How Can Environmental Care be Grounded in Biblical Theology?

The following article is a chapter taken from the book: Entrusted - Christians and Environmental Care, edited by S. Dunbar, L. J. Gibson, and H. M. Rasi. Portada Entrusted con nuevo precio no spine front

I love to backpack and climb mountains, mainly because I crave the solitude and richer glimpses of God that I find when the only sounds are gurgling streams and the trills of birdcalls, and the only sights are lofty peaks and dense forests. When I reach the mountain’s summit, life is suddenly put in its proper perspective, as God reminds me of how small I am, and yet how much He cares for me. However, I am increasingly fearful that human consumerism and abuse of earth’s resources will soon wipe out many of the remaining tracts of wilderness.

Conservation is critical in order to ensure such deep experiences with God are possible for coming generations. From its beginnings, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has cared about the proper use of all the resources God has entrusted to humanity.[1] Believing that biblical theology must inform environmental care, Adventists hold that the biblical picture of stewardship encompasses environmental resources, as well as money, possessions, time, health, and opportunities. The faith-pillars of Adventism include reverence for the seventh-day Sabbath, belief in a literal creation week, and humanity’s role as caretaker over the earth and animals.

Although the biblical mandate for environmental and animal care can be explored from different angles and can include a survey of many biblical passages, true theology arises from solid exegesis. Hence I wish to provide an example of the richness of environmental and animal care found in one representative passage, uncovering various principles of such care, which can be related to other passages as well.

Leviticus 25 is one of the key passages concerned with rest for the land and God’s plan for the conservation of all creation, containing real-world, modern day applications for all Christians. Although certain aspects of the text apply only to ancient Israel, the foundational principles of conservation are based on Genesis 1-3, and applicable to all those concerned with the environment. In addition, the passage gives special reasons for earth care and conservation that other Christians may find harder to substantiate when the reasons given for seventh-day Sabbath observance are regarded as no longer valid.[2] When the rest of the chapter is considered in light of this, several reasons for conservation in relation to creation and the seventh-day Sabbath come to the forefront.

God the Creator

“The land is Mine,” declares the Lord (Lev. 25:23).[3] This declaration reinforces the Genesis announcement at creation that humans do not actually own the earth, but are its caretakers (cf. Gen. 2:15). In addition, the Leviticus passage points back to Exodus 20:8-11, where the reason given for Sabbath observance is that it is a memorial to God’s creation of the earth. Thus, in recognizing and celebrating the biblical account of creation and Sabbath, Adventists stand on a firm foundation in their biblical theology of conservation. We are never to forget the real owner of this earth, and that we are responsible for its care.

While it is important to detail stewardship requirements concerning the environment, money, possessions, time, and opportunities, the most crucial principle is God’s ownership of the earth and everything in it. While Adventists continue to recognize the biblical principle of tithing, many seem to think that only the tithe must go to God (Lev. 27:30); in reality, all that we have belongs to God (Ps. 24:1; 1 Chron. 29:14). Indeed, even our bodies are not our own, as we have been bought by Christ’s blood and joined to Him (1 Cor. 6:15-20). Thus, we must treat all of the earth as created by God and belonging ultimately to Him as its Maker.

Leviticus 25:2-7 reiterates this principle, as phrases and wording correspond to the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, and parallels are drawn between the resting of the land itself on the seventh year and the command to rest on the seventh day.[4] A closer examination of the passage reveals the symmetrical pattern outlined below. As we review the pattern, it is well to remember that in Hebrew thought, the center message is often the most important theme, and thus the following structure highlights care for the earth and its non-human inhabitants by placing them in the center of the passage:

A—The land will keep a Sabbath (shabbat) to Yahweh (v. 2).

B— Six years you shall sow (tizra’) your field, and six years you shall prune (tizmor) your vineyard, and gather its fruit (v. 3).

C—But in the seventh year there will be a special Sabbath rest (shabbat shabbaton) for the land, a Sabbath (shabbat) to Yahweh (v. 4a).

B’—You shall not sow (tizra’) your field, nor prune (tizmor) your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine (vv. 4b–5a).

