Promised Land Syndrome
  4. The Challenge of Ecology
  5. A Green Reading of Grey Texts
  6. A Green Reading of the Mandate to Dominate
  7. A Green Reading of The Mighty Acts of God
  8. A Green Reading of Promised Land Texts





An Inconvenient Truth confronted us with the cold reality of global warming and its consequences. Al Gore’s bold production made it abundantly clear that the planet is in crisis. The Arctic and Antarctic regions of Earth are slowly melting and the oceans are rising. Toxic fumes are still choking our atmosphere. Old-growth forests continue to be cleared. Within 25 years, the greenhouse gases we emit are likely to double. The environmental crisis is escalating and to date relatively little has been done to stem the forces of global warming. There has been considerable talk about sustaining the life of the planet, but relatively little action.

In November 2007, we elected a new government in Australia. Within hours of being sworn into office, the government endorsed the Kyoto Protocol and said they would take the environmental crisis seriously. Various leaders of government, society and the church have declared their intention to face the cold reality exposed by An Inconvenient Truth. But the reality persists. Why?

Economically, companies view it as virtual suicide to declare a boycott on current fossil fuels or greenhouse emissions. Commitment to an ever-increasing production of goods and expenditure of wealth still controls our global economies. Australians, for example, bought more cars in 2007 than ever before. The story is similar in many other countries.

Socially, most groups are more concerned about sustaining their current lifestyles, than sustaining the ecosystems of the planet. ‘Sustainability’ has been appropriated by the propaganda machines of our society and has come to mean ‘sustaining our affluent lifestyles’ rather than working to counter the ecological upheavals of our planet and sustaining a balanced ecology. We are not yet serious about adjusting our ways of living for the sake of the planet—or even future generations on the planet.

Geographically, we can point to a range of countries that have been invaded by colonial powers who believed that it was God’s will to conquer pagan lands, harness the forces of nature, introduce agriculture as a divine mandate and establish a set of Judeo-Christian values that view parts of creation as domains to be colonised. Many nations of the world, both old and new, were founded on the belief that they had a divine right to dominate nature.

And psychologically, it seems to me, we have yet to internalise either the emerging worldview informed by ecology or the seriousness of the ecological crisis. We watch Al Gore’s scenario and tend to walk away as with any other movie—moved but moving on! There is an increased awareness of environmental issues but observable changes in our environments—whether sea levels or consumer levels—are so minimal we are rarely shocked into action.

Historically, there are many factors that have contributed to our current worldview, our orientation to this planet and life on the planet. Our values have been formulated over generations by a range of social, political and religious forces. One of these factors, I would argue, is the value system which we have inherited from Christianity, or more particularly the Bible. We have been conditioned, in part, by An Inconvenient Text which is none other than the Bible.

More than forty years ago, Lynn White Jr. wrote his famous article entitled ‘The historical roots of our ecological crisis’ (White, 1967). Santmire suggests that this article might well be compared to Luther’s ’95 Theses’ (2000, 11). Some theologians have forcefully protested against White’s claim that the biblical text, especially the reference to ‘dominion’ over nature, has contributed significantly to the senseless exploitation of nature for the sole benefit of humans.

After exploring ecology and the Bible for more than twenty years, I have come to the conclusion that White was probably on the right track. The Bible, as a major force in the Western Christian tradition, is not obviously green and has certainly not been read by Christians—whether scholars or laity—as a work that immediately connects us personally with nature. In the past, the Bible has generally not made Christians green in their attitude to creation—just the opposite!

There are indeed exciting sections of the Scriptures from which we can retrieve voices that connect us with creation in a positive way. The Earth Bible project which I initiated demonstrates that fact. There are texts that record nature mourning and rejoicing. There are texts which celebrate the presence of God in Earth rather than in heaven. Much of the Bible, however, has been used to justify our domination, devaluation and destruction of the planet.

The Bible is An Inconvenient Text. In this study, I first intend to explore a selection of the key passages from the Bible that have provided justification for the way we have wounded and abused our planet. My hope is that biblical scholars, church leaders and interested students of our modern world will face this negative force in our history and recognise the need to change our orientation both to the way we read the Bible and the biblical values that shape our lives.

While there are numerous texts from the Bible that could be examined in this context, I will focus on three crucial areas that have influenced our values. The first texts are those that indicate directives given by God as to how human beings are to control nature. The second group highlights those mighty acts of God that include the destruction of parts of nature. And the third set refers to traditions associated with the divine gift of a Promised Land.

As a way of distinguishing these texts from others in my analysis, I refer to these problematic passages as ‘grey’ texts. These are texts in which nature is devalued either at the hands of humans or God. As I analyse these texts initially, I will pursue a reading which demonstrates their grey character. That is, I will clarify the way they devalue nature, focus on human interests and suppress the character or voice of Earth in the text.

It is not sufficient, of course, to uncover the demons in our past. We also need to have a vision of how things might change. Basic to creating such a vision is a radical re-orientation to our planet. Or, if you will, we need to accept ecology as a key dimension of an emerging view of the natural world rather than just another discipline like botany or chemistry or theology. From within that emerging ecological worldview, we are challenged to read the Bible, do theology, reform worship and confront the political forces of our times.

One of the movements that are seeking to achieve this end is The Green Seminary Initiative based in Chicago. (See The goal of this initiative is to promote the care of creation as an integral part of the seminary curriculum and parish education. A second movement is The Season of Creation which seeks to green our worship. (See I would extend the challenge further and pursue what some Catholic documents have called ‘an ecological conversion’ as an integral part of our Christian faith.

Accordingly, the second stage of this book is designed to re-position our faith within an emerging worldview informed by ecology, to challenge our use of the Bible as a vehicle to support the status quo and to consider a radical way of re-reading the text.

