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“Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus” Book Review

Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus. Rabbi Yonatan Neril & Rabbi Leo Dee. The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, 2020. 176 pages.

The authors of Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus, Rabbi Yonatan Neril – the founder and director of The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD) – and Rabbi Leo Dee – a respected expert on the Torah and its connection to ecology – teamed up to compile a book focusing on the environmental guidance tucked away within scripture and commentaries surrounding the books of Genesis and Exodus. The book is split into two parts: A Genesis section, followed by a section dedicated to Exodus. Almost every verse throughout the two Bible books is thoroughly analyzed by the authors, using over 100 ecologically-focused Rabbinic commentaries correlating with these verses.

The challenge of this book is fairly well-put, and most of the applications or steps to help save the earth are often rather agreeable. If read as an individual’s instructional guide for living a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle, Eco Bible can be a good addition to one’s bookshelf. The book is full of advice, scriptures, and commentaries on scriptures to aid any person wanting to make an environmental difference. However, it holds two frustrating inconsistencies. The first one being the authors’ indecisiveness regarding the development of technology. In some passages, they pin technology (and the capitalist development of it) as one of the biggest contributors to our current dilemma, yet in others they assert technology as one of the main ways in which we can regulate our behaviors in regard to the environment. Secondly, the authors frequently theorize that more government intervention is necessary to curtail environmental crises. Yet, they also point to the corrupted nature of human governments, and their incapacity to properly deal with the issues. As the book exposes, Egypt’s government has potentially sent the nation into irreversible catastrophe due to its recent experiment with damming the Nile River. This action alone has systematically destroyed ecosystems, disturbed natural cycles, and ultimately obliterated the annual enrichment of the soil the Nile previously supplied. Neril and Dee go so far as to state, “in environmental governance … central governance tends to apply fixes generally, without sufficient regard to local context or variation.” So, why would you task a human institution that literally requires standardization – or “generalization” – to function with anything that requires localized information? And why would you task the thing that is supposedly destroying the world with saving it? 

The authors largely focus on the responsibility of the individual in relation to the well-being of the earth, and primarily supply daily applications for the everyday person. Yet, they will occasionally shift from the individual to the common good and the coercive entities that can sway those common goods. At moments, it almost seems as though, even though their book relies upon the individual making crucial changes to their life, they do not believe mankind is capable of changing their habits for the better; thus a coercive force is required to make things better for everyone. It seems odd to write about how individuals should go hiking more and eat less meat, and then almost in the same breath call for government agencies to demand more environmentally sound behavior of their civilians.

Though Eco Bible holds some “trigger” passages for any libertarian, we can still glean important information that ultimately makes it a worthwhile read. “Stewardship” is a prevalent word throughout Eco Bible, and for good reason. The world, and especially Westerners – as is frequently mentioned by the authors – have long abandoned the principles of biblical stewardship. The world has developed an idea that creation was given to us to drain every last drop of the benefits from it before the system implodes. American consumer culture is a frequent target throughout Eco Bible. It is even noted (to paraphrase) that if every person on earth consumed like an American, we would require five earths to supply that much consumption. (Whether this argument is sound or not is another point entirely.) The overall mission of Eco Bible is simple: Our earth is treated poorly, and humans have entrapped themselves in unsustainable practices; whether that be unsustainable eating norms, agricultural processes, transportation, resource consumption, etc.; and we as the citizens of earth are called to regain stewardship over it. As the introduction written by Rabbi Yonatan points out, “Eco Bible explores the deep inspiration we can find in the Hebrew Bible for fulfilling the blessings of all life, for changing course to preserve God’s creation, and for sustaining human life in harmony with nature and all of God’s creatures.” 

We as Christians, and especially as Christian libertarians, should never see the earth we occupy as a welfare state of sorts. Much like socialists ignore the unsustainability of their political-economic framework, it is certainly possible to turn a blind eye to unsustainable socio-economic practices in the name of progress. The world we live in is defined by scarcity, yet our everyday behaviors and consumption/production habits ignore this simple fact. We are called to show a Christ-like attitude, with ecological-mindedness and stewardship for the scarce resources we have been blessed with, as well as the precious people surrounding us. All of us were called to be connected to nature, knowing its ticks, feeling its aches, and bandaging its wounds: Tasks of a shepherd. But modern civilians of creation sometimes act like marauders – coercing and brutalizing the earth. Nature, as seen in the Garden of Eden, was designed to be our main sustainer for our journey on earth, and we can destroy it with negligence.

Eco Bible also challenges people to set aside time to spend more time in nature. The closer we are, the more we can experience and be inspired by God, and grow closer to Him. The beauty He so carefully crafted can be enough to humble the soul, and expose the ever-present magnificence of God the Father to us. Nature can be like scripture – except it is written in the universal language of awe. But nature is demanding and destructive, it can take more than it offers at times. Authors Yonata Neril and Leo Dee present that though humans have dominion over the earth, the earth still rules us – it still holds domain over us; no matter how advanced we may get. Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, famines, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides; whatever it may be, the earth can enrich us, and it can also destroy us; this is important to remember, as it continuously humbles us. 

Ecology essentially means the study of associations of organisms within a given physical area. Ecology spreads to all organisms – humans, animals, plants, basically everything. It is kind of the economics of organisms. To be a proper ecological steward, one must worry about flora and fauna, as well as the human aspect. In many ways, not only are our unsustainable behaviors damaging God’s creation, they also harm God’s children! Our neglectful and unnatural ideas of how to benefit from the earth cause issues across the globe, whether that be through air or water pollution, or possibly negatively altering the climate. Creation is crying out, and “it is up to us,” not our governments, to change that course for the better.

Eco Bible, overall, was an interesting read on a topic I am passionate about, and I recommend it to just about anyone! Authors Yonatan Neril and Leo Dee make some valuable assertions about the current ecological issues in the world, and the book calls us to question our practices and their consequences on the health of this planet. Environmental consciousness is a basic duty demanded of any Christian, as we are the stewards of this earth, and we should strive for better. But it is crucial to remember that the choice to shift from environmental negligence towards stewardship is a voluntary transformation, and no government or human association should ever be given the legitimacy to demand any sort of behavior of us, no matter the supposed benefits for the “common good” – that power is left to God alone.