05. Genesis 1-2 part 5

I. A. 2. continued

c) Stewardship over the Creation (Genesis 1:28-30 and 2:15)

“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.” These are the very first recorded words God spoke to Adam and Eve, and there is no other commission He has given us that we have misused more completely. The commission includes three tasks that we can discuss separately: first, to populate the earth; second, to subdue the earth; and third to rule over the other creatures. The first part of the commission is best left until we discuss marriage. It is interesting though that the first word addressed to the first people was an invitation to a sexual relationship, but we will come back to this later.

We should focus on the second and third parts of the commission now. There are two key words, the one translated “subdue” and the one translated “rule over”. In Hebrew the word for “subdue” has a very wide range in meanings, from those which are more gentle (“acquire control”) to those which are more violent,  (“rape”). When the word was translated into Greek by the ancient Jews, they used the word κατακυριευσατε, katakyrieusate. It is on the gentler side of the range but can also have a fairly wide range of meanings from “gain control over” to “subdue” to “tame” to “conquer”. The English Standard Version chose a translation in the middle of the range.

In both Hebrew and Greek the word translated “rule over” means to “govern”, in general, but the Greek word, αρχετε, archete, means particularly to “govern as a deputy or subordinate officer”. Different English translations use other phrases like “have dominion over” but the emphasis in the original is easily lost. In the context, this first commission flows out of being the image of God and our translation should be determined by that idea.

How we understand the image of God colors how we understand our commission to the creation, and how we understand God colors how we understand the image of God. Too much of our tradition pictures God as a stern grandfather figure, and that inclines us, particularly men, to adopt such a stance as images of God: forceful men, dominant men, strong and somewhat aloof. What I have argued previously is that God is a Creator and Covenant Maker who made everything up out of His joy and enthusiasm. Being a Covenant Maker is the opposite of the stern grandfather in many ways, particularly in not being aloof. We need not, should not, understand the word subdue in its most forceful sense of subjugating, conquering. Instead we should understand “subdue” as to “gain control” and in connection with the idea of ruling as a deputy.

A newly inaugurated ruler, say a son succeeding to his father’s throne, would “gain control” over his dominions as he became increasingly competent at governing and shaping the policies he wanted enforced in his realm; but he wouldn’t necessarily have to “subdue” or “conquer” anything, unless there was a rebellion among his subjects. In the context of Genesis 1 there is no hint at all of force or violence in the commission God gave to Adam. The creation was good, it was perfect, it was flawless. There was no need for Adam and Eve to subjugate the creation. There was no indication, no hint, that the creation would be in any way reluctant to come under the direction of the first people.

The commission given to our first parents by God was to extend their control over the creation, not by making it submit, but by learning how to order the world for the good of all concerned. They were bearers of the Covenant, not bearers of  an army. Their commission was primarily an educational one, from the beginning: go out and learn how to care for the creation, what it needs and how best to serve it, and then teach it what it should do. Even now, in the age of sin and death, the best of kings, the ideal of kingship, is the king who gets to know his people and learns how best to order them for the good of the nation. It is typical of the thought patterns of this world to think of the first commission to the human race as one of forcing our will on the rest of a reluctant world. But it “shall not be so among you”, as the Messiah commanded in a somewhat different but related context, pointing out that in His Kingdom those who would be great would be the servants.

The best phrase used to translate the Biblical commission to rule or have dominion is “exercise stewardship over” but stewardship is a somewhat old fashioned word today. Perhaps the idea of being a deputy is more understandable than being a steward. We could also say that Adam and Eve were given the job of being pastors to the creation, the shepherds of all things. Primarily to have dominion or authority over the creation, in the Biblical context of bearing the Covenant, is to have the job of nurturing relationships among the creatures in such a way as to extend God’s pleasure and joy in it all. Never at any point in the Scripture, in Genesis or afterwards, does God give us cause to think that He has signed over the title to the world, as it were, and walked away, that He has abandoned His claim on the creation. He never, at any point, made us the owners of the world. Every step our rule over creation is to be carried out as His agents, acting for His pleasure and His goals and not our own.

