Thoughts Towards an Environmental Sabbath


In his important book God in Creation, the contemporary Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann begins by asserting that

The Sabbath is the true hallmark of every biblical – every Jewish and also every Christian – doctrine of creation. … It is the Sabbath which blesses, sanctifies and reveals the world as God’s creation, p 6.

Moltmann makes clear that the Sabbath is a central point in the dialogue between Jewish and Christian believers; and I want to affirm that notion as well. Indeed, because all three Abrahamic faiths rest on Mosaic foundations which include reverence for the Sabbath, this theme is one which should unite all our traditions and in turn distinguish them from other world religions.

I want to go further, again following Moltmann’s perceptive lead from 1985:

In the Sabbath stillness men and women no longer intervene in the environment through their labour. They let it be entirely God’s creation, p 277.

The Sabbath is not merely central to the Abrahamic dialogue; it is also central to a theistic approach to ecological wholeness. For decades Judaeo-Christian creation theologies have been implicated in ongoing violations of this planet; and I for one believe the charge is largely justified. Certainly the notion that humans alone bear the image of God, which means all other things exist for the service of, and at the disposal of, human beings, is complicit in a range of truly horrific crimes against other species and the earth itself.

Yet there at the heart of the Abrahamic faith is a fundamental challenge to human dominion. The earth exists for its own sake, not for the sake of humans; and built into the very rhythm of reality is a continual reminder that we are not in charge. As I will show, the Sabbath is not just a social convention; the earth has a right to its own Sabbath, and that right trumps even God’s concern for humanity.

With just an example or two I hope to hint today that a genuine reclaiming of the wisdom of the Sabbath will provide, at one and the same time, an entry point for dialogue amongst the Abrahamic faiths as well as between our faiths and a world where creation is under siege.

My thoughts on this matter were first stimulated by another prescient voice who wrote well before Moltmann and ecological awareness that the Sabbath marks a recognition of the intrinsic harmony of creation. Human interference with that harmony must be punctuated by regular intervals of non-intervention.

Erich Fromm argued as early as the 1960s that modernity engenders a radically alienating social order – estranging us from ourselves, from one another, and from creation as a whole. Fromm found an alternative approach to human society grounded in the ancient traditions of the Sabbath, and especially the Messianic Sabbath: the final Day of Rest for all things. His rationale sets Sabbath observance into a cosmic context relevant for today’s crisis.

Pointing out that the Abrahamic traditions define work not as physical effort or material production, but as "any [human] interference… be it constructive or destructive, with the physical world", Fromm concludes that therefore "'Rest' is a state of peace between man and nature" , p 154; italics in original.

In the Sabbath, human beings

must leave nature untouched, not change it in any way, either by building or by destroying anything. Even the smallest change made by [humanity] in the natural process is a violation of rest. The Sabbath is the day of complete harmony between [humanity] and nature (ibid.).

Viewed in this light, the Sabbath is both celebration and education: a time to deepen awareness of our place within creation as well as acknowledging the Creator whose activity continually maintains the cosmos – and does so independently of our interference.

There is validity in the charge that the west, under the influence of Judaeo-Christian theology, has been pervasively anthropocentric in both theory and practice. We humans have acted not only as sovereigns over other species, but as disconnected sovereigns: able to affect our environment without ourselves being affected in turn.

This kind of absolutist, hierarchical anthropocentrism is derived, or at least justified, on theological grounds. We claim to be the only species that bears God’s image; and our own view of God is as just such a disconnected sovereign: able to dictate effects to creation yet never be affected by the consequences.

I believe that is bad theology for too many reasons to detail here; but the biblical theme of the Sabbath offers an important corrective if we allow ourselves to see it clearly.

The first creation story in Genesis concludes not with the creation of human beings who, as female and male together, share God’s likeness; the story concludes with the Sabbath. And note this: humans do not have a day of their own – they share the sixth day with every land creature from ants to elephants; but the Sabbath does have a day of its own. This indicates relative importance in a striking way; and the Sabbath outranks humanity.

Humans, in this story, are land creatures akin in every way to other animals that share the earth; our creatureliness is embedded within the web of earth beings. Indeed, that troubling word ‘dominion’ is given as a task in this context alone: humans form the link that binds wild animals and domestic ones, land animals with sea and sky dwellers, and all the host of the vegetarian world that alike depend upon plants for food.

