Formations 01.25.2015: Writers Decry Removal of Nature Words from Dictionary

Psalm 104:1-13, 33-34

af24_2_012515_smMore than two dozen prominent writers, including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion, have written an open letter to Oxford University Press expressing alarm with the publisher’s decision to drop a number of words associated with the countryside from its children’s dictionary.

Since 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary has removed the names of at least thirty species, including “blackberries,” “minnows,” and “acorns.” At the same time, they have added new words drawn from the realm of technology such as “analogue,” “broadband,” and “cut-and-paste.”

The writers express their hope that the next edition reinstates the nature words that have been cut.

They base this plea on two considerations. First, they write, “the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.” They comment, “childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.”

Their second consideration is the proven connection between the decline in natural play and the decline in children’s wellbeing. Citing the Natural Childhood campaign’s admonition that “Every child should have the right to connect with nature. To go exploring, sploshing, climbing, and rolling in the outdoors, creating memories that’ll last a lifetime,” the writers observe that “Their list of 50 things to do before your 11 3/4 includes many for which the OJD once had words, but no longer: like playing conkers, picking blackberries, various trees to climb, minnows to catch in a net and so on.”

Nature and culture have indeed always been linked. In the biblical context, we might add that nature and theology have always been linked as well. How are we to think theologically about the created order: about blackberries and minnows and acorns? Psalm 104 celebrates God’s good creation as well as praising God as the Creator. Many details of the created order are brought forth as evidence of God’s control of creation: establishing the earth on its foundations, setting limits on the waters, etc. In all of this, God’s power and loving provision are manifest.

Alison Flood, “Oxford Junior Dictionary’s Replacement of ‘Natural’ Words with 21st-Century Terms Sparks Outcry,” The Guardian, 13 Jan 2015 .


• How much time did you spend in nature as a child? How have those experiences shaped who you are today?
• What experiences of nature most lead you to affirm it as God’s good creation?
• How can believers come to terms with the apparent “wildness” of the universe?
• How can believers reconcile the fact that nature sometimes poses a threat with the idea that creation is “supremely good” (Gen 1:31).

Reference Shelf

Creation and Chaos

Fundamental to Babylonia, Egypt, and Canaan was the belief that chaos, a force hostile to existence, had been overcome by a victorious god. The Babylonian Enuma elis opens with an account of the origin of the gods, or theogony. From primordial Apsu, the fresh underground waters, and the marine waters, Ti’amat, springs the society of the gods. Conflict within the divine society throws Ti’amat, who personifies chaos, into mortal combat with Marduk. Marduk is victorious and from the slain body of Ti’amat he establishes the heavens and the earth. Subsequently humans are created from the blood of the rebellious god Kingu, and a temple is constructed for Marduk in Babylon….

Texts from Babylonia, Egypt and Ugarit reveal the shared understanding that chaos is overcome by a victorious god who creates and/or establishes order. The battle with chaos (Chaoskampf) is most dramatic in Babylonia and Ugarit. Creation is not ex nihilo, from nothing, but results from an ordering of material that already exists. All three civilizations conceive of a plurality of gods who relate within the bounds of a society. Theogony is explicit in the Babylonian and Egyptian stories, implicit in the Ugantic texts. Finally, creation has as much to do with establishing social and cosmic order as it does in accounting for origins, especially at Ugarit.

The Bible reveals shared and distinctive concerns. Like their neighbors, the Hebrews often speak of a watery chaos (Gen 1:2; Ps 104:6; however, Gen 2 envisions chaos as an arid wasteland). Because chaos is the material from which God creates, it is unlikely that the ancient Hebrews held any notion of creatio ex nihilo. The first clear expression of creation from nothing is found in 2 Macc 7:28 from the late second century B.C.E. Still, God’s power over the deep is never questioned and is frequently expressed as a victory over surging waves and monstrous sea creatures: dragons, Leviathan, Rahab, or a serpent (Pss 74:13-14; 89:10; Job 26:12-13; Isa 51:9). Unlike other creation stories. however, the biblical accounts do not depict God in mortal combat with the forces of chaos. The raging waters and fearsome beasts that are so threatening in the Enuma elis and in the Baal stories merely yield to the majestic power of God. It is most significant that the creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible know of no theogony. To be sure, certain texts give rise to speculation about a society of the gods (e.g., Gen 1:26; 3:22; 6:2; 11:7; Isa 6:8). However, such thoughts remain undeveloped and there is never any at tempt to account for the origin of God.

V. Steven Parrish, “Creation,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 182.

Israel’s Creation Faith

An exquisite expression of Israel’s creation faith is found in Psalm 104, a hymn that has many affinities with the Genesis creation story. As in Psalm 8…, the poet’s praise is directed to Yahweh (“O Yahweh, my God”), whose name is great in the earth. In composing this poem, the poet has drawn upon mythopoeic motifs known outside Israel. Indeed, at points this psalm displays striking resemblance in style and content to “The Hymn to the Aton,” composed by the Pharaoh Akhenaton, the reforming Egyptian king of the fourteenth century B.C. who introduced a kind of monotheism based on the worship of the benevolent divine power symbolized by the sun disc… Moreover, the poet has made use of the myth of the Creator’s subduing the powers of chaos which was known in Mesopotamia and particularly in the Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature from the fourteenth century B.C….

The invocation to praise Yahweh leads into the main body of the psalm (vs. 2-30) which provides the motive for praise. The elaboration of the ground for praise is developed in seven strophes which follow the sequence of the Genesis creation story…. The poet ascribes praise in a series of “who” clauses: Yahweh is the One who stretched out the heavens, who set the earth on its foundations, etc. Notice how the poet employs, much more freely than in the Genesis creation story, the ancient myth about the conflict between the Creator and the powers of chaos, symbolized by the raging sea, insurgent waters or floods, or the monster sometimes called Rahab or Leviathan (see Ps. 89:10; 74:13-14; Job 9:18; 26:12). The earth, we are told, is firmly established in the midst of the primeval waters, but the waters appear to be unruly, hostile, and threatening. The waters symbolize the powers of chaos which the Creator has to “rebuke,” “chase back,” limit and hold within bounds.

Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983) 156–57.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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