II. The wisdom of the biblical accounts [65-75]

I have begun to publish sections and segments of the Popes letter on OUR network of blogs as well as on Linkedin & Quora & Newsvine and will add my comments over time. Pappa francescos 180 page letter is much less about religion than it is about nature and the planet earth. He proposes some fairly radical yet simple and understandable solutions for humankind. It is way past time to start paying attention to what we are all doing or allowing others to do.

65. Without repeating the entire theology of
creation, we can ask what the great biblical

36 John Paul II, Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace, 15:
AAS 82 (1990), 156.

narratives say about the relationship of human beings
with the world. In the first creation account in the
Book of Genesis, God’s plan includes creating
humanity. After the creation of man and woman,
“God saw everything that he had made, and behold
it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The Bible teaches
that every man and woman is created out of love
and made in God’s image and likeness (cf. Gen
1:26). This shows us the immense dignity of each
person, “who is not just something, but someone.
He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession
and of freely giving himself and entering into
communion with other persons”.37 Saint John
Paul II stated that the special love of the Creator
for each human being “confers upon him or her
an infinite dignity”.38 Those who are committed to
defending human dignity can find in the Christian
faith the deepest reasons for this commitment.
How wonderful is the certainty that each human
life is not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos, in
a world ruled by pure chance or endlessly recurring
cycles! The Creator can say to each one of us:
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”
(Jer 1:5). We were conceived in the heart of God,
and for this reason “each of us is the result of a
thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us
is loved, each of us is necessary”.39

37 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 357.

38 Angelus in Osnabrück (Germany) with the disabled, 16
November 1980: Insegnamenti 3/2 (1980), 1232.

39 Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the
Petrine Ministry (24 April 2005): AAS 97 (2005), 711.

66. The creation accounts in the book of Genesis
contain, in their own symbolic and narrative
language, profound teachings about human existence
and its historical reality. They suggest that
human life is grounded in three fundamental and
closely intertwined relationships: with God, with
our neighbour and with the earth itself. According
to the Bible, these three vital relationships
have been broken, both outwardly and within us.
This rupture is sin. The harmony between the
Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was
disrupted by our presuming to take the place of
God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely
limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate
to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28),
to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the
originally harmonious relationship between human
beings and nature became conflictual (cf.
Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony
which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with
all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture.
Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal
reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis
in some way returned to the state of original
innocence.40 This is a far cry from our situation
today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive
power in wars, the various forms of violence and
abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable,
and attacks on nature.

40 Cf. Bonaventure, The Major Legend of Saint Francis
, VIII, 1, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, New
York-London-Manila, 2000, 586.

67. We are not God. The earth was here before
us and it has been given to us. This allows us
to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian
thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account
which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf.
Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation
of nature by painting him as domineering
and destructive by nature. This is not a correct
interpretation of the Bible as understood by the
Church. Although it is true that we Christians
have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures,
nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion
that our being created in God’s image and
given dominion over the earth justifies absolute
domination over other creatures. The biblical
texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate
hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell
us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf.
Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing
or working, while “keeping” means caring,
protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies
a relationship of mutual responsibility
between human beings and nature. Each community
can take from the bounty of the earth
whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has
the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its
fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth
is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth
with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God
rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The
land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land
is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with
me” (Lev 25:23).
68. This responsibility for God’s earth means
that human beings, endowed with intelligence,
must respect the laws of nature and the delicate
equilibria existing between the creatures of this
world, for “he commanded and they were created;
and he established them for ever and ever; he
fixed their bounds and he set a law which cannot
pass away” (Ps 148:5b-6). The laws found in the
Bible dwell on relationships, not only among individuals
but also with other living beings. “You
shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen
down by the way and withhold your help…
If you chance to come upon a bird’s nest in any
tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs
and the mother sitting upon the young or upon
the eggs; you shall not take the mother with the
young” (Dt 22:4, 6). Along these same lines, rest
on the seventh day is meant not only for human
beings, but also so “that your ox and your donkey
may have rest” (Ex 23:12). Clearly, the Bible
has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism
unconcerned for other creatures.

69. Together with our obligation to use the
earth’s goods responsibly, we are called to recognize
that other living beings have a value of their
own in God’s eyes: “by their mere existence they
bless him and give him glory”,41 and indeed, “the
Lord rejoices in all his works” (Ps 104:31). By virtue
of our unique dignity and our gift of intelligence,

41 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2416.
we are called to respect creation and its
inherent laws, for “the Lord by wisdom founded
the earth” (Prov 3:19). In our time, the Church
does not simply state that other creatures are
completely subordinated to the good of human
beings, as if they have no worth in themselves
and can be treated as we wish. The German bishops
have taught that, where other creatures are
concerned, “we can speak of the priority of being
over that of being useful”.42 The Catechism clearly
and forcefully criticizes a distorted anthropocentrism:
“Each creature possesses its own particular
goodness and perfection… Each of the various
creatures, willed in its own being, reflects in
its own way a ray of God’s infinite wisdom and
goodness. Man must therefore respect the particular
goodness of every creature, to avoid any
disordered use of things”.43

70. In the story of Cain and Abel, we see how
envy led Cain to commit the ultimate injustice
against his brother, which in turn ruptured the
relationship between Cain and God, and between
Cain and the earth from which he was banished.
This is seen clearly in the dramatic exchange between
God and Cain. God asks: “Where is Abel
your brother?” Cain answers that he does not
know, and God persists: “What have you done?