A similar kinship shapes the second creation story. In this story the relationship with God is particularly intimate: God shapes earth (adamah) into earthling (adam) directly, and then breathes mouth to mouth the animating spirit. The rest of animated creation follows the same precise pattern: God shaping earth and breathing spirit, making partners and helpmeets out of every animal. (Only woman breaks the pattern; yet her ultimate origin, too, is the same clay that produced each creature, and her lungs, too, fill with God’s spirit.) Again, the whole creation is vegetarian and kindred, partners together in the garden.

Neither of these stories justifies disconnected sovereignty as human destiny. We are earth creatures like all the rest, set apart in task but never in substance. No impunity or independence is implied – to the contrary, human action affects the whole creation, and that environment in turn becomes hostile to humanity.

That is the lesson of the Fall: we cannot stand aloof from consequences of our choices. Whatever wrong we do to earth threatens us as well.

If anthropocentric sovereignty is not part of the creation stories, does our role in carrying in earth the male / female image of God imply it anyway? Not without misreading the text. We have seen in the second story that God literally gets dirty hands shaping creation in the garden; and God’s mouth breathes spirit into all that itself breathes; and then God presumably becomes patron of human surgery by performing the first operation under general anaesthetic. This portrays a very creaturely God! with shaping limbs and breathing mouth, who likes to feel the evening breeze when walking in this Eden.

The first story seems to show a more disconnected sovereign God, whose word alone brings all things into being. But remember that this story reaches its climax with the Sabbath, and God shares rest with every other creature: a kinship of non-interference celebrating the wonder of a cosmos now named ‘very good’.

That ‘kinship of non-interference’ is underscored by another theme that we often miss in the first creation story. A distinction is made between three kinds of land animals: insects, wild animals, and domesticated ones. Amongst the other animals fish and birds are singled out. When ‘dominion’ is given to humans one thing it does not imply is the right to kill for eating – humans like other creatures remain vegetarian in both creation stories. And ‘dominion’ also does not include the loss of these distinctions. Wild animals remain wild!

Their wildness is not about danger or threat, since they like all things are vegetarian and do no killing. What, then, does this wildness imply? One thing alone: they exist for their own sake, and not at human disposal.

The most wonderful confirmation of this truth comes in God’s Answer to Job in the final chapters of that extraordinary book. Generations have puzzled over God’s blustering response and why it seems no answer at all to the suffering of God’s servant. If we put the voice from the whirlwind together with the voice of first creation at least part of the puzzle finds a resolution:

God refuses to be bound by human standards of justice. Neither the agonised demands of Job in his suffering nor the well-meaning platitudes of his ‘comforters’ will ensnare God in a human frame of reference. And to demonstrate the limitations of that human frame of fairness, God emerges in the wildness of a natural disaster.

‘Can you control the weather?’ asks the voice from the storm. ‘Will you bend nature to your human limitations?’ It is a timely question, given the context of our meeting! What follows is one of the most poetic (and in its way, scientific by the standards of its day) descriptions of wild nature from the whole of the ancient world.

One common feature links the catalogue of creatures in whom God’s delight is so evident: all of them are wild. It is their very refusal to bend to human will that makes God happy. From the wild donkeys, goats, and lions to behemoth and leviathan, to the very winds and stars of heaven, the vast majority of the cosmos is not at our disposal. God made it wild, delights in its wildness, and refuses to let it be tamed: because God, too, is not at our disposal.

Let me say it plainly: God’s Answer to Job implies that wild creation is an icon of divinity. In what humans cannot control we see the likeness of our untameable Creator.

There are many texts in Scripture, including some from the holy writings of both Christians and Muslims, that reinforce this truth; but we have too long ignored them. I want to look at one sharp warning of the consequences if our ignorance continues unenlightened.

The book of Leviticus has been a contested site for many in our traditions. It has been used to justify a variety of forms of what I would frankly label cruel exploitation and a sense of righteous prejudice still producing victims in our time.

