From The Word
God's Promise to Every Species
by Stephen Charles Mott
Professor Calvin DeWitt, professor of environmental studies at the University
of Wisconsin, tells of a student who returned from the Kirtland's Warbler
preservation project in northern lower Michigan (Green Cross, Winter
1996). She complained about how much was being wasted to save a tiny bird.
DeWitt asked her if she remembered from what kind of wood Noah's ark was made.
She recalled that it was gopher wood. DeWitt went on: "Yes, the price of
gopher wood is very high these days. Certainly we can find something more
productive on which to spend our time and money!" She said, "I get the
point, and it is a very good one!"
The point indeed was well taken because the account of God's deliverance from
the flood has far reaching implications for environmental justice, and
particularly for the preservation of the species. When the flood had subsided,
according the account in Genesis, God told Noah, "Bring out with you every
living thing that is with you of all flesh--birds and animals and every creeping
thing that creeps on the earth--so that they may abound on the earth . . .
" (8:17, NRSV). There is an echo of creation. "Bring our with
you" is the same term as "bring forth," the command of creation
in Genesis 1 (cf. Gen. 1:24, for example). Through the ark and Noah, God is
continuing God's creative activity by preserving it.
God then makes a covenant, a solemn agreement, the Noadic Covenant, one the
key covenants in the Bible. God promises not to destroy the earth again with a
flood. This promise of protection from a judgment which would annihilate is
given not only to humanity but also to every kind of created being. It is given
to every species. "I am establishing my covenant with you and your
descendants after you, and with every creature that is with you, the birds, the
domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of
the ark" (Gen. 9:9-10, NRSV).
In the next verse God continues, stating that God is establishing the
covenant so that "never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a
flood" (v. 11). "All flesh" refers to all living beings. We as
humans are included with them as flesh. We share in their creatureliness,
dependence, and vulnerability. We have a common lot that needs protection.
God then identifies the sign of this covenant. Covenants have signs. Water,
for example, is the sign of the covenant of baptism. The rainbow is "the
sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living
creature" (v. 12). This reference to God's inclusion of every kind of
living being continues to be repeated over and over throughout this passage.
The commitment to every type of biological creature reflects the stress in
the account of creation in Genesis 1 that every species is precious to God.
There repeatedly God declares "good" the great diversity of the
various kinds of living things: "fruit trees of every kind,"
"plants yielding seed of every kind," "water creatures of every
kind," "birds of every kind."
Since God is committed to preserving "the manifold and various
loveliness" of the creation, as St. Augustine described it, we who have
responsibility to care for the creation (Gen. 2:15) must not allow any kind of
creature of God to be made extinct, if it is our capacity to prevent that. The
rainbow should be a reminder to us of God's commitment to the variety and
diversity of the creation and of our corresponding responsibility as God's
lieutenants on the earth to preserve the species. Noah's still are needed.
From The Word
Fill the Earth' and Population Control
by Stephen Charles Mott
After giving humanity dominion over the non-human creatures (Gen. 1:26), God
blesses it, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and
subdue it (v. 28, NRSV). Population growth is connected to humankind's
dominion and power over the rest of the creation. Opponents of population
control find support in this passage; others discover evidence of a biblical
contribution to the destruction of the environment. Is there any sign in the
text of a responsibility that humankind is given for the non-human creation that
could qualify uncontrolled population growth?
Humankind is viewed in Genesis 1:26-28 as having a governing role. In v. 27
humankind is created in the image of God. Many scholars have perceived a royal
aspect to the idea of the image of God. In the Ancient Near East rulers would
set up a statue of themselves to proclaim themselves the ruler of a particular
area. As the image of God, humanity is God's statue in the midst of creation,
giving evidence that God is the Lord of creation. The monarch in turn was the
image of the god (cf. H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament,
159-64). Human beings have a role of rulership, but they rule only as a
re-presentation of God.
Bernard Anderson, a veteran scholar of the Hebrew Bible, reinforces this
understanding that the humanity which is to fill the earth is also a viceregent
of God (in Biblical Studies in Contemporary Thought, ed. M. Ward 
and more popularly and directly in Bible Review 8, 5 ). Professor
Anderson notes significant similarities between Genesis 1:26-28 and Psalm 8. In
both there is the subjection of the non-human creatures to humanity (Ps. 8:7-8).