A’—For it is a year of special rest (shabbaton) for the land. And the Sabbath produce (shabbat) of the land will be to you for food: for you, for your male servants, for your female servants, for your hired help, for the stranger who dwells with you, for your domestic animals (behemah), and for the wild animals (khayah) that are in your land (vv. 5b–7).[5]

As the focus of this passage is the special Sabbath rest for the land, the Sabbath (and sabbatical year) rest and care for creation extends to all that God has made, not just people and animals.[6] Indeed, in 2 Chronicles 36:21, the land was finally able to enjoy the Sabbaths that had been denied to it by disobedient Israel.[7]

Conservation as a Human Responsibility

God has given the responsibility for the care of the earth to humans. This responsibility includes both stewardship of resources and care for the physical environment. Note the injunction for the sabbatical year: “The land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field...but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land...What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap” (Lev. 25:2-5).

The command begins with a reminder that humans are to be caretakers of the earth. We are made in God’s image, but the purpose of that is not to exalt ourselves or selfishly exploit the environmental resources under our dominion. Instead humans are to act as God’s representatives on the earth, ruling it as He would if in our place. The Hebrew verbs in Genesis 1:26-28 do not give license to abuse, but demand a just and wise rule over God’s creation.[8] Genesis 2:15 reiterates this principle of environmental stewardship and humanity’s care of the garden by using Hebrew verbs that are normally associated with the priestly care of the temple (e.g., Num. 3:7, 8).

Any advantages we gain in this world are only temporary. Hence conservation in the light of the Sabbath and creation must not be seen as a deprivation, but as a call to trust in our heavenly riches. “And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, since we shall not sow nor gather in our produce?’ Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years” (Lev. 25:20, 21). The Jubilee year was a special type of sabbatical year, when slaves were freed and land was returned to its original owner. Even more than during the typical sabbatical year, however, anyone who lived off the land would likely be worried about how they were to survive this lengthy period with no agricultural activity. Thus, God reminds the Israelites that He has promised blessing and sustenance to those who are faithful to follow His law and let the land rest, providing sustenance for the poor and the wild animals.

In addition, the care for animals and all of God’s creation in the legal passages of the Pentateuch is a theme that can be traced through the rest of the Bible. Many Old Testament texts imply or allude to this care, while others clearly depict God’s loving concern for His creatures and Israel’s responsibilities to care for and provide rest for animals.[9] In the New Testament, Jesus points to the appropriateness of animal care on the Sabbath day, even when doing so requires what would normally be considered work. He uses that illustration to promote the healing of humans on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15). By mentioning the loosing of oxen from their stalls in order to give them a drink, the passage seems to assume that the oxen were not working on the Sabbath (as commanded in Exo. 20:8-11; 23:10-12; Deut. 5:12-15), but remained in their stalls resting from their labors. So, even in Jesus’ day, the importance of rest and repose for animals on the Sabbath was maintained, reflecting the spirit of Sabbath rest for all creatures shown clearly in the Pentateuch.[10] Humans are held responsible for the state of the earth and all the creatures that live on it (Rom. 8:19-22; Rev. 11:18).

Conservation as Care for the Less Fortunate

Leviticus 25 also provides certain benefits to the less fortunate during the Sabbatical year. The less fortunate include people and animals, as both are more important than profit (see Lev. 25:6, 7). The sabbatical year does not just entail rest for the land, but its yield during that time is to be given to all those who are in need or are oppressed. Thus, helping the poor is more important to God than making money or accumulating possessions (cf. Deut. 26:12-14).

Leviticus 25 focuses not only on humans and domestic creatures; strikingly, it includes wild animals as well, so that “no one living in Israel is excluded” from Sabbath rest.[11] The notion of care even for animals farther removed from contact with humans (and that may even pose danger to humans) makes it clear how much God cares for all His creatures. Thus Leviticus 25 extends the benefits of Sabbath rest to the land as well as all life contained on it.[12]

The parallels between Exodus 23:10-12 and Leviticus 25 show the connections of this passage to the Sabbath and the sabbatical year. The Exodus passage has a different pattern, with the themes of the verses concerning Sabbath echoing the previous themes concerning care for the oppressed on the sabbatical year:

A—Six (shesh) years you shall sow (tizra’) your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh (shevi’it) year you shall let it rest and lie fallow (v. 10-11a)

B—That the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the wild animals (khayah) may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vine yard and your olive grove (v. 11b-d).