The victimisation is made worse because our reading is so partial. It is Leviticus that reminds us of what Jesus, like good Jews of his time, acknowledged as the two great commandments: love God, and love neighbour. It is Leviticus that reminds us of our relationship with land: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23).

That reminder that land belongs to God comes in the context of the Jubilee year, with at its heart a restoration of land to its original caretakers – an intimidating challenge in a nation of Stolen Generations. In that year, productive land is left fallow and opened to the needs of wild animals, too. But these messages of Leviticus are usually ignored, even by those who delight in quoting other parts to label some ‘unclean’.

There are consequences for our refusal to accept God’s care for land and wild creatures. In the 26th chapter Leviticus sets out the blessings of obedience and the penalties for disobedience in ways that show perhaps more clearly than any other text just what human ‘dominion’ really means. Living by Torah means enhancing the shalom of all creation, domestic and wild alike, caring for the poor and vulnerable both human and non-human. And for that shalom, that universal wellbeing, humans are a means, an instrument. We are not the end, the goal, the point to it all: the shalom of cosmic Sabbath is the end, the goal; and we are simply dispensable if we fail to foster it:

But if, despite this, you disobey me, and continue hostile to me, I will continue hostile to you in fury; I in turn will punish you myself sevenfold for your sins. … I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste.

Then the land shall make up for its Sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and make up for its Sabbath years. As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were living on it (Leviticus 26:27 – 35, NRSV).

Now it could be argued that these dire warnings apply only to those who see themselves as God’s chosen people. I think that is simply wrong: the law of love for God and neighbour is not an ethnic invention but a universal human obligation. The law of Sabbath keeping for the sake of the land is given at the creation of the whole world. It is imposed upon all humanity.

The point to this warning is that the rights of the land outweigh the rights of its inhabitants. That is such a powerful environmental message that it cuts to the quick our whole system of social order; it disembowels our anthropocentrism and leaves us naked, without excuse.

Christians quickly quote Jesus, who said, ‘The Sabbath was made for humans, and not humans for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).

But as so often, Jesus was not proclaiming anything new to the Judaism of his time. Indeed, the Sabbath was made for humans – because only humans have the potential to interfere with the harmony of creation. Only humans need regulation since only humans can violate shalom.

The Sabbath was made for us because we need regular reminding that creation exists for its own purposes and is not at our disposal. The Sabbath was made for us because we can make an idol of our buying and our selling, and some things shall never be for sale. The Sabbath was made for us because we can find our own shalom in the wellbeing of the whole creation, and only there. If some are excluded from wellbeing, the Sabbath warns us that the structure is wrong: and even the land, which is not ours to own, has a right to be left alone.

And, finally, the Sabbath was made for us to point towards the messianic age: the coming cosmic wellbeing when harmony is restored and all things celebrate together.

This, too, Erich Fromm envisaged. It was, perhaps, the summation of his call to be fully human in a way that placed being above having by shaking off the idolatries of greed and false religion. The messianic Sabbath, which Jürgen Moltmann links to the “sabbath of creation”, also “points to the Creator’s immanence in … creation” , p 280. Cosmic wellbeing includes the presence of the divine in vivid celebration amidst a ‘peaceable kingdom’ where human desolations are no more.

I hardly need to point out that the Hebrew shalom (with its Arabic cognate salaam) implies "more than not-war; it is harmony and union [amongst people], it is the overcoming of separateness and alienation". But it goes further:

The prophetic concept of peace transcends the realm of human relations; the new harmony is also one between man and nature. Man is not threatened by nature and stops striving to dominate it; he becomes natural, and nature becomes human. He and nature cease to be opponents and become one, p 100.

How we truly honour the Sabbath in a world of consumerism and global exploitation is not easy to envision. It does not seem enough to weekly withdraw as a family, or even a faith, from the race to destruction if the race goes on unchecked without us. I would like to see a serious discussion of Sabbath reverence in the context of environmental crisis, with a willingness to look beyond our own myopic species at the shalom of all creation.

To me, that discussion will only have integrity if it involves all three Abrahamic faiths; if it is informed by the best scholarship both biblical and scientific; and if it is engaged passionately with Indigenous wisdom and the thinking of the majority world. But time is short, and the dialogue matters. I think we must begin.