Genesis 8:21-22 in the Climate Change Debate
G. Gibbs, PhD
"...the lord said in his heart, 'I will never again
curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination
of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again
destroy every living creature as I have done.
- As long as the earth endures,
- seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
- summer and winter, day and night,
- shall not cease.' "[NRSV throughout this article]
During the last decade this text has been cited in denials
of global warming or climate change. At a hearing on Nov.
11, 2010 before the U. S. House Energy Subcommittee of the
Energy and Commerce Committee, GOP Rep. (IL) John Shimkus
cited this text when he denied global warming and claimed
that God would not permit humanity to overheat this planet.
At least the first 7 pages in Google's references to Gen.
8:22 deny global warming while citing this text. Accordingly,
it is timely to pose some questions, and research how Gen.
8:22 functions in its context.
Questions: Does Genesis 8:22 warrant denial
of scientific evidence that human activity since the 18th
century has accelerated the warming of our planet's climate,
and done so to a degree that has not been explained by other
causes? Does this ancient text from the 10th century BCE
mandate that the 21st century CE church and synagogue oppose
multidisciplinary multinational scientific evidence that
the future of humanity and all life is being gravely endangered
by anthropogenic (human-caused) "greenhouse gases"?
[Scientific evidence is available at Links on the MEESC
website; and at such websites as the following: Intergovernmental
Panel on Climage Change, Millennium
Ecosystem Report, National
Academy of Sciences, Union
of Concerned Scientists, The National
Genesis. 8:22 in its Context: The relevance
(if any) of Gen. 8:22 to debates about global warming depends
on how that text functions in its context. It has been rightly
said that a text taken out of context becomes a pretext
for something else. Context illumines text. Genesis (meaning
"origins") 1-12 presents a theology with universal
scope about the primeval beginnings of creation. "Ancestral
history" (again being theological claims) follows in
Gen. 12-50. The emphasis of all Genesis is theological,
though its framework is chronological.
Genesis presents a dramatic "prehistorical" mythical
movement from formless chaos through the Creator's creation
to the beginnings of humanity's history within that creation.
Adam (humanity) is intimately bound to Adamah
(ground, soil) and has the destiny of "imaging"
God (Gen. 1:26f.) by the way humanity lives on earth.
Whatever "oversight" humanity has in the creation,
it cannot be injurious destructive domination. That position
of responsibility ("dominion," 1:26) is to image
"the Shepherd King" to which also Ezekiel 34 refers.
"The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for,
tends, and feeds the animals." [Brueggemann, 32] The
Creator wills community into being. "This relational
God had created a relational world." [Fretheim, 173]
The goal of creation is Shalom (health, wholeness, peace
in relationships with God, with one another, with all other
creatures). [Santmire, 378. Authors cited are listed
at the end of this article.]
On the other hand, alienation intrudes swiftly and ubiquitously.
To that intrusion the Lord (YHWH) makes sharp response:
"The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was
great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts
of their hearts was only evil continuously. And the Lord
was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth ... 'I
will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created
people together with animals and creeping things
and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'"
(Gen. 6:5-7) Already humanity had given in to temptation
(Gen. 3), and Cain had murdered Abel. Already alienation
("enmity") had developed between serpent and woman
(ishshah), between woman and man (ish), between
humankind and nature, and between humankind and YHWH.
However, when "Noah found favor in the sight of the
Lord" (6:8) again the Lord changed his mind. YHWH commanded
Noah to build an ark. God then established covenant with
Noah and his family, who then rescued animals from the flood
that God sent "to destroy from under heaven all flesh
in which is the breath of life" (6:17). During the
flood God was rescuing a remnant with which to inaugurate
a new humanity, a fresh start toward the goal of Shalom.
There had already been rescue from Eden, for God not only
drove humanity out. God also made garments of skins and
clothed them (3:21).
What have we found thus far in the Genesis. 1-8 context
of Genesis. 8:22? Among other findings are these:
(1) YHWH the Lord is not static but dynamic. YHWH changes
"his" mind, moving from blessing to judgment to
blessing to judgment to blessing. This Lord truly interacts
with humankind, with the other creatures, and with the creation
as a whole. "This relational God had created a relational
world." (2) The creation also is dynamic, not a static
finished product. From the temptation scene onward there
is dramatic uncertainty about humanity, what it will do
next, what the divine response will be, whether humankind
will tend and maintain creation in its goodness. (3) Humanity's
moral disorder adversely affects other creatures to the
point that a cosmic disorder develops, as in the flood scene.
"Violence, corruption, wickedness, evil" are words
for what humanity has done and continues to do to the creation
(Gen. 6:5-13). Humanity has repeatedly dishonored the Lord's
promises so that "in real life" the Lord's judgments
follow. (4) Nonetheless YHWH's blessings and promises keep
returning to lure humanity toward its future of imaging
God's benevolent gardening of earth and tending of all creatures.
But those blessings and promises do not stop history in
its tracks. The drama between humanity and God continues.
(5) God's promises do not annul God's commands for humanity's
ethical life in response. It would be "cheap grace"
to claim otherwise. God's long-term vision may or may not
change humanity's myopia, amnesia, sloth, rebellion, escapism,
and the like. Even and especially in light of God's blessings
and promises, according to this author (the Yahwist) we
still need long-term perspectives, we still need to recall
"the Story" that has been going on between God
and God's people, we are still obligated energetically and
intentionally to image this God. We remain called to serve
the other creatures' needs, thereby serving the One who
creates, feeds, clothes, and rescues us from self-destructive
habits of life that bring destruction and death far beyond
us out into the creation.