The question we face is whether a green reading of the Bible is possible? Or do ‘grey’ texts and ‘grey’ attitudes still control our orientation to creation and nature in the Bible?

To be green, I would argue, is to have empathy with Earth. And that empathy is grounded in the reality that I am a child of Earth. For millions of years, all forms of life, including humans, have been nurtured by the elements and impulses of Earth. I am an integral part of the living web called creation. I taste the same salt water as the dolphin. I depend on the trees for oxygen. I celebrate life with the blue wren in my garden. And I suffer with the soil when it is polluted by nuclear waste. The task before me is to translate that empathy into a fresh way of reading of the text. I adopt this approach, not simply because of the growing environmental crisis, but because I have become conscious that I am one with Earth in a way that was not fully apparent in the past.

To be grey, on the other hand, is to be anthropocentric and to view nature primarily as a resource for humans to exploit. Being grey means that as a human I am superior to nature and have the right to colonise creation, to appropriate this gift as a means of furthering economic progress. The rights of humans come first. The interests of humans come first. And the future of humans comes first. Being green is not, as some have suggested, a backhanded way of protecting the interests of humans. Earth and all life on Earth have intrinsic value. My concern is not simply the future of my grandchildren but of this planet called Earth.

To be green is to have empathy with Earth because I know myself as a child of Earth. To be grey is to view nature as a resource for humans to exploit because I assume humans are superior to the rest of nature.

Before articulating an alternative way of reading a text, however, grey that text may be, we need to reflect briefly on the emerging view of the natural world that ecology is beginning to create in our society. I will locate this emerging worldview over against worldviews of the past that have become obsolete, worldviews that were often justified on the basis of the Bible. This emerging worldview will take into account the reality of Earth as a living planet, a fragile web of interconnected forces and a community of kin. We will also summarise the challenge that this worldview presents when we dare to consider the key texts under discussion.

Of course, there are numerous biblical scholars over recent years who have tackled the grey texts under analysis. At appropriate points I will cite a number of these writers. For many of us, their approaches may seem to offer an adequate response to the challenge posed by the grey texts analysed earlier. For some of us, however, the Bible remains a problem in the current environmental crisis. Interpreters, it seems, are only too ready to compromise the text in the interests of accepted theology, church politics or even popular opinion about sustaining our lifestyle. We need to ask whether we can legitimately green our study of the Scriptures.

The new approach being espoused in this volume and elsewhere takes into account the bias of past approaches which persist in reading the text predominantly from the perspective of human beings—that is, they are anthropocentric readings. We are now asking how we might read the text from the perspective of Earth and the Earth community. We are reading with empathy for Earth.

A significant prototype in this endeavour is that of feminist interpreters who read from their experience and perspective as women. Another model is that of scholars who pursue a post-colonial approach, recognising that we have read the Bible from the perspective of the invaders and the powerful rather than from that of the indigenous peoples or the poor. In a sense, creation has become a domain to be conquered. How do we read from the perspective of a conquered domain of creation?

Some scholars, such as Sallie McFague, argue that the current environmental crisis is also a theological crisis. Her book is entitled A New Climate for Theology and challenges us to read the Bible and our Christian heritage from the context of a planet facing the disaster of global warming and to articulate a new theology with a genuine empathy for Earth (McFague, 2008).

Three of the key questions we pose in this volume are these:

  • Are there texts in the Bible where the voices of Earth and the Earth community are present, but have been ignored because of the mindset of past interpreters?
  • How might we retrieve the voices of Earth and the Earth community that have been suffocated by human authors and readers who focus first and foremost on human interests?
  • What happens when we also read with empathy for Earth rather than the welfare of humans?

We will articulate a radical new way of reading involving three steps, namely, suspicion, identification and retrieval. To demonstrate how this approach differs from preceding approaches, we then apply this way of reading the text to a selection of the grey texts analysed earlier. This application, while brief, illustrates what it means to identify with Earth as a character and voice in the text, even if that voice has been suppressed.

In the final three chapters I explore the application of green principles to texts discussed in the first three chapters, texts relating to the mandate to dominate, the mighty acts of God and the Promised Land. I also seek to retrieve green voices located in parallel texts. At the end of each chapter, however, I explore whether there are key texts in the New Testament that are unequivocally green and could provide a basis for choosing the green texts over the grey texts. In the conclusion, I focus on this choice, an uncomfortable choice between passages in an inconvenient text!

The plan of this volume then is:

  • The analysis of three sets of grey texts, focusing on the mandate to dominate, the mighty acts of God and the Promised Land (chapters 1-3).
  • A discussion of the emerging world view about our planet that now informs the way we view reality—as we read the text (chapter 4).
  • An introduction to a new green approach to reading the text (chapter 5).
  • A re-reading of the three sets of texts analysed in chapters 1-3, using this approach and taking into account supplementary texts as well as the New Testament context (chapters 6-8).
  • A conclusion in which an uncomfortable choice between grey and green texts is explored and an unenviable task is considered.

I recognise that a more academic version of some of what I have written here has appeared in various scholarly journals, as the bibliography will testify. These articles, however, are often inaccessible to the general reader. I hope that what I have re-formulated here illustrates the significance of this approach as we face the current environmental crisis and the need to green biblical studies in our seminaries and churches. The Bible will probably remain an inconvenient text in the current global climate. The question before us, however, is how we face that reality as we pursue green initiatives in our worship, our lives and our study of the Bible. The question should not be avoided: Is a green reading of the Bible possible?

Numerous scholars in recent writings have sought to demonstrate the green credentials of God as Creator. Few, however, have sought to face the fact that the portraits of God, especially in the Old Testament, are often grey rather than green.