Setting our Stories Straight: Dominion over the Earth

Of all the barriers to Reconciliation today in Canada, probably none is as difficult as the question of how we will relate to the land and natural resources. In my experience, Canadians are generally very supportive of Reconciliation right up to the point of where it might impact the economy, especially such industries as logging, fisheries, oil and gas, and mining. These debates involve complicated questions of sovereignty, economics, and ecology, and so are well beyond the scope of what I am qualified to speak on. However, they all tend to share a particular understanding by Canada’s governments and policy-makers, a sense of entitlement to the land and its resources. The land, in a very real way, our home, is thought of as something to be exploited as we see fit.

American author David James Duncan describes this general attitude towards the land well in his 1983 novel The River Why:

The thing I found offensive, the thing I hated about the [clear-cutters], gill-netters, poachers, whalehunters, strip-miners, herbicide-spewers, dam-erectors, nuclear-reactor-builders, or anyone who lusted after flesh, meat, mineral, tree, pelt, and dollar — including, first and foremost, myself — was the smug ingratitude, the attitude that assumed the world and its creatures owed us everything we could catch, shoot, tear out, alter, plunder, devour … and we owed the world nothing in return.

And again:

The forest gave them incomes, homes, furniture, baseball bats, tool handles — and in return they treated it like an enemy in a bitter war. Granted, trees had to die. But couldn’t men show some shred of gratitude or reverence in the way they killed them? Couldn’t they see the difference between a murder and a sacrifice?

What I like about these quotes is that they aren’t naively prohibitionist; they understand that humans are a part of the ecosystem, and so have to make use of the natural world. What Duncan’s protagonist questions is not using or shaping the land, but how our society relates to it.

With this in mind, it’s time to ask our question: Where did Western culture’s general attitude of exploitative entitlement to the land come from?

Aside from ‘greed’, which is as good of an answer as any, to a significant extent it comes from how we have understood Genesis 1.26-28:

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘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.’

The question for us is what does it mean to “fill the earth and subdue it” and to “have dominion … over every living thing”? For much of modern Christian history, these words have justified what we might call an adversarial relationship with the created world. Creation has been understood to be like a wild animal to be tamed, existing only for human use and benefit. In its most extreme forms, coupled with industrialization, consumerism, and the prioritization of the economy over other aspects of human social life, this has led to very destructive, even violent attitudes. In her characteristically extreme and succinct way, Conservative American commentator Ann Coulter has summarized the adversarial reading of Genesis 1.26-28 well when she wrote: “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'” But of course, this is far from the only way to interpret the commandment to exercise dominion over the earth. And, aside from the fact that it is self-serving, there is little to commend it.

But first it should be noted that, for much of human history, such an attitude was not unreasonable; humanity was a relatively small part of creation, and, lacking natural protections in a dangerous world, a very vulnerable part at that. In such a situation, a competitive attitude towards the wilderness makes sense. But, of course, now the power balance has completely flipped. We have the power to move mountains, flood valleys, and hunt animals to extinction within a few short years. (Think of the passenger pigeon, whose numbers dropped from an estimated five billion in 1800 to complete extinction one hundred years later.) In light of this change in situation, we need to reassess our attitudes and make sure our reading of Scripture is accurate.

The most obvious place to look for an interpretation of the domination commandment is in the Genesis creation stories themselves.* There are two creation stories in Genesis. The verses in question here are the climax of the first of these. God has ‘spoken’ the universe into existence, calling the light from the darkness, the land from the waters, then for life to fill the seas, the air, and the land. Then God creates humanity in accordance with God’s “image” and “likeness” so that humanity might “have dominion” over the earth. So in this story, humanity’s dominion is tied to being created in the image and likeness of God, that is, the ways we are like God. This reading is supported by how the ideas of image and likeness worked in Ancient Near Eastern cultures. In Mesopotamia, an ‘image’ was a figure of a god or king who represented their authority in a particular place; so, for example, a king of Babylon would set up his ‘image’ in the far off cities of his kingdom as a representation of his authority. And so, if we are created in the ‘image’ of God, we are to represent God in the world. As Lisa Sharon Harper notes, “This is a bold, even revolutionary, challenge to the dominant view regarding who represented God on earth.” It is no longer the royal elite who are God’s representatives and who are able to exercise dominion, but all of us. The flip side, however, of this “democratization of dignity” is that it is on all of us to live in a way that actual represents God.

This is highlighted in the second creation story. The parallel passage to 1.26-28, Genesis 2.15, reads “And the LORD God took the human and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” The word here we translate as ‘keep’ is a verb form of the noun shomer