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Reverence for Life and Environmental Ethics In Biblical Law and Covenant


Richard H. Hiers1
University of Florida

PDF of Full Article
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8



The Bible is generally recognized as the foundation and point of departure for later Jewish and Christian religious and moral understandings. Both conservative and liberal schools within these traditions have tended to assume that biblical religion has to do only with humankind.2 Much of Western secular philosophy likewise has been preoccupied exclusively with the human situation.3 Many theologians and ethicists have traced attitudes toward the environment back to biblical sources. Several excellent studies have emerged from this scholarship.4 None, however, have thus far focused their analysis on biblical laws and covenants.

Biblical laws are thought to refer solely to Israel’s relationship with God (YHWH/Yahweh)5 and the structuring of relationships within the Israelite community. The term “covenant” generally refers to those reported occasions in biblical times when God designated Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their descendants, as God’s6 people and laid upon them certain obligations, typically in the form of laws. Yet a great many biblical laws refer to treatment of animals, the land, trees, and vegetation. Two major biblical covenants embrace not only the people of Israel, but other people and living creatures.

This article examines covenants and biblical laws regarding human relations with the earth and its various life-forms. Biblical texts include differing, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives and understandings on these issues. Yet biblical laws and covenants show much greater concern for the well-being of “the environment” and of all living things than either proponents or critics of Judaism or Christianity have generally recognized. Many other biblical texts are relevant to the subject of this article; some of these are noted here as background texts.7

The results of this study are to set out thematically, beginning with the primordial commandments to early humankind in the first chapters of Genesis (Part I). This section is followed by an account of the story of the Ark and the Flood, and the subsequent remarkable covenant between God and “every living creature” articulated in Genesis chapter nine (Part II). After this is a brief introduction to the major biblical law codes (Part III). Part IV reviews biblical laws relating to animal sacrifices. Laws that specifically indicate concern for humane treatment of animals are considered in Part V. Part VI examines certain laws distinguishing and affirming the significance of various animal species. Part VII considers the “land ethic” implicit in several biblical laws. Part VIII concerns laws relating to trees and other vegetation. Finally, Part IX focuses on the prophet Hosea’s promise that in the coming or messianic age God will establish a new covenant with all living creatures.

Section Outline

Part I
The Primordial Commandments to “Be Fruitful and Multiply”; To “Fill and Subdue the Earth”; to have “Dominion” over other Creatures; and to Refrain from Eating their “Life”
A. On Being Fruitful, Multiplying, Filling and Subduing the Earth, and Having Dominion
B. After Vegetarianism: Respecting the Life of Other Creatures

Part II
Noah, the Ark, and the Animals: The P Covenant “with every living creature”

A. The Original Endangered Species Act: Noah, the Ark, and the Animals
B. Gen 9:8–17: The P Covenant with Every Living Creature of All Flesh

Part III
Biblical Law Codes: An Overview

A. The Earliest Codes: The Ritual Decalogue, the Covenant Code, and the Deuteronomic Code
B. The Later Codes: The Holiness Code, and The Priestly Code

Part IV
Sacrificial Laws: Animal Sacrifices

A. Consecration of the Firstborn: One of the Earliest Laws
B. Other Laws Governing Animal Sacrifice and Slaughter

Part V
Humane Legislation

A. New-Born Bull Calves, Lambs, Kids, and their Mothers
B. On Not Boiling a Kid in its Mother’s Milk
C. Affirmative Duties to Care for Lost or Distressed Domestic Animals
D. Conservation: Birds and their Young
E. Deut 25:4: On Not Muzzling Oxen Treading Grain
F. Sabbath Days and Years of Rest for the Benefit of Cattle and Wildlife

Part VI
Recognition and Appreciation of Other Life-Forms or Species

A. “Clean” and “Unclean” Animals
B. Lev 19:19: Applied Genetics
C. Non-Legal Texts

Part VII
The Land

A. The Land is God’s, Not Israel’s
B. Sabbath Rest for the Land
C. Against Pollution of the Land
D. Israel’s Contingent Possession of the Good Land

Trees and Plants

A. Trees
B. Gifts of the Land: Fruit, Grain, and Other Produce

Part IX
The New Covenant with All Creation

A. Hos 2:18–19: A New Covenant with All Creatures
B. Isa 11:6–9: The Classic “Peaceable Kingdom” Text
C. Isa 65:17–25: New Heavens, New Earth, and the Peaceable Kingdom



Copyright © 1999 Journal of Law and Religion.
Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 1999 Richard Hiers.
Copyright © 2000 Forum on Religion and Ecology