A’—Six (shesh) days you shall do your work, and on the seventh (shevi’i) day you shall rest (v. 12a)

B’—in order that your ox and your donkey may rest (nuakh); and your male servant and the stranger may be refreshed (nefesh) (v. 12b).[13]

The reason for this time of rest for the land is that the poor and the wild animals may eat. Thus the Sabbath rest pertains not only to domestic animals, but on some level is applicable to all creatures. The purpose clause used here to describe the reason for the Sabbath (“in order that your ox and your donkey may rest”) shifts the focus from the human head of the household to those who would likely be oppressed: the animals, along with servants and foreigners. The apparent prioritization of animals reflects the focus on care for the downtrodden in Exodus 20-33. Perhaps animals would be the ones most likely to suffer abuse or neglect, even more than servants or strangers, since they cannot speak human language. In addition, the ox and the donkey are specified here, so that these two animals that likely worked the hardest of all during the week would be certain to receive proper Sabbath treatment.[14]

Unlike humanity’s Sabbath rest in Exodus 23:12, indicated by the Hebrew verb shabat, the Sabbath rejuvenation for animals is denoted by the word nuakh –the verb that is used for God’s rest in Exodus 20. This special connection between God and animals implies that God places a high value on all His creatures, not just humanity.[15] More than just a cessation of work, the Hebrew verb nuakh often has connotations of repose, tranquility, and even psychological security.[16] Clearly, humanity is responsible for the care of animals, especially to see that they are not oppressed or exploited. Rather than laws focusing solely on humanity, Exodus 21:28–22:13 includes many other laws dealing with animals as well.[17]

We have already noted that Jesus emphasized that animals need rest and repose on the Sabbath and that proper care of animals is the duty of humans. In response to the accusation that His healing ministry on the Sabbath violated the fourth commandment, Jesus countered, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” (Matt. 12:11; see also Luke 14:5 for oxen and donkeys). Jesus argues not only for the rightness of His healing ministry on the Sabbath, but also for the spirit of animal rest and care that is portrayed in the Sabbath commandments of the Pentateuch.[18] His reasoning is actually dependent on the similarities between humans and animals, rather than highlighting the differences. Hence those who rely on animals today for daily work are directly responsible for providing Sabbath rest for them, as well as humane treatment all through the week. The rest of us are also called to protect and care for animals within our sphere of influence, as well as to conserve resources as much as possible, in order to insure that all creatures are not unnecessarily subjected to starvation and exploitation.

Conservation as a Joyful Response to Redemption

In addition to the celebration of creation and the conservation of the earth and all creatures as essential reasons for the establishment of the Sabbatical year, Leviticus 25 also provides another foundational reason: God’s redemptive activity–“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God” (Lev. 25:38).

The Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 also reminds us that one of the two principal reasons for Sabbath keeping is our response to God’s gracious redemption (the other reason being God’s creative activity as mentioned in Exodus 20:8-11). When we conserve the earth and care for animals, we are responding in gratitude to God for His redemption of us. Redeemed people are to imitate their Redeemer God by knowing the desires and necessities of animals under their influence.[19]

Seventh-day Adventists have a headstart in animal care not only in their theology of Sabbath and creation, but also in their advocacy of a vegetarian diet. A plant-based diet is one of the very best things humans can do for animals–one vegan saves the lives of at least 95 animals per year.[20] In addition, such a diet is also one of the most powerful contributions humans can make for the environment as a whole: new research shows that meat and dairy production is a major contributor to global warming and worldwide famine.[21]

In reality, we are privileged to practice stewardship. Deuteronomy 14:22- 29 calls for rejoicing when bringing tithes and gifts to God. For that is what tithing and conservation truly are: giving to God and properly caring for what He has given to us in trust, which instills in our hearts a spirit of thankfulness and delight in the God who redeemed us from destruction, and who has given us so many good gifts.


Creation and Sabbath provide key rationale for the continued necessity of earth care. In the biblical theology of conservation, we cannot dismiss care for animals and care for the environment by reasoning that the earth will eventually be “burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10). All living creatures are co-inhabitants of Earth, and as they also depend on its ecosystems for survival, the Bible holds humankind responsible for the preservation of the earth and the care of all living creatures.[22]

Thus, environmental care is grounded in biblical theology. The Sabbath provides a definitive motivation to care for the earth, especially in light of the biblical account of God’s creation of the earth.[23] Although many care for the earth even though they are not Sabbath-keepers or Christians, Adventists have a special responsibility to be involved with conservation efforts because of their commitment to Scripture, and the close biblical connections between Sabbath, creation, and animal care. In light of this commitment, Adventists believe that conservation is not only necessary, but also a God-given responsibility. We are to care for those less fortunate than us, including animals and all life on Earth, not as a chore, but pouring forth as an offering of thankfulness and joy in our redemption by God. Let the grandeur of God’s created works and His care for all of His creatures keep us humble enough to multiply our conservation efforts, and to leave a legacy of awe and wonder for generations to come.

