Our Identity as Relational Beings: a posthumanist response to claims of exploitation in the story of creation
By: Kyle Summer
It is often argued that the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible lay out a framework in which humans are given permission from God to do what they please with the rest of the created world. The Bible convincingly serves as a means of justification for the mistreatment and exploitation of non-human animals as well as a lack of overall concern for environmental degradation. Some prominent thinkers often point a blaming finger towards the creation accounts presented to us in Genesis to illuminate the origins of animal and environmental exploitation. Though the majority of these critiques come from a misunderstanding of certain themes that occur in the first chapter of Genesis (i.e. Image of God, dominion, etc.), the second chapter of Genesis provides us with a sound argument against such claims. The response to the charge that the creation accounts found in Genesis are the primary cause of animal exploitation and environmental degradation is one that can be found in almost every commentary that exists on the book of Genesis. Their brief mentions of human/non-human relationships, however, are often eclipsed by their focus on the fall of humanity. This is unfortunate because such a primary focus on the human relationship with the self, as opposed to the human relationship with the other, is far outside of the intentions of the created order and is precisely where the subjugation and exploitation of the non-human world finds its beginning. Speciesism, which Peter Singer defines as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species” (Singer 2009, 6), is something that is a result of human kind disobeying God and taking things into their own hands rather than a God-given right, as many suggest. This study of Genesis 2:4b-3:24 will serve to expose humanity’s distortion of God’s desired relational priority which ultimately results in chaos and disunity between the human and non-human world.
In 1967, Lynn White put forth the argument that Christianity’s popular interpretation of the creation texts in the Hebrew Bible, paired with the rise of technological advancements, is the root cause of the subjugation of the earth and the impending ecological crisis (White 1967, 1203-05). Later in 1975, in his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer claims that the repression of our own animal essence and the embrace of a specific worldview in which humans are allotted a special position in the universe can be traced back to the creation accounts in Genesis (Singer 2009, 187-188). Singer later claims that, “…there is no serious challenge to the overall view, laid down in Genesis, that the human species is the pinnacle of creation and has God’s permission to kill and eat other animals” (188). These two influential works in the field of environmental and animal ethics expose a daunting reality for Biblical scholars and theologians who seek to explore the ways that the Bible reveals a vision of the world in which the non-human is free of exploitation. Jennifer Koosed claims that, even though the Bible is arguably a speciesist manifesto of sorts in which humans alone are created in the image of God and given dominion over the rest of creation, the Bible is filled with moments of disruption that contradict such claims:“ Animals speak, God becomes man, spirits haunt the living, and monsters confound at the end. All of these stories explore the boundaries of the human in ways that destabilize the very category of the human” (Koosed 2014, 3). It is here—where the Biblical text seems to be in the business of crossing boundaries, complicating identities, and busting outside of boxes—that Biblical scholars and theologians will find their footing to respond to the claims of God-ordained exploitation and supremacy over the non-human world.
Unlike the first creation story in Genesis in which humankind is presented as the climax of creation, the second creation account in Genesis 2:4b-3:24 presents humanity as a part of a process in which humankind is given the task of caring for and protecting the earth. Humans are not created “out of nothing” (ex nihilo), but are instead created out of the dirt (Gen 2:7). The Hebrew word for “dirt,” or “earth,” is adamah, this suggests that the word adam, which is often translated to mean “man,” may be better understood as “earthling” to represent all of humanity (Adams 2005, 18-19). This notion of the human being formed out of the earth—in light of God’s claim that humans are as important and vital to the earth as the rain (Gen. 2:5)—suggests that they have a very unique relationship with the earth. This relationship is one in which both the human and the non-human world depend on the other for their survival.
The unique relationship presented to us in the text between the human and the non-human world prompts a certain responsibility on behalf of humankind. In his book, God and World in the Old Testament, Terence E. Fretheim claims that this responsibility toward the non-human world is not only for the maintenance and preservation of creation but is also for “intracreational development” (Fretheim 2005, 53). These actions stand in service to the non-human, moving all that is towards it’s fullest possible potential, while at the same time no precise future is suggested by God, leaving room for possibility and creativity (53). The vocation of the human in this newly created world hinges entirely upon verse 15 where God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Walter Brueggemann claims that the word pair, “to till” (‘ābad), and “to keep” (šāmar), may in fact be a reference to a gardener or shepherd, suggesting that the human is expected to enhance the garden and share in God’s work (Brueggemann 2010, 46). Fretheim, suggests that the Hebrew words ‘ābad and šāmar are better translated to “to serve” and “to protect”, which further expound upon the human’s responsibility to put the needs of the land above their own preferences and desires (Fretheim 2005, 53). He goes on to tell us that the verb šāmar (often translated as “to keep” or “to observe”) is often referenced to keeping Torah in which keeping the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, both to promote the well being of others and to prevent violence and mistreatment of others (53).
