The Book of Genesis and Environmental Ethics, Biodiversity and the Food Deficit

- Jayapaul Azariah, Ph.D.,

Professor of Zoology, University of Madras - Guindy Campus, Madras 600 025, India.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 6-9.

Among the ancient cultures and their socio-religious scriptures, Judaism (Hebrew) scriptures, Greek legends and Indian puranas (ancient stories) and texts (Sanskrit and Tamil) and other scriptures have shaped human attitudes and values towards nature (Azariah, 1991, 1994, Leavitt, 1994a and Ramachandran, 1994). The Eastern attitude to nature, as opposed to the Western attitude, is that of living in tune with nature and being a part of nature, even though these distinctions are blurred in today's world. The Western view of nature, as articulated by the scientists and the technologists, is that of "domination" of nature as articulated by White (1967) who based his argument that the two Hebrew words namely KIVSUHA and RADAH, gave human kind, as Master of the biosphere, the license to exploit the world of resources for human welfare and benefit without any concern for the health of the host system. These two words were translated as "to subdue, to bring into bondage" and "rule over, to exercise dominion over" respectively. One among the other interpretations of those words would also imply a responsibility for management rather than dominion (see the accompanying commentary by Leavitt).

Macer (1990) while pointing out that "Western or industrialized thought, tends to divide man from nature, seeing nature as something to exploit for man's comfort" stressed the growing awakening in the Western mind the current emphasis to recognize human beings as "creatures, part of nature". Similarly, in the Eastern mind, in its attempt to catch up with the industrialization, it is silently slipping away from its original spiritual attitude to nature. Such a changing scenario was recently documented by the International Bioethics Survey results (see Table 26, Macer 1994). In any case "we are currently in a crisis of domination, not just an ecological crisis, but a crisis of our whole life system, brought upon all of creation by ourself" (Macer 1990). However, White (1967) suggested that any possible solution to the present ecological crisis should be religious if the crisis is religious. Leavitt (1994b), in proposing the establishment of the Asian Bioethics Center, in Israel, pointed out the necessity to "deeply explore foundational questions armed with sources ranging from the latest issue of Nature Genetics to ancient Hebrew prophetic, Sanskrit and mystical texts".

The Biblical critics of the West have considered the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis from the Bible as myths which are copied from the Babylonian scriptures and, therefore, many scholars have not taken these texts very seriously for a critical study! Therefore, a study was made on a few basic questions in environmental ethics in the the realm of teleological ethics (consequences of actions\ inactions and the directions in which they move). Further, an attempt has been made to develop an ecological model in Hebrew thought. This is relevant to the Asian area, and I would welcome comments from the perspectives of Judaism, Islam on Genesis and Biodiversity to add to this Christian perspective, in addition to other religious positions.

Statements in Genesis relevant to God & Food

The Revised Standard Version of the King James English translation of the Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis was taken as the source material for the present study as it has been considered as a translation which is very close to the original Hebrew text. An in-depth study was made on the face value of the text following the inductive method of analyses. (NOTE: There are two Approaches: deductive and inductive. The former begins with generalizations and moves for their proof to the particulars and hence it is subjective and prejudicial, while the latter is objective and impartial, and starts from the scattered details and arrives at the generalization and hence this method is scientific in approach, anlytical in character and re-creatuve in purpose (Jensen, 1963).

The following statements can be made: 1. The Elohim, in plural form of El, is the only one supreme and true God of the cosmos (Gen.1:1). 2. The sovereign Elohim, gave one hundred percent of food for human beings, without any trash food item. All items were edible (Gen 1: 29). Considering the food chain some plants were also given for the animals, and other aspects of the food and energy web. 3. Since Elohim finished his creation work, no other entity was created. "By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing" (Gen.2:2). 4. The gene pool of the created beings would therefore seem to be plastic, capable of responding to the creative powers of human beings (Gen 3:18). 5. Negative powers exercised by the human beings will result in possible changes in the gene pool and eliminate a food item from the capital stock and it may become a garbage-food, or at least difficult to harvest (Gen.3:18).

Ecology of Food

The Greek word OIKOS which means the house or the dwelling place is the root word for the disciplines of ECOLOGY and ECONOMICS. While ecology is the study of the structure and function of nature in which man is a part of the system who does the book-keeping of energy, economics deals with the book keeping of currency (Odum 1971). It also forms the root word for another discipline namely ECUMENICS (Nirmal 1991), the house keeping of all humankind. All three disciplines deal with the holistic celebration of the fundamental unity, balance and harmony among them.

