Benedict XVI and the Cosmic Covenant

After the widespread attention that Pope Francis’s encyclical on care for creation has garnered over the past several years,the extensive concern paid by previous pontiffs to the subject risks fading into distant memory. Yet, long before environmental stewardship became the subject of Laudato Si’, Pope Paul VI predicted a looming “ecological catastrophe” (Address of November 16, 1970, §3), and Pope John Paul II urged the faithful to embark on a journey of “ecological conversion” (General Audience of January 17, 2001, §4). For his part, Pope Benedict XVI made the environment such a consistent theme of reflection throughout his pontificate that his remarks were sufficient to comprise an entire book.

Reading the remarkable texts of erstwhile popes yields a crucial discovery: notwithstanding the well-worn debates regarding the issue of continuity between certain aspects of Francis’s pontificate and that of his predecessors, our present pontiff’s core insights into care for creation are largely nothing new. The influence of prior pontiffs on Francis’s environmental vision is nevertheless easy to overlook, as reflected in his 2022 message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, where one of Benedict XVI’s most important ecological insights made a prominent but unattributed appearance. This thought, which Benedict reiterated many times and which Francis’s message reproduces nearly verbatim, provides the ontological grounding for the contemporary Magisterium’s environmental vision: namely, the proclamation that there exists a “covenant between human beings and the environment, which should mirror the creative love of God, from whom we come and towards whom we are journeying” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §50 and §69; Benedict XVI, Message for the 2008 World Day of Peace). 

Upon encountering this line for the first time, it may strike one as odd to assert the existence of a covenant between man and the sub-personal created order, which cannot freely reciprocate whatever goodwill we show toward it. It would therefore be easy to dismiss the whole notion as overly poetic and unduly anthropomorphic. However, as I hope to show below, Benedict’s extension of Scripture’s covenant framework to embrace the entire created order rests on firm ground. Indeed, it is not so much an innovation as a retrieval of the biblical vision of man as the center of creation with which we share a bond of kinship and which we are called to wed to its Creator by exercising a dominion of love.

Our popes’ framing of the created order as a cosmic communion of love stands out in the landscape of current environmental discourse, and as such it represents a decisive contribution that the Catholic Church can make toward developing a balanced ecology that neither divinizes nor desecrates the natural world. While teasing out all the implications of this claim is not possible in a short space, in what follows I wish to sketch the broad strokes of the cosmic covenant as envisioned by Benedict in the hope that it will serve to illumine its biblical foundations.

And with Every Living Creature That Is with You (Gen 9:10)

The biblical revelation of a covenant uniting God, man, and all creation is arguably best glimpsed in the first instance where it is explicitly expressed: at the conclusion of the Genesis flood narrative. That the Lord declared a covenant with Noah upon exiting the ark is a trivial datum for most Christians. What is perhaps less often appreciated is that this covenant expressly binds God and Noah’s family with “with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Gen 9:10). Further, while we all know that God sets his bow in the cloud as a sign of this covenant, it is worth observing that this bond is described here as joining “me and you and every living creature” and that it exists “between me and the earth” (Gen 9:12–13). In a span of just a few verses, this same kinship is expressed alternatively as a “covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh,” an “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth,” and “the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth” (Gen 9:15–16).

Reflecting on the import of this language, Richard Bauckham notes that the Noahic covenant envisions other creatures not as man’s vassals but rather as true partners in covenantal kinship. Bauckham, like Pope Francis, describes the earth as the “common home” of all creatures.[1] While the papal notion of man sharing a covenant with both God and creation may at first blush strike us as fanciful, Genesis 9 reveals that this affirmation is deeply biblical.