In Genesis 2:16-17, the plot of this particular creation story thickens. Adam is placed in the garden and given a specific task to care for the non-human world, but here we see that God also prohibits Adam from eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Snodgrass tells us that the Hebrew translation of the word “Knowledge” moves beyond a strict intellectual understanding of something but always expresses an experience of it (Snodgrass 2011, 42). In this light, our understanding of the phrase “good and evil” should also move beyond a basic intellectual understanding and should also be understood as something that is active. Snodgrass further notes that the word ”Good” would be better translated as “nurture” or “of benefit,” while a better translation of “Evil” might be “to damage” or “ to destroy.” In this way, “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” may better be interpreted as “The Tree of the Knowledge of Deciding to Nurture or Destroy” (42). This suggests that it is God’s place to decide what is nurtured or destroyed in the garden, and that Adam is simply to “serve” and “protect” it according to God’s will.
In the opening scene of Genesis 2, we are provided with a beautiful image of God taking dirt, molding it, and breathing life into it. God assumes human form and is presented to us as a potter who creates out of the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7; see also Isa. 45:9, Jer. 18:2-6). This imagery continues in Genesis 3-4, where we find God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (3:8), and later engaging in conversation with Cain (4:1-16; Fretheim 2005, 39). God is presented to the reader as a relational being that is concerned enough with creation to present Godself as one who is not afraid to directly interact with it. This personification of God directly relates to the significance of the human body. Human beings are ultimately related to each other and to other creatures as bodies. This bodily existence in the world is a fundamental element of this relational understanding of self image (55). This relational aspect of creation is affirmed by God’s own declaration in Genesis 2:18 when the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). God responds to the isolation and loneliness of Adam in the next verse by forming “every animal of the field and every bird of the air” (Gen. 2:19) out of the very same dirt from which humans were made. God presents the animals to Adam as helpers/partners and brings them forward to be named. This naming process has often been taken as a sign of dominance, placing humanity over the non-human animal, but it could also be argued that the naming of the creatures is a sign of appreciation and ultimately signifies their importance. In his piece in A Faith Embracing All Creatures, Andy Alexis-Baker claims that this naming ceremony symbolizes Adam’s deep understanding of each animal’s place in and worth to creation (Alexis-Baker 2012, 41).
Though the animals that God creates to be in relationship with Adam in verse 19 are created out of the same dirt as Adam, Adam never considers the animals to have equal status with himself. Snodgrass tells us that “it never occurs to the story teller that Adam is, himself, an animal too” (Snodgrass 2011, 44), thus Adam is not satisfied with God’s proposed helpers. Brueggemann describes it best when he states:
None of the known elements will suffice. There must be a newness. The good news of the episode is that the well-being of the man requires a fresh creative act of God. The emergence of woman is as stunning and unpredicted as the previous surprising emergence of the man… Now the two creatures of surprise belong together. The place of the garden is for this covenanted human community of solidarity, trust, and well being… The garden exists as a context for the human community (Brueggemann 2010, 47).
It is important to note that just prior to this covenanted community established by the creation of woman, the prohibition in regards to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is established (Gen. 2:17). This request from God to abstain from eating of the tree indicates that, for all of the creative power that God assigns to these human beings, humanity’s relationship to God ultimately provides the framework in which this power is to be exercised (Fretheim 2005, 59). That is to say that human creativity and power in the world is derivative and is to always be exercised in light of God’s good intentions for the created world. It is precisely this perspective that becomes skewed in the coming verses when Adam and Adam’s new partner choose to eat from the forbidden tree (Gen. 3:6).