Psalm 8, like Genesis 1, understands human beings as having been given a
royal rule. Anderson notes that when the Psalm states that God has "crowned
them with glory and honor" (v. 5), it is using language which describes a
ruler. When Psalm 45:3 pictures the earthly monarch as girded "in glory and
majesty" (NRSV), it is using the same Hebrew words. God's having
"given them dominion" (Ps. 8:6), is normal language for a reigning
monarch (cf. Isa. 19:4; Mic. 5:2). "You have put all things under their
feet" is like the booty possessed by the victorious monarch (cf. Ps. 2:8).
This rule, like the image of God in Genesis 1, is not an autonomous rule,
Anderson also emphasizes. The real ruler in Psalm 8 is God, "our
Sovereign" whose glory is set above the heavens (v. 1). By God's grace the
creature so tiny and insignificant in light of the awesome expanses of the
nightly skies has been drawn into the sphere of God's sovereign rule. In its
responsibility of ruling under God, humanity reflects the "glory and
honor" which properly belong to the Creator (Pss. 29:1; 104:1).
In Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 humankind is raised above the non-human creation.
This elevation, despite its destructive potential, is to a position of
responsibility not found if humanity was on the same ground as the rest of
creation. Humanity's elevation is to represent God's rule. True biblical rule is
one of service (Matt. 20:26-28 par.; cf. this column, April, 1992). Human rule
represents the Creator who rejoices in all the creatures (Ps. 104:24, 31).
The meaning of multiplying anbd filling the earth must be understood in the
context of humanity's representation of God's caring and gracious rule. In the
present context that would appear to mean using our distinctive reason to limit
our growth for the sake of future human and non-human subjects of God.
The Expanding Internationalism of Isaiah
by Stephen Charles Mott
a horrifying source of violence and potentially of nuclear violence. The
breakout of warfare among peoples previously subjected to the Soviet Union
reminds us that human sinfulness will continue to be amplified in the larger
groups in which the ego finds security and glory.
Religion provides a
heavy anchor of nationalism. It also can be a penetrating force overcoming it.
The Hebrew Scriptures provided important preparations for the international
inclusiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The most forceful are in the book
In Isaiah there are
two different significant breakthroughs toward international inclusiveness. The
first puts other nations on a similar level to that of Israel. The other, like
the New Testament, disbands the religious significance of nations in favor of
In Isaiah 19,
following a message of destructive punishment on Egypt, the prophet provides a
startling promise of restoration. In the center of Egypt there will be an altar
of Yahweh (v. 19). When the Egyptians "cry to Yahweh because of oppressors,
he will send them a saviour, and will defend and deliver them" (v. 20 NRSV).
They have the protection and healing of God that the chosen people had in the
time of the judges, and the deliverance is described with in the language of the
Isaiah then includes
Assyria in this new order. Israel in that day will be "a third" with
her historically worse enemies. Egypt is called "my people"; and
Assyria is named "the work of my hands," a title elsewhere used of
Israel (Isa. 60:21; 64:8). Professor Walter Gross, who describes these
approaches in Isaiah in a recent essay (in Der neue Bund im Alten, ed. E.
Zenger ), notes significantly that unlike other places in Isaiah there is
no subordination or even relationship of this development to Zion, as when the
peoples come to Zion. This a parallel to Israel, not a development out of its
salvation. There are many peoples of Yahweh.
Isaiah 66 takes
another path to internationalism. The concept of a people of Yahweh no longer
functions, Professor Gross argues. The wrath of God will be "on all
flesh" (v. 16) from both Israel (v. 6) and the nations. From both there
will be individuals who will be saved. The survivors of the nations not only
will be members of the worshipping community "just as the Israelites"
(v. 20); some of them will even be included among the priests (v. 21).
The concept of a
people of Yahweh is dissolved according to Professor Gross. There is a new
entity composed of the survivors of the judgment and salvation which cuts
through both the former Israel and the former nations. This new entity is rather
"all flesh" (v. 23) indicating that there is no more Israel, no more
people of Yahweh, no more dichotomy between Israel and the peoples. In this new
heaven and new earth (v. 22), the identifying factor is not identity with the
former groups. It is all "the humble and contrite in spirit, who tremble at
my word" (v. 2b).
The teaching that
there is but one God leads in this direction. As Gross perceives, once the
Yahweh of Israel is identified as the one God, critical thoughts arise about the
relation of the other peoples of the earth to Yahweh. Isaiah 66 begins with
God's declaration, "Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool; what is
the house that you would prepare for me . . .? All these things my hand has
made, and so all these things are mine" (NRSV). Isaiah discerns that
to this God also belong all humankind, diminishing the claim of one people over
From The Word
Justice as Light to the Nations
by Stephen Charles Mott
The early church, particular as portrayed in Luke and Acts, had a strong
sense that their task was to fulfill the mission prophesied for Israel. This
perspective is important for acknowledging the social justice aspect of the
mission of the church today.
