Stewards of Eden: Interview with Sandra Richter

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Sandra L. Richter cares about the Bible. She also cares about creation. An expert in ancient Israelite society and economy as well as biblical theology, she walks readers through passages familiar and not-so-familiar, showing how significant environmental theology is to the Bible’s witness. She then calls Christians to apply that message to today’s environmental concerns. Get Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About the Environment and Why It Matters from InterVarsity Press or Amazon (affiliate link).

How did you come up with the title, Stewards of Eden, and what does it have to do with your book’s big idea?

“Steward” is the ideal word to express what it is that God has called us to do as regards the Garden he entrusted to us. In Eden, God offered his people a perfectly balanced, breathtakingly beautiful planet animated by majestic flora and fauna that filled the skies and seas and forests. His command? “Cultivate” and “protect,” “rule” in the spirit and character of your Creator.  The thesis of the book is that this command remains. And we, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve must attend to it.

Why do you think many Christians and caring for our environment have been so at odds with one another, historically speaking?

I think that the Church has gotten lost on this topic. One reason is politics. The traditional political allies of the Church in our country are not the traditional political allies of environmental concern. As a result, environmentalism has become guilty by association. Supposedly if you are pro-life, you cannot also be pro-environment. If you are a patriot, you cannot also be a conservationist. If you are pro-small government, you cannot also be pro-federal environmental protection. So if you are a Christian, it is assumed that you cannot also be an environmentalist.

A second issue is, as with so many issues of social justice, we the western Church, have been largely sheltered from the impact of environmental degradation on the global community. We don’t see how unregulated use of land and water by big business decimates the lives of the marginalized. So we struggle to understand the issue of creation care as an expression of concern for “the widow and the orphan.”

And third, and perhaps most detrimental has been the theological belief embraced by many that the created order is bound only for destruction, and the resulting assumption that it is ethically appropriate to use the earth’s resources as aggressively as possible to accomplish what really matters—the conversion of souls. As a result, the Church, particularly the evangelical wing of the Church, has wound up dismissing the issue of environmental stewardship as peripheral (or even alien) to the concerns of the Bible.

What are some of the obvious mandates or themes that emerge from Israel’s law and history that the church has missed in its reading?

The book walks the reader through first the Garden, then the people of Israel, and then the New Covenant, demonstrating how in each of these expressions of God’s relationship with humanity, God has required humanity to care for his world—his land, his creatures, his people. It is typically a great surprise to the reader to learn that Israel’s law codes include laws on sustainable agriculture, humane animal husbandry, environmental terrorism, and care for the wild creature. All these laws of land and creature were required of Israel because “I am Yahweh”—they were covenant mandates. If these laws express the character of God, then of course we the New Covenant community must attend to these issues as well. It is never easy to limit ones appetites for the common good or for the future. It wasn’t easy for Israel, it isn’t easy for us. But if it is the character of our God, it must be ours as well. 

How do land, creatures, and people on the margins relate to one another? (Does one’s existence impact the other?)

In the book I demonstrate how environmental degradation impacts the marginalized first and most severely. This is so painfully evident in Haiti and Madagascar and in our own Appalachia. I actually believe environmental missions is the missions of the next century. In Madagascar the Red Island Project offers the Malagasi a chance to support their families by teaching them how to plant indigenous trees in their own gardens. In this fashion they are able to both earn money and rebuild their estuaries so that they can fish again. This rebuilds their land and their families . . . in the name of Jesus.

What about stewarding creation is so important for Christians to come to grips with now?

I believe that environmental stewardship is one of the most misunderstood topics of social justice and holiness within the Christian community in the States today. It is obviously an important topic, a relevant, contemporary topic, it is a topic our neighbors locally and globally care about. But as I have traveled, and written, and spoken on this topic for the last decade —from college students to seminarians, pastors to professors to poultry farmers, I have found the Church is largely paralyzed on this topic. This posture is not only devastating to God’s good creation, it is devastating to our witness to the world.

Are you interested in learning more about the Christian case for environmental stewardship? Get Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says About the Environment and Why It Matters from InterVarsity Press or Amazon (affiliate link).

Watch Sandra Richter teach on why Christians should be concerned with the environment in our Seven Minute Seminary video here.

Explore Sandra Richter’s Bible study series, the Epic of Eden in our store here.

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Dr. Sandra Richter holds the Robert H. Gundry Chair of Old Testament at Westmont College. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Harvard University, Richter combines history, archeology, geography, and ancient Near East languages to bring the Old Testament to life. She is married to Dr. Steven Tsoukalas and has two daughters, Noël and Elise.

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