It is our greed that has re-interpreted “dominion” to mean “the right to exploit as we please with no limits”. We must be very clear on this point: God did not create the universe with its profit potential in mind. He created the universe out of joy and love and for His own pleasure, and He created the various parts of creation to inter-relate in joy and love for their own mutual pleasure. We fulfill our commission when we serve His ends, when we work to enhance His pleasure in His works, and when we work toward the harmony and mutual joy of all things together. To be head over the creation does not mean to be the master over the creation; it means to be a servant to care for the creation as God wishes it to be cared for. We do not serve ourselves. The earth does not belong to us. The world was not made as raw material for our factories.

It was a good creation; it merely had no self control, no innate sense of order or beauty or love, no faculties given to it by its Creator that would help any part of it to know how to behave with kindness and respect to the other parts. Nor are we accustomed to thinking in such terms about the creation. We are so trapped in the survival of the fittest, in the competition to survive, that the circumstances in Eden are outside our imaginations. The initial creation was full of life and energy; it was not in the short supply it is now. There was no rationing of life, like creatures in a drought who divvy up the food just to get through the year with some survivors intact. There was no need for death, for competition, for struggle, in the original order, however many of the current laws of science that violates. When Adam and Eve gained control over the creation, their duties did not include keeping the carnivores from eating too many chickens. God appointed our first parents to teach each part of creation how to behave toward the other parts of creation, how and where and when to grow, how to live together to fulfill the beauty inherent in their design.

Perhaps the two words, “to subdue” the creation and “to have dominion over” it are repeating the same idea for emphasis. But I think there is a distinction  in meaning between the two words that is worth thinking about. Note that in the third part of the commission our first parents were given rule over realms of the creation that, at least from the perspective of the present, would have been inaccessible to them. Presumably they could not fly, and for most of the history of the human race, we have had to stay out of the air. We can’t swim much and only the fringe of the sea is available to us. Nevertheless, the third part of the commission explicitly puts all of these things under our dominion. We were charged to rule the parts that we might never even be able to visit.

And we have even now a vestigial sense of that concern with the whole creation. It is what drives us to explore, to learn to fly, to search the bottom of the sea and the top of the world and climb the highest mountain “because they are there”. It is what drives some of us to seek out ways to explore the planets and makes us contemplate a journey to the stars. When I look at the photograph of the Andromeda galaxy or see it in a telescope, though it is two million years away by light, something in me knows that it too is part of me and my concerns and I have a desire to know it and feel it that is like nothing else but homesickness. Sometimes the longing and “homesickness” for the remote universe can be crushing. Perhaps this just indicates some mental aberration in me and has no theological significance. Obviously, God has  not given any of us a calling to go to the stars at this point. But the urge to go to the stars is, I think, one of the echoes of that commission to our first parents. Everything God said in Genesis 1 was cosmic in scope, including this commission.

But He made the commission specific as well as general just in case later generations misunderstood His intent when He used words like “subdue” and “rule”. He planted a garden, Eden, and put Adam there to “work” and “keep” it. My wife, Kathryn, pointed out to me the larger meaning of this passage. The Hebrew word translated “work” also means to “serve”, and the Hebrew word translated “keep” also means to “honor”. This tends to support my interpretation of the commission, but I think it goes further. There is a sense in which we could say that we people in the image of God were appointed to be priests to the creation. We were intermediaries, standing between God and the rest of the world, not to coordinate repentance and forgiveness, but to coordinate worship and grace. We bring the creation into God’s presence for worship, both for us to worship God and to teach the creation itself to worship God. Ultimately, the meaning of a garden is man and nature in worship together. This idea will be picked up later in the revelation by King David.

Unfortunately, we must adjust our commission to new circumstances; we do live after the Fall and violence invariably infects everything we do. Violence even taints the way we must do our gardening, poisoning or shooting the animals and bugs that “steal” what is “ours”, fencing them out, scaring them away, competing for that last lettuce or even one bug-free apple. But the distinction between the commission we were given and the way that commission looks now is a crucially important one to hold on to.

