In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press.
We are not told that we hold sway over the sea.
We are told that we hold sway over the animals. When God creates humankind, God grants dominion over the “fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every animal that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
We are told that we may do what we like with the plants. “These are yours to eat,” God says on the sixth day (Genesis 1:29).
Later, this relationship between human beings and vegetation is modified with the additional command l’ovdah ulshomrah, translated literally as “to work it and keep it,” and commonly known today as “to till and tend” (Genesis 2:15). Humankind is intended to take care of and partake in all animals and all plants.
Day three of the Creation story has two components. Before God established plants, God first collected the chaotic waters of the earth and designated these as “seas,” an area differentiated from “dry ground” (Genesis 1:9–10). The creation of each is concluded with a repetition of the central trope of Creation, “God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:10).
These two acts of creation on one day create two parallel tracks for God’s contract with humankind as a partner in Creation. We are told that we hold sway over the animals. We are told that we may do what we like with the plants.
We are not told that we hold sway over the sea.
And yet, humankind has ruled over the seas. We have disrupted the boundary lines distinguishing sea from land. Whole populations will be displaced. Cities and states will be pulled underwater as the sea becomes entangled with dry ground. Further, rising sea levels are causing drinking water contamination and disruptions in agriculture, coastal plant life, and wildlife populations. In impacting the seas, we have also adversely affected life on dry land for humans, animals, and plants.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sea levels have risen approximately seven inches globally since 1900. Our industrial output of greenhouse gases has initiated global climate change and sea-level rise; we have failed to stay within the means of our God-given responsibilities. Climate change caused by human activity presents problems of an immense global scale with potentially infinite disruptive power. Rising global atmospheric temperatures in turn cause sea-level rise, disrupt ecosystems, limit crop viability, and lead to drought and extreme weather events. Many of our current international security and poverty crises can be traced back to these adverse climate change impacts.
These challenges have hopeful and plausible remedies. We can mitigate sea-level rise by investing in and advocating for the production and dissemination of clean energy technologies. Unlike clean energy’s fossil fuel counterparts, the mechanisms for extraction (solar panels and windmills) are not disruptive. While we cannot turn back the clock on climate change, it is within our power to ensure that the current impacts of sea-level rise are not dramatically worsened as we continue to use nonrenewable sources. We need only shift from greenhouse-gas-producing technologies to renewable energy in order to minimize our negative impact on the oceans.
On day three of Genesis, we read, “Let the waters beneath the sky be collected in one place, so that the dry ground may be seen!”—and so it was. And God called the dry ground Earth, and called the collected waters Seas. And…God saw how good it was” (Genesis 1:9–10). As Jews, we can look at this passage, in both its description of separation and, later, our absence of active human obligation, to make the case for a Jewish response to climate change through renewable energy. By living up to our responsibilities on land, we can restore our seas. We can give back to them their autonomy as a space distinct from the dry ground. We must not hold sway over the seas.
We are at a crossroads in human history where we have gained rule over nature and have the responsibility and capacity to surrender that power. We have scientific evidence that we have created a problem. We have the global willpower to make the change. We are not told that we hold sway over the sea. We are told that God saw how it was. Now, we just need our energy industry and our policy-makers to catch up.
Liya Rechtman is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!
Ms. Rechtman is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar and Amherst College Graduate Fellow at Harvard Divinity School as a candidate for a Masters of Theological Studies with a concentration in religion, ethics, and politics. She previously served a consultant for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, Manager of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life and co-chair of the Washington Inter-religious Staff Council’s Energy and Environment Working Group.