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The Climate Covenant: Rereading the Bible with Hope at Wake Forest University

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

14 March 2023 – Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA.

Dr. Frances Flannery at Wake Forest University, the 2023 Allbritton Lecture.

I was so honored to join a long, distinguished list of scholars who have given the 2023 Allbritton Lecture at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). My talk “The Climate Covenant: Rereading Climate Crisis in the Bible, with Hope” was warmly welcomed by a lively audience at WFU by interested, motivated students. Their questions and the talks that ensued afterward told me what I have seen over and over – they understand that this is mostly their world that older generations have risked, and they are over it.

At the end of the presentation, I shared the One Billion for Peace Pledge as a step to connect us all and empower us to do something about the rapidly unfolding climate crisis, while we still have time to act. It was uplifting and gratifying to see the students’ excitement over being able to take a concrete and meaningful step to do something about climate crisis.

As an academic lecture, I also enjoyed diving deeply into how the original Hebrew language in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament conveys a world of profound ecological intimacy. The first creation story in Genesis explains how humans are just one part of nature, all of which God sees as “Good” (Gen. 1). In fact, every part of God’s creation is Good or Tov, and taken all together, the whole functioning planetary ecosystem is Really Good, Tov Me/od.

In the second creation story (Gen 2:4-3:24), God is portrayed as a Gardener who plants a garden (Gen. 2:8), and who then makes Adam (a dirtling) from the dust of the Adamah ( the dirt of the ground) (Genesis 2:7). God gives this creature a specific job – to tend and keep the garden (Gen. 2:15) and to take care of the animal friends that God created to be Adam’s helper (Gen. 2:19-20).

When the biblical authors chose to weave these creation stories together, unbothered by the inconsistencies and variations in details, they were making another ecological claim about the meaning of human life. This is what it means to be made “in the image of God,” btselem Elohim: to fulfill through our actions the image of the creative, nurturing God who commands us to bring order to the land (kavash) and manage it as its caretaker (radah) (Gen. 1-28). However, the English translations of the Hebrew words (used elsewhere in the Bible to convey God’s caring rule over a land) are continually mistranslated on account of the bias of their European and American translators: for centuries, kavash has become “subdue” and radah has become “have dominion over,” carrying an exploitative sense in our relationship to the rest of the animals. Yet nothing in Genesis 1-3 supports this turn from a Tov, Tov, Tov, Tov, Tov, Tov Me’od or Very Good world to such behavior. Instead, when we view the English translations (even the NRSV) with some suspicion that our biases have crept in, and when we take the Bible’s original words more seriously within the context of an ancient agricultural society that experienced profound ecological intimacy with plants and animals, we uncover a world in which the Gardener God creates a Dirtling to manage the garden, and even puts Knowledge of Good and Bad within the Dirtling’s reach. What matters now that we have metaphorically taken of this capacity, is what we do with this Knowledge. Will we choose the Good, which unites us to the land, to one another, and to the serpent (who is plainly said to be a wise snake)? Or will activate the Bad, as we hide ourselves in shame, blame one another for our failings, exert power over one another, and stomp on creatures smaller than us?

Frances Flannery, Ph.D.

Co-Founder of BioEarth

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