What does it mean to rule over the creation? How do we govern all God made (or since Genesis 1 continues, is making)? When the Hebrew word radā translates as dominion, how should we interpret it? It says it twice there the first cosmological myth of Genesis, first in verse 26 and then again in verse 28. So what should we hear?
Dominion and Power
One way to read the word dominion is through the lens of power. In the frame of Genesis 1, those who live by power fail to see their belonging. Instead of recognizing that their purpose and value are inherent, something the divine calls into existence, they seek to create it for themselves. Dominion interpreted through the lens of power begins with the question, “How can I use something else to make my life better?”
That last question is an important one because it objectifies everything else in existence. It defines something’s value based on its function and utility. This use oriented understanding undergirds lifestyles of consumerism and consumption. Moreover, it is this mindset that sits at the rotting core of the Western world. Whether it is neoliberal politics, the treatment of workers, or gender and race relations, the disease of Western society is that it is based on power and fundamentally antithetical to the spirituality of Jesus.
This holds when it comes to a purely extractive view of the resources our planet offers, be it rare gems, fossil fuels, plants, or animals.
Two Clues This is Wrong
While a powerful dominating dominion might be what comes naturally, it doesn’t take long before Scripture suggests another way. Genesis’ second cosmological myth says that God placed the adam in the garden to “tend and watch over it.”
While radā in Genesis 1 comes with translations like to rule, to govern, and have dominion over, all of which can imply power, Genesis 2 is different. They imply service and even devotion to the earth. There is deep care and even a sacrifice for the good of the creation. This is not a relationship based on power, but one rooted in love.
But it is not just that, the same word translated dominion shows up later in the Hebrew Bible. In Leviticus 25, God instructs the people of Israel to not treat one another, even those living as indentured servants, with harshness. When offering the clarification of those who are subservient, it says their masters radā over them. The broader text might not be as dignified as we would like today, but don’t forget what God was doing back then.
None of this should surprise us. God does place people on earth to image the divine and the whole story of the Bible is one of God’s relentless love towards the creation.
Dominion and Love
God as object is a being that acts upon and manipulates the creation. This deity controls everything that happens, both good and bad. This God then expects people to call all of it good because it brings about the outcome God desires. This should sound familiar, after all, it is no different from the utilitarian approach to dominion.
This stands in contrast to God as subject where, rather than declaring what should be, the divine invites everything to step into purpose. It is not about coercion and manipulation, but the cultivation of spaces that invite health.
Cultivating the Creation
So what might this look like in practice?
Our current approach to dominion includes feedlots where we cram livestock into limited spaces, feed them an unnatural but highly fattening diet of corn, and pump them full of antibiotics to limit disease. A loving dominion would assure fields where animals can wander. We would cultivate these spaces to maintain an abundance of foods that fit their natural diet, allowing them to grow (or not grow) accordingly. Yes, this would mean less meat for human consumption, but that is healthier for us anyway. Moreover, it would reduce water consumption and allow fields to produce more plants for human consumption.
Speaking of those fields, as opposed to acre after acre of a single crop where there’s a constant need to add fertilizer, pesticides, and weed killer to account for the lack of biodiversity, permaculture allows us to work with the earth to grow the crops we need without having to add harmful chemicals. And when we focus on eating plants rather than various manifestations of naturally and unnaturally processed corn, suddenly we have so that much more to create a diversity of crops.
At the same time, tending these crops would require more hands which means, rather than driving farmers out of business and making them sell their fields to Big Ag, we need to assure demonstrated dignity for those who want to be most in tune with the rhythms of the earth.
The possibilities go on. For those who live in urban centers, rooftops provide abundant space for solar panels and city gardens. Mass transit that is convenient and affordable takes advantage of density. In places where winds blow and waters flow the movement can lead to harvested energy. Whatever the location, when we start with how we can allow the earth to do what it does, rather than manipulate it to our ends, we can image the divine to the rest of the creation.
Book: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
One of my favorites as a child. I can still hear my dad reading it to me. Little did I know how much it would feed my vision of what is wrong with the world today.
Movie: Food, Inc.
This 2008 documentary explores the development of our food systems and their effects on the land, animals, and us.
Book: Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry
Berry’s words proved to be one of the early voices that pushed my imagination beyond a frame of power. I just did not know what was happening when I first read this work seven years ago.
What is one step you can take this week to cultivate a space that invites creation to thrive?
Let’s take advantage of the Christmas Season to explore what the Gospels say about Jesus coming into the world.