Does other evidence from 10th century BCE and earlier
shed light on Genesis. 8:22 and its literary and theological
contexts? Scholars have compared the Genesis creation
and flood sagas to the Gilgamesh Epic (ca. 2000 BCE, and
containing older material) from Babylonia in the Tigris/Euphrates
region. It appears likely that those earlier creation and
deluge stories share some common source with the Genesis
material. "The available evidence proves nothing beyond
the point that there is a genetic relationship between Genesis
and the Babylonian versions. The skeleton is the same in
both cases, but the flesh and blood and, above all, the
animating spirit are different." [Heidel, 268; see
The emphasis we have found in Genesis on ethics, for instance,
is missing in the Babylonian tablets, which describe gods
that "were prompted more by caprice than by a sense
of justice. ... In the biblical story, on the other hand,
the flood is sent by the one omnipotent God, who is just
in all his dealings [and] who saves the just with his powerful
hand in his own way. In Genesis the deluge is clearly and
unmistakably a moral judgment ... " [Heidel, 268-69]
Theology reinterpreted story. That is the most impressive
finding in this comparative judgment. The Yahwist's saga
of creation and flood appropriated and reworked ancient
stories for its own theological purpose. Research in comparative
religions led Mircea Eliade to conclude: " ... the
Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history
as epiphany of God ... " [Eliade, 104] Genesis radically
changed the materials at hand in such a way as to communicate
Hebraic understanding of God, why the world came into existence,
what the nature and destiny of humanity are, and what moral
meaning there is in God's relation to the creation and to
humanity in its special position within the creation. Especially
the Yahwist used myths and ancient stories because they
were "the literary vehicle his audience was accustomed
to ... It was, one could say, the only way he could communicate
with his audience and 'speak their language.'" [Ellis,
Genesis 8-9: The flood story continues. God "remembers"
Noah and all the animals, and makes a wind blow, the rains
to stop, and the flood to end. Noah, his family, and "every
living thing that is with you of all flesh" depart
the ark. Noah builds "an altar to the Lord" and
offers "burnt offerings on the altar." God "smelled
the pleasing odor" of the sacrifice, and at that point
makes the promise stated in Gen. 8:21-22.
Clearly the story is pressing theological points rather
than literal ones; otherwise someone might wonder where
the animals came from for the sacrifice, and someone else
would wonder about the Creator literally "smelling"
(surely anthropomorphism). God then establishes covenant
with Noah, his descendents, and "every living creature."
The bow in the clouds "shall be a sign of the covenant
between me and the earth" (9:13). This is pictorial
symbolic language for the Ages, not a journalist's live
report of one literal rainbow for CNN.
Conclusion: God's promises do not stop history.
They try to restart history, and reorient it toward the
originating goal of creation. These promises persistently
call for humanity's ethical response ("imaging"
God). But they do not guarantee such a response. Much less
do promises from God annul or set aside God's commands that
we "till and keep" the garden (Gen. 2:15).
Gen. 8:22 is one in a series of promises within Gen. 1-12
that posit a redemptive outcome for humanity's alienation.
But the story goes on after the blessings are given. Gen.
1-12 displays a pattern of Shalom promised, but alienation
caused by humanity, then judgment from God, followed again
by promise. Gen. 8:22 does not stop this flow of events,
for this interaction between God and humanity (and all creation)
persists throughout scripture into the book of Revelation.
God's blessing may or may not be fulfilled near-term, depending
on whether humanity's response to the blessing is affirmative
or alienating. After the long-term promise/vision from God
(in Gen. 8:22) comes Gen. 11:1-9, with its story about the
collapse of the Tower of Babel, an event in which God scattered
humanity into utter confusion. That story illustrates the
extent to which humanity can turn the light of God's most
earnest promise into the darkness of desolation, perhaps
even the night of nuclear or toxic death.
In light of God's promise there is no doubt what God's
will is. In light of human behavior, and the damage it has
done to seedtime and harvest, and gradually but measurably
to summer and winter, it is debatable whether we will fulfill
our destiny to "image" the sustaining care of
the Creator for all creation.
Gen. 8:22 provides no basis for denying human-caused global
warming. To the contrary, its long-term promissory vision
challenges those who have eyes to see to initiate and sustain
urgent combat against global warming. The mandate to care
for creation is all the more critical in the 21st century,
the first time when this planet earth has to support nearly
7 billion humans, and the first time when the consumption
habits of so many of those billions threatens the one home
we all inhabit. The promise stated in Genesis 8:22
aims to ignite our ethical response, not ignore it.
- Brueggemann, Walter, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox
- Eliade, Mircea, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the
Eternal Return (NY: Harper, 1959)
- Ellis, Peter, The Yahwist: The Bible's First Theologian
(Notre Dame, IN: Fides, 1966)
- Fretheim, Terence E., God and World in the Old Testament
(Nashville: Abingdon, 2005)
- Heidel, Alexander, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament
Parallels (University of Chicago Phoenix Edition,
1973 reprint of 1949)
- Santmire, H. Paul, "The Genesis Creation Narratives
Revisited: Themes for a Global Age," Interpretation
(A Journal of Bible and Theology), XLV #4 (October
Note: You are invited
to read a related discussion on "Creation Texts" in Scripture: Guidelines and Findings