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What does the Bible say about the environment?

January 29, 2011

The early Hebrews maintained a high degree of ecological sustainability.[1] [2] This was a result of the Law of Moses[3] which regulated fruit crops, [4] and prohibited certain mixed crops,[5] as well as insisting on the non-cultivation of the land in the seventh year.[6] [7]

Dietary and ecological benefits have been identified in the prohibitions against eating rodents and various reptiles, [8] [9] almost all non-ruminant mammals, [10] scavenging birds, [11] certain water birds,[12] birds responsible for controlling local insect populations,[13] [14] and insects themselves.[15]

The Law of Moses legislates ecological care in a range of prohibitions,[16] recognized in the relevant scholarly literature as having explicit ecological motivation. [17] [18] Later Biblical books show the same concerns.[19]

The later Tannaic commentary in the Mishnah,[20] as well as the rabbinical commentary in Talmud Jerusalem and Talmud Babylon,[21] contain detailed awareness of the Law’s environmental ethic and lay down additional environmental protection laws;[22] banning exploitation of land and[23] the raising small cattle,[24] care for animals,[25] [26] [27] condemning environmental vandalism and waste. [28]

Medieval rabbinical commentary on environmental ethics is found in Rashi (1040-1105), [29] [30] Maimonides (1135-1204),[31] Ibn Ezra (1089-1164),[32] Nachmanides (1194-1270),[33] and Abravanel (1437-1508),[34] among others.


[1] ‘Archaeological records show that the Israelites were the first example in world history of a society that succeeded in managing a sustained management of their environment for about thousand and seven hundred years.’, Hütterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in  Neusner, ‘Encyclopaedia of Judaism’, volume 4, p. 1719 (2000).

[2] ‘Thus the ancient Israelites developed a level of environmental sensitivity. They were aware of the fact that they had settled in an area with a fragile ecology. They knew that their land would be fertile only if it was managed with proper care.’

[3] ‘the Yahwist subordinates human behavior to the larger ecosystem upon which human survival depends.’, Hibert (2000:150-151), cited by Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, p. 78 (2006).

[4] ‘The prohibition of harvesting any fruits for three years means simply that the entire organic matter produced by a tree during this time returns to the carbon cycle of that very soil. Not only the leaves but also the fruits, which can amount to up to 40% of the net production of organic matter, are not removed from the plot of land where the tree grows. This is a significant contribution to the humus fraction of the soil and has a positive impact on several soil parameters, as outlined above. In view of this background, the blessing at the end of this pericope, which promises higher yields after the fifth year, is understandable. Due to an input of organic matter equivalent to three consecutive sabbatical years, the fruit trees had a much better start and were bound to grant a higher yield.’, Hütterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in Neusner, ‘Encyclopaedia of Judaism’, volume 4, p. 1727 (2000).

[5] ‘The prohibition of sowing annual crops in stands with perennial crops such as wine, olives or fruit trees, is very important. It prevents the soil from being overexploited. The roots of grapevines or fruit trees are allowed to make full use of the soil in which they have been planted.’, ibid., p. 1727.

[6] ‘This concept was unique in the region. There are no records of similar laws either in Babylonia or in Egypt, the dominating civilizations east and west of Palestine. These laws are a counterbalance to humanity’s tendency to abuse its power over the rest of creation.18 The precept as outlined in Leviticus clearly shows that its main intention is to protect the soil, i.e., to give the soil a rest.’, ibid., p. 1726.

[7] ‘Thus the sabbatical year made important contributions to the fertility and water status of the soil. This was especially important in calcareous soils, which make up the majority of the Judean hillsides. Such a special care of the soils was imperative for the maintenance of soil fertility in the Judean Hills. Israelite agriculture at that time was probably among the most advanced in the ancient world.’, ibid., p. 1726.

[8] ‘Once again, we have to bear in mind that frog-legs and whole frogs and toads are part of the usual diet of many millions of humans today. But wherever they are harvested on a large scale, the ecosystem is deprived of the most important antagonist to mosquitoes, resulting in a higher rate of malaria infection. In several subtropical and tropical countries, the export of frogs is now prohibited for this reason.’, ibid., p. 1723.

[9] ‘1) Sanitary reasons, which forbade the eating of mice, rats, and similar animals that transmit diseases; and 2) Ecological considerations, which protected all raptors because of their role in maintaining the biological equilibrium. In this group we also find lizards, which are biocontrol agents of insects, and snakes, which feed on mice and rats.’, ibid., p. 1725.

[10] ‘By forbidding the consumption of these animals of prey, the authors of the Torah acknowledged the important role of these animals in ecosystems. They take care of the natural equilibrium and prevent overpopulation of herbivores, which are a store of diseases of domesticated cattle.’  ibid., p. 1725.

[11] ‘This shows that the ancient Jews were excellent observers and had a thorough knowledge of the succession of birds that feed on carcasses. They protected not only the first very spectacular consumers of carrion, vultures, but also the less showy “secondary” consumers, the Corvidae, which take care of vultures’ leftovers.’, ibid., p. 1724.

[12] ‘By protecting these birds, the Israelites established the best possible defense available at that time against an invasion of locusts. It was the most efficient protection available for their crops.’, ibid., p. 1724.

[13] ‘These birds, in addition to bats, were the best antagonists to insects up to the size of locusts.’, ibid., p. 1724.

[14] ‘Only those species that were most valuable in maintaining the ecological equilibrium and that served as the most efficient biocontrol agent of insects, especially locusts, were carefully selected and protected from human predation.’, ibid., p. 1724.

