Sustainable Living: not just an environmental issue

Nick Spencer, March 2007

One cannot engage with the biblical vision for the environment in isolation from its vision for human society.

This point is repeated time and again in the biblical story. Deuteronomy 29 talks about how the people’s insincere, hypocritical response to the law would turn ‘the whole land [into] a burning waste of salt and sulphur – nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it’, [1] and this warning is repeated from different angles by the prophets. Hosea explicitly links the sin of the people to environmental devastation:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: ‘There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.

There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.

Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying. (Hosea 4:1–3)

Centuries later Jeremiah brings out this connection with particular clarity. He writes how the people ‘ do not say to themselves, “Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest”’ (Jeremiah 5: 24). Instead they ‘have become rich and powerful…fat and sleek,’ and ‘do not plead the case of the fatherless… [or] defend the rights of the poor’ (Jeremiah 5:27–28). The result is judgement, although it is made clear that the judgement is self-inflicted. ‘Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you’ (Jeremiah 4:18). The punishment sounds strangely familiar:

The nobles send their servants for water; they go to the cisterns but find no water. They return with their jars unfilled; dismayed and despairing, they cover their heads.

The ground is cracked because there is no rain in the land; the farmers are dismayed and cover their heads.

Even the doe in the field deserts her newborn fawn because there is no grass. (Jeremiah 14:3–5)

‘I will weep and wail for the mountains,’ Jeremiah laments in chapter 9:

[I will] take up a lament concerning the desert pastures. They are desolate and untravelled, and the lowing of cattle is not heard. The birds of the air have fled and the animals are gone. (Jeremiah 9: 10)

‘What man is wise enough to understand this?’ he asks a few verses later. ‘Why has the land been ruined and laid waste like a desert that no one can cross?’ God replies, ‘It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law’ (vv. 12–13).

Relational Breakdown

Two points are established in these (and other) passages concerning environmental collapse. The first is that environmental degradation is a direct consequence of disobedience: violating God’s law not only offends God and harms others, but damages the shared environment on which we depend. The second is that there is no distinctive feature of those laws that relate to environmental consequences. They are not all economic, or all cultic, or even all environmental.

This last point is noteworthy. There are a number of what we might call specifically environmental commands in the Torah: ‘Do not slaughter a cow or a sheep and its young on the same day’ (Leviticus 22:28); ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ (Deuteronomy 25:4); ‘When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them’ (Deuteronomy 20:19); ‘If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road…do not take the mother with the young’ (Deuteronomy 22:6).

The fact is, however, that none of these is ever cited as the specific reason for the environmental degradation about which the prophets warn. Although one needs to be careful not to push this argument too far – arguments from silence are notoriously tentative and the prophets were not concerned to make a full inventory of Israel’s sins – it seems that it is the entirety of humanity’s relationship with God and with each other that affects the environment.

This point is underlined by the fact that when the prophets do list Israel’s sins in the context of environmental degradation, they seem to us, at first sight, rather detached from the issues of environmental awareness and sustainable living. Hosea (as we have noted) cites Israel’s ‘cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery’ (Hosea 4:2). Jeremiah cites Israel’s lies, deception, disobedience, idolatry and, among other things, the way the people have prioritised money and power over ‘plead[ing] the case of the fatherless… [and] defend[ing] the rights of the poor’ (Jeremiah 5:27–28). When the prophet Joel talks, in lavish detail, of the environmental disaster that will overcome Israel (Joel 1:7–12), he does not point the finger at particular ‘environmental’ sins but instead calls the people to ‘return to [God] with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning’ (Joel 2:12–13).

All this should encourage us away from searching for a neat ‘natural resources’ category that will explain the environmental ‘bit’ of sustainable living.

Multi-Dimensional Sabbath

Having recognised this, it is worth highlighting the way in which one piece of legislation in particular, the Sabbath, whilst having a primarily social and economic impact, also has a significant environmental scope. The Sabbath is outlined twice in detail, in Exodus 20:8–11 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15, and twice more in summary in Exodus 23: 12 and 34:21 . In each of the longer commands the Israelites are told to keep the day holy, working for the remainder of the week but resting on that day. The Sabbath is not simply a day of rest for householders, however, but also for ‘yourson…daughter…manservant or maidservant…ox…donkey…[all] your animals [and] the alien within your gates.’

The reasons given for the Sabbath legislation are varied. In Exodus, the rationale is the creation order, reminding Israel that God is the source of life: ‘For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day’ (Exodus 20:11). In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is a way of protecting the vulnerable by remembering ‘that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there’ (Deuteronomy 5:15).

In addition to the reasons explicitly stated, the Sabbath legislation would have had a wide-ranging effect on many areas of life in Israel. It would have functioned as an economic measure, placing a check on what might otherwise become unrestricted trading, and also as a social one, guaranteeing leisure time for those who would otherwise not enjoy it, ‘ring-fencing’ relationship time for families and communities. While all these were, in their own way, religious measures, the Sabbath was also, of course, a more narrowly religious edict, re-orienting the whole community back towards the God who created, rescued, delivered and protected them.

On top of all these things, it was also an environmental command, as the explicit inclusion of livestock in the commands indicated. Its environmental credentials are clarified by the corresponding legislation concerning the Sabbatical Year in Exodus 23 (and Leviticus 25): ‘For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unploughed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove’ (Exodus 23:10–11).

As these verses make clear, there were environmental and social concerns behind the Sabbatical Year. The land was not to be exhausted by overuse. The poor were to be given access that would not otherwise have been theirs. The law even allowed for wild animals to consume what the people left, thereby suggesting that agriculture (and other human activities) should not be permitted to destroy non-human life, ascribing value to non-human ecology, and implying that awe and respect for God’s creation should not ‘give way to an exploitative and managerial approach to nature.’ [2]

The consequences of ignoring the Sabbath principle are spelt out clearly, both in the law and the prophets. Leviticus 26:34 warns the Israelites that if they do not allow the land its Sabbath, God will. ‘Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths’ (Leviticus 26:34). Sabbath desecration was one of the sins for which Israel came under the judgement of exile.

The gospel writers record Jesus having six encounters on and about the Sabbath, five relating to him healing people and the sixth to eating. Each was controversial, with his opponents accusing him of desecrating the holy day. In reality, however, his apparent subversion of the Sabbath was more of a rescue mission than an abandonment of the principle. Rather than being a time of rest, re-orientation and a symbol of redemption, the Sabbath had been turned into a burden, a day in which those who were hungry or sick were held captive by their misfortune. Jesus’ multiple healings and his corn-eating debate were rescuing the original intent of the law, whilst pointing forwards, in himself, to that ‘great Sabbath day when all [Israel’s] enemies would be put to shame, and she herself would rejoice at God’s release.’ [3]


The Sabbath, like the Jubilee, was a multilayered law, encompassing cultural, religious, social, economic, and environmental concerns. As such, it represents well the practices that sprang from the biblical vision of sustainable living, gesturing simultaneously in the direction of the environmental principles that marked the people’s (intended) engagement with the rest of creation and in the direction of the social and economic laws and attitudes that were intended to shape the nation and make it a light to the Gentiles.

[1] v.23. All Scripture references are taken from the NIV.

[2] Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Where were you…?’, in The Care of Creation, R. J. Berry, (ed), Leicester, IVP, 2000, p.90.

[3] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp.390–396.


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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2007

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