Genesis 8:21-22 in the Climate Change Debate
G. Gibbs, PhD
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 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 ... "
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
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 1991),
Note: You are invited to
read a related discussion on "Creation Texts" in Scripture: Guidelines and Findings