A paradigmatic tale for Jews, and subsequently for Christians, the story of the Exodus begins with enslavement of the Hebrew people by Egyptian pharaohs (kings). In the story, the Egyptian pharaoh, fearing that the Hebrew slaves have become too numerous and thus pose a threat, issues an edict stating that all male Hebrew babies must be killed. When Moses is born, he is saved from this awful fate by what amounts to the first feminist conspiracy. Shiphrah and Puah (two Hebrew midwives), Moses’ mother, and his sister, Miriam, outsmart the Egyptians and save him from death by placing him in a reed basket and hiding him by the river’s edge. Shortly thereafter he is discovered by the Egyptian princess, who rescues him and raises him as her own.
Years later, the adult Moses witnesses an Egyptian prince abusing a Hebrew slave. He kills the Egyptian and heads for the hills. There, he encounters a burning bush and hears the call of God telling him to return to Egypt to confront the pharaoh with God’s command, “Let my people go.” After a series of confrontations with the pharaoh, which result in various plagues and natural catastrophes, the pharaoh relents and the Hebrew people make a dramatic break for it (Exodus 1:6 – 2:10). Taken as a whole, this first metanarrative is one of liberation from oppression.
Cosmological Participation in God’s Purposes
The first thing I notice about this story is that creation itself participates in both the awakening of Moses, and in the judgment of the system of oppression. The burning bush is the natural medium through which God speaks to Moses. It’s interesting that the way the story is told, God requires Moses to notice the radiance of the bush before issuing the call (Exodus 3:3–4). The radiance of the Holy in and through nature doesn’t speak to any of us until we decide, with Moses, “to turn and look at this great sight.” Our capacity to notice this radiance is compromised by the history of disenchantment that has shaped our age. But as we grow in our capacity for awe, we may, like Moses, know ourselves to be standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:5).
Later in the story, a series of natural disasters and plagues convey God’s judgment to the pharaoh. The Nile, a river symbolizing fertility for the Egyptians, is turned to blood. Then come frogs, gnats, flies, cattle plagues, boils, and ultimately hail. Each of these plagues represent naturally occurring disasters in Egyptian history, but through the eyes of faith they are interpreted as nature expressing God’s yearning that God’s people be set free. This is not the only place in scripture where we see the cosmos participate in God’s purposes. For the prophets, the earth both celebrated God’s purposes and expressed God’s judgment on unjust behaviour committed by the people of God. Thus trees clap (Isaiah 55:12) and sing (Psalm 96:12), the heavens proclaim (Psalm 19:1), deserts rejoice and blossom (Isaiah 35:1–2), the valleys and the meadows sing for joy (Psalm 65:13), and stones may cry out in response to the gracious activity of the Holy One (Luke 3:8); justice abides in a wilderness and righteousness in a fruitful field (Isaiah 32:15–16).
On the other hand, the land (Earth) experiences fear and goes silent before God’s judgment (Psalm 76:8–9), the land vomits out the people in response to injustice and unfaithfulness (Leviticus 18:25), the land mourns and all who live on it languish, with the animals and birds – “even the fish are perishing” (Hosea 4:3). Perhaps the most vivid expression of the cosmos reflecting the sin of humans is found in Isaiah 24:4–5: “The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers, the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.”
This may be nothing more than the anthropomorphizing of nature (attributing human characteristics to the natural world). Or it may reflect a deeper premodern sensitivity to the biospiritual connection between the humanity and the earth. In a panentheistic worldview, creation is in God, and God is in creation. From this perspective, we shouldn’t think about creation’s participation in celebration and judgment as the action of an external God manipulating nature for God’s purposes.
Rather, a sacred immanent Presence holistically manifests and is reflected in the relative states of health of all of the earth’s systems: biological, social and cultural, and spiritual. It is a basic premise of evolutionary theology that Spirit is the connecting thread and ground of all realms. In this light, we would expect that injustice would impact all realms simultaneously; that is, that all realms would express, through their own capacities, the presence of this injustice.
We don’t typically make such connections because we’ve been immersed in a worldview that absolutely separates the realm of the human from the realm of the non-human. What we do in the human realm is disconnected from the non-human biological realm.
Climate Change and Global Warming
According to the International Panel on Climate Change scientific evidence for the warming of our climate system is unequivocal. Throughout history Earth’s climate has changed, as part of our natural cycle. But the current trend is unprecedented in the last 1300 years. The levels of greenhouse gases (which trap the sun’s heat and cause Earth’s surface to warm) are now at historically unprecedented levels. This causes, for example, sea levels to rise as the polar ice caps melt. Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century. This poses real threats to coastal cities, and immanent danger to low-lying island populations such as the Maldives and Saychelle which are already threatened by rising sea levels.
The increased incidence and intensity of tsunamis, hurricanes, and droughts, understood within an emergent panentheistic theology, are not literally the divine judgment of an angry God. Rather, they are natural manifestations of a sacred, evolutionary process being thwarted by the willful ignorance of humans. In this sense, and in this sense only, ecological catastrophes can be interpreted as a judgment upon humanity. They may be seen as both a natural warning that our ethic of domination has dire consequences, and as the call of God to end the oppression we’re enacting upon the planet.
We have placed ourselves in the role of pharaohs upon the earth. The earth herself may be the new Moses. The “firmament” proclaims not just God’s “handiwork,” but also our failure to fit in with earth’s biosystems. As the psalmist says, “day to day pours forth speech,” although there is no speech and there are no words (Psalm 19). The mode of communication is depleted fish stocks, massive rates of extinction, melting glaciers, toxic whale blubber, and increased incidence of asthma from pollution. Using her own voice, creation is groaning to be set free (Romans 8:22).