Last time, I wrestled with the question, “Is mankind the only part of creation that is made in the image of God?” Today, I want to unpack another part of the creation narrative from Genesis 1 – the idea that mankind is commanded to “rule over” and subdue” the rest of creation (vs. 26 & 28)
This may seem fairly straightforward. I mean, it’s right there in the scripture, no bones about it.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Let’s examine that verse, and let’s set another one right next to it:
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
The word “subdue” in Genesis 1:28 is kabash and in the rest of scripture, it is always used in a military context. In Nehemiah 5:5, it’s translated as “bring into bondage.” In Esther 7:8, it tranlates as “to force.” There’s not much subtlety here; “subdue” carries connotations of violence and power. The phrase “have dominion over” is similar; the word is radah, and is most often translated as “to rule” or “to reign.” So 1:28 really does say that mankind is to conquer creation and rule over it.
But let’s look at the second verse. What on earth does it mean to “dress and keep” the garden of Eden? Well, to begin with, that’s an odd translation that may have more to do with what King James’ translators assumed you do in a garden than anything else. The two words are abad and shamar.
Here are a few other places these words are used:
Genesis 15:13-14 – Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved (abad) and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve (abad) as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.
Genesis 29:15 - Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me (abad) for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”
Genesis 4:9 - Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper (shamar)?”
Genesis 28:15 - I am with you and will watch over you (shamar) wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Shamar is such an interesting word. I’m not even sure we have this exact idea in English. It means both “to protect and be with” (or to protect by being with) and “to keep” in the sense of keeping a covenant, or God’s commands. In the context of ceremonies, it also means “to observe” or “to celebrate” (in the sense of “Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread.)
So in Genesis 1, we have mankind as king and conqueror over creation, and in Genesis 2, we have man as servant (or even slave) to creation, tasked with protecting creation by being with it. Are these ideas contradictory? Is scripture schizophrenic?
Only if we think about subjugation and domination in human terms, in which it is the king’s right to exploit the land and impoverish its people to enrich himself and further his own political campaigns. But this is not the way of the King of the Universe,
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! –Phillippians 2:6-8
Christ is the servant king, and it is his example we should look to if we are to truly understand what a king is supposed to be like. In the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last, and anyone who wants to become like Christ must make himself a servant. And so we see this principle at work even at the very beginning of things: when Creator gave mankind authority over creation, he made mankind a servant to creation. The ideas are not incompatible at all; they are complementary in deepest and most meaningful way.
We are the youngest children of God in the family of creation, and yet we are elevated to a position of authority and leadership over creation. When I view the creation narrative in this manner, a pattern starts to become apparent. I am reminded of Jacob, who was elevated over his older brother Esau. And of Joseph, one of the youngest of his father’s sons, but put in a position of authority over them. And of course of David, Israel’s greatest king, who was anointed by Samuel when all of his older brothers were passed over. Could it be that in all of these stories, Creator is trying to remind us of our proper relation to the rest of his creation?
It certainly changes the way I view the created world around me. If (as I was taught) mankind is the “jewel in the crown of creation,” I am tempted to arrogance and superiority in my relations to the created world around me. But if I remember that I am the youngest in the family, elevated by God’s grace and kindness to a position of authority, I am more likely to treat creation with respect and humility, knowing that, even though I have been given responsibility over the rest of my brothers, there is much I can learn from them and much to be gained by preserving a good relationship with creation. I will no longer talk about “proper land use” or “natural resource mnagement.” I am the servant-king of creation, given by God the holy task of replenishing it and protecting it by being with it.
This perspective changes everything. Next week I’ll delve into the ways it is changing my own life (and the way I struggle to live out this truth.)