A mistake to let them subdue the earth and have dominion over it?

Read time: 6 minutes

There is an argument that the Bible is partly to blame for the current environmental crisis because humanity was instructed from the get-go to subdue the earth and have dominion over all living creatures (Gen. 1:26-28). The historian Lynn White famously argued in a 1967 article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” that Christianity, the most anthropocentric of religions, introduced the idea of humanity’s absolute right to subjugate the natural world and “made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

Against this slander, Christian apologists insist that we have been created in the image of God and entrusted with the task of conserving and stewarding natural resources; there is no biblical mandate for unrestrained consumption and destruction. Insofar as this is meant as a reading of the creation story, however, it appears to rest on flimsy grounds.

God said, “Let us make ʾadam in our image, as our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the bird of the heavens and over the beast and over the whole earth and over every creeping thing that creeps over the earth.” And God created the ʾadam in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and be many, and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the bird of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Gen. 1:26-28, my translation)

So there are two relevant actions that the ʾadam will perform, as they become many and fill the earth: they will subdue the earth and rule over the earth and its living creatures. We need to look at how these words are used elsewhere to get a feel for the likely connotations here.

The Hebrew word for “subdue” is kvsh. The dictionary definition is “subdue, bring into bondage” (BDB). The word is used for the subjugation of the land through military conquest: the armies of Israel will drive out the Canaanites and the land will be “subdued (nikhbeshah) before the Lord” (Num. 32:22; cf. 32:29; Josh. 18:1; 1 Chron. 22:18). David “subdued” (kibbesh) and despoiled the surrounding nations (2 Sam. 8:11). The people of Jerusalem “brought back into subjection” (yakhbishu) the slaves which they had recently liberated (Jer. 34:11, 16; cf. 2 Chron. 28:10; Neh. 5:5). God will “subjugate” or tread under foot (yikhbosh) Israel’s iniquity (Mic. 7:19); he will “tread down (kavshu) the sling stones” of their enemies (Zech. 9:15). Ahasuerus thinks that Haman has assaulted (kebosh) Queen Esther (Esth. 7:8).

We should take care not to make scripture speak for us on matters about which it knows nothing.

To “have dominion over” is to “rule over” (rdh). The people of Israel “rule over” (tirdeh) their hired servants and slaves (Lev. 25:46, 53; cf. 1 Kgs. 5:16; 9:23; Is. 14:2). If the people are disobedient, God will set his face against them, they will be struck down before their enemies, and those who hate them will “rule over” (radu) them (Lev. 26:17; cf. Neh. 9:28). Balaam says that “one from Jacob will exercise dominion (yerde)” over Israel’s enemies and “destroy the survivors of cities” (Num. 24:19). The word is commonly used for rule over nations (1 Kgs. 4:24; Is. 14:6; 41:2; Ezek. 29:15). When God has dominion over the Ancient Near East, desert tribes bow down to him, his enemies lick the dust, kings render him tribute, kings fall before him, nations serve him (Ps. 72:8-11). The righteous will rule over the wicked (Ps. 49:14). God’s king at his right hand will rule (rdeh) in the midst of his enemies (Ps. 110:2). The word is even used for treading (yirdu) the figurative winepress of God’s judgment (Joel 3:13).

All this rather suggests that subduing and ruling over the earth and its creatures was understood as an activity analogous to the subjugation of enemies, the ransacking of their cities, the suppression of opposition, the rule over hostile nations, and the subjection of slaves—at least, more like these actions than the careful working and maintenance of a garden. There is no reason to think that the language would have suggested stewardship or creation care. The common translation of rdh in Genesis 1:26-28 as “have dominion over” strikes me as euphemistic.

Humanity in the image of God, set apart from the animals, has been given the capacity to subdue and rule over a hostile environment. For ancient peoples—indeed, for pre-industrial peoples—the world was experienced as a dangerous place. The elements were destructive. Wild animals threatened life. Thorns and thistles choked the cultivated crop. The earth was unyielding. All this and more needed to be overcome—subdued and ruled over—if humanity was to survive and flourish.

In the second creation story, Adam is put in the garden which God planted for him in order to “work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:8, 15). Here we have a sort of ecological ideal. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis wrote:

Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.

But even before the “fall” it is not the whole of the earth which is to be tended and conserved by humanity, only a small, purpose-built, middle-eastern garden. When Adam and Eve fall sideways out of the garden, they find themselves in an inhospitable world that must be forcefully and painfully subdued (Gen. 3:17-19).

Of course, industrialisation has changed everything. This is another respect in which we are now far beyond the horizon of the biblical texts, and we should take care not to make scripture speak for us on matters about which it knows nothing. The scale of the damage now being done to the earth was inconceivable to the ancient mind.

The other concern I have is that it is too late to be appealing to any ideal of creation care. I say this not entirely frivolously: we are in apocalyptic territory. “Just as it was in the days of Noah…. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all” (Lk. 17:26–27). This seems the more relevant theological paradigm.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 11/09/2022 - 13:40 | Permalink

Is it necessary to see the (potentially) exploitive and violent “dominion agenda” of Genesis 1 and the “custody of the Garden” agenda of Genesis 2 as expressions of the same thing? Can we be certain that the elohim who command the humans to have dominion are in full agreement with YHWH, who sets the humans a task that, by itself, could be interpreted more in terms of “service of/care for (a part of) the creation”?

Perhaps the elohim of Genesis 1 later become the gods of the nations, and their long conflict with YHWH and his people Israel actually goes back to a disagreement at the beginning on how humans ought to function within the creation. 

Perhaps the disagreement continues into the New Testament, where Jesus, the second Adam, defeats “the powers” by, paradoxically, dying at the hands of their servants. Paul seems to think that the churches carry some kind of longstanding argument between YHWH and lesser powers forward into the future (Eph 3:10). 

Just a wild thought; perhaps it illustrates the degree of uncertainty that may remain.

@Samuel Conner:

Samuel, I don’t see it as an “exploitative” dominion in any negative sense. I think it is a forceful taking control of a hostile natural environment so that humanity can spread and flourish, and in that respect it is merely descriptive of how things appeared in the ancient world. It is only in the modern era that we have developed the technological capacity to harm our environment on a massive global scale, but that would have been inconceivable to ancient peoples.

The second creation story is answering a different question, and I’m not sure we can match the answers up. Perhaps the cursing of cultivation aligns with the need to subdue and have dominion over the earth, but there is no garden and no counterpart to the fall in the Elohistic account.

It’s an interesting question about how the two perspectives play out, but I don’t have anything much to contribute. It might make sense to posit a tension between an international perspective and covenantal one in which the garden story prefigures Israel’s experience of living in the land and being expelled from it. I don’t know if that would be a sustainable view.