The Prophets and Wisdom Literature on an Eschatological Peace

While Genesis 9 contains the most focused elaboration of the Lord’s covenant with all of creation, the theology expressed there is far from an anomaly in the biblical canon. For example, there is the celebrated text Isaiah 11:6–9, which foretells a renewal of creation so deep that wolves, lambs, cows, lions, bears, asps, and children will one day dwell together in a perfect harmony free from suffering and death. Elsewhere in the prophetic literature, God promises, “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground,” adding that he will “abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos 2:18). The peace with wild animals and protection from war foretold by Hosea is seen elsewhere in the prophets (Ezek 34:25–9), in the Torah, and in treaties from other nations in the ancient Near Eastern world.

Granting animals admission to the cosmic covenant is one thing, but it would be another step altogether to extend this partnership to inanimate creation. For, even as animals cannot offer a free gift of self to us in the way that we can to others, at least we can recognize that they have the capacity to relate with us in various ways. Inanimate things, however, would appear entirely bereft of the capacity to engage humans in any recognizable way. It is striking, then, that Job 5:23 suggests the possibility of a covenantal pact between the man Job and the insensate creation that surrounds him when we read: “For you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you.” The covenantal language deployed in this verse (“in league with” translates the Hebrew brîṯ, which means “covenant”) is clearly couched in anthropomorphic language, yet it points to a very concrete reality. Some commentators suggest that its significance is grasped against the backdrop of the ancient practice of casting rocks in the fields of a defeated army. By pointing to the promise of a partnership between man, wild animals, and even non-living stones, the Book of Job may be expressing Israel’s hope that this symbolic and practical way of assuring an enemy’s total destruction will one day cease when peace among all men and creatures will be restored.

Having said that, this passage of Job is subject to a different interpretation that would put it in tension with the vision of Genesis 9 and the prophets described above. That is to say, like many other lines in the masterpiece, the idyllic picture of harmony between humans and nature painted in Job might very well be intended as ironic given that the speaker of these words, Eliphaz, proves a failure in his quest to comfort the book’s protagonist. If this is so, the passage may not be endorsing the eschatological vision of Isaiah and Hosea but on the contrary challenging it as unrealistic. If this is the case, then Job 5 cannot be confidently adduced as evidence in support of the claim that God’s covenant embraces the entire order of creation.

Yet, even so, the words of Eliphaz did not emerge in a vacuum. The speeches of Job’s friends throughout the book tend to reflect mainstream Israelite theology of the time (especially the Book of Proverbs), and there is no compelling reason to suppose that the content of this particular speech is any different. Accordingly, even if the author intends to critique the standard theology of his day as an insufficient answer to life’s troubles (“Your suffering and sorrows are no big deal because God will eventually set things right!”), this is by no means to reject the traditional wisdom as entirely lacking in insight. That insight regarding the cosmic covenant, if it is indeed reflected here, would extend the Noahic vision to embrace the living and non-living. It would reach from God all the way down to stones that—while now effectively the superior covenantal party wielding its power over Job—will eventually cooperate with him so as to ensure the fruitfulness of his fields, and ultimately an eschatological harvest of plenty.[2] Recognizing the inspired ambiguity of Job, on this score Robert Murray does well to muse that, if Job goes so far as to portray God taming the cosmic forces of Leviathan and Behemoth (Job 40–41), “is it impossible that the thought of making peace even with inanimate hostile forces might have occurred to so imaginative a poet as the author of Job?”[3]

Genesis 1–2: Sabbath as the Sign of the Covenant at Creation

While we have just taken stock of several places where the cosmic covenant appears throughout the biblical canon, it is easy to miss one of its most poignant instantiations that is found already in the first three chapters of Genesis. The cosmic covenant depicted here can be glimpsed in the light of a particular aspect of a text we have already considered. Specifically, the fact that the covenant evoked in Hosea 2:18 and the creation account of Genesis 1:30 both list the three groups of man’s partner creatures in the very same order is hardly coincidental: i.e., the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground. Scripture’s sacred authors are very deliberate when they connect their words to those of other biblical books, and the overlap here most likely signals an invitation to read each in the same covenantal key.