[15]This regulation is ecologically wise. It permitted the collection of invading insects (locusts) and those obviously eating leaves and grass (crickets), thereby competing with the farm animals. All other insects, including their larvae, were protected. The message thus seems to be clear: people should harvest resources that cause ecological harm but otherwise leave nature as intact as possible.’, ibid., p. 1724.

[16] Such as that young birds may be taken from their mother, but their mother must be left alone (Deuteronomy 22:6-7), an ox or sheep not to be slaughtered on the same day as their young (Leviticus 22:8), food bearing trees not to be harmed in war time, even if their destruction would be useful to the war effort (Deuteronomy 20:19), animals used commercially are not to be overburdened or exploited (Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 25:4), a righteous man takes care of his animals (Proverbs 12:10).

[17] ‘The Bible, without which Western civilization is inexplicable, has powerful ecological teachings that support an ecological worldview.’, DeWitt, ‘Ecology and ethics: relation of religious belief to ecological practice in the Biblical tradition’, Biodiversity and Conservation 4, p. 838 (1995).

[18] Sarna, ‘Exodus’, p. 143 (1991), Tigay, ‘Deuteronomy’, p. 201 (1996), Isaacs, ‘Exploring Jewish Ethics and Values’ (1999), Yaff, ‘Judaism and Environmental Ethics: a reader’ (2001), Hütterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in Neusner, ‘Encyclopedia of Judaism’, volume 4 (2000), Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in Deep Ecology and World Religions: new essays on sacred grounds’ (2001), et al.

[19] ‘The Creation story, for instance, declares that vegetation was created to provide food not only for humans but for animals as well (Gen. 1:29f). In the Flood story, God commands Noah to go to great lengths to save every animal species (Gen. 6:19; CF. 8.1). The Book of Jonah memorably ends with God’s rebuke to the reluctant prophet: “And should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” [italics added] (4:11). Psalm 104 describes in loving detail how God provides food for all creatures (Ps. 104; cf. Ps. 36:9, 145:16, 147:9; Job 38:41).’, Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The Environment in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa’, p. 58 (2003).

[20] Compiled during the third century CE.

[21] Complied between the third and fifth centuries CE.

[22] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13; Mishna Bava Bathra 2:9, 24b; Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 12:12; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b, et al.

[23] ‘The Mishnah states very clearly that a distance of sixteen amot (about seven meters) must be kept between the vine or olive tree and the closest field of annual plants (M. Kil 4:1).’, Hütterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in Neusner, ‘Encyclopaedia of Judaism’, volume 4, p. 1727 (2000).

[24]The small cattle ban in the Mishnah is flanked by additional rules in the Talmud that have the same goal, preservation of the land’s fertility.’; ‘The move of the sages and the boldness of the Sanhedrin, which decided in favor of the most efficient way to save endangered nature, reveals the high standard of ecological knowledge and conscience in ancient Israel.’, ibid., p. 1728.

[25]Tza’ar baalei chayim is perhaps the most important principle in Judaism concerning the human relationship with animals; it requires an attitude of compassion for all human life. In particular, humans have a special obligation to care for and consider the pain of the domesticated animals that live within the larger human community. Thus, the fourth commandment concerning the Sabbath requires rest for one’s livestock as well as for humanity (Exodus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 5:14). There is also the law forbidding the yoking together of animals of unequal strength (Deuteronomy 22:10), for this would cause pain to the weaker animal. And one is not permitted to muzzle an ox during the threshing of the grain (Deuteronomy 25:4). All of these commandments are based on a compassion for animal suffering’, Gottlieb, ‘Faith, God, and Nature: Judaism and Deep Ecology’ in Gottlieb (ed.), ‘Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, and Ecological Wisdom’, p. 543 (2003).

[26]it contrasts favorably with the attitude toward animals that prevailed in the Western world until the nineteenth century. Prior to that, according to the historian Cecil Roth, ‘cruelty to animals was nowhere illegal – except under Jewish law.“‘, Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The Environment in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa’, p. 58 (2003); ‘”Just as God has compassion on humans, so God has compassion on animals” (Deut. Rabbah 6:1).’, ibid., p. 58.

[27] ‘it is forbidden to buy a domestic or wild animal or a bird if one does not have the means to feed it (J. Yev. 15:3; J. Kid. 4:8).’, ibid., p. 62.

[28] ‘The principle of bal tashchit concerns the prohibition against the wanton destruction of natural entities, living beings (plants and animals) and even human artifacts. Its source is a passage from Deuteronomy 20:19-20:’, ibid., p. 542.

[29] ‘For Rashi, it is self-evident that nature has its own right to develop in harmony. This is so basic for him that he states the relationship between humans and nature as a model of the partnership between man and woman in marriage.’, Hütterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in Neusner, ‘Encyclopaedia of Judaism’, volume 4, p. 1722 (2000).

[30] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, p. 26 1 (2006).

[31] Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds’ (2001), Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, pp. 62-63 (2003), Bentley, ‘Urban Planning in Jewish Environmentalism’, in ibid., pp. 45-55.

[32] Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, pp. 60, 62 (2003), Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, p. 261 (2006).

[33] Ibid., pp. 263-264.

[34] Ibid., p. 263.

One comment

  1. Agreed, the Bible does speak about the environment, but also stewardship. Many people think this isn’t so, but there is a website that shows whether this is myth or fact, along with links, pics, and scriptures. http://www.squidoo.com/christianity-myths is the 1st in a series of christian myths exposed.



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