Sandra Richter has crafted a treasure for the church and anyone interested in the long-term welfare of the earth in her latest book, Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About The Environment And Why It Matters.
Riveting from beginning to end, I could hardly put the book down, pausing only to underline or contemplate the depths of her biblical analysis on the call of humanity to be faithful stewards of the creation.
At the conclusion of reading, I knew this was the book Christians needed to justify, inform and inspire engagement with caring for God’s creation.
In a thorough and fair-minded survey of the Bible, Richter breaks down the covenant theology of Israel, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, regarding how Israel was to use its land and care for God’s creatures through wise land management with an eye toward the future and mindful of the poor.
In her introduction, Richter addresses the elephant in the Bible study room: Why has the church been paralyzed to advocate for the sanctity of God’s creation?
The first reason is politics. We have been conditioned to believe that environmental concern is a Democrat issue rather than a Republican one. We have been taught directly and indirectly that the two are mutually exclusive: If you are “pro-life,” then you shouldn’t be pro-environment.
Richter argues persuasively that kingdom politics transcends national and international politics, so this wall of division ought to collapse under the weight of biblical evidence.
Second, the Western church has largely been sheltered from environmental degradation around the world. We have not seen (or cared to see?) how the decisions of big business have decimated the land and left the poor to fend for themselves.
The book’s title, Stewards of Eden, reveals the blueprint for humanity’s (adam) relationship with the earth. Richter uses the analogy of humans as tenants and God as the landlord to emphasize our temporal status as stewards of the earth. God is the sovereign and we are the vassals who have been given a land grant.
She moves from Eden to the Mosaic law, revealing how the nation of Israel becomes the model for how God’s people are to carry out their vassal status in a fallen world. She provides cogent analysis from Deuteronomic texts you have probably overlooked all your life.
For example, she reminds us God commanded Israel to let the land rest every seventh year, harvesting the Sabbath growth during that year and allowing domestic and wild beasts to do the same (Leviticus 25:4-7). Similar protections of the land and the animals permeate the first five books of the Bible more than we’ve ever noticed.
While clearly at home in interpreting texts from the Hebrew Bible, Richter, a member of the NIV translation committee, also opens the modern barn door so we can see inside the appalling conditions of God’s domestic creatures in the poultry, pork and beef industries.
For example, she discloses how America’s pig industry confines these highly intelligent animals to a life of pinned-up misery from birth to slaughter. The easy dismissal of this system because “they are animals, not humans,” stands in stark contrast to God’s command to Israel to allow the domesticated beasts to rest on Sabbath just like humanity.
Richter shows how the Bible warns us against the exploitation of the earth for short-term gain and ties that to devastation in places like Haiti and Madagascar.
Contrary to other ancient Near East empires that had scorched-earth policies in war time, Israel was instructed to leave fruit-bearing trees intact when conquering their foes so friend and foe alike would have sustainable food sources in the years to come (Deuteronomy 20:19).
Perhaps most important, she undermines the misguided theology that leads so many in the church to sever the end goal of “going to heaven” from faithful living in the kingdom of God.
Without denigrating the task of “saving souls” in the Christian community, she challenges the notion this is the only task of the church. She makes a compelling case that the second coming of Jesus Christ will not annihilate the earth, but will redeem it, giving us “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).
The book is heavy in endnotes, allowing the reader to peer more deeply into the Hebrew meaning of words and the ecological/social life of ancient Israel. Richter also provides the reader a great service by offering practical ways to purchase, travel and live in more sustainable ways.
I hope this 157-page book becomes a staple in Bible studies across America. As she points out, creation care should not be a political issue dividing the left from the right. It is fundamentally a moral and spiritual issue that needs the leadership of the Christian community to confront the existential challenge of the 21st century.
An ordained Baptist minister, Gordon is the founder and CEO of Christians Caring for Creation. He is a member of the Good Faith Media strategic advisory board.