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Creation in Hands Sml

Subdue the Earth and have Dominion

creation in hands

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ Gen 1:28

It’s Creation Season. And recently a biologist asked me about the word “have dominion over” in the above quote – it can give the impression that we can do whatever we like with creation. And that is often the way people have interpreted God’s intentions. This obviously leads to catastrophic results. But does the original actually mean that?

Firstly let me be clear: if “have dominion over” does actually mean that the author of that passage thought we humans could [should] (use and) abuse creation, I don’t think we (Christians) are bound to follow that. In other words, because I am not persuaded that I need to hold to everything within the Bible as being correct and binding on me, I feel free to attempt to ascertain what “have dominion over” actually meant/means. I am not working backwards from wanting to get to a pleasant interpretation by twisting the exegesis so that it ends up saying just what I want it to say (as so much Bible interpretation seems to be).

וּרְדוּ is Qal Imperative of רָדָה (radah) “have dominion”. Firstly, in all cases in the Bible, רָדָה is used for power, control, and authority of one individual or group over another. It literally means “to tread down”.

רָדָה can be used benevolently. Household servants are not to be רָדָה harshly (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53).

Next, we notice, the context of Genesis 1,

Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’…

Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky….

Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.

Humans in contrast, in Genesis 1, are not “brought forth” in this manner. Their creation is different. In other words, in Genesis 1, humans are not seen as simply another creature.

In Genesis 1, humans are made in God’s image. God, it is worth remembering in this reflection, in Genesis 1, is benevolent.

The sun and moon also “rule” – admittedly with the more genial מֶמְשָׁלָה (memshalah) not רָדָה.

God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. Gen 1:16

Also note: dominion does not extend to humans being allowed to kill and eat animals (Gen 1:29-30). In Genesis 1, humans are to be vegetarians.

רָדָה, dominion, is a royal word. It describes what kings do:

May he have dominion (רָדָה) from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Psalm 72:8)

But note the expansion of what this dominion (רָדָה) ideally means in this coronation psalm:

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight. (Psalm 72:12-14)

Ezekiel 34:4 shows God’s displeasure against the misuse of רָדָה:

You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

The context beyond the Genesis 1 text (ie. the original context in which it was written and read) is of people living mostly hand to mouth, struggling to get food from the soil. Why I am writing this is to note that in the power-differential of the author, it is nature that is decidedly stronger; translating this into our own time without noting the shift to the struggle to have dominion over creation’s natural power assumed within the text is abusing the text. This is still true even when one acknowledges the probable Priestly authorship of Genesis’ first chapter.

If we move beyond this first chapter into the Yahwist creation account of Genesis 2, here the human is not made in a different way to the animals, and the language is in no way that of abuse and power, but of service and equality.

The editor, then, of Genesis, at the very least holds together both approaches to creation – the Priestly and the Yahwist, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

In conclusion, I think it is unfair to set רָדָה in Genesis 1 over against a sensible contemporary (scientific) approach of humanity’s place and responsibility within God’s wider creation. This interpretation takes account of the context of the wider text of Genesis 1, the use of רָדָה in other scriptures, the social context of the original author(s) and hearers/readers, and the canonical context of Genesis 1 as having been edited alongside a balancing approach in Genesis 2.

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6 thoughts on “Subdue the Earth and have Dominion”

  1. I tend to go for a simpler approach:

    With great power comes great responsibility (Luke 12:48)

    Dangerous words of course, because it’s not very comfortable to look in the mirror and reflect on how I have used the resources God has given me to suit myself rather than properly to serve him!

    In terms of creation, I think I see exactly the same imperative as you, but expressed as a responsibility to ensure by my stewardship that the next generation can enjoy creation in no less a way than I have. It’s good to see this wider discussion of the text behind it.

  2. Well said.

    There’s a beautiful song by Tom Fettke ‘The Majesty and Glory Of Your Name’ these are the lyrics:

    ‘When I gaze into the night skies
    and see the work of your fingers;
    The moon and stars suspended in space.

    Oh, what is man that you are mindful of him?
    You have given man a crown of glory and honor,
    And have made him a little lower than the angels.
    You have put him in charge of all creation:
    beasts of the field, The birds of the air,
    The fish of the sea.
    Oh, what is man?
    Oh, what is man that you are mindful of him?

    O Lord, our God the majesty and glory of your name
    Transcends the earth and fills the heavens.
    O Lord, our God; little children praise You perfectly,
    And so would we.
    And so would we.’

    It’s one of the most beautiful choral pieces I know, and to hear it seems to put the scripture into context in another way ‘beyond mere words’.

  3. Oh, I can’t believe I forgot about this choral piece! Tom Fettke and I studied with the same composition instructor, Dave Smart, at Moody Bible Institute. Except Tom was there in the late 1970’s. I graduated with a bachelor’s in Church Music in 1985. I love both Tom’s choral work and his orchestration. He is a fine composer and arranger. Tuneful, singable, and chordally pleasing to the ear. This is, indeed, a beautiful song. (Plus, one of my favorite Psalm texts.)

  4. ‘it’s not very comfortable to look in the mirror and reflect on how I have used the resources God has given me to suit myself rather than properly…’ Andy, that is a perfect Jesus phrasing!

    My father died last year, I appreciate him ever more as I age, he used to say ‘take a long hard look in the mirror at yourself first!’

    Elizabeth, I am working on a choral composition right now, and this song in quality is my bar ( I may be setting it way too high to ever finish it! )

    Psalm 72 is beautiful ancient poetry.

  5. I have for most of my Christian life taken “dominion” to have the meaning your study arrived at. I think I got there by intuition from the emphasis in Genesis 1 on God’s benignity and humankind’s creation in the divine image. It seemed impossible that any other meaning was intended. I’m grateful to the work you have done that further supports that understanding.

    If your research had led you to a different conclusion, I would have taken that finding seriously and (unless I saw errors in your reasoning) I would have added Genesis 1:28 to the set of things in the Bible that it is right to disagree with.

    However, I am sure that the criteria for discerning what belongs in that set are themselves Biblically discernible and preserve creedal orthodoxy even while allowing for growth in our understanding, not rejecting parts just because they conflict with some anthropological or sociological fad. (NB, I say that just by way of a contribution to the general discussion. I cannot affirm too strongly that I do not find the latter error in your handling, Bosco, of controversial matters).

    1. Thanks, Trevor. We are, I think, on the same page. As I’m sure you realise, I have not the slightest problem affirming credal orthodoxy. In fact, quite the opposite – it is the life I delight to continue to grow into. Blessings.

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