A. Rahel Schafer is an assistant professor of Biblical Studies in the Department of Religion and Biblical Languages at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. She holds an MS in biology and an MA in religion from Andrews University, and is currently a PhD candidate in biblical and theological studies at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Passionate about God's Word and God's world, her current research focuses on God's care for animals in the Old Testament, and she has presented and published several scholarly papers.

Notes and References

[1] The Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs include stewardship of the earth and its resources. See Seventh-day Adventists Believe: A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines, 2nd ed. (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 2005), 301-310. Ellen G. White also strongly encourages care for animals and the environment. See Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1909), 315, 316; Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1913), 443.

[2] Although Leviticus does not reiterate the Sabbath commandment in the same manner as Exodus 20, observance of the Sabbath is assumed in several instances, and is mentioned more specifically in regard to the festivals and the Day of Atonement (Lev.16:31; 19:3, 30; 23:3, 8, 11, 15, 16, 32, 38; 24:8; 26:2). However, comparing Exodus and Deuteronomy, the concept of the sabbatical year seems to take on a greater significance in Lev.19–26. For further discussion, see J. Milgrom, Leviticus 23–27: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible 3B; New York: Doubleday, 2001); F. R. Kinsler, “Leviticus 25,” Interpretation 53 (1999): 395-399.

[3] All Scripture passages are from the New King James Version, except as otherwise stated.

[4] Although this passage does not refer directly to the weekly Sabbath, the parallels with Exo. 20:8-11 and Deut. 5:12-15 correlate strongly with the concept, vocabulary, and even specific phrases used in relation to the weekly Sabbath. See A. Rahel Schafer, “Rest for the Animals? Non-human Sabbath Repose in Pentateuchal Law,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, forthcoming. For further discussion, see E. Haag, “shabbat,” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 14:383; Milgrom, Leviticus 23–27, 2154-2157.

[5] My translation.

[6] The use of land here implies the whole ecosystem, not just the soil. The intensifying sabbath terminology is rare in the Pentateuch and occurs only five other times (Exo. 31:15; 35:2; Lev. 16:31; 23:3, 32), two in relation to the weekly sabbath and two regarding the Day of Atonement. Haag refers to this phrase as “in superlative construction” (“shabbat,Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 14:389).

[7] A. Hüttermann connects the sabbatical year with the protection of soil fertility and water availability, stating that the Israelites lived in a land that was not well-suited to agriculture but needed special care. See Hüttermann, The Ecological Message of the Torah: Knowledge, Concepts, and Laws Which Made Survival in a Land of “Milk and Honey” Possible (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999).

[8] These Hebrew words do not mean rule or own, but to act as viceregent, ruling as God would if He were in our place. Recent work confirms this picture of animal care in Pentateuchal law concerning the Sabbath. See Daniel I. Block, “All Creatures Great and Small: Recovering a Deuteronomic Theology of Animals,” in The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens, ed. Jon Isaak (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 283-305; R. Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010); H. Spanner, “Tyrants, Stewards–or Just Kings?” in Animals on the Agenda: Questions About Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. A. Linzey and D. Yamamoto; (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 216-224.

[9] The creation narratives (Gen. 1–3) set the foundational mandate for creation care. Additionally, in passages like Jonah 4:11 and the flood story (Gen. 6–9), it is obvious that humans are not the only creatures for whom Yahweh shows compassion. No other flood stories in the ancient Near East depict humans or gods caring about and saving the animal world (Hüttermann, The Ecological Message of the Torah, 12-58). Interestingly, certain passages treat/consider animals in ways equal to humans. For instance, in Numbers 8:17, Yahweh seems to consider all the first-born of men and animals as His. Psalm 36:6 states that Yahweh preserves both humans and animals (behemah). For further discussion, see Terence Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 249-268; Bauckham, Bible and Ecology.

[10] See J. Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34 (Word Biblical Commentary 35B; Dallas: Word Books, 1993), 724, 725, 745-747.

[11] J. E. Hartley, Leviticus (Word Biblical Commentary 4; Dallas: Word Books, 1992), 434.

