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 birds of the heavens, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
From the beginning humanity was given the charge to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the animals. No other creature presently can match human beings in terms of their impact on their environment. How shall we understand God’s mandate for humanity to subdue the earth and have dominion over it?
Many read and understand God’s mandate for subduing the earth and maintaining dominion over it in terms of domination. According to this view humanity must continually battle the forces of nature and attempt to master and control them. In order to truly dominate the creation, mankind must eliminate all sorts of vestiges of nature and impose order, discipline, and concrete upon the land. Everything in the creation is seen as some kind of “natural resource” to be developed and leveraged for the benefit of humanity. If it exists, man must exploit it.
We can certainly understand how such a view might develop and get promoted. A lot of the modern economy, and the philosophical principles which undergird it, relies upon private property, development, and never-ending exploitation of resources. This leads to a perspective of looking at everything as being owned by someone or some organization with the expectation of leveraging whatever resources might exist for material benefit and gain. Likewise, many believe a domination view is the natural understanding of the text, and it is difficult for them to imagine any other way of looking at how humanity would interact with the creation. Is the universe not actively attempting to kill us all? If we do not attempt to control our environment, will the environment not conspire to destroy us? God did say to subdue the earth, no? Thus, why should humanity not use every tool at its disposal to dominate and exploit the creation?
Nevertheless, we should consider how well our endeavor to dominate the creation is working for us or the creation. In our attempts to eliminate some danger or difficulty, we find ourselves creating new difficulties or causing new problems. We have created paradises where there was once desert; now water resources are being exhausted and the prospect of the desert returns. We have overexploited many animal and fish stocks; we may not enjoy the abundance of food in the future we take for granted today. Antibiotics have saved countless lives yet also ravage our microbiome in deleterious ways. We have greatly lessened certain causes of death but have greatly increased a number of others; likewise, we have made advances against some debilitating conditions and illnesses while other conditions and illnesses now flourish. Some have greatly benefited from the production of wealth; others are worse off than before. Our technological advances provide us a higher quality of life in many ways but have impoverished us in terms of our relationships with the creation and with one another. We pave over natural land and call it our new paradise yet yearn for the simplicity, quiet, and renewal we find in nature. We face the prospect of civilizational collapse because of the very forces which have powered and driven our civilization’s development.
In our attempt to dominate the creation we should learn our limitations. We cannot presume to dominate the creation as those above or beyond it: whether we like it or not, we are part of this creation. We were made in the image of God, certainly (Genesis 1:26-28); yet we are made. We are part of this creation; humanity has a higher calling and purpose, indeed, yet remains part of the created order, part of the animal kingdom, subject to the same corruption, decay, and natural forces which govern the rest of the creation (Romans 8:18-22). We might presume to be gods, but the creation will remind us quite sharply that we die like every other created being. We brought nothing into this world; we take nothing out of it.
There has always been another way of understanding how humanity is to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it. At the beginning God made Adam to keep and tend the Garden of Eden He had made (Genesis 2:15). Adam had done nothing to make it; God did not call Adam to tear it up and build something else, or to exploit all of its resources until there was nothing left. Instead, God made it all for His glory, honor, and joy, and made the man to maintain it. In this way Adam was made a steward of God’s creation: to use his creative power to exercise a level of control over which plants would grow where, to maintain certain numbers of various kinds of animals in certain domains, and to keep it according to the harmony established by its Creator.
As the people of God Israel was to understand themselves as the stewards of God’s good land which He gave them. Israel was often reminded how they did not labor to obtain the land; God had given it to them (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:1-8:20). The Israelites could understand themselves as owning the land, but their ownership did not give them the right to do whatever they pleased: they were expected to let the land lie fallow and enjoy its Sabbath once every seven years, and land that had been sold was to be given back during the jubilee year (Leviticus 25:2-55). Natural resources were not to be overexploited: they could not take a mother bird and its eggs, but had to let the mother bird go free (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). When the Israelites multiplied in their sins and perpetuated an unjust and oppressive society, the land suffered in mourning, and did not produce for the people (cf. Hosea 4:1-3).
The principle of stewardship is prominently manifest in the new covenant in Christ. By their very nature and definition servants and slaves are stewards of whatever their masters have entrusted to their care (e.g. Matthew 24:45-51, 25:14-30, Luke 16:1-8, 1 Corinthians 4:1-2); as Christians we understand ourselves as servants of God in Christ, that we have brought nothing into this world, all that we have and are come from God, and God will hold us accountable for how we have used what He has given us (Matthew 25:14-30, Romans 2:5-11, 1 Timothy 6:6-8). Christians have little difficulty recognizing that every spiritual blessing in Christ is not earned or deserved but given freely as gifts which we are to use to bless one another and not to merely advance our own interests (Philippians 2:1-4); likewise Christians understand that the material resources with which God has blessed them should be used to bless others as well and not just to advance their own interests (Luke12: 13-59, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:13). Therefore, why do so many Christians resist understanding these same principles at work in their relationship with God’s creation? Did any of us make or design the creation, or was it made by its Creator as very good and to his honor, glory, and joy? Have any of us earned, deserved, or merited a certain standing in the creation by our own virtue? To what end has God given us the charge to subdue and have dominion over the creation: so that we can heap up material benefits for ourselves to the active harm of other creatures and some of our fellow humans, or to keep it and tend it to provide blessings for ourselves and for many others, both now and in the future?
Whenever domination has been attempted, nature might suffer for a time, yet in its suffering the creation has caused great suffering for humanity. Whenever humans have understood themselves as stewards of God’s creation, living within and working with the creation, the bounty of creation has nourished and sustained humanity. The way of domination is the way of the powers and principalities over this present darkness, leading to exploitation, oppression, and despairs; the way of stewardship is the way Jesus approached His life and ministry and expects Christians to approach their lives and ministries, and provides even more blessings and benefits to others. May we understand the creation as a gift of God which we are to manage for His honor and glory, and not as a resource to dominate and exploit, and obtain eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Ethan R. Longhenry