The early church understood themselves as the restored Israel. Jesus' work
had been both to renew Israel and to sum up in himself the essence of God's
people. Now the church had the promise and the power of carrying forward
Israel's mission. Each of these roles was manifest in the flexible image of the
servant of Yahweh and its fulfillment.
Behind the sense of mission was the fundamental promise to Abraham that in
his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed (Acts 3:25). That
fundamental good and deliverance would come to all peoples through Abraham was a
powerful way in which he would be always honored. The cherished promise was that
Abraham would be this unique channel of good to others.
The image of the servant of Yahweh of Isaiah 40-55 was placed into that
context. Luke presents Isaiah 49:6 as fundamental to universal mission of the
church. Referring to the Lord's servant (v. 6a), it states, "I will give
you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the
earth" (NRSV). Jesus' mandate before his Ascension that the
disciples would be his witnesses "to the ends of the earth" was an
exact quote of the Greek translation of Isaiah 49:6. They are the servant of the
Lord bringing light and the fulness of God's salvation to all peoples. This had
been Jesus' task as the servant of the Lord (Acts 26:23; cf. Matt. 12:18).
Simeon in the temple had early seen that in Jesus this hope of the faithful
remnant of Israel was found. Here was the light to the nations (Luke 2:32). This
promise of Isaiah now identifies and explains the mission of those representing
Jesus (Acts 13:47).
We as the church are the servant of the Lord. We have the missionary task of
Israel. We are the light to the nations through which Abraham's covenantal
promise is fulfilled. Our task is clarified by looking closely at the Israel's
missionary task in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The task of the servant of Yahweh includes bringing justice and God's
instruction on how to live to the nations. This is said to be an aspect of
bringing light to the nations (Isa. 51:4-6; cf. 42:1-4). As light to the nations
the servant brings healing and the release of prisoners (42:6-7). That justice
for the nations is central to purposes of God and carried out through God's
people is clearly stated in the original covenantal mandate and promise to
Abraham in Genesis. As the agent of God's blessing for all nations, Abraham is
expected "to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and
justice" (Gen. 18:19, NRSV)
As Roy Melugin clearly notes, the goal of the promises throughout Isaiah
40-55 is the glorification of Yahweh. Whether providing justice or bringing the
nations into the people of God, the ultimate purpose is that all flesh will know
that Yahweh is God (in Problems in Biblical Theology, ed. H. Sun and K.
Eades ). Carrying forth justice among all peoples and to the ends of the
earth is an important contribution to the recognition of Yahweh's universal
lordship, which Melugin identifies as the most central affirmation of these
chapters. Bringing justice and salvation involves the incorporation of the
peoples into the rule of God (51:4-6).
From The Word
Biblical Faith and International Rights
by Stephen Charles Mott
International rights, rights which can and must be affirmed for everyone no
matter their nation, are an implication of biblical faith. This perspective is
inherent in the core of biblical faith despite the central role of a particular
chosen people. Although he does not apply it to international rights,
Christopher J. H. Wright's work on the missional thrusts of the biblical
economic perspective is very helpful for this purpose.
The greatest contribution that faith derived from the revelation to Israel
can make to international rights is its conception of God. The understanding of
God provides an ultimate grounding for claims of universal obligation. Marxist
thought, for example, with all its power can appeal no higher than acting
consistently with the definition of what it is to be human.
Professor Wright notes the social importance of the Creator's sovereign
ownership (in Missions Studies, Vol. XII-2, 24, 1995). "The earth is
the Lord's and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it" (Ps.
24:1, NRSV). All human claims, all recognition or denial of claims are
subservient to God. No sphere of activity, whether economic, social, or
governmental, is autonomous. Human beings, social groups, and nations, are God's
tenants, belonging to God and using God's world. No region can be excluded.
Fundamentally, valid international rights are requirements that God places upon
God's tenants. There is one God, one source of moral conduct. Ultimately, there
is thus but one set of human rights.
Professor Wright, however, notes perceptively that the thrust of biblical
monotheism goes so much further than this claim that God is one, as significant
as this is for the conception of international rights. The assertion of the
revelation for which Israel existed as trustee is that Yahweh is this God.
