Mankind's Stewardship of the Earth Began in Genesis
What does it mean to be stewards over the earth? When God created mankind, he gave us "dominion" over the earth's creatures. He also gave us the plants, and later the animals, for food.
- God said, “Let’s make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the livestock, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them. God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 God said, “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree, which bears fruit yielding seed. It will be your food. 30 To every animal of the earth, and to every bird of the sky, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food;” and it was so. (Genesis 1:26–30)
- The LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)
- God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you will be on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the sky. Everything that moves along the ground, and all the fish of the sea, are delivered into your hand. 3 Every moving thing that lives will be food for you. As I gave you the green herb, I have given everything to you. 4 But flesh with its life, that is, its blood, you shall not eat. 5 I will surely require accounting for your life’s blood. At the hand of every animal I will require it. At the hand of man, even at the hand of every man’s brother, I will require the life of man. 6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in his own image. 7 Be fruitful and multiply. Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.” (Genesis 9:1–7)
God's Ownership vs. Our Stewardship of the Earth
God's ownership of the earth is asserted in the Mosaic Law, by King David, in the Psalms, and by Paul in the New Testament. According to the definition of stewardship, we are stewards of the earth, not the true owners.
- The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and live as foreigners with me. 24 In all the land of your possession you shall grant a redemption for the land. (Leviticus 25:23–24)
- Therefore David blessed the LORD before all the assembly; and David said, “You are blessed, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. 11 Yours, O LORD, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty! For all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. 12 Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all! In your hand is power and might! It is in your hand to make great, and to give strength to all! 13 Now therefore, our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name. 14 But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from you, and we have given you of your own. 15 For we are strangers before you and foreigners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no remaining. 16 O LORD our God, all this store that we have prepared to build you a house for your holy name comes from your hand, and is all your own.
(1 Chronicles 29:10–16)
- O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens! 2 From the lips of babes and infants you have established strength, because of your adversaries, that you might silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained, 4 what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? 5 For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor. 6 You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet: 7 All sheep and cattle, yes, and the animals of the field, 8 the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, and whatever passes through the paths of the seas. 9 the LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1–9)
- The earth is the LORD’s, with its fullness; the world, and those who dwell in it. 2 For he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the floods. (Psalm 24:1–2)
- He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created in the heavens and on the earth, visible things and invisible things, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things are held together. (Colossians 1:15–17)
Even some Gentile kings acknowledged Yahweh's ownership of the earth.
- Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the LORD’s word by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, 23 “Cyrus king of Persia says, ‘the LORD, the God of heaven, has given all the kingdoms of the earth to me; and he has commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all his people, the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up.’ ” (2 Chronicles 36:22–23)
- All this came on the King Nebuchadnezzar. 29 At the end of twelve months he was walking in the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king spoke and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built for the royal dwelling place by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” 31 While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from the sky, saying, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: ‘The kingdom has departed from you. 32 You shall be driven from men, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen. Seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever he will.’ ”
33 This was fulfilled the same hour on Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; and his body was wet with the dew of the sky until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws. 34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted up my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he does according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and no one can stop his hand, or ask him, “What are you doing?” (Daniel 4:28–35)
Old Testament Bible Verses About Stewardship of the Earth
In the Mosaic Law we see two types of commands to steward the earth: let the land rest every 7 years, and do not defile or (immorally) pollute the land.
The Land's Sabbatical
The Israelites were commanded to let the land rest every 7th year. In that "sabbatical" year they would not plant any crops.
- The LORD said to Moses on Mount Sinai, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. 3 You shall sow your field six years, and you shall prune your vineyard six years, and gather in its fruits; 4 but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. 5 What grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap, and you shall not gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. 6 The Sabbath of the land shall be for food for you; for yourself, for your servant, for your maid, for your hired servant, and for your stranger, who lives as a foreigner with you. 7 For your livestock also, and for the animals that are in your land, shall all its increase be for food. (Leviticus 25:1–7)
- I will scatter you among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you. Your land will be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. 34 Then the land will enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate and you are in your enemies’ land. Even then the land will rest and enjoy its Sabbaths. 35 As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, even the rest which it didn’t have in your Sabbaths when you lived on it. (Leviticus 26:33–35)
- He carried those who had escaped from the sword away to Babylon, and they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the LORD’s word by Jeremiah’s mouth, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. As long as it lay desolate, it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. (2 Chronicles 36:20-21)
There aren't many Bible verses about "pollution" from chemicals or other human wastes. Scripture is more concerned with man-made moral forms of pollution, such as not punishing the guilty.
- Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death. He shall surely be put to death. 32 You shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may come again to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. 33 So you shall not pollute the land where you live; for blood pollutes the land. No atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, but by the blood of him who shed it. 34 You shall not defile the land which you inhabit, where I dwell; for I, the LORD, dwell among the children of Israel. (Numbers 35:31–34)
- I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruit and its goodness; but when you entered, you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. (Jeremiah 2:7)
These Bible verses might refer to the modern meaning of pollution, since it is one way to "destroy" the earth.
16 The twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God’s throne, fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying: “We give you thanks, Lord God, the Almighty, the one who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and reigned. 18 The nations were angry, and your wrath came, as did the time for the dead to be judged, and to give your bondservants the prophets, their reward, as well as to the saints and those who fear your name, to the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.” (Revelation 11:16–18)
Return of the King & End of the Stewardship
Jesus taught that he was a king, but one whose kingdom is not of this world. This is the first principle Biblical stewardship.
Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered him, “Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:33–36)
Should "world" here be identified with "the Earth"? Its main meaning is world in the sense of "the world, the flesh, and the devil," the traditional enemies of the Christian's soul. But that does not entirely rule out a relationship to the current earth. The current world/earth is clearly not ruled by Jesus.
The Prophets and the New Testament also teach about a "new heavens and new earth" which will replace the old ones. These will be 100% ruled by Jesus. This does not mean that we can lay waste to the current earth. That would contradict God's commands in Genesis, the Law, and the warning in Revelation 11. But it does mean that we do not need to be overly anxious about this earth. Our stewardship of the current earth will end when the king returns, but until then, we need to do our best to take care of it. Our care for the earth will likely be one of the ways that the king judges how well we carried out our stewardship.
Consider how we treat our bodies: we do our best to take care of them, eat healthy food, exercise, and rest. But we don't expect or hope for them to last forever. Instead, our hope is in the new resurrection body that will be like Jesus's resurrected body.
- 17 For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered, nor come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for, behold, I create Jerusalem to be a delight, and her people a joy. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; and the voice of weeping and the voice of crying will be heard in her no more. 20 No more will there be an infant who only lives a few days, nor an old man who has not filled his days; for the child will die one hundred years old, and the sinner being one hundred years old will be accursed. (Isaiah 65:17–20)
- For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. 19 For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. 23 Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. (Romans 8:18–23)
- For they willfully forget that there were heavens from of old, and an earth formed out of water and amid water by the word of God, 6 by which means the world that existed then, being overflowed with water, perished. 7 But the heavens that exist now and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
8 But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but he is patient with us, not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fervent heat; and the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.
11 Therefore, since all these things will be destroyed like this, what kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness, 12 looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, which will cause the burning heavens to be dissolved, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? 13 But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, seeing that you look for these things, be diligent to be found in peace, without defect and blameless in his sight. (2 Peter 3:5–14)
- I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and the sea is no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice out of heaven saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with people; and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more. The first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1–4)
Bible version: the public domain World English Bible (WEB) has been used throughout this post. The WEB translation of "Yahweh" has been changed to "the LORD" which is more familiar to most readers.