We often justify the most ruthless acts of greed and cruelty in the name of subduing the creation, as if our selfishness and arrogance could be transformed into moral acts by attaching them to a Bible verse. It is true that we live and act in a morally compromised world, that our relationship to the creation is morally deficient, that we must do many things now that we ought never to have had to do. But to turn the inevitable moral compromise into an excuse for wholesale exploitation, to adopt the attitude that “well, we blew it, no use in even trying anymore”, is to betray the original mandate in the most fundamental and savage way. And it is the grossest form of hypocrisy to turn around and pretend that our greed is actually a virtue, that our consumption of the creation is now the commission.

The preceding discussion leads us naturally to consider another peculiarity of human nature in relation to the world: we are the animals that work. We were the only creatures to whom God gave a job. All other animals simply live their lives and follow their instincts, but we work. Even when there is no necessity, no need to work for food or shelter or money, we are the creatures that seek out something to do. Those who have no desire to do anything are considered deficient in character; they are “slobs”, “couch potatoes” and are looked down on. The impulse to work is rooted in our dominion over the creation, and so ultimately in being the image of God. To say that we are created to work is just a different way of saying that we are created to be creators.

When God gave us this commission, He was taking us into a partnership. God has created us to be little gods. What child is there who has not wanted to join in their parents’ work? We all wanted to be a help when we were little and it takes a great deal of grace for the parent to let the child participate in his or her work. The child’s help inevitably slows down the the work and causes accidents, and may mean that much of the work must be redone. This is very much like what God did with the creation by making us the stewards over it.

The desire to work, to have a job to do, is built into our very identity. But ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit we have lived with an identity crisis. Work has been changed into drudgery. Still we must be clear that the original meaning of work was as a glorious and divine calling. The Fall has changed the nature of work for us; it has made it nearly impossible for us to understand work in its original sense. Indeed, the Fall has twisted the built in need to work that God gave us, so that work can be a disease  rather than healthful. When we talk about the Covenant of Creation, we are not talking about the way we live or feel now; it is all about what and how much we have lost.

In speaking of the commission to “fill the earth and have dominion over it and rule it”, I have been careful to use the word “commission” rather than the word “command”. It is a commission, as opposed to a command, because the desire to respond is built into us; as the ones who were given stewardship, there is created within us the need to be stewards. We are the stewards over the creation not because we were ordered to be so but because we were created to be so; it is who we are, not what we are obliged to do. It is an internal compulsion and not an external assignment. God does not give a commission without simultaneously creating the desires that are necessary to carry out that commission.

It is evidence that we were created to care for the world that we so strongly want and need to do just that. In the best of human nature, the best that is left to us, is the feeling toward the other creatures that they are like our children. I have heard childless couples mocked for getting a dog or a cat and treating it as a substitute son or daughter, but what could be more fitting? What could be a more natural and spiritual channel for the frustrated or delayed desire for children? To adopt other creatures as our own, as our own family, is closest to the original mandate, it is closest to the way God Himself feels about His creatures.

4 Comments on “05. Genesis 1-2 part 5”

  1. jack Says:

    Too often the adoption of an animal as a ‘child’ ends op in an unhealthy relationship, usually at the cost of other human relationships. When an animal is elevated to share everything the human has, it becomes dangerously easy to treat them like humans; or rather to treat other humans like animals, expecting them also to honour youranimal the way you doThis obsessive behaviour is idolatry.


    • Yes, when any relationship, with an animal or a human, becomes obsessive then it enters the realm of idolatry. I don’t think this happens very often with animals, but it does happen. I suspect it happens more often between husband and wife or boy friend and girl friend, when the love becomes possessive and jealous. All human love is dangerously easy to elevate – or should we say, degenerate – into something unhealthy.
      Even so, the adoption of a pet to fill the frustrated longing for children – or just out of love for the animal – can be a healthy and spiritual thing.

  2. ron rush Says:

    Thanks for the lesson and the great insight. I also began to ponder the “Great Commission” in light of your interpretation of commission and command. There is some additional studies in the Old Testament /Law and in Paul’s letter to Timothy concerning some dietary lifestyle. That is another study.


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