The Jewish New Year starts at sundown today. According to rabbinic tradition, this is the day that God finished creating the world. However you interpret Rosh Hashanah, there's something to be glad about on this day. I'm simply glad there is a world!
There could be no better day to say something about my favorite passage from the bible. That happens to be the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Here's some of it:
20And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
23And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
24And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
25And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
Some of my non-believing brethren, like Richard Dawkins, tend to focus on the bits of the bible that would steer us in the wrong direction, morally speaking. See The God Delusion for lots of great examples. But there are passages that are morally inspiring, and this is one of them.
What I love so much is the phrase "and God saw that it was good." Why should we care if tigers go extinct? If the polar ice caps melt, and the polar bears disappear? If lush rainforests, teeming with diverse plant and animal life, are being destroyed?
You'll give yourself a very bad headache if you try to give a 100% lucid explanation why it matters whether or not there are polar bears. The poetry of Genesis is much more vivid and compelling. It matters because they are good. Even atheists can appreciate the way Genesis evokes a deep sense that the world we live in should be appreciated and conserved.
Now of course, poetry can't really tell us exactly how to behave. Genesis says "and God saw that it was good" after each part of the world is created. The earth and the waters, the sun and the moon, the plants, the birds, the fish, the land animals, and finally human beings, are all good. We don't treat all of these things in the same way. We use the earth for fuel. We use plants for food. What kind of exploitation is suitable for each class of things?
The bible is even inspiring on this issue. You probably remember the dominion business:
28And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.Students in my animal rights class are always surprised when I read the very next sentences:
29And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
30And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
The goodness of animal life is of a special sort. In the beginning, our instructions are not to turn each other into food! You have to read Genesis all the way up to chapter 9 to see why God ultimately allows meat eating...and you'll find that the permission finally granted is highly ambivalent.
Genesis 1 also conveys the notion that human beings are special--they alone were created "in the image of God." Not literally true, in my view, but is there some germ of truth here as well? I think so. Humans are uniquely endowed with certain special capacities, however much it is true that animals have their own marvelous capacities.
In what way do plants and mountains and water and ice caps matter? All hard questions, and obviously the answers are not in the bible. But the message that they do matter is something not to be dismissed lightly or ignored.
To my own mind, the bible is a piece of literature, like those other ancient masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey. But like Homer, it's not just entertaining, and not just a repository of bad moral thinking, but of wisdom as well. Exquisite poetry and story-telling that sometimes points us in the right direction.