"The Lord is God; there is no other" (Deut. 4:35, NRSV). God
has been revealed as a particular kind of God. The fact of monotheism upholds
the possibility and necessity of international rights. That Yahweh is this one
God points to what those rights are. As Professor Wright observes that is why
the proclamation of God's rule is a matter of joy. "Our God reigns! Let the
The Lord is a sovereign God who exercises cosmic ownership on behalf of the
poor and needy. Out of that rule come demands of basic obligation that become
foundational for human rights. "The Lord your God is God of gods, the great
God . . . , who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the
stranger, providing them food and clothing. You also shall love the stranger . .
." (Deut. 10:17-19, NRSV).
God's justice corresponds to God's character. Human justice, including the
justice of the human ruler (Ps. 72:1), is to correspond to that justice. Rights
are the fabric of justice. They consists of such basics for life in community as
"food and clothing," a Hebraism for what is indispensable. The demand
is so basic that it is not only for God's people; the stranger too must be
Further, as was suggested in the previous reflection, "Justice as Light
to the Nations," the chosen people themselves serve as a model intended for
all peoples. Israel was to be different in its obedience; but this was not for
itself, but as a priest to the nations, just as the church later was also to
embody compassion and justice.
This social and economic dimension of its mission, as Professor Wright
demonstrates, is fulfilled in the new creation, which includes economic and
political life. International rights accordingly are also an anticipation of the
From The Word
The United Nations and the Tower of Babel
by Stephen Charles Mott
The United Nations engenders fear in some observers. The unity among the
nations of humankind reminds them of the biblical images of the anti-Christ and
of the Tower of Babel. The heightened potential for evil that unity can provide is rightly seen in
the story of the Tower of Babel, in which humankind sought to build for
themselves a city with a tower in the heavens. God saw that they were "one
people" and had "all one language" and that this was "only
the beginning of what they will do" (Gen. 11:1-5, NRSV). God
responded by confounding language, saving humanity from the self-destruction
that would result if it united in proud sin.
According to the Revelation of John, however, at the end of history that dyke
will be removed in a "horrific global unity of deception and
rebellion" (Christopher Wright, An Eye for An Eye , 106).. The
kings of the earth will be "united in yielding their power and
authority" to the anti-Christ beast, who will be worshipped by "all
the inhabitants of the earth" (Rev. 13:7-8; 17:13).
The unification achieved by the United Nations is perceived as a fallen human
attempt to overcome the protective fragmentation that God provided in judgment
at Babel. It is viewed as opening the door to a centralization of power that
will lead to the ultimate opposition to Christianity in the anti-Christ.
Both these biblical images contain important and dangerous truths, but in
applying them politically one must take into account two different biblical
First, there also is a biblical vision of unity of the nations and peoples of
the earth, starting with the promise to Abraham, directly following the Babel
judgment (e.g. Gen. 12; Isa. 23, 60: Zeph. 3; Hagg. 2; Rev. 11, 21). That this
unity is based in the worship of God must be noted; nevertheless God is working
in history toward unity.
Second, to the end of the age there is an intensification not only of evil
but also of good. The Reign of God has been introduced into history with the
coming, death, and resurrection of Christ. Paul Minear has noted that two cities are disclosed in the Revelation of John
(in New Testament Studies , 89-105). Through them history is viewed
in the light of two interlocking mysteries--God's and the Devil's.
One great city has fully historical identities as Babylon, Sodom, Egypt,
Jerusalem, and Rome, yet it reveals a unitary, universal, and eschatological
pattern of hostility to God. It is the "great city" of the crucifixion
and of universal audience to the suffering of the church. The other city is also Jerusalem. It is the holy city and inner sanctuary of
true worship. The witnesses stand in the streets of this city and in the inner
sanctuary of true worship.
We are faced with the simultaneous presence of both cities and the choice
that they present before the end of history. The institutions of our societies,
including the United Nations, are not to be divided up into categories according
to these two cities. Rather the coexistence of the cities is nearly universal.
The unity that is achieved and promised in the United Nations must be viewed
in this framework. It must be neither sacralized or demonized. Rather there must
be critical evaluation of the ethical principles that are providing its vision
and of the nature of its accomplishments. The potentiality for tyranny or for
chaos should be exposed. The ideals and achievements of cooperation, peace, and
justice that are consistent with the principles of God's Reign must be
Christians should be alert to this movement and involved in it because the
greater the unity, the greater is the potential for both good and evil.