Do We Need Jesus of Ecology

by Neil Douglas-Klotz, Joseph A. Grabill & Deborah Oberg
Issue #25, Spring 1997, pp 20-21, 25
Reformatted for web publication October, 1998


       MANY CHRISTIANS know Jesus by such names as Son of Man, Son of God, Christ, Savior, and Lord.  To add "ecology" as part of a proper name may sound odd.  Yet, we believe a re-reading of the biblical texts within the context of the Galilee environment unveils "Jesus of Ecology."   This name or title compares with the familiar "Jesus of Nazareth," and enriches Jesus' identity by immersing it within his cosmic home, not just the home of his youth.

       Can we see "Jesus of Ecology" in the story of the deaf and dumb man?   We want to tell the story of Jesus' healing of the deaf and dumb man found in Mark 7:31-37.  We are amplifying the story by adding information derived from study of the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke, by using the Hebrew tradition of expanded rendition ("midrash") of biblical texts, and by adding information about the ecological aspects of Galilee.  After telling the story, we will explain reasons why we believe this story in particular and the gospels in general portray "Jesus of Ecology."

       In the following story, the biblical text is in [red] and the additions to the biblical text are in [blue].  This story draws upon both the Good News Bible and an English translation from the Peshitta version of the Aramaic New Testament.   To help link Jesus to his indigenous roots and his native tongue, we are throughout the text using his name in Aramaic which is "Isho'a.."      The word "Isho'a" in Aramaic can be translated as "Source of Elemental Life which Restores and Preserves."

The story in Mark 7.  "Isho'a then left the neighborhood of Tyre and went on through Sidon to Lake Galilee, going by way of the territory of the Ten Towns."  The roads he took meandered among oak forests and among carob, mint, mustard, oleander, and pistachio plants.  He passed among cultivated fields of olive, fig, and date palm trees, of wheat and barley, and of vineyards.  "Some people brought him a man who was deaf and could hardly speak, and they begged Isho'a to place his hands on him. 
"Isho'a took the man aside, so the crowd could not see, and placed his fingers gently into the man's ears.  As they breathed together, Isho'a drew closer, spat on the ground, and touched the man's tongue uniting his sensing self with the other."  Isho'a had mixed his saliva with the soil.  Rubbing moist, earthy hands together, Isho'a had put his fingers on the man's lips and tongue. The man tasted the powerful humus, swallowing both his own and the healer's saliva.  The throat of the man opened to new sensations. 
Isho'a was breathing deeply close to the man, and they were inhaling and exhaling in the same rhythm.  The man reverberated with Isho'a's spirit. "As Isho'a focused on the One Source of all sensation and knowing, he raised his glance and awareness upward, breathing one long and powerful breath with "shemaya" [Aramaic] -- the universe of vibration."  This breath was a groan, and the man found himself breathing the same sound.  Continuing their synchronized breathing, their bodies opened up with vibrations down to their legs.  The man's feet were standing upon and receiving the healing energy of the One Source.  "Releasing his hands from the man's ears, Isho'a said forcefully, "Ethphatah!" [Aramaic] which means "Be opened, expand, clear the way -- allow yourself to be penetrated by the waves of space that give and receive all sound, hearing, and speech."  The man, receiving healing energy through Isho'a, was open to being opened in a fresh way.  When Isho'a's hands stopped cupping his ears, and the percussive "Ethphatah" sounded, the man's whole being said "Yes!"  "At that instant, the man's ears were opened, his tongue loosened, and he spoke clearly." 'Thank you,' he said. 'Having ears, I can hear. Having a tongue, I can speak. Thank you.' Then Isho'a ordered the people not to speak of it to anyone; but the more he ordered them not to, the more they told it. And all who heard were completely amazed. 'How well he does everything!' they exclaimed. 'He even causes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak!' " 



       WHAT LEADS us to make this expanded translation of the Aramaic?  We believe that the Aramaic language is a more ecologically sensitive language than the Greek language.  Our standard English biblical texts, of course, come through translation from Greek manuscripts, even though scholars acknowledge that Jesus spoke Aramaic and even though we have Aramaic manuscripts of the gospels.  An expanded translation of gospel texts is clearly within a Hebrew tradition of "midrash" expansions upon the Hebrew scriptures.  This midrash style was practiced by Jesus in his parables.  Understanding the ecology of first century Galilee is vital to having a grounded theology.

       WHAT IS ecological about the Aramaic language?  This Semitic language uses prepositions that bridge many Western dualistic concepts.  One word can simultaneously express the meanings "within" and "among," and thus express a cosmology that sees the "inner and outer" community of voices as united. 

When Jesus says the realm of God is "within" you (Luke 17:21, King James) or "in the midst of" you (Revised Standard Version), he is saying in Aramaic that the realm is everywhere inside and out -- in a rock as well as in one's heart.  There is no preposition in Greek or English which can simultaneously include the whole ecology of inner and outer worlds of the realm of God. The Aramaic words for "good" and "evil" can be translated into the English words "ripe" and "unripe."  When Jesus says that the sun rises on evil and good (Matthew 5:45) he is simultaneously calling attention to unripe and ripe fruit and people who are ripe and unripe in their awareness of their connection to the full realm of God.  Plant and human ecologies are not separate but interdependent in the realm.  Generally Aramaic is a more holistic language than the analytical Greek language.  Aramaic speech, in use from around 700 BCE (Before Common Era) to the present has kept vibrant a tribal and village cosmology which has assumed the links among sound, light, air, water, plants, animals, and humans.
Semitic languages have families of words tied to consonant root sounds in a more formal way than Indo-European languages.  These roots have overlapping meanings.  Jesus says in a beatitude that the meek will inherit the earth.  He is suggesting that those who have softened what is overly rigid (a root meaning of "meek" in Aramaic) in themselves will open to receive strength from their earthly inheritance within the ecological realm of God.



