Jo Ann M. Davidson, a professor at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, gave a series of presentations for morning worships during the General Conference Week of Prayer, March 17-21, 2008. The following is a condensed version of her Friday morning message. Most of the elements of the oral style have been retained.—Editors.
-TECHNOLOGIES AND E-WORDS such as “e-mail” and “e-boards” have become very helpful to us in the modern century, and we like them very much. There’s another e-word, however, that doesn’t always receive such a positive response—the word “e-cology.”
Christians have been slow to respond to ecological concerns. Unfortunately, even we Seventh-day Adventists often neglect to link our theology with our ecology. Oh, yes, we acknowledge that God is Creator and that He announced His approval of the world He just created with a resounding “Very good!” But we have not granted the created world the exalted status that God’s exuberant announcement suggests. We have not been sensitive to the explicit creational interests found in every book of the Bible, or mindful of our responsibilities toward the earth, and the water, and the air, and the animals.
A Love of the Land
The consistent warnings of many scientists tell us that our planet—with all of its creatures and its many ecosystems—is not healthy. Mounting evidence points to the fact that God’s created world is groaning. Let’s face it: in a land of plenty it’s not easy to be motivated about being frugal with the Lord’s abundant treasures. But it’s interesting that when God brought the children of Israel to the Promised Land—a great land that He describes as rich with milk and honey—He carefully instructed His people on good ecology.
Moses describes to the Israelites the glory of the land and God’s warm affection for it: “The land which you cross over to possess,” Moses says, “is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares” (Deut. 11:11, 12, NKJV).*
The Mosaic laws included a distinctive protection of nature, even outlawing the destruction of fruit trees to aid a military campaign (Deut. 20:19, 20).
Animals were to be treated humanely. For example, the Lord said that if you find a donkey that is staggering under a heavy load and has fallen, you must help it up—even if that donkey belongs to your enemy (Ex. 23:5). Large work animals were not to be muzzled to prevent them from eating while assisting with the heavy work of agriculture (Deut. 25:4). They should be able to enjoy the fruits of the land that they are helping to reap. The Hebrew people had a distinctive obligation to be kind to creation.
Animals and the land are included within the stipulations for the Sabbath and the sabbatical years. Listen to what Moses says: “You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. . . . Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves” (Ex. 23:10-12, NASB).†
A Connecting Bond
A close bond between human and animal life can be observed all through Scripture. In Genesis 1 and 2 we find that both humans and animals were created by God’s own hands from the dust of the earth and given the breath of life. After He had finished creating this world and everything in it, God said, “This is very good.” He didn’t say that just about human beings; He said that about all He created.
Later, after violent wickedness emerges, Noah is told to build an ark and take his family and the animals into the ark with him during a global catastrophe, and he did this. The turning point in the Flood narrative, say scholars who study Genesis 6 through 9, is Genesis 8:1. It says there: “God remembered Noah . . . and all the animals that were with him in the ark” (NKJV).
The floodwaters subsided and the ark could be exited, and the animals again are explicitly included in the covenant God makes: “God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, ‘Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you.’ . . . ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature . . . for all successive generations’” (Gen. 9:8-12, NASB).
In the oldest book of the Bible when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, it takes four chapters to record his account of the wonders of the created world. This is God’s longest speech in the Bible. And God makes very plain how He feels about the animal kingdom. It’s a magnificent address, starting in chapter 38. Notice carefully all the creatures He describes—several wild animals including a lioness, a hawk, an eagle, and a stallion leaping high, ready to run. And this is merely the introduction to Job’s zoology class.
Respect for the Animal Kingdom
In the book of Numbers, Balaam’s donkey, after being beaten, pleads for respect and kind treatment. I like the phrase in Numbers 22:28: “Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” (NKJV). That implies that the donkey had intelligence; she just needed her tongue loosed to speak human language.
Even the divine being whom Balaam does not see at first criticizes Balaam’s harshness toward his donkey. “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” he asks (verse 32).
Nature Reveals the Glory of God
God’s care for animals has also inspired many of the psalms. Psalm 36: “Your lovingkindness, O Lord, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies. . . . You preserve man and beast. How precious is Your lovingkindness” (verses 5-7, NASB). And Psalm 104: “There is the sea, great and broad, in which are swarms without number, animals both small and great” (verse 25, NASB). “They all wait for You to give them their food in due season. You give to them, they gather it up; You open Your hand, they are satisfied” (verses 27, 28, NASB).
The psalmist emphasizes how nature reveals the glory of God and how all of creation is within His care. Although we might talk about how we care for the environment, the psalmist reminds us that it’s the other way around. If God did not continuously sustain this environment, we wouldn’t be able to live.
Isaiah instructs us that if we break God’s covenant and forget our responsibilities of stewardship, the pollution of the earth will result. He writes: “The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty” (Isa. 24:5, 6, NASB). It sounds like it could have been written last week, doesn’t it?
