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Genesis 8:21-22 in the Climate Change Debate
by John 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 Academies Press]

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 Ellis, 103-05]

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, 145]

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 Press, 1982)
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 1991), 366-79.

Note: You are invited to read a related discussion on "Creation Texts" in Scripture: Guidelines and Findings

Printable version


John G. Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, resided in Park Rapids, MN, when he originally wrote this study in May 2011. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs, any MEESC member, or our Webverger or send a letter to:

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