The biodiversity of plants as well as their production are two of the main concepts in ecology and economics. A variety of plant species produce chemical energy (food) through the process of photosynthesis which is the Gross Primary Production (GPP). The Net Primary Production (NPP) is the amount left after expenditure for self maintenance. The Hebrew text calls the variety of plants as " according to their kind" (Gen. 1:11,12) while the NPP is referred to as "the strength" or "the yield" (4:12). The concept of production and consumption are only unique to humankind since the rest of the creation neither sow nor reap (Luke 12:24), even though they may hunt and gather food. But they do not have the concept of consumption to make economic profit.

Statements relevant to Humankind and Their Food

1. Humankind took their food from the plant world. " And God said: Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruits; you shall have them for food. "(1:29). 2. Plant sources were the only one source for food. (NOTE: There is debate over whether animals were eaten before this time among scholars of Genesis. In a contextual analytical study it is not proper to superimpose a later event such as the sanction of animal food for human consumption onto a time when plant food alone was the order of the day. In the context of Ch.1:29, plant- food is alone valid since non-vegetarianism came into vogue at a later stage, specifically, Ch.9:3 "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything". The New International Version adds "..... I now give you....".) 3. All plants were edible, including the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life. (2:9). 4. There was total food security in the Garden of Eden and Human beings were not need based. (In the Garden of Eden, there was no need to sweat and hoard food items since food was there already, all in full. There was no need for Adam and Eve to defend themselves agianst any pathogen since there was no disease in the system. The Garden of Eden was not a pthological system since all (Hebrew KAL means all) systems that were made were perfect, "was very good" (Genesis 1: 31). The system described was a pristine cosmos. 5. The totality of food given is taken as the Given Total Capital Stock (GTCS), below.


1. Two major categories of human food:

Two attributes of the food giving plants of the Garden of Eden stand out very prominently: their variety and the rated capacity of production (yield). The text divides the food yielding plants into two major categories: (i) plants yielding seed and (ii) fruit trees with seed in its fruits i.e. fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed (1:11-12). These two major divisions of the vegetation formed the food of Man. 2. 100% food resource:

From the usage of the two words namely "EACH" (1:11-12) and "EVERY" (1:29) it is logical to derive the following three statements: (i) the biodiversity was rich (ii) these words stand to indicate the totality of the food items in both the categories i.e. all the created varieties of vegetation were given to humans as food and (iii) these two words can be equated to present way of statistical representation of one hundred percent. We should note that in the Hebrew iversion, the word KAL is used which makes no distinction between the words "each" and "all" (Genesis 1:11-12). In ecological model making certain assumptions have to be made (Wilson and Bossert 1977). Since the exact number of plants of this totality is not given, we can make the following three assumptions for a model (i) there were 100 plants, (ii) each plant produced 100 units of food and (iii) the total stock (100%) was equally distributed in each of the two categories of food items. If each plant produces 100 units of food then the total yield would be 10000. This works out to be 50% in each categories (Fig. 1). 3. The loss of food value due to human sin:

The Hebrew word KHATAT meaning both "offence and its punishment", is related to the word KHATOH which means "to miss, to forfeit, bear the blame, commit (sin), by fault harm he hath done, loss, miss, offend" (Strong, 1890) and is used in the context of Cain killing his brother Abel (4:7). KHATAT is a kind of sacrifice at the alter or temple atoning for sin (Leavitt, personal communication). It deals with the right and wrong of human actions which is the basis of all bioethical reasoning for the development of an ethically mature society (Macer, 1990, 1994). Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis deals with the offence of Adam and the loss (punishment) related to the blame.

Among the syndrome of losses, the statement "Cursed is the will produce thorns and thistles for you". (3:17) assumes ecological importance. In today's context, thorns and thistles, are not generally edible, though there are some exceptions, and some thorns and thistles are eaten by humans, for example many berries or cacti, and animals, for example, goats thrive even on thistles. Thorns and thistles do represent hard work and difficulty in cultivation. It is logical to derive that if all the plants were edible in the Garden of Eden then it means that inedible thorns and thistles were not present in the GTCS. Since, thorns and thistles are generally hard and unpalatable, it is reasonable to infer that the then edible plants, either totally or relatively, lost their quality of being edible as food plants. In the line of arguments presented above, these two categories have forfeited their usefulness and hence they can represent the loss from the two original categories of food items in the GTCS (See Fig.2).

The question whether or not these two categories of thorns and thistles is new creation of Elohim (God) is too lengthy to describe fully here, and is a subject for a future paper. The gene pool, as it is even today, was plastic enough to respond to human actions. Therefore, it only means that thorns and thistles were plants which were already present in the GTCS of 100% now rendered useless as food due to alterations (injury) in the quality of plant material. The injury may be physical or aesthetic. The term injury indicates a plant's response in its metabolic functions, such as reduction in photosynthesis, foliar necrosis, leaf fall and loss of growth (Guderian, 1977). In today's biotechnological terminology, the value is determined by its economic, ecological and aesthetic values which can be reduced by a fall in growth, yield and quality. Currently, a similar effect can be induced by any pollutant such as sulphur dioxide. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that there was no reduction in the total number of the GTCS but a few food plants were treated as garbage due to their uselessness. 4. Ecological Modeling of Genesis Information:

The next problem is to work out an ecological model to deduce the quantum of loss. How many plants were lost from the GTCS? The number is not mentioned but it can be deduced. Since the loss as food plants is definite, the original number in each of the two categories can not remain as 50, or a total of 100. So there were less than 50 plants in each category; therefore Equation 1 = <50. Similarly, there was not a total loss. Hence, the number of plants in them was not zero; therefore Equation 2 = >0. Putting these two equations together, it is reasonable to infer that the loss was between ">0 and <50". This number >0<50 is a universal number which is true for all ages. If X is taken to represent the total number that was lost then a final equation can be arrived at, Equation 3 = 0< X <50. 5. Reduction in Food Value and Biodiversity:

The Genesis Number ">0<50" is equivalent to fullness in the era before the Fall of human beings. After alienation from Elohim (God), this number was less than 50, maybe 49, i.e. after the time covered in Ch. 3. From this position there was a gradual decline to the present level of 20 food plants (UNEP, 1989). It remains to be seen whether this number will decrease further or increase, during the present post industrial society. The above theme of a decline in food value of plants due to human acts of omission is certain since there are currently many instances of variations of the same theme. Documentation of these variations of this basic theme will be dealt with in another paper.

According to Berry (1985) "The earth system is most threatened when the human economy goes out of balance and frantic efforts toward a remedy lead to a reckless plundering of the land, spending our capital as our interest diminishes". He continued that " in such a situation the productivity of the natural world and its life system is diminished. When nature goes into deficit, then we go into deficit". This principle has extended its tentacles of extinction into biodiversity of the biosphere. There is enough documentary evidence to substantiate the above equation. "Countless species of plants and animals have existed in the history of life on Earth. Estimates of the total progeny....range from 5 to 50 billion species. Yet, only an estimated 5 to 50 million species are alive today - a rather poor survival record. With, at the most, only one in every thousand species surviving, what happened to the others? (Raup 1991). Further, "biological diversity in many species and ecosystems is declining at an alarming rate as wild animals and plants and their habitats are destroyed or depleted, especially in developing countries. Of the approximately 265,000 plant species in the world, more than 60,000 are at risk of extinction during the next century because of the destruction and degradation of the Earth's vegetation. About 6,000 plants are known to be used in agriculture, forestry and medicine, while only 150 are used for intensive cultivation (about 20 species producing 90 per cent of the world's food). The loss in biological diversity is due largely to the increasing demands of the growing human population on natural resources..."(UNEP, 1987, p.78). Among the 20 food producing plant species there are only six major cereals for human consumption. If, due to biotechnological catastrophe, some of the genes in the rice plant are damaged or changed or lost then 50 per cent of the world population will be gaining hunger. And world hunger is not going to make people happy and will not aid the development of an ethically mature society in the coming century.


The crisis in food deficit, in the first place, is a spiritual crisis since the relationship between Elohim (God) and Human beings was marred. It is also a moral crisis since human beings made the wrong action. Hence, the present study agrees with the common Judeo-Christian view that puts the blame on human sin for the sufferings in the world (Macer 1990, p.23). The hidden agenda of the Book of Genesis is that the gene pool of plants will respond to human sin in such a way that a part of the resource will become unavailable for human use. If the people of Adam and Eve's generation were to retrieve a useless and degraded, value changed food item they would have carried out their own technology to change it back to its original state. In the event of a failure in such an attempt the natural tendency is to mix the value- changed food item with a value-full item to get a new menu, the present example will be mixing of lemon and sugar. The development of an alloy (Gen. 4: 22) is the culmination of this attempt. The scientific, technological and economic implications of this Biological Law could be understood to be universal and would thus extend into all walks of human life.

Herman Kahn "encouraged us to continue our established way into the future, confident that our scientific insight, technological competence, and economical discernment would lead us on into an even better life situation (see Berry, 1985). There is in us 'the ought to be like this' quest which drives us to carry out technological development. hence, human technological advances have made frantic efforts towards a remedy but our technological efforts in themselves create further ecological problems. If White's (1967) suggestion to seek a religious solution to the present ecological problems is taken seriously then the Hebrew solution as stated in 2 Chronicles 7:14 assumes a new significance which states " If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face (Elohim), and turn from their wicked (unethical) ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

Secondly, it is known that there are scientific laws in nature and there are laws in physics, chemistry and ecology (Azariah, 1995) but there is no real 'biological law' (Myer, 1982, 1988). And since this principle is fundamental to the food resources of the world and applicable to all ages, I propose that the above relationship may be considered as the "First Biological Law of Genesis".

I hope that we can have some debate on this in the following issues of the Journal. As a zoologist, with an ecological awareness, and considering the need for improvement of agricultural varieties and practices towards more sustainability, I feel that we need to think about how genetic engineering fits into the picture, among the alternatives to stabilise our food supply.

Azariah, J. (1991) "Philosophy of Ecological Degradation", pp 65-74. in Ecology and Development - Theological Perspectives. Ed. D.D. Chetti. (Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute; Madras 600 010, India).
Azariah, J. (1994) "Global Bioethics and Common Hope. 1. Ecology and Religion: Spirituality Mode - A Keystone in Ecobalance", pp Bioethics for the People by the People, Ed. D.R.J. Macer. (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z.).
Azariah, J. (1995) Reshaping Biology Education for the Development of an ethically Mature Society in AD 2000 Plus (In preparation).
Berry, T (1985) "Wonderworld as Wasteworld: The Earth in Deficit", Cross Currents (Winter 1985-86), pp 15 (IDOC Dossier 49699, pp 408-422).
Guderian, R. (1977) Air Pollution (Springer-Verlag, Berlin), pp. 11-2.
Jensen, I.L. (1963) Independent Bible Study (Moody Press, Chicago), pp. 45-8.
Leavitt, FJ. (1994a) "Israel's ancient tradition in the age ofthe new genetics", pp. 214-217 in Ed. N. Fujiki & D. Macer, Intractable Neurological Disorders, Human Genome Research and Society (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z.).
Leavitt, FJ. (1994b) "The idea of the Asian Bioethics Center", Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 4: 72-3.
Macer, DRJ (1990) Shaping Genes: Ethics, Law and Science of Using Genetic Technology in Medicine and Agriculture (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z.). pp 22-27.
Macer, DRJ (1994) Bioethics for the People by the People (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z.). Mayr, E (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA).
Mayr, E (1988) Towards a New Philosophy of Biology: Observations of an Evolutionist. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University: Cambridge, MA).
Nirmal A.P. (1991) "Ecology, Ecumenics and Economics in Relation: A New Theological Paradigm", pp 17-28 in Ecology and Development - Theological Perspectives. Ed. D.D. Chetti. (Gurukul Lutheran Theological College & Research Institute; Madras 600 010, India).
Odum, EP (1971) Fundamentals of Ecology (W.B. Saunders).
Ramachandran, J (1994) "Ecology - A way of Life: Practices of Tamils", in Environment and Development: Issues and Options. Ed. J. Azariah. (Academic Staff College Publication: University of Madras, In Press).
Raup, D (1991) "Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?", New Scientist (14th Sept.), 46-49.
Strong, J (1890) "Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek words", p.38 in The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. (Aringdon-Cokesbury Press: New York).
UNEP (1987) Annual Report of the Executive Director Part One. Nairobi. p 176.
White, L (1967) "The historical roots of the ecological crisis", Science 155: 1203-1207.
Wilson, EO & Bossert, WH (1977) A Primer of Population Biology (Sinauer Associates, Inc.: Mass., USA).

Figure 1: Given Total Capital Stock

Figure 2: Extent of Loss due to Thorns and Thistles

Go to commentaries
Go back to EJAIB January 1995
Go back to EJAIB