“Dominion is an obstacle,” said Bishop William Barber (www.breachrepairers.org) as we shook hands in the hallway. “Yes,” I replied, “I covered that extensively in my book.” “I know,” he said, and walked on.
With “dominion” the bishop was referring to the passage in Genesis in which God says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [Gen. 1:28] The “obstacle” to which he referred is that many people view the surface interpretation of that verse as giving humans the right to rule, or have dominion over, all life on earth in any way we wish—no constraints are listed.
That’s what the verse says in Genesis 1. Do we encounter any challenges to that interpretation as we move from there to the end of Deuteronomy? Yes, many, which means it is incorrect to take the verse in Gen. 1:28 as the definitive statement on “dominion” without factoring in all subsequent passages that question or refute that interpretation.
The first major challenge to the statement in Genesis 1 occurs just five chapters later in the Noah episode. God tells Noah to take two of every kind of bird and animal into the ark “to keep them alive” throughout the coming flood. Noah had no discretion to select birds and animals, as a ruler might. Rather, Gen. 7:1-5 ends with, “And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.”
Similar challenges to the unlimited latitude that Gen. 1:28 seems to allow occur in multiple subsequent passages. For example, the fourth commandment in the Decalogue in Exodus 20 instructs the people to refrain from working their livestock on the sabbath. Thus, a challenge to the notion that we can rule over the animals as we wish.
In Lev. 22:26-28, we read: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall remain for seven days with its mother, . . .” and, “you shall not slaughter, from the herd or the flock, an animal with its young on the same day.” Again, we cannot rule without constraint.
In Deut. 22:10, we read: “You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” And again, in Deut. 25:4 we find: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”
All of these, and others, constitute evidence that the passage in Gen. 1:28 makes a general statement about our power to affect creation, but does not stand unqualified throughout the rest of “the law,” Genesis through Deuteronomy. We accumulate a list of constraints regarding human behavior toward the natural world. That behavior commands us to care for God’s creation, and the various teachings we encounter instruct us how to do that.
Thus, the Gen. 1:28 passage does not stand as an obstacle, does not relieve us of the responsibility to care for creation—which in our time means to reduce the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
The Genesis 1 text is not the only place where one verse is seemingly contradicted by a subsequent passage. For example, in Gen. 9:3, God says: “Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these.” Yet in Lev. 11, we find multiple verses that identify what can and cannot be eaten. That’s why observant Jews do not eat pork or shellfish.
In these two examples, we find a general statement given first, and then clarifications/limitations given subsequently.
From another perspective, the Genesis 1 verse that says “have dominion over” or “rule over” leads to the question: what does it mean to rule over the fish, the birds, and all that moves upon the earth? It’s safe to say God would want us to be good rulers, so what does that entail? That’s part of what we learn as we move from Genesis to Deuteronomy, with the first clarification coming just five chapters later in the Noah episode: save all species!
Climate change, which humans are causing, is resulting in an alarming rate of species loss, and we are thus acting contrary to that biblical teaching.
In addition, note that the Gen. 1:28 verse does not say we have dominion over the land. In Exod. 19:5, God says to Moses on Mt. Sinai, “all the land is Mine,” which is a faithful translation of the Hebrew. How do we rule if we must operate with the constraint that the land belongs to God?
Thus, the notion that Gen. 1:28 enables us to rule over the earth in any way we wish is refuted by (1) subsequent limitations on our actions, and (2) the statement that the land belongs to God.
Confining oneself solely to the Gen. 1:28 verse and viewing that as an obstacle to caring for creation is an indefensible position. It constitutes a glaring violation of biblical teachings. It follows that the faith community has an obligation, supported by Scripture, to become vigorously involved in creation care/climate change.
Author of Hospitable Planet: Faith, Action, and Climate Change