Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | February 18, 2008

Two Land Ethics

The beginning of the Bible introduces us to the garden of Eden. But after reading briefly about the creation and God’s establishment of the garden, you come to a strange set of references to rivers that flowed out of the garden of Eden. (Genesis 2, verses 10-14)

“Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold…. The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”
Now we know the Tigris and Euphrates rivers today, because they retain their names, and the river in the land of Cush is probably the Nile. The last river, that “flows around the whole land of Havilah,” I’m assuming is the Jordan. So you get the feeling that the garden of Eden, while in our minds might be small and on a scale with human gardens, might have been much larger — it could even have encompassed the entire Middle East! This is the idea I have when I read the Genesis account.

Now the garden of Eden, in this way that I have introduced it, may be considered the Biblical baseline for the whole region. (1) (This biblical notion of “garden” being the original baseline, would not take into account our modern notions of “wilderness,” for example.  In the Biblical view, deserts occur when human immorality brings on drought, etc. – through God’s displeasure.  In our modern, scientific, view, there were always deserts due to climate and circulation patterns.) (2)

The theme of the land around the Jordan River, for instance, is taken up later. In the account of Abraham and his relative Lot, the two men are looking for a place to pasture their abundant flocks. They agree to separate, because “the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions [cattle] were so great that they were not able to remain together.”(Genesis 13:6) And this is one element in what I call the Biblical land ethic that overlaps with our modern notions. The two views, Biblical and modern, are identical on this point.  The Hebrews were shepherds and cattle herdsmen. They knew specifically what the condition of the land was, since they were entirely dependent upon the land for sustenance. Even without science or proper agricultural practices, they knew instinctively whether the land could sustain them and their animals or not.

What follows is another strange scripture. It says, “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere – this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah – like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar.” There are a few things that come about as a consequence of this verse. One is that, from the Biblical point of view, what is now the Dead Sea area where the lower Jordan is, was once a garden-like, or Eden-like area. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed the land also was destroyed. (See also Psalms 107, verses 33-34) The other thing is that there are still areas of the earth that appear as Eden at one time appeared. This place, “Zoar” (in Egypt) was one of those places. It was lush and “well-watered.”

But the Biblical “land ethic” does not just involve Sodom and Gomorrah, it involves the whole face of the land. As I’ve put forward in an earlier post, when the Hebrews did what was right, God rewarded them with rain – their flocks and herds prospered, etc. When they did what was not good, God withheld the rains and made life hard for them. Even more than that, the land would “spew” the Hebrews out of their land if they continued to do wrong. Leviticus 18, verses 24-28 says:

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you.”
In short, the land itself is destroyed through a process of moral defilement. This is the Biblical version of the land ethic.

The other land ethic is the land ethic put forward by Aldo Leopold, the early conservationist, who (in 1949) in an essay entitled, “The Land Ethic,” called on all of us to include the biotic world as part of our own “community.” He wrote as follows:

“The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example.  Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society.  The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society; democracy to integrate social organization to the individual.  There is yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.  Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property.  The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” (3)

Although Leopold mentions Biblical teachings here, he is not always affirming to the Judeo-Christian religious mind-set. So even though I’m proposing that there are some resonances between the land ethic of the Bible and Leopold’s land ethic, I’m also seeing their differences.
The Biblical land ethic poses the problem of the land as a symptom of a human moral problem. God curses the land, and it spews mankind out, when man’s moral degeneracy and wrong relationship to God, to others, and to the creation, requires it.  (See Genesis 3:17 and 8:21; Deuteronomy 11:26; Jeremiah 23:10a; and Malachi 4:6 about God cursing the land.)  Leopold’s view is that the land problem is a problem in and of itself. If we paid more attention to the land, we could restore it.  Put this way, both views may have some validity. From the Biblical point of view, isn’t it partly because of our own human carelessness and selfish desires that nature is so often violated? And from Leopold’s view, isn’t it because we do not include nature in our own community and assign it a value along with ourselves that we end up destroying it?

When we try to protect wetlands, for instance, with a national wetlands law, the cry from the conservative camp is, What about property rights? Property rights are important, and they have helped society to evolve and become more complex, but they are not absolute. We would do well to take Leopold’s view that we should include the land and nature as part of our own valued community with a status and with rights such as we accord to ourselves. Why shouldn’t nature have the right to propagate and continue just as much as we do?

In another vein, there has been some movement, for instance, to put nature in the place of God as an entity that will retaliate against humans because of the way we have been treating her.  One recent idea is to call our planet “Earth”, instead of “the Earth,” because “the Earth” makes the planet sound like an object, and “Earth” more like a person with rights and the ability to fight back.  Many believe that this is a good way to see what is happening with global warming – the Earth is fighting back.  But what worries me is how silently and without much fanfare species are being lost to extinction.  I don’t think we can depend on the Earth to somehow stop us in our tracks and carefully teach us all the things we need to know to take care of her.  In some ways, I think what we can really expect is to lose a good portion of nature before we’ve even realized how it was done.

While it is obvious that Leopold’s view needs more attention now, it may be that we need not lose the Biblical idea completely, either.  Do we really think that God, if we believe in a God, will not retaliate against us for what we are doing to one another and to his creation?  This should be motivating for Christians and other believers.  For those who do not believe in a God, the retaliation of nature – the Earth – against our selfish ways may be a good motivator, too, in some respects.  Either way, there seems to be a place for some imaginative sympathizing (with the environment) here.  But in the end, maybe our best motivation would not be to fear what nature or God will do to us, but our greatest motivator should be what we could do to nature.  A fear of that and a more loving relationship with nature in general could lead us to a better path.

(1) For the idea of baselines, or “shifting baselines,” especially as it relates to ocean environments, there is an interesting group online tied to that idea. See their website at – . See also the classic article – “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baselines Syndrome of Fisheries,” by Daniel Pauly in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, (1995) 10:430.  Find it at – .

(2) There is an interesting passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls in which it seems that this Biblical view towards desert areas finally seems to change.  It says, “(Thou art Creator of) the earth and of the laws dividing it into desert and grassland…”  This is in a poem in the War Scroll, X, 11 or 12 or 13. – The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, ed. Geza Vermes (1997 edition), p. 173.  I need to look at this more closely, but the promises of a land flowing with water in Israel if the Jews simply repented, seem to have been modified by the time of this verse in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(3) “The Land Ethic,” is usually collected together with other writings by Aldo Leopold. See, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold. — London: Oxford University Press, c1949, pp. 202-203.


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