By Scott Anderson
Adam is entrusted to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion over” every living thing, Genesis 1:28-30. In giving Adam “dominion over” the earth, God explicitly gives Adam authority over creation. God put Adam at the top of the creation food chain, so to speak.
In placing Adam “over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth,” God announces God’s all-encompassing protection over Adam. Nothing that lives can harm Adam, the authority over all living things. He cannot be swallowed by a fish, pierced by a bird of prey, or mauled by a bear. If Adam has dominion over all animals, then he cannot be harmed by any animal.
“Dominion” here means “authority.” But “dominion” has another dimension. “Dominion” also means “to rule over.” As God’s crowning achievement, Adam could rule over his environment. Adam could use everything for his own purposes. In this sense, God’s gift of dominion, seems to cede to Adam all control over God’s handiwork. The picture is one of God’s leaving Adam in charge of the earth. And that picture requires God’s leaving.
Moreover, Adam’s ruling over the absent Master’s creation requires subservience of everything else God created and left Adam in charge over. How can Adam’s ruling over every living thing be complete if not every living thing bows to Adam? In this way, God’s desire to protect humans assumes God’s willingness to empower us to dominate. As Adam’s descendants, shouldn’t we also have the right to subdue the earth and rule over it? And how can we take on our sacred obligation, unless we force creation—in some way—to bend to our will, to mold to our collective purposes?
It is not difficult to imagine the horrors humans might justify given the twin assumptions of an absent God and a domineering humanity. Indeed, we can justify every abuse of the environment, animals, and to some extent, even other humans who don’t measure up to our preconceived “dominion standard” as an example of God’s giving us God’s authority over creation. Of course, we can strip mine, clear forests, and pollute the water and air; God gave us authority over all creation, so we are to gain its riches for our purposes, no matter the cost. Of course, we can use animals for own purposes, including testing products on them; we have been given dominion over every living thing. And, of course, we can enslave or bomb or use minority or disenfranchised or weak populations of humans; they have demonstrated in their very weakness that they are unworthy of God’s protection.
In this way, an attitude of dominion leads to an attitude of domination. And an attitude of domination may lead to a behavior of exploitation. Adam and Eve knew this. They were victims of exploitation: the serpent exploited their desire to be like God. He tricked them into thinking that they could have more than the authority God had already given them. He tricked them into thinking that, if they had the mind of God, their lot in life might be even better than paradise.
After eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve hid to cover their “nakedness”, their shame. But God created them to be naked and unashamed. Although they were naked, they—as all the other living things in the garden—had God’s protection. The first couple had nothing to fear. Adam was to take care of the garden by tilling and maintaining it. Genesis 2:15. Adam was to take care of the garden creatures by sharing its plants and fruit with them. Genesis 1: 28-30. These relationships—of God to Adam, of Adam to the garden, and of the garden to animals—are what God pronounced “very good” at the end of the sixth day. Genesis 1:31.
These two readings of “dominion” leave us with very different views of God-as-Protector. And the text does not mediate between the two views. Specifically, the Genesis story leaves us with a question, one that may determine how we view our relationship to God and to our environment: Should God’s powerful protection spur us to dominate creation or to promote creation?
This week, we considered God’s character as a protector. Next week, we will consider God’s character as a provider.