Israelite/Judean Land Ethics

Philip Esler gives a glowing review of Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, calling it “a triumphantly novel and successful work of scholarship that on the all-important question of our relationship to the earth allows vast sweeps of the Old Testament to give vent to its deep intelligence and profound moral insights that were always available if only someone asked the right questions”. He summarizes the agrarian outlook:

“An agrarian approach insists that we have been given the land to care for, in an attitude of reverence and humility before it… It stresses that we must use the earth sustainably, by not compromising its means of sustaining itself. It sets up the ideal of the small-holder closely connected with the land and farming in a diversified way in sharp contrast with the large-scale industrialized farming of agribusiness, heavily dependent on fertilizer and single cropping, remorselessly driving down the nutrient levels in the land and leading to depopulation of rural areas. The particular point of connection (an extremely rich one) between agrarian ideas and the Old Testament is that its texts comprehensively assume an agricultural setting where small farmers on the difficult and often marginal lands of the Judean hill country had to work in closest harmony with the cycles and rhythms of nature to survive. In addition, the relationship of ancient Israelites to God presupposes his granting them the land while standing behind its proper use. One of the most impressive features of this book is how much of the text Davis relates to this setting and to this outlook.”

I wonder how Davis relates all of this to the eschatological scenario. Edward Adams’ trenchant work, The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, demonstrates that the Old Testament looked for a literal destruction of the earth (even if not as blatantly as later Jewish apocalyptic and the New Testament). And if the earth is destined for destruction, why would ancient devotees of Yahweh bother going out of their way to preserve and protect it? But as Adams points out (against Wright), hopes for the earth’s literal destruction didn’t presuppose its complete destruction nor that it could be disdained or neglected; these hopes usually went hand-in-hand with expectations for the earth’s recreation or miraculous transformation — in other words, for a new earthly future. Eschatology wasn’t so much about cosmic matter being dumped, but recycled; creation was holy and respected. While it would be a mistake to characterize ancient Israelites as environmentally conscious, I agree with Adams that their world-view needn’t necessarily be taken as an obstacle to environmental ethics. And if that’s the case, then Davis’ agrarian approach to the question of land ethics appears to be on (pun) solid ground.

I will have to read this book.


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