Yet despite the traditional cast, Davis is leading a quiet revolution. For the past 20 years, she has been at the vanguard of theologians studying the biblical understanding of care for the land.
Her groundbreaking book, “Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible,” is considered a classic, and she travels widely to speak at churches and conferences about the role of agriculture and the ethics of land use in the Bible.
Her work makes the case that Christian theologians have for too long focused narrowly on the spiritual component of Scripture and in the process have overlooked the Bible’s material concerns.
Speaking to some 30 church members as part of a Sunday morning Creation Care series at the Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in nearby Chapel Hill, she focused on Genesis 1. She read aloud from the Bible and pointed out that God blesses nonhuman creatures first.
“It is not all about us,” said Davis, 63. “God is establishing a genuine relationship with creatures of sea and sky.”
This point — that the Bible does not separate human life from nonhuman life and that God cares for all creation — is consistent throughout her writings.
But neither does Davis shirk from the one passage that has embittered so many environmental activists and offered proof text to those who would deplete the Earth’s resources — God’s command to humankind in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” the Earth and have “dominion” over its creatures.
While she does not deny that human beings have a distinct role in the Bible, she believes that special role carries special responsibility.
“The notion that the God who created heaven and earth does not care that we do damage to the heavens and the earth is completely incoherent,” said Davis, an Episcopalian. “We are answerable to God for how we use the physical order to meet our physical needs.”
Whether in church or from the Gothic limestone edifice of her divinity school office, Davis is spreading the gospel of care for God’s creation. In her personal life (she does not drive, and she buys much of her produce locally at a farmers market) and in her professional life, Davis is making sure God’s blessings in Genesis 1 do not turn into human-made curses.
It was a graduate assistant who led her down this path, more than 20 years ago.
The assistant was helping her compose a final exam for an Old Testament course she was teaching at Yale and suggested she include a question about the Bible’s view of land.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you talk about it all the time,” he answered.
With that small seed of awareness, Davis began combing the stacks at the library to find out more about agriculture and to search the Scriptures for an ethic of land care.