In the beginning of Genesis 3 a talking serpent appears on the scene. The serpent, which is often depicted as a symbol of wisdom and immorality in many tribal mythologies (Snodgrass 2011, 48), causes the woman to question God’s prohibition. The serpent says to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). Louis Ginzberg tells us that according to Midrash, the serpent clarifies that the knowledge from the tree is in fact what gives God the ability to create and destroy (Ginzberg 2001, 38). It later states that, “Ye are masters of the whole of creation, because ye were the last to be created. Hasten now and eat of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, and become independent of God, lest He bring forth other creatures to bear rule over you” (39). After the woman was convinced by the serpent that the fruit was “good for food,” the woman and Adam partook of the fruit from the tree, upon which their eyes were opened, “and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:6-7). Here humans begin to see themselves as separate from the rest of creation, further forgetting their common origin with the rest of the non-human animal world. Seeing that “their eyes were opened” suggests that they gained an outside perspective of themselves, essentially objectifying their own bodies as separate from the rest of the non-human world (Snodgrass 2011, 50). In the second half of verse 7, the author tells us “they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen. 3:7). This passage is implying that humanity’s initial role in creation, primarily taking care of the garden, has been replaced with a desire to care for themselves instead (50). Brueggemann puts it eloquently when he tells us:
The couple stands exposed beyond the safe parameters of vocation/permission/prohibition, now having taken life into their own hands. The prohibition of 2:17 is violated. The permission of verse 16 is perverted. The vocation of verse 15 is neglected. There is no more mention of tending and feeding. They have no energy for that. Their interest has focused completely on self, on their new freedom and the terror that comes with it. (Brueggemann 2010, 48)
After the fruit is eaten from the tree in the center of the garden, an obvious shift in the plot occurs. What started out as a story about human beings who trust and obey the Creator quickly shifted in Genesis 3:1-7 to become a story about the crime and punishment of humankind (48). The crime in this case is humanity’s decision to consume the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or as we discussed earlier, “The Tree of the Knowledge of Deciding to Nurture or Destroy” (Snodgrass 2011, 42), and the punishment, as declared by God in Gen. 2:17 is death. Death, as Brueggemann puts it, is not imposed upon humanity by an outside force, but instead comes by way of its own weight (Brueggemann 2010, 48-49). The realization of their nakedness in Gen. 3:7 and their willingness to hide in 3:8 suggests that the power of death has already began to manifest itself before the Lord of the garden takes any further action in response to their decision (49). As a result of their lack of trust in God’s plan for creation, human beings take it upon themselves to decide what is worth creating and sustaining and what is worth destroying. Power that was once exercised with God is now exercised outside of humanity’s partnership with the creator due to their mistrust in the creator.
In the passages that follow, we find that the decision to take matters into their own hands has devastating effects on relationships among humans; between humans and God, humans and the non-human animal, humans and the earth; and within the self (shame) (Snodgrass 2011, 75, see also Gen. 3:14-19). Though it is often argued that the creation accounts in Genesis are speciesist in their very nature, it can be argued with greater accuracy that the punishment of humankind presented to us in the second creation story is in fact a response to the speciesism that arose from Adam and Eve’s decision to partake of the fruit in the garden—the fruit that allowed them to put themselves in the place of God, deciding what to nurture and destroy. In response to their mistrust in their creator, humans placed themselves above the rest of creation. This act of defiance ultimately ends in broken and fragmented relationships. This realization that the Creator of the universe presented to us in the book of Genesis is one who places relationships, between the self and the Other, above all else, and stands in opposition to the claims that these stories ultimately result in the exploitation of the non-human world. Instead, these stories reveal to us the pressing need to strip ourselves of any power that exists outside of relationships with the other. The exploitation of the non-human world is therefore not sanctioned by the Creator but instead results in the self-destruction of humankind. The exploitation of the non-human world is not something that we should participate in, but, in response to God’s original call to “serve” and “protect” all of creation (Gen. 2:15), we must work to end all forms of exploitation.
Adams, James, R.. 2005. The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors. Rising Star Press.
Alexis-Baker, Andy, and York, Tripp. 2012. A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals. Peacable Kingdom (Book 2). Wipf & Stock Pub.
Brettler, Marc Zvi, Michael David Coogan, and Pheme Perkins. 2010. The new oxford annotated bible : New revised standard version : With the apocrypha : An ecumenical study bible. Fully rev. 4th ed. ed. Oxford England] ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2010. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press; 1 edition.
Fretheim, Terence E.. 2005. God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Abingdon Press.
Ginzberg, Louis. 2001. Legends of the Bible. Konecky & Konecky Military Books.
Koosed, Jennifer L.. 2014. The Bible and Posthumanism. Semeia Studies. Society of Biblical Literature; First edition
Singer, Peter. 2009. Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement. Harper Perennial Modern Classics; Reissue edition.
Snodgrass, Thomas J.. 2011. Genesis and the Rise of Civilization.
White, Lynn, Jr. 1967. The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science 155 (3767) (Mar. 10): 1203-7.
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