“What is man that thou art mindful of him,” King David asks in Psalm 8:4. Good question.
In view of God’s handiwork and the limitlessness of His creation, David is awestruck by the Creator’s concern for human beings and the position He gave them to have dominion as caretakers over the good earth.
God has shown His care of humans in several ways. He created humankind only after He had created a world that was ready for them. The sun, moon, and stars provided light, the plants were a food source, and the climate ideal for sustaining life. Then, as the Book of Genesis reveals, he created male and female humankind from the dust of the earth. Thus, the human-earth relationship is bound together in the sacred nature of the creation story.
The Book of Genesis; A New Translation from the Transparent English Bible, (James D. Tabor; Genesis 2000 Press, 2020) clearly illustrates that the earth was created as a living organism: self-contained, self-sustaining, following the cycles of nature, and able to create its own health and vitality out of the living dynamics orchestrated by the Creator.
A deeper look into the original Hebrew text reveals a deep connection between our present ecological crisis and our lack of awareness of the sacred nature of creation.
Probably the first recorded depiction of the relation between human health and soil occurs in 1400 BC in the Bible in the book of Numbers where Moses directs the people to “see what the land is like….how is the soil…fertile or poor?” (Numbers 13:18–20).
Our first step in connecting our bodies with nature is realizing we are bound up with nature—not separate from, but an integral part of it all. Our bodies are made up of all the same elements, minerals, and energy that make up the planet. The percentage of water on the planet, for example, reflects approximately the same percentage of water in our bodies when we are born, and so on.
Thus, we realize that nature is not just something on the outside in our environment, but a part of our very being. The same water that flows in the ocean runs through our bloodstream. The same vitamins and minerals in nature are the very substance from which our bones and bodies are built. The oxygen we breathe is from a symbiotic relationship between humans and trees in which both provide the necessary element for one another to live and thrive. The fire that burns to heat up our bodies is the same fire in any flame or even the sun. Our bodies are created from nature, and at the end of this incarnation, we give our physical bodies back to Mother Earth. Dust to dust.
It brings to mind the human-earth relationship that our native peoples understood and the wisdom we can learn from their culture about the earth. They were in harmony with nature and understood its cycles. None stood out more than the great Chief Seattle of the Duwamish tribe of the Pacific Northwest.
The tribal website reveals the story of Chief Si’ahl (Anglicized “Seattle,” who lived from 1780-1866). His fame largely rests upon his welcome of the small bands of Euro-Americans that had begun establishing villages along the banks of Puget Sound in the early 1850s and the wisdom of his inspiring stories. Chief Seattle had proven so friendly and welcoming, the settlers named their tiny new settlement in his honor. Today it is known as the city of Seattle.
We even have a present day colloquialism that originated from the villages of that period. The Euro-American settlers picked the site because of the luxuriant forest on the bluff behind the new village. The Gold Rush in California had created a booming market for timber, and soon most of the villagers were at work cutting the trees and “skidding” them down a long chute to a newly constructed sawmill. The Lorenzo Cohen chute became known as “skid road,” and in time, it became the main street in Seattle, though it kept its original name. When the Seattle business district later moved north, the area became a haven for drunks and derelicts. Consequently, “skid road” or “skid row” became lingo for the dilapidated area of any town.
The tribal website also reveals the history of the disunity and disconnect brought by early explorers. As a boy, Si’ahl saw British Captain George Vancouver’s ships passing through the Khwulch (Puget Sound) in 1792. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Si’ahl witnessed epidemics of new diseases introduced by British and American traders, decimating Puget Sound’s native population. Experts estimate that 12,000 Puget Sound Salish-more than 30% of the native population-died from smallpox, measles, influenza and other diseases introduced by Europeans during the first 80 years of contact. (duwamishtribe.org).
Today, much has been written about the destructive practices we have fostered upon our land. Dr. Lorenzo Cohen wrote the best descriptive summary I have seen in his best selling book Anti-Cancer Living (Penguin Books, 2018). He wrote: “With our all-consuming embrace of convenience, and our quest to apply science rather than follow its trail to greater wisdom on behalf of humankind, we’ve built an industrialized infrastructure that has polluted our air, tainted our water, and stripped our land of its resources. While we raced to tame, control, and profit from nature with more potent chemicals and poisons, we have also, it is now clear, poisoned ourselves.”
Chief Seattle reminded us of this simple truth generations earlier when he wrote “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” Sadly, we have departed from the wisdom of the people who knew the earth.
Today we see Native Americans, Whites, and other Americans from diverse cultural heritages working to bring back traditional earth management systems. Scientific, educational non-profit organizations are dedicated to the goal of restoring regenerative agriculture, the bio-diverse practices for the perpetuity of our ecosystem. These are redemptive practices.
Many of us remember the Apollo 8 moon mission in 1968 when astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders became the first humans to orbit another world. It was Christmas Eve when the crew of Apollo 8 chose, appropriately, to read in turn from the creation story in the Book of Genesis as they orbited the moon. It was from this mission that we were given the first photos of earth taken from deep space, including the now iconic “Earthrise.”
The otherworldly picture shows us a fragile yet good earth hanging as a beautiful blue-green ornament spinning in the dark mystery of space. It’s origin is bound up in the creation story that presents humankind with a reality so extensive, so beautiful, and so mysterious that the more we try to name it, the more its nature eludes us.
As we consider the consequences of the destructive practices of our past and renewed attempts to regain a sense of ecological restoration that would insure a sustainable human future, maybe we are confronted with a different question: “What is God that we are mindful of Him?”
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. An author, historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.