To be sure, it must be admitted that the term “covenant” (brîṯ) is lacking in Genesis 1–2. Yet, despite the absence of such nomenclature, Roland de Vaux among others argues that the Sabbath itself is the sign of Scripture’s first covenant: “Creation is the first action in the history of salvation . . . The ‘sign’ of the Covenant made at the dawn of creation is the observance of the Sabbath by man (cf. Ezek 20:12, 20).”[4] This claim finds grounding in Exodus 31:13–16, where Shabbat is identified as a sign of the perpetual covenant between God and Israel. Further, it would seem to be reinforced by the fact that the number seven (šb‘) and the verb for God having taken his Sabbath “rest” (šbt) in Genesis 2:2–3 are etymologically close and that the former in its Hebrew reflexive (Niphal) verbal formation is often used to denote a covenant oath. Accordingly, when the sacred author depicts God as having “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done,” he is quite likely providing us with clever wordplay to suggest that the work of creation culminated when God “sevened himself” by means of a covenantal oath to all of creation.

Without engaging in the level of exegetical analysis we have just carried out, it is striking that Pope Benedict makes the same connection when he writes that “the Sabbath was an expression of the covenant between God and man and creation” (Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Homily for April 23, 2023). The pontiff sees this point as deeply relevant for understanding creation and man’s role within it. Covenantal communion, he says, is not “something extra, something added later to a world already fully created.” On the contrary, as Benedict sees it, Genesis reveals that covenant “is inbuilt at the deepest level of creation” and that “covenant is the inner ground of creation” (Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil Homily for April 23, 2023). On the pontiff’s view, the reason God made the world was so that it could be a space for him to communicate his love and draw creatures to himself. With this in mind, Cardinal Ratzinger proclaimed in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “The goal of creation is the covenant . . . The goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love.”[5] All this is to say that the biblical metaphor of creation across seven days is covenantal in nature: it is a device deployed in order to show that, just as God has entered into covenant with the cosmos by “resting” on the seventh day, so too the people of Israel are called to enter into that same covenant by keeping holy his Sabbath rest every seven days.

Man’s Priestly Vocation to Keep God’s Garden

If covenant is the ultimate ground of creation, then it is fitting to expect that this cosmic communion should be upheld by specific obligations on the part of its various partners. In the Bible’s opening two creation accounts, man’s covenantal duties are captured, respectively, with the commands to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over [it]” (Gen 1:28) and to “till and keep” the garden of Eden (Gen 2:15).

While at face value these divine ordinances are issued to an individual human being at the dawn of our species, it is easy for the modern reader to miss that Adam (in Hebrew, the archetypal “human being” or “groundling” whose origin is inseparable from the adamah or arable soil) represents mankind at large.[6] Lesser-known still, this signification of the adam in Genesis is grounded in another meaning that was most likely foremost in the sacred author’s intention. Namely, in its original context, Adam represented the nation of Israel, and his story served as a figurative dramatization of Israel’s story by mirroring the nation’s movement from exodus (the nation’s “creation”) to its exile (the nation’s “death”). As such, the duties enjoined upon mankind through the figures of Adam and Eve can only be grasped aright if we understand that they were intended to reflect realities in the life of Israel in the first millennium B.C.

That Adam is a literary cipher for the nation of Israel would have been unmistakable for Genesis’s ancient Jewish audience. To take one instance that bespeaks this connection, God’s son Israel was specially created (at the exodus in Exodus 4:23) and set apart from other nations to be God’s priestly representative on earth (Exod 19:6). In parallel fashion, Adam was specially created by God and chosen from among all creatures on earth to be the priest-king of creation—his representative “image” (Gen 1:27). A further sign of the Adam-Israel connection comes in the verse immediately following man’s creation, where God commands him to “subdue” (kbš) the earth (Gen 1:28). It is no accident that this is the same term used in Numbers 32:22, 29 when the Hebrews conquer the trans-Jordan land (’ereṣ), which itself is the same word translated in Genesis 1 as “earth.” Like Israel who was guided from their place of origin (Ur of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia) to the holy land of Canaan (Gen 11:31), God takes Adam from his place of origin and places him in the land of Eden (Gen 2:8, 15).

