God’s dominion mandate to Adam described in Genesis 1 cannot defensibly be used as an apologetic for extractive and exploitative use of Earth’s resources – or more conservatively stated as misusing creation for man’s benefit. Instead, I will illustrate that the context of the creation account points to a better understanding of dominion as being an obedient and observant caretaker in the role of steward on God’s behalf. The text in discussion is Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’
Subjected and downtrodden, the Earth is a witness itself of an erroneous understanding of the Hebrew word, רָדָה (raw-daw). An honest assessment of the planet’s watersheds, soils, extinction rates, air quality, ozone structure, and ill humans would be a litmus revealing that our current industrial and economic practices, whether they be agricultural or otherwise, are injurious to the created biosphere, thus could not be what was behind the dominion mandate. Though subjugation and treading down are literal translations of רָדָה, most careful readers of the creation account easily accept to rule or to reign over as good understandings of this Hebrew term often translated as dominion. If that is the case, why is there controversy – or at least different understandings – in application or adherence to the mandate?
I believe that at the heart of using Genesis 1:26-28 to defend exploitative practices is avarice and then to rationalize personal desires. Yet, I will also concede that ignorance of the truth of scripture would also lead someone simply to follow common practice of exploitation of Earth’s resources. But, a reader of the Bible cannot claim ignorance in this case.
I am not convinced that even redeemed believers who are connected to the land have universal agreement about what constitutes dominion and therefore what our subsequent actions should be as a result of the mandate.
Is it a command?
Let me first dispense with the notion that there is no command for dominion. I believe that the language used in this passage is the Hebrew imperative, and therefore establishes God’s direction to Adam as a command.
Admittedly, the verses do not contain the specific Hebrew word צָוָה (tsaw-vaw) that we would most often translate as command, but that should not dissuade us. Many imperative statements are given in the Bible that do not use צָוָה to convey the idea of command. Gen. 6:14, 21 are two good near-in-time examples. I doubt that few if any would claim these verses are not commands by God to Noah to build an arc and to take provisions with him.
In partial support of the idea that the dominion mandate is an actual command, we have a key example of God giving specific instructions to the Hebrews about caring for His land. In Leviticus 25, God spells out that the Israelites are to adopt conservation land-management practice of letting the land rest every seven years and every fiftieth year. In his book, the Pentateuch as Narrative, John H. Sailhamer helps us see the spiritual purpose of this Sabbath, which then also has a practical land-management purpose. He wrote:
In its overall plan, the Sabbath year was to be a replication of God’s provisions for humankind in the Garden of Eden. When God created human beings and put them into the Garden, they were not to work for their livelihood but were to worship . . . So also in the Sabbath year, each person was to share equally in all the good of God’s provision (Lev 25:6). In the Garden, God provided for the man and woman an eternal rest (cf. Gen 2:9, the Tree of Life; 3:22b) and time of worship, the Sabbath (Gen 2:3). The Sabbath year was a foretaste of that time of rest and worship. Here, as on many other occasions, the writer has envisioned Israel’s possession of the ‘good land’ promised to them as a return to the Garden of Eden.
I do not believe God would give such specific instructions to the Hebrews about land management if He did not want to reinforce His ownership of creation, His desire for their obedience, and proper stewardship of what He had provided for them. Yes, the Sabbaths are a key demonstration of trust in God and our worship of Him, but they are also practical in our stewardship of God’s created work.
By pointing out God’s Sabbath instructions to the Hebrews I am not making the claim that we are to follow Mosaic law today in the Church Age. Paul’s teaching, especially his letters to the Galatians and Colossians, would help us to avoid that kind of syncretism with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But, we can be edified by the Creator’s instructions by gleaning insights into the very nature of God and our relationship with Him.
Sequence of creation is telling
It may be important to our understanding of רָדָה if we examine when the dominion mandate was given, that is, where in the sequence of creation was it established. To do so, it is helpful to review basic milestones in the creation account germane to this discussion. A simple list can be as follows:
- First, there was the Godhead
- The Godhead created the structures of creation including the Earth
- The Godhead vegetated the Earth
- The Godhead gave day and night their place
- The Godhead then populated the water and the air with creatures
- The Godhead populated the land with creatures
- The Godhead made man in Their image and gave man reign over other creatures
- The Godhead established reproductive relationships to populate the Earth
- The Godhead commanded man to subdue and reign over every creature
- The Godhead announced plants as food for man and other creatures
- The Godhead viewed it all as very good
God Himself described creation as good and very good. Due to this Divine declaration, which is made prior to the fall, what we then can know of creation would indicate that it did not need improvement. It did not need changing, for according to the text, all the food necessary for man and animal was available – and by God’s design described by the text, was self-perpetuating. So dominion has to be about more than just provision food.
Yet, if dominion was given before the fall while Adam had all provision possible, for what then was dominion? Unless there was extra-biblical revelation by God, how would Adam know what to do in order to exercise dominion? Why was dominion needed in a setting that was described by the Devine Creator as very good? What did Adam and Eve lack at the time of Genesis 1:26-28 in this timeline?
Certainly God, in His omniscience, could foresee that man would fall and therefore would have to live differently than was originally put in place. But, why did God give this imperative in a pre-fall context? Was the Earth somehow in need of man’s interaction of some kind?
For those who make the assumption that dominion and subduction must be for the benefit of mankind, I ask how that revelation is evident in the text. As I read it, man’s benefit through dominion is not explicit in the Genesis 1 account. It might be someone’s assumption, but it is not explicit. For provision for Adam and Eve and all the creatures was already present and perpetual.
If רָדָה is not the basis for man’s use or exploitation of the planet’s resources, then how are we to understand the mandate? As Lee Canipe explains in his article about this topic, we must look more carefully at the context of the scene. He wrote:
God does indeed call men and women to exercise רָדָה, or dominion, over creation. But the real question is: What sort of dominion? According to verse 27, the answer is clear: a dominion that is in the image, or likeness, of God. Humans, in other words, are to rule over creation in a way that is consistent with the way God rules.
A powerful idea, no doubt. Man, as image bearer of God, holds a special place in creation. He is God’s governor of creation. Not owner, not having rights, but having responsibilities. In short, this is the idea of stewardship. The simple understanding of dominion in this context is to practice dominion as God would.
Does that beg a question? Certainly, it must. We can find examples in scripture of God’s dominion of creation. It is in Psalm 72 where we will find an extremely relevant example of what kind of dominion God exercises of His creation. This is also where we find the Hebrew רָדָה, used in relation to God and His creation. David the psalmist describes God’s compassionate and life-giving approach to His creation describing just the kind of dominion that is godly. “When used in connection with God, the potentially violent connotations of רָדָה suggest instead a more generous sort of kingship.”
A goodly and godly steward is what I believe is what God intended when establishing the dominion mandate. The good king is caring of his subjects and does not subject them to ruin. Thus, man’s role is to serve as image bearers of God to steward His creation as the good King would.
Though the literal translations of רָדָה paint a nearly violent picture, I believe the context of the creation account interprets a better understanding of the dominion mandate, one of compassion and accountable stewardship.
 Sailhamer, John H., The Pentateuch as Narrative, p.361.
 Canipe, Lee. “Rethinking Dominion in Genesis 1:27-28” Christian Ethics Today. The Christian Ethics Today Foundation. Fall 2010 (Issue 80 Page 21).