[12] Although Lev. 26:31-44 includes the concept of Sabbath rest for the land, animals are not specifically mentioned in relation to Sabbath in this passage. It is important to note that the Hebrew verb in Lev. 26:34, 43 is ratzah (“to restore/make amends”), not nuakh, nafash, or ‘asah (the verbs used for human, animal and divine Sabbath rest in Exo. 20 and Deut. 5). This implies that the land is not actively participating in repose and rejuvenation, but is being restored from human abuse and overuse. In light of this, it seems significant that Lev. 25 also has different terminology for the land’s rest (shabbat shabbaton), and describes the sabbatical year as benefiting humans and animals, not so much the land itself (the verb shabat is used for the land in Lev. 26:35, but in a more passive sense). Thus, it seems that God cares for all of His creation, but that living creatures take priority over plants and land masses.

[13] My translation.

[14] In fact, in contrast to Exo. 20 and Deut. 5, here animals are the first category of recipients of Sabbath blessings. The different orderings may be related to the focus and emphasis of each passage, and it seems that the mention of specific vulnerable classes emphasizes the universality of the Sabbath. See H. R. Cole, “The Sabbath and the Alien,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 38 (2000):223-229; R.D. Nelson, “Deuteronomy 5:1-15,” Interpretation 41(1988):282-287.

[15] Although the Bible is clear that human life is more sacred than animal life (e.g., Gen. 9:5, 6; Lev. 24:21), this does not mean animals are expendable or to be abused. Instead, they are to rest (nuakh) on the Sabbath. Perhaps because this connection between animal rest and God’s rest is so clear in the text, and yet so unexpected in comparison to current modern conceptions of animals, many scholars seem to be surprised that “even animals” are involved in the Sabbath rest. For example, see Carol Meyers, Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 201; V.P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 193.

[16] Coppes, “nuakh,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:562; Oswalt, “nuakh,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 3:58. Many new studies show that humankind knows very little about experiences, emotions, communication, and consciousness of other living things. For example, see F.B.M. DeWaal, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society (New York: Harmony, 2009).

[17] In addition to the Sabbath and sabbatical year commands, Exodus and Leviticus provide other statutes pertaining to animals: restitution for stolen animals (Exo. 21:33; Lev. 24:18); care for baby animals (Exo. 22:30); kindness to neighbors and their animals (Exo. 23:4); reasonable burdens for animals to bear (Exo. 23:5); and animal responsibility for actions such as killing and bestiality (Exo. 21:28; 22:18; Lev.18:23; 20:15), etc.

[18] G. L. Frear, Jr. notes that “if what is involved in the sabbath rescue of the animal is only prudent husbandry, then the extension to the afflicted human, who of course can wait, does not follow.” See “Caring for Animals: Biblical Stimulus for Ethical Reflection” in Good News for Animals? Christian Approaches to Animal Well-Being, ed. C. Pinches and J.B. McDaniel (Ecology and Justice Series; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 7. Apparently, some rabbis did not condone the rescue of an animal that fell in a pit on the Sabbath, but “they at least allowed it to be made comfortable in the pit,” and thus Jesus “was on common ground with His theological opponents in approving humane action to animals in need.” W.F. Specht, “The Sabbath in the New Testament,” in The Sabbath in Scripture and History, ed. K. A. Strand (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1982), 98, 99.

[19] As illustrated in the Sabbath commandments, humans are to imitate God in His care for animals. In Prov. 12:10, the one who is righteous is the one who cares for the soul (nefesh) of domestic animals. The noun nefesh is used broadly to describe everything from personhood to specific individual desires. See E. Brotzman, “Man and the Meaning of nefesh,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (1988):400-409. More than just making sure the animals live (or are humanely slaughtered), righteous persons know the “soul” (as it were) of their animals: the desires, appetites, inner living being, even emotions, passions and personality (cf. Exo. 23:9; 31:17).

[20] Ninety-five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs (Santa Cruz, CA: No Voice Unheard, 2010). See also Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002).

[21] Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006); Livestock Revolution: Implications for Rural Poverty, the Environment, and Global Food Security, World Bank Report 23241, November 2001.

[22] Much has been written about other ways that individuals can help the suffering of animals. Among others, see Stephen Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth: A ChristianVision for Creation Care (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010); A. Linzey, Animal Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998).

[23] See Sigve Tonstad’s chapter (4) in this book on the relation between Sabbath and the environment.