Celine Mangan OP traces the discourse between God and mankind about our relationship with the planet and other creatures. She goes on to highlight the significance of such covenants with us today.
‘Covenant’ is a word that is often used in the Bible; it implies an agreement of mutual relationship. It can be applied first of all to the relationship between two people, for example Jonathan making a covenant with David because of his love for him. He then went on to save David from the anger of his father, King Saul (I Sam. 18-19).
Another great example from the Bible is that of the foreigner, Ruth, who decided to return to Israel with her mother-in-law, Naomi, when she said: ‘Where you go, I will go… your people shall be my people and your God my God.’
But most of all in the Bible, covenant stands for the relationships the people of Israel understood God as entering into with their leaders and themselves. For example with David, guaranteeing that his successors would sit on the throne after him (2 Sam. 7). Or with Abraham promising him land for his people.
Abraham’s own relationship to the land was that of a pilgrim: travelling from place to place, living lightly on the land and entering into negotiations with those already in the land (Gen.23). Some of his descendants would have a very different attitude to the land. When they came into possession of it they were unwilling to share it with any other group.
Undoubtedly this attitude is present in some books of the Bible and there are groups in Israel today who consider this attitude as giving themselves the sole right to the possession of the land. But the attitude of Abraham as pilgrim is there within the covers of the Bible too, and it is interesting that his is the example Jesus followed, living lightly on the land and, in his parables, appreciating its beauty and productivity.
But when we think of covenant in the Bible, the one that most probably first comes to mind is that with Moses on Mount Sinai. The core of that covenant is to be found in what has since come to be called ‘The Ten Commandments’ but which the Bible itself speaks of as ‘The Ten Words’.
These Words are meant to show us how we as human beings are to respond to God by the way we show responsibility for other people but also for animals. For example, the second Word says: ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God in vain’ and so we think of it as calling us to honour God’s holy name. But when you look at how the Bible speaks about honouring the name of God, you find, for example in the Book of the Prophet Amos, that it is all about how the poor and the marginalized are treated: ‘They trample the head of the poor… and push the afflicted out of the way, father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned'(Am.2:7).
We could ask ourselves if we today are doing just that by supporting multinationals and governments who by their globalization policies are ‘trampling the head of local farmers in Third World countries or contributing, by our silence, to the trafficking of women and children worldwide.
Likewise, the Third Word asking is to ‘keep holy the sabbath day’ is not so much about honouring God but about ensuring that those dependant on us have rest at least once a week: ‘You shall do no work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock’ (Deut.5:14). This would be in a society where animals and slaves were often worked until they dropped.
But are we very different today? How many people in Third-World countries around the world work in sweatshops? Even in the West, how many are forced to work on Sundays, even when they don’t want to, for fear of losing their jobs?
God’s Covenant with the Earth, the emphasis on giving rest even to the animals, brings us to what is the foundational covenant in the Bible – that which took place after the Food when God made a covenant not just with Noah and human beings, but with the whole earth.
God said: ‘As for me I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark’ (Gen.9:9-10).
This covenant is a salutary reminder to us of the preciousness of bird and animal species which are becoming extinct at an alarming rate because of human actions. Here in Ireland, for example native birds such as long-eared owls, red grouse and the curlew and so many more are dwindling rapidly.
The recent formulation of an `Earth Charter’ – not just a ‘Charter of Human Rights’ – stresses that our response to God must involve responsibility not just for human beings but also for all other creatures on the face of the Earth:
`We are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life and to future generations.’ (see www.earthcharter.org)
This article first appeared in The Messenger (September 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.