Tomorrow when Eileen and I begin teaching about environmental stewardship at Hampton Presbyterian, we’ll start “in the beginning”, looking at what Genesis has to say about the environment. I’ve written before about what Genesis 2 has to say about taking care of creation. The truth is, though, that most people don’t care what Genesis 2 has to say. Most people in modern western industrial civilization have heard a lot more about Genesis 1:28: “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‘” (NRSV). This is the verse that people will frequently, and with good intentions, cite in describing how we are called to relate to the environment.
First the word “subdue”. In Hebrew this is kabash. You can’t get around it; it does mean “subdue” or “enslave”, and even in the harshest instances “molest” or “rape.” But here’s the catch: it only means this when the party being subdued is already hostile. Hence it’s used to speak of military enemies in scripture. Not to subdue an attacking army would lead to death. Hence, we subdue the earth because without such subjugation the harshness of nature would yield death for us rather than life. Or, as one commentator writes:
Therefore “subdue” in Gen 1:28implies that creation will not do man’s bidding gladly or easily and that man must now bring creation into submission by main strength. It is not to rule man. However, there is a twistedness in humanity which causes us to perform such a task with fierce and destructive delight. Try as we might, we cannot subdue this. But it can be subdued and this is the promise of Mic 7:1, “He will subdue [kabash] our iniquities.” (Harris, R. Laird, et al.; Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. electronic ed. Chicago : Moody Press, 1999, c1980, S. 430)
As God subdues that in us which leads to death rather than life – sin – so too we subdue in nature that which leads to death, turning it around so that it yields life. Jesus’ words about pruning in John 15 provide a beautiful example of the way in which God subdues sin, using as an analogy the way a farmer subdues nature. Thus agriculture and other life-giving uses of nature are proper fulfillment of the command to “subdue” creation.
Now for the word “dominion” or “rule”. In Hebrew this is radah. It’s a royal word. This is the dominating rule of a king. But let’s pause and think of the kind of king that God desires. The same word is used in Psalm 72, originally a coronation psalm for Solomon. Verse 8: “May he have dominion [radah] from sea to sea . . .” But now look at verses 12-14 to see what that dominion, that radah, looks like:
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. (NRSV)
What is the kind of rule that God doesn’t want? Ezekiel 34:4 gives us an example. In a tirade against Israel’s kings, God says through the prophet, “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 dominion that God desires is one that protects the defenseless and gives justice to the oppressed. Applying this to the command for humanity to exercise dominion over creation, we can see that while we rule over creation, we’re called to protect it. As a king accepts tribute or taxes from his subjects, so too we receive a bountiful sustenance from the fruits of creation. Yet also as a king should take care of the weak and poor in his kingdom, so too we are called to guard natural beauty, preserve endangered species of God’s creatures, and even to restore the places which we have too often ruled “with force and harshness.”
So, in the spirit of a targum or paraphrase, here’s my take on how we should interpret Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and have children, filling the earth with your life so that you can have power to fight against everything in it that leads to death. Rule with care and fairness over the natural world, over the myriads of My beautiful creatures - from tropical fish to soaring eagles to dogs and cats – every creature that is a part of this living world.”