       Why use the expanded or "midrash" tradition in the story of the deaf and dumb man?  An expanded translation of gospel texts is clearly within a Hebrew tradition of "midrash" expansions upon the Torah ("Old Testament").  Semitic peoples in their interpretations of sacred texts ("midrash" in Hebrew and "ta'wil" in Arabic) amplified and contextualized as well as commented upon the text.  Midrashic tradition demanded that the amplification be in the spirit of the text, and clearly implied by the text.  Since Aramaic word roots can be interpreted in multiple ways, it is important in English to let Jesus' words have layers of meaning.  We are attempting through using the midrashic tradition to restore these open-ended meanings that would have been received by the original hearers of the words of Jesus.  This literary process is like restoring nature preserves in areas which have been over-cultivated. 

Jesus was a midrash expert himself.  His parables opened spaces between words of the Hebrew scriptures and Hebrew purity laws.  He said that he did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to "fulfil" them (Matthew 5:17).  "Fulfil" in Greek means to "make full" and in midrashic tradition means to expand and flesh out. In the expanded story of the deaf and dumb man, we used the Aramaic word "shemaya."  This Aramaic word in English versions of Mark 7 is usually translated "heaven."  When we read in English that Jesus speaks in various sayings of "heaven and earth," we think of heaven meaning the realm above and earth the realm below.  In Aramaic, "heaven" refers to everything being related by one vibrating wave of energy-the realm of community or universal communion.  The word "earth" refers to all individual, particular existence-the realm of diversity.  The root "shem" can mean light, sound, vibration, name, and word.  The ending "aya" can mean the specific radiation of these expressions throughout the universe.  Listeners to Jesus would know that the one word, "shemaya," simultaneously refers to resonance between the universe of vibration and the particular vibrations in the deaf and dumb man.  The word "heaven" in English does not capture these layers of meaning. 

       DOES OUR telling of the story of the deaf and dumb man reflect the ecology of Galilee and the ecological life style of Jesus?  The story begins with Jesus going from the Mediterranean Sea region to the Sea of Galilee basin. He was walking through the northern part of a Palestinian land which included 2600 plant species.  He was walking among olive, fig, and date palm trees, vineyards, and wild mustard bushes.  Galilee was the most biodiverse area of Palestine, having no desert.  The Jordan River, flowing from the mountains of Lebanon into the Sea of Galilee, was a part of this diverse bioregion. 

Jesus was sensitive to his whole environment.  The "One Source" in the story refers to the interdependent oneness of God and Earth.  The Gospel of Thomas(saying 77) records that Jesus said: "Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."  When Jesus took the man aside so the crowd could not see, he could easily have taken him into a thicket including mustard bushes and aromatic mint plants.  Mustard leaves were used for many ailments, including those of the throat and ears.  Mint had medicinal uses.  Jesus could have rubbed his hands on the mustard leaves before he spat and put his fingers into the man's mouth. 
Jesus' stories (and actions) were embedded within regenerative earth.  Implied in the deaf and dumb story and made explicit in the blind man story in John 9 is that Jesus used mud made with spit to reconnect ailing people with the restorative power of soil, mouth enzymes, and water.  Jesus' life style was in step with a sustainable environment.  He owned little or nothing. Jesus taught people to live in the same manner. 
Today a message "Jesus of Ecology" has for human species is that the realm God is rooted and grounded in reciprocity among non-human and human members of earth's community.  "Jesus of Ecology" is revealed in biblical texts and in first-century Galilee, and this evidence is environmentally and theologically relevant to us at the turn of the millennium.   ### 



Neil Douglas-Klotz is the author of Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus (1990) and Desert Wisdom (1995), and founding director of the International Network for the Dances of Universal Peace. 

Joseph Grabill teaches environmental history, world religions, and peace studies at Illinois State University. 

Deborah Oberg is a psychotherapist and manager at a major behavioral health organization in Central Illinois. 

A Walking Meditation 

Here is an exercise which invites improvisation. With a partner, sit or walk in a meditative or prayerful manner beside favorite trees or plants. Take along or find beside the path herbal leaves to crush. Inhale their fragrance. Deepen your breathing. Speak to each other of a desired healing of spirit, mind, or body. Facing each other, breathe in the same rhythm. With hands made wet by saliva, touch the soil and then touch or hold each other in a place or way which symbolizes the healing process. When the timing is right, repeat the Aramaic word "ethphatah" (eth-fah-tah) softly and feel the sound in the region of the heart. Ask for the universal vibration and the particular vibrations of each person to resonate. Ask to be opened to the "Source of Elemental Life which Restores and Preserves."

Further Readings on Jesus of Ecology

Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

Neil Douglas-Klotz, Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).

__________________, Desert Wisdom: Sacred Middle Eastern Writings from the Goddess through the Sufis, Translations, Commentaries, and Body Prayers (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995). The translation from the Aramaic in Mark 7 quoted above comes from this source.

James A. Duke, Medicinal Plants of the Bible (New York: Trado-Medic Books, 1983).

Charles R. Page II, Jesus & the Land (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).

Michael Zohary, Plants of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

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