The Oxford Handbook of the Bible and Ecology
Series: Oxford Handbooks
- ISBN: 9780190606732
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: November 2022
The Oxford Handbook of the Bible and Ecology, edited by Hilary Marlow and Mark Harris, is an outstanding, timely contribution to the burgeoning field of ecological hermeneutics. Readers new to this field will come away from it with a broad and deep awareness of the past achievements and current issues in the study of the Bible and ecology. The comprehensive bibliographies for each chapter are also invaluable. As with all handbooks, the contributions are uneven, but each is well done and worthy of inclusion, and some are excellent.
There are thirty chapters divided into four subsections. Following an introduction by the editors, the first subsection addresses general hermeneutical issues. Jeremy Kidwell opens with a summary of Lynn White’s brief, seminal article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (1967) and its reception. More than a third of the subsequent chapters (chapters 2, 5, 12, 19, 20, 22, 23, 26, 27, and 29) cite or interact with claims from White’s work, so readers unfamiliar with it would benefit significantly from reading White prior to engaging this volume. The methodological subsection also includes a helpful, state-of-the-question overview of ecological hermeneutics (David Horrell) and chapters on feminist ecological interpretation (Anne Elvey), ecological readings and postcolonialism (Madipoane Masenya/Ngwan’a Mphahlele), and literary ecocriticism (Timothy J. Burbery).
The second subsection includes chapters dedicated to specific biblical books or collections of books. Almost all of the obviously relevant texts—either because they have been deemed particularly conducive to ecological readings or seen as problematic for such readings—are treated, including Genesis (Theodore Hiebert), Isaiah (Hilary Marlow), the Psalms (William Brown), Job (Kathryn Schifferdecker), the synoptic Gospels (Mark Harris), the Pauline epistles (Vicky S. Balabanski), and Revelation (Micah D. Kiel). Others provide stimulating readings of books that have not received as much ecological attention, including Leviticus (Deborah Rook), Deuteronomy (Raymond F. Person Jr.), Jeremiah (Emily Colgan), the book of the twelve (Laurie J. Braaten), Song of Songs (Ellen Bernstein), and John (Susan Miller). The latter two are especially thought-provoking in the organic connections the authors make between the rich imagery of each respective book and environmental concerns. Given the breadth of coverage and quality of these specific chapters, it is perhaps unfair to complain, but I would have hoped to see treatments of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs in a handbook such as this. There is also no direct treatment of the deuterocanonical literature accepted as Scripture by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and other Eastern Christian traditions.
A third subsection offers thematic studies of ancient Near Eastern views on ecology (Ronald A. Simkins), the image of God (J. Richard Middleton), apocalypticism and eschatology in the second temple period (Christopher Rowland), stewardship (Mark Liederbach), the sea in biblical tradition (Rebecca S. Watson), and cities and sustainability (Mary E. Mills). These chapters are among of the most creative and theologically useful in the collection. Rowland’s provides particularly helpful insights for defusing faith-based approaches that marshal the apocalyptic texts in the New Testament to justify treating the more-than-human world in utilitarian and destructive ways.
Finally, the fourth subsection explores contemporary practical issues through chapters on Jewish ecotheology (Julia Watts Belser), wildlife conservation (Dave Bookless), environmental ethics (Celia Deane-Drummond), animal theology (David Clough), evangelical creation care (Daniel L. Brunner and A. J. Swoboda), and climate-change skepticism and denialism (Benjamin S. Lowe, Rachel L. Lamb, and Noah J. Toly). These final two chapters provide further helpful resources and reflections for addressing short-sighted and blasphemous positions on ecology propped up with tenuous scriptural justification. And Bookless and Clough’s articles are especially timely given the dire realities and projections of the current extinction crisis.
Aside from the minor quibbles raised above, theologically minded readers may find certain stances taken within some of the chapters perplexing or frustrating. Many of the authors indicate that Genesis 1:26–28 either has been or remains a problem for ecological readings of Scripture (the intro, chapters 2, 5, 6, 7, 12, 20, 25, 26, and 30). Even if that particular text, or any other “gray text,” could be proven to represent a “biblical” conviction that is ecologically problematic (which is a questionable proposition in the first place), it is not necessary to read and use that text, or any other, in ways that justify abuse of the environment and non-human creatures today.
Many authors also note that contemporary interpreters must take care to avoid anachronism in our readings of the texts (the intro, chapters 2, 7, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 29, and 30). It is, of course, both responsible and justifiable to identify the differences between the (diverse) premodern, pastoral, agrarian, and ancient urban perspectives present in the texts and our own situation, with its profound post-industrial, modern anthropogenic impacts on the more-than-human world. But highlighting such gaps without explicitly developing a theological framework for navigating the texts and environmental questions—what Deane-Drummond calls a biblical ethos (see 386–87)—risks weakening scripture’s authority or even delegitimizing it completely, thus conceding its use to those bent on stealing, killing, and destroying. But if that is the approach one chooses, why bother with the Bible at all?
Overall, this excellent collection merits a place of privilege and honor in academic and theological libraries. Biblical scholars, theologians, and philosophers working in ecological hermeneutics and exegesis and related areas should, and undoubtedly will, return to its stimulating chapters again and again in the near and distant future. It does exactly what such a handbook should do, and admirably so. Kudos and thanks to Oxford, Marlow and Harris, and their diverse, competent, insightful team for creating and bringing together such a beneficial, timely resource.
Joseph K. Gordon is a professor of theology at Johnson University.Joseph K. GordonDate Of Review:October 31, 2023