The parallels continue when we learn of what Adam and Israel are tasked to do in their respective parcels of sacred land. Adam is instructed to “till” (RSV) or “cultivate” (NAB) as well as “keep” (RSV) or “care for” (NAB) the garden sanctuary (Gen 2:15). Meanwhile, these terms (‘bd and šmr, respectively) are the very same words deployed elsewhere in the Pentateuch to describe the liturgical duties of priests serving as ministers and guardians of the Tabernacle (Num 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6).[7] This last parallel is especially fraught with implications for a covenantal theology of creation: as Israel was called to cultivate obedience to God’s law and keep its commandments, so too man may be understood as a servant of creation, which is in some way the superior covenantal party that exercises dominion over us, at whose mercy we ever remain, and whose needs we must continually serve if we wish to enjoy its bounty.[8] Ratzinger, while by no means denying the unrivaled dignity of human persons, likewise emphasizes the need for us to “serve the earth” as a covenantal partner, and he teaches that doing so is how we  “fulfill both ourselves and the world.”[9]

Stewardship According to the Rhythm and Logic of Creation

How is man to go about the business of “serving” creation as our covenantal partner, on a covenantal worldview? Operating according to his characteristic two-pronged approach of interpreting the Bible according to both its literal and spiritual senses, Ratzinger candidly stakes a claim to the meaning of the biblical injunction to have dominion over the earth. The “sense of the directive” to subdue the earth (from Gen 1) and to till and keep it (Gen 2) is the same: both in its original context as well as today, it means that “the world is to be used for what it is capable of and for what it is called to, but not for what goes against it.”[10] As pope, Benedict would later add that tilling the earth means exercising “responsible stewardship” over nature “as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §48, 50). Contrary to what some environmentalists claim, simply leaving creation to itself would not fulfill this task. Indeed, Benedict praises the role of human innovation, going so far as to say, “Technology . . . is a response to God’s command to till and to keep the land.” The pontiff maintains that the cultivation of the earth in creative ways can help us to protect it, enjoy its fruits, and ultimately even “serve to reinforce the covenant between man and creation” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §69).

According to Ratzinger, the key to practicing environmental stewardship in a manner that faithfully reflects God’s love in the world is that it be done “in accordance with the rhythm and the logic of creation.”[11] Building on the medieval tradition’s reading of Scripture and creation as “God’s two books,” Benedict speaks of the natural world as endowed with a “grammar” which, properly grasped, “sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation” (Caritas in Veritate, §48). Becoming literate again in the language of God’s earth—recovering a sacramental perspective of the universe as a reflection of the deeper logic of the Trinitarian grounding of all reality—is in Benedict’s view essential to any quest that would seek to preserve and cherish the gift of creation.

As Cardinal Ratzinger once taught in a homily for the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, developing literacy in the reading of creation leads to the recognition that all creatures have a “message” that mediates the “voice” of God.[12] In saying this, the pontiff stands in the tradition of Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and other great sages of the past who beheld a vestige of God in each and every creature. He also closely echoes the thought of St. Maximus the Confessor with his view that the intelligible form of each creature exists in God eternally prior to its going forth into being—a metaphysical position held so strongly that the saint, echoing St. Gregory Nazianzen, went so far as to say that “the one Logos [Divine Word] is many logoi [words].”[13]

Further, Ratzinger insists that natural revelation extends beyond the level of individual creatures, for he holds that creation as a whole has a cruciform or paschal structure that points to something higher than itself. The mystery of the grain of wheat that must die and descend into the depths of the earth in order to bear fruit (John 12:24) is thus not merely a truth of nature: it is a logos that reveals something of him in whom and for whom all things were created (Col 1:15–16). As one marvelous Eastertide hymn puts it, the reality of the green blade that “riseth from the buried grain / Wheat that in dark earth many days has been” is a tangible proclamation of the good news that “Love lives again, that with the dead has been / Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”

