Genesis 1:28, To “Subdue” and “Have Dominion Over” Creation

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[9], “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.”

19 comments
  1. Jimmy said:

    Hey Chris,
    Well thought out! One other thing I would add is that although in Genesis 3 when the fall of man happens and God curses the earth (Gen. 3:17-19), I notice that he blesses it again after the great flood (Gen. 8:21).

  2. Chris this sounds so neat, what a wonderful opportunity! I hope your first week went well.

  3. Hello Chris,

    I loved this blog and really enjoyed seeing your beliefs and research line up with what I’ve found. I am the founder of The Green Dominion Foundation in Denver, Co and will pass the word on about your blog! Thanks for using God’s gifts in you

  4. Jim C. said:

    People 2,000 years ago simply didn’t understand much about nature, and were not qualified to make absolute proclamations on Man’s place in it.

    If you draw up a list of things known today vs. things known back then, the modern list will dwarf the ancient one. Why should we rely on the beliefs of Middle-Eastern laymen as a foundation for modern science and environmental policy? Once that obligation is out of the way, there’s no need to reinterpret what they might have meant.

    The Bible was written when there were perhaps 250 million people on the whole planet. Now, we have 6.8 BILLION and climbing, so the parameters are much different. You wouldn’t refer to a Kitty Hawk flight manual to pilot a fully loaded 747.

    • Chris Brown said:

      Jim – Your analogy about using a Kitty Hawk flight manual to pilot a 747 is helpful. I’m not talking about using the Bible as the manual, though; I don’t look at scripture as a scientific text. The question isn’t one of “how-to” but of purpose. The pilot’s job, regardless of the size or complexity of the plane, is to pilot the plane safely and accurately to it’s intended destination. I think one of humanity’s purposes on earth is to care for the earth, ensuring that its resources are used safely and rightly. That’s what caring for creation is about.

  5. Blair said:

    Thanks Chris,
    I am doing some writing on God’s abundance. As I pondered and studied, subdue and dominion kept coming up with normal interpretations yet inside I knew there had to be something more. Looking at the words in other contexts makes sense. Thanks for your exegesis.

  6. I like the way you took two difficult Hebrew words and worked to understand them in this manner in such short space. This is a literary feat! Furthermore, your exegesis is lovely in its work to find that careful balance between the human creature being made of the earth, and from the earth, yet also endowed with a special stewardship of the land. Thank you for this — I found it quite helpful. Dr. George Cladis.

  7. Jo said:

    I have been thinking about this word subdue for some time and visting this blog in the search. I reflect also on the other information that has been dug up by looking for the meaning of the word in the hebrew
    “The noun form of this word is “kevesh” and means “a footstool,” a place where one places the foot. ”
    Now my attention is caught by the destination of the earth to become the footstool of God, and the recreation of the earth by God, who is drawing all things to Himself in Jesus Christ…it is an awesome relationship to be in Christ so that where our feet rest so there too His feet are at rest!

  8. Chris-

    Thank you for this post! It was helpful in organizing some of my thoughts in a post on the same topic. I’d be interested in your feedback.

    Cheers,
    Robb
    “Dominion versus Stewardship” post at The Scholar Redeemer

  9. I am interested in the work of dominion. I have heard that we have dominion over the earth as well, and because we are made of dirt, which is earth, we have dominion over our bodies and have the right to take dominion over our bodies when they are sick and call the dirt into proper alignment with God’s design. Some saying healing isn’t in this life but ultimate healing is when w die. Why would we need healing then if we will be in our glorified bodies. I wrestle with the subject of healing and have been taught to take dominion and authority given to us in Christ. As he is seated at the right hand of God, we are too because we are IN CHRIST. True?

  10. Just wanted to say thanks so much for this post! I am a campus minister and I am giving a talk on “Caring for the Environment” at our meeting this week. Your post was incredibly helpful for me in putting together my talk as I was wrestling through how to talk about “subdue” and “dominion” in Genesis 1:28. At first I was just going to speak on Genesis 2 and just avoid Genesis 1 altogether, but this post has given me the courage to tackle Genesis 1 in my talk :)

  11. Yvette said:

    Thanks for this–I’m preaching on caring for creation this Sunday and was struggling with how to understand “subdue”. Other resources simply defined it as “subjugate” and provided lots of instances where it is used in stories of violent conflict–not helpful. Your exegesis was very helpful. And I always appreciate when sources are cited–if there others in addition to the one cited (Laird et al), I’d love to have a list. Thanks again!

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