42 German Bishops’ Conference, Zukunft der Schöpfung –
Zukunft der Menschheit. Einklärung der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz
zu Fragen der Umwelt und der Energieversorgung, (1980), II, 2.

43 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339.

The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me
from the ground. And now you are cursed from
the ground” (Gen 4:9-11). Disregard for the duty
to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship
with my neighbour, for whose care and custody
I am responsible, ruins my relationship with
my own self, with others, with God and with the
earth. When all these relationships are neglected,
when justice no longer dwells in the land, the Bible
tells us that life itself is endangered. We see
this in the story of Noah, where God threatens
to do away with humanity because of its constant
failure to fulfil the requirements of justice and
peace: “I have determined to make an end of all
flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through
them” (Gen 6:13). These ancient stories, full of
symbolism, bear witness to a conviction which
we today share, that everything is interconnected,
and that genuine care for our own lives and our
relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity,
justice and faithfulness to others.

71. Although “the wickedness of man was great
in the earth” (Gen 6:5) and the Lord “was sorry
that he had made man on the earth” (Gen 6:6),
nonetheless, through Noah, who remained innocent
and just, God decided to open a path of salvation.
In this way he gave humanity the chance
of a new beginning. All it takes is one good person
to restore hope! The biblical tradition clearly
shows that this renewal entails recovering and
respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the
hand of the Creator. We see this, for example, in
the law of the Sabbath. On the seventh day, God
rested from all his work. He commanded Israel
to set aside each seventh day as a day of rest,
a Sabbath, (cf. Gen 2:2-3; Ex 16:23; 20:10). Similarly,
every seven years, a sabbatical year was set
aside for Israel, a complete rest for the land (cf.
Lev 25:1-4), when sowing was forbidden and one
reaped only what was necessary to live on and
to feed one’s household (cf. Lev 25:4-6). Finally,
after seven weeks of years, which is to say forty-
nine years, the Jubilee was celebrated as a year
of general forgiveness and “liberty throughout the
land for all its inhabitants” (cf. Lev 25:10). This law
came about as an attempt to ensure balance and
fairness in their relationships with others and with
the land on which they lived and worked. At the
same time, it was an acknowledgment that the gift
of the earth with its fruits belongs to everyone.
Those who tilled and kept the land were obliged
to share its fruits, especially with the poor, with
widows, orphans and foreigners in their midst:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you
shall not reap your field to its very border, neither
shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest.
And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither
shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard;
you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner”
(Lev 19:9-10).

72. The Psalms frequently exhort us to praise
God the Creator, “who spread out the earth on
the waters, for his steadfast love endures for ever”
(Ps 136:6). They also invite other creatures to join
us in this praise: “Praise him, sun and moon, praise
him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest
heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let
them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded
and they were created” (Ps 148:3-5). We do
not only exist by God’s mighty power; we also live
with him and beside him. This is why we adore him.

73. The writings of the prophets invite us to
find renewed strength in times of trial by contemplating
the all-powerful God who created
the universe. Yet God’s infinite power does not
lead us to flee his fatherly tenderness, because in
him affection and strength are joined. Indeed, all
sound spirituality entails both welcoming divine
love and adoration, confident in the Lord because
of his infinite power. In the Bible, the God
who liberates and saves is the same God who created
the universe, and these two divine ways of
acting are intimately and inseparably connected:
“Ah Lord God! It is you who made the heavens
and the earth by your great power and by your
outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you…
You brought your people Israel out of the land
of Egypt with signs and wonders” (Jer 32:17, 21).
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator
of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or
grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the
powerless” (Is 40:28b-29).

74. The experience of the Babylonian captivity
provoked a spiritual crisis which led to deeper
faith in God. Now his creative omnipotence was
given pride of place in order to exhort the people
to regain their hope in the midst of their wretched
predicament. Centuries later, in another age of trial
and persecution, when the Roman Empire was
seeking to impose absolute dominion, the faithful
would once again find consolation and hope in a
growing trust in the all-powerful God: “Great and
wonderful are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways!” (Rev 15:3).
The God who created the universe out of nothing
can also intervene in this world and overcome
every form of evil. Injustice is not invincible.

75. A spirituality which forgets God as
all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That
is how we end up worshipping earthly powers,
or ourselves usurping the place of God, even
to the point of claiming an unlimited right to
trample his creation underfoot. The best way to
restore men and women to their rightful place,
putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion
over the earth, is to speak once more of the
figure of a Father who creates and who alone
owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will
always try to impose their own laws and interests
on reality.

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