Pondering creation’s revelatory dimension in musical terms is particularly valuable, for it helps us to avoid conceiving creaturely “words” in a stagnant way. For, the world is not merely intelligible like a good book—it is also breathtakingly beautiful, dynamic, and life-giving. To capture this dimension of the manner in which creatures declare the glory of God, young Professor Ratzinger portrayed the cosmos as a divine melody or drama. In keeping with this analogy, it is fitting to complement Ratzinger’s image and think of creatures not merely as “words” in the book of nature but moreover as “notes” within the divine symphony of creation.[14]

Conclusion: Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega Who Opens the Book

Any theological reflection on the capacity of creation to reflect the divine glory would be hopelessly deficient without remembering that the basis of the natural world ultimately lies in the person of Jesus, its Alpha and Omega. As ever, though, Ratzinger’s theology is thoroughly Christocentric, as he stresses that it is ultimately Christ who both opens the book of creation and is the one to whom it all points. According to Ratzinger and the biblical testimony upon which his theology is dependent, the nature of man and the foundations of the entire created order find their meaning only in the Word made flesh.[15] Within the drama or melody of creation, the incarnate Lord is the crux on whom it all depends and in whom it all finds its meaning:

In this symphony is found, at a certain point, what might be called in musical terminology a “solo,” a theme given to a single instrument or voice; and it is so important that the significance of the entire work depends on it. This “solo” is Jesus . . . The Son of man himself epitomizes the earth and Heaven, the Creation and the Creator, the flesh and the Spirit. He is the center of the cosmos and of history, for in him the Author and his work are united without being confused with each other. In the earthly Jesus the culmination of Creation and of history is found but in the Risen Christ this is surpassed: the passage through death to eternal life anticipates the point of the “recapitulation” of all things in Christ (Benedict XVI, Homily for January 6, 2023).

[1] Richard Bauckham, Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), 224.

[2] See David Clines, Job 1–20, vol. 17 of Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1989), 152.

[3] Robert Murray, The Cosmic Covenant (London: Sheed and Ward, 1992), 198n14.

[4] Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 481. See also Murray, The Cosmic Covenant, 1-13.

[5] Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 26, 28.

[6] The Hebrew wordplay adam-adamah is felicitously reflected in the English etymological connection between human and humus (a word not common in English today but which refers to the organic component of soil). As I have observed elsewhere, the name Adam (adam) is explained by Genesis in connection to the ground (adamah). Rather than a scientific claim regarding man’s biological origin or a historical claim about the name of the first member of Homo sapiens who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, the image represents a clever folk etiology by which man’s connection to the entire earth is affirmed and his mortality (“to dust you will return!”) is memorably underscored. For further discussion of the meaning of Adam and his twofold reference to Israel and to all mankind, Matthew Ramage, From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2022), 149–60. For a more focused scholarly treatment of what I have treated above, see Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, ), 70–71.

[7] On Adam as a priest and Eden as a cosmic sanctuary, see Gary Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection: Adam and Eve in Jewish and Christian imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 46–47, 55–57, and 121–23.

[8] For further reflection on this subject, see Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 29 and Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 139.

[9] Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 38.

[10] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 34.

[11] Ratzinger, In the Beginning, 34.

[12] Ratzinger, “‘Consecrate Them in the Truth’: A Homily for St. Thomas’ Day,” New Blackfriars  68.803 (1987): 112–15 at 114.

[13] Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 54–55.

[14] The notion of creation as a melody is present also in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and is especially poignant in his “Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur,” in The Silmarillion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), 15–22. The latter is particularly significant for how it uses music to depict the reality of how God brings good out of dissonance/evil. I am grateful to my wife, Jen, and my former student Raphael Imgrund for valuable conversations which helped to coalesce my thinking around this analogy. Further discussion of the implications of seeing creation as a melody or symphony can be found in Ramage, From the Dust of the Earth, 55–84.

[15] For further discussion of Christ as the Alpha and Omega of creation in whom its ultimate meaning is revealed, see Ramage, From the Dust of the Earth, 221–52.