Jonah and the Animals
The last two verses of the book of Jonah are also instructive. In a dialogue with Jonah that takes up all of chapter 4, God patiently enumerates the reasons for His mercy toward the great city of Nineveh, even though it was wicked. God says to Jonah: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (verse 11, NASB). And the book ends. It ends with God’s profound declaration of mercy not only for the wicked Ninevites but also the animals.
God’s statement to Jonah shouldn’t be surprising, but we humans get so wrapped up in our busy lives that we forget how important the natural world is to God. The book of Jonah is the only book in Scripture that ends in a question. Perhaps God speaks this way to pointedly remind us that the animal kingdom is included in His tender regard. By having mercy on Nineveh even the animals were spared.
Christians might be slow in linking their ecology with their theology, but in God’s mind there is a clear connection. Oh, we treasure the doctrine of salvation, but we often need a more comprehensive theology of life.
A World Restored
Thankfully, God promises us that ultimately the original beauty and perfection of Eden will be restored (see Hosea 2:14-23). And with all the promises of the final removal of sin and the restoration of Eden, the animal kingdom is always included. I love the way the prophet Isaiah describes this: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Isa. 11:6-9, NKJV).
The same theology of life is also found in the New Testament. Jesus’ own appreciation for animals is demonstrated by His repeated references to nature in His teachings. For example, He compares His concern for Jerusalem to the care of a mother hen for her chicks (Matt. 23:37). In Luke 12 Jesus stresses that even the lowliest creatures are loved by God: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God” (verse 6).
And the great Architect of the two lavish Old Testament sanctuaries marvels over the flowers He created: “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27, NKJV).
Throughout the Bible we are never allowed to forget the profound value that God places on this entire world. We can’t help being impressed with the exalted position that all life has in God’s eyes.
Ethics of Ecology
The biblical doctrine of creation has ethical implications for us. Because we are created in God’s image, it seems appropriate for us to reflect God’s care for all creation.
So, what can we do? Well, perhaps an increased appreciation for life might help lay a foundation for our thinking.
We could be more appreciative of the miracle of food itself, and conscientious about not wasting it.
Perhaps we could become more sensitive to recycling. I rejoiced when I came to this great building [the General Conference] and saw places where you recycle. It made me happy. We’re starting to do this in the seminary building, too.
What about composting? Burying fruit and vegetable peelings returns nutrients to the soil.
And then there is the issue of water conservation. You can keep a pitcher by your sink when you move from cold to hot water and save that water and use it to water your plants. Conserve water when you brush your teeth. Wet your toothbrush and then turn off the water. Some estimate that you save a gallon of water every time you do this.
Even our diets can be ecological. In a time when many Adventists are turning away from a vegetarian diet, maybe we need to revisit the issue in the light of ecology. We are already aware of Ellen White’s advanced counsel that meat eating brings disease. But she also tells us about the mental benefits of a vegetarian diet. She says meat eating will affect our intellectual powers proportionally. Even more important, Ellen White has linked meat eating to spirituality. She says a religious life can be more successfully gained and maintained if meat is discarded, because eating meat enfeebles the moral and spiritual nature. Philosophers and scientists are finally catching up with us and are now discussing the advanced principles God gave us more than a century ago.
It’s not hard to find statistics regarding the wastefulness of a meat diet. There’s that funnel effect, in which it takes several hundred pounds of grain to raise just one steer, and that one animal can provide meat for a few people. But with that same amount of grain, you can feed hundreds of people.
Then there’s the huge amount of water that’s used to grow the fodder for cattle. The same amount of water would supply vast communities. And not only that, our deep underground water sources are being polluted by the immense seepage that results from the manure of present animal husbandry practices. And these are only a few of the ecological connections with the meat industry. We haven’t even mentioned cruelty to animals.
Ellen White was sensitive to the issue of animal cruelty. She says: “Think of the cruelty to animals that meat eating involves, and its effect on those who inflict and those who behold it. How it destroys the tenderness with which we should regard these creatures of God! The intelligence displayed by many dumb animals approaches so closely to human intelligence that it is a mystery.
“The animals see and hear and love and fear and suffer” she writes. “They use their organs far more faithfully than many human beings use theirs. They manifest sympathy and tenderness toward their companions in suffering. Many animals show an affection for those who have charge of them, far superior to the affection shown by some of the human race” (The Ministry of Healing, pp. 315, 316).
Scientists are only now finally tuning in to this ability of animals to care for each other and their love of humankind, which we so willfully abuse.
One day God is going to take away all of our unecological mistakes and restore Eden. And you know—everyone is going to be a vegetarian again. One day all killing will cease, and people and animals will stop doing harm to one another. And as we await this glorious future, we can begin to live by the compassionate patterns of God’s own governance and His care for all creation. What we eat matters and affects us intellectually and spiritually and economically and ecologically.
Seventh-day Adventists could be at the forefront of ecological concerns with our longstanding advanced knowledge on meat eating alone. And in the process, we could be offering praise to God by how we live and eat—finally linking our theology with ecology, as the Creator has done all along.
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
†Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Jo Ann M. Davidson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Theology and Christian Philosophy Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.