The Hebrew Bible contains some of the world’s earliest environmental legislation. Don’t destroy trees under the pretext of waging war, says Deuteronomy 20:19. Let fields lie fallow once in seven years, commands Leviticus 25:3-5. Several otherwise mystifying prohibitions — such as mixing milk and meat [Exo. 23:19, 34:26] or sowing mixed grain [Lev. 19:19] — can now be seen as substantive or symbolic environmental warnings whose message is: respect the integrity of nature. Don’t transgress boundaries. Each life form has its part to play in Earth’s complex ecology.
One of the most powerful of all consciousness-raising institutions is the biblical Sabbath [Exo. 23:12, 31:15; Deut. 15:14], the weekly reminder that we are not just creators: we are also creations. The prohibition against work sets limits to our freedom to manipulate and exploit natural resources. Observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath, nor do they switch on electrical devices. The Sabbath is a tutorial in ecological self-restraint.
There is a highly significant phrase in the second chapter of Genesis that gets lost in translation. It says that God “took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” [Gen. 2:15]. In the original Hebrew, these two verbs are technical terms designating specific types of responsibility. The word translated as “to work” in fact means “to serve”. It is the term the Bible elsewhere uses to describe the relationship between humanity and God. It means that within the created world we are servants not masters. The verb translated as “take care of” has the legal sense of guardianship. We do not own the world. God has temporarily placed it in our care as trustees for the benefit of future generations.
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Scripture tells us that we hold the Earth in trust for future generations” (8/12/2006), http://www.rabbisacks.org/scripture-tells-us-that-we-hold-the-earth-in-trust-for-future-generations/.