The Word and the World: Psalm 8 and the Gulf Oil Spill

by Bruce Gillettte

“Effective preaching, teaching, and personal witness require disciplined study of both the Bible and the contemporary world.” –from The Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  Many people in our churches have been watching the news stories of the oil spill and praying about it.

Saturday’s news has the headline, A nation mesmerized: Can BP plug the Gulf gusher? in response to the largest oil spill in U.S. history.  Even President Obama’s young daughter is asking when the disaster will end.

Obama And the Oil Spill” was a recent column by the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Thomas Friedman with this comment, “…the gulf oil spill is not Obama's Katrina. It's his 9/11 — and it is disappointing to see him making the same mistake George W. Bush made with his 9/11. Sept. 11, 2001, was one of those rare seismic events that create the possibility to energize the country to do something really important and lasting that is too hard to do in normal times.”  What may be true for the President can also be true for our churches, that we fail to encourage people of faith to make a difference for God’s creation at this teachable moment.

The Psalm in May 30th’s lectionary  that will be read in many of our churches is Psalm 8 with its words praising God for an awe-inspiring creation, including the sixth verse, “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” 

A new hymn, “O God, the Great, Wide Seas are Yours,” uses the image of creation care from Psalm 8:6 in each of its verses set to the well-known tune of what is often called the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”

The idea of humanity’s “dominion” over creation first shows up in Genesis 1:28.  Here are some reflections about it from the recent article, “A Journey Towards a Green Church,” in Call to Worship: Liturgy, Music, Preaching and the Arts (the quarterly journal is published by the PC(USA)'s Office of Theology and Worship), 42.4  Environment and Worship issue (May 2009):

“It is always good to look at a variety of biblical translations when preparing to preach or teach.  The first chapter of Genesis provides a key text (1:28) by which one can look at the rest of Bible:

“God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." New International Version

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  New Revised Standard Version

These translations (“subdue,” “rule over” and “have dominion”) have created problems.  Lynn White wrote an influential article, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis" (Science 155 (1967): pages 1203-7), arguing that Genesis 1:28 says creation is “explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes” (p. 1205). White believes that the verse is an underlying cause of our present environmental problems. While some good scholars have countered White’s position, one wonders if we might have had the same problems if people had pondered the better wording (“take charge” and “be responsible for”) used by Eugene Peterson in his The Message for the same verse:

“God blessed them: "Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!
   Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air,
      for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth."

In addition to looking at various biblical translations, it is helpful for a preacher or teacher to use the helpful resources in good study Bibles. Terence Fretheim of Luther Seminary in St. Paul makes a helpful comment in the Genesis 1:28 footnote of the new Discipleship Study Bible, a study Bible that seeks to help people “called to discipleship in the world” (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, p.xii):

“1:28  Subdue…have dominion-God shares power with the human, choosing not to be the only one who has creative and ruling capacities. Having dominion is understood in terms of caregiving, not exploitation; it has its roots in the ideal conception of royal dominion (see Ps. 72:8-14, Ezek. 24:1-4) and focuses on the animals. The command to “subdue” relates to the earth, particularly the difficult task of cultivation. While the verb may have a coercive aspect in interhuman relationships (Num. 32:22, 29) no enemies are in view here.  More generally, these verbs assume ongoing development in the created order, rather than a finished product.  So God’s world is not a static state of affairs” (p.5).

Barbara Brown Taylor has a wonderful sermon, “The Dominion of Love,” in The Green Bible that reminds us that biblical interpretation includes reading biblical texts in their literary context. She comments on her resulting discovery that human beings are not the only creatures made at the sixth day of the creation story: 

“I cannot tell you how many times I read the first chapter of Genesis before I noticed something new on day six.  For years and years I thought that humans had day six all to ourselves— you know, the pinnacle of the story—God’s last, best word in the utterance of creation. With all lesser creatures out of the way, the sixth day finally arrived… Then I noticed for the first time that day six does not start there. Day six starts two verses earlier, with the creation of land animals—cattle, to be exact. The text does not mention any other animals by name except cattle— twice, in fact, along with unspecified creeping things and wild animals…  Still, this new information is a real come down—a reminder that while God may have made human beings for special purpose, we were not made of any more special stuff than the rest of creation. We were made on the same day as cows and creeping things and wild animals of every kind. God gave us dominion, it is true, but God did not pronounce us better than anything else that God had made.”

Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary edited by Roger E. Van Horn and Brent A. Shawn (Eerdmans, 2009) includes this insight by Rolf Jacobson:  “Psalm 8 pictures all of humanity as the kings and queens of creation, bestowed with a special divinely given gifts, which we are to use for the care and keeping of creation” (p. 66).

A more recent article looking at the Gulf disaster in the larger environmental context is an excellent one by Bill McKibben in Christian Century titled “It's about the carbon:  What's worse than the gulf oil leak?” the major new studies released on May 19th by some top scientists in the USA from our National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council see the strong evidence on Climate Change that underscores the need for action. Long after the oil spill in the Gulf has been stopped, we are facing a greater environmental challenge that needs to be spoken about in our pulpits, church classrooms and inspire creative action in the world by faithful Christians.

Grace and Peace,
Bruce Gillette
Co-Pastor, Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware

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