Ecology and the Bible

Though it’s not an ecology textbook, the Bible is full of principles that teach us about God’s masterful order and compassion for His creation.

Ecology is one of the more recent fields of scientific study, and today many aspects of public policy and research center on ecology. Though there is sometimes controversy over the interpretation of ecological facts and about policy decisions, at its core ecology is the scientific study of complex interactions between organisms and their environment.

In essence, to a Christian, ecology can reveal more about the beauty and wonders of God’s creation.

Since the Bible focuses on spiritual matters, you might not expect it to have much to say about the subject. However, the Scriptures are full of thoughtful observations that reflect the foundations of ecology. Primarily, these discussions serve to provide insight into God’s character—that He has a plan for and cares about His creation.

Let’s consider a few biblical examples.

1. We should consider the sustainability of our actions.

Deuteronomy 22:6-7: “If a bird’s nest happens to be before you … you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall surely let the mother go, and take the young for yourself, that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.”

The word sustainable describes a practice that meets present needs without jeopardizing the ability to meet future needs. It may be a recent buzzword, but the concept was emphasized long ago in the Bible.

From the beginning, God commissioned man to “tend and keep” his environment (Genesis 2:15). God wanted His people to be circumspect (Deuteronomy 32:29), avoid greed (Proverbs 1:19), plan for the future (2 Corinthians 12:14) and take care of the world around them (Proverbs 12:10).

As we read in Deuteronomy 22:6-7, He taught them to leave the mature generation to breed again if they found a bird with young—never to take both.

Other passages also relate to sustainability. The Israelites were to responsibly manage their land, at regular intervals letting it “rest” in a natural fallow (Leviticus 25:2-7). Even in war, the children of Israel were to take the long view: They were forbidden to destroy their enemies’ fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:20). After all, God designed ecosystems to satisfy the needs of a vast array of organisms, and He seems to delight in them all (Job 38:26-27; Job 39). He does not smile on thoughtless destruction of His creation (Revelation 11:18).

In short, the Bible describes and requires sustainable practices. Although modern life can pose different challenges, the ecological principles of the Bible are just as relevant in today’s quest for sustainability.

2. It makes a difference what meats you eat.

Leviticus 11:2: “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘These are the animals which you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth’” (see also Deuteronomy 14:3-20 and Genesis 7:2).

In short, the Bible describes and requires sustainable practices. Although modern life can pose different challenges, the ecological principles of the Bible are just as relevant in today’s quest for sustainability.Stocked with proteins and nutrients, meat has its advantages as a food source. The Bible says that God provided for humans to consume animals “as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). Yet in the same way that many plants are inedible or poisonous to humans, not all meats are equal. Not only do the muscular structures of fish, birds and other animals differ broadly from each other (as 1 Corinthians 15:39 notes), but even meat from apparently similar creatures can vary from relatively wholesome to risky based on a multitude of ecological and anatomical factors. A look at the meats God calls “clean” (okay for human consumption) and “unclean” affirms this principle.

Of course, God gives laws for our good, both spiritually and physically (Deuteronomy 10:13). Studying just the science behind each commandment cannot reveal God’s higher purpose, and it certainly can’t provide a replacement for obedience. However, understanding the scientific wisdom packed into Leviticus 11 can help us appreciate that God’s laws are not arbitrary, but specifically designed to fit His purpose—even if we don’t fully understand it.

Although other biological concerns (like digestive differences that make some meats more likely to carry disease) are just as instructive, in this article let’s focus on the ecology surrounding God’s instructions. It is noteworthy that the Bible’s guidelines only require observation; you do not need to dissect an animal to discern if it is clean.

So what do the biblical food laws have to do with ecology?

First, the Bible rules out top predators of the land and air as a food source for humans. All animals with divided hooves that also chew the cud—plant-eaters, by definition—are clean. Among flying creatures, many birds of prey and scavengers are specifically listed as unclean. (Many aquatic top predators are eliminated as well, since only fish with fins and scales are clean.)

It’s interesting to consider that these prohibitions are wise from an ecological standpoint. Roughly a 10th of the energy an animal consumes over its lifespan is used to build its body mass; from the perspective of its predator, the rest is lost. That is, at every step up the food chain (at each successive trophic level, as ecologists would say), making a pound of meat can require 10 times more resources.

This type of impact means that environmental toxins can become concentrated in predator flesh (known as biomagnification). It also means that most environments do not support very many top predators, which, in turn, makes them vulnerable to overhunting.

Developing a taste for carnivores is not only inefficient, but also can topple the balance of an ecosystem. If humans severely limit or eliminate predators, prey populations (with their generally high reproductive rates) surge beyond equilibrium levels and threaten plant species and other animal species by overconsuming or outcompeting them.

There’s another ecologically sound reason not to make a meal of a carnivore. Weak and sick prey is typically easier to catch, and so predators are likely to eat some infected meat. Mountain lions, for instance, eat a disproportionately high number of mule deer with chronic wasting disease, “a degenerative neurological illness similar to mad cow disease,” according to a study reported by the New York Times. This fact can be beneficial to the prey population, reducing the chances of a healthy animal coming in contact with a contagion. However, while an infectious agent may not impact the predator that eats it, this is no guarantee that humans would be likewise unaffected.

Similarly, the Bible shows that the animals that serve as nature’s “clean-up crew” are not for humans to eat. Scavengers, bottom feeders, shellfish and others are essential for maintaining the flow of nutrients through an ecosystem and keeping it clean and healthy for other organisms. For example, an oyster is an unclean sea creature that can filter more than 50 gallons of water in 24 hours, dramatically improving water quality as it sifts out its food, microscopic algae. Threatening oyster populations through overfishing (or pollution) can cause environmental disaster.

Of course, filter-feeding also concentrates harmful bacteria, viruses and algal toxins in oysters’ bodies—another good reason to avoid eating them.

As the biblical food laws show, God designed and cares about the interdependence of His creation. For more information on how and why to follow God’s instructions on clean and unclean meats, read our article “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?

3. Living things are composed of elements from the earth, and they decompose into earth.

Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

Scripture lays out a cyclical relationship between dirt and our bodies. In fact, science agrees. The chemical ingredients that make up humans (and other organisms) mix into the soil after decomposition. Accordingly, all the elements that make up the human body can be found in the soil.

The soil, however, is not necessarily their final resting place. Some of these elements move in cycles between the atmosphere, biosphere and earth’s surface; the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles include paths for each of these chemicals to be absorbed by a plant, and perhaps be consumed by an animal (or series of animals) before returning to the ground.

Other essential elements have an even more direct route back into organisms’ bodies, since plants and animals obtain them directly from the earth or indirectly through the food chain.

In other words, the Bible describes a cycle of life: The process of decay recycles nutrients for future generations. This fact is foundational to understanding how organisms grow and interact with their environment. It also helps us appreciate how God has a master plan and order to even the “messy” and unpleasant parts of His creation.

To learn more about this amazing plan and what God really says about life after death, be sure to read our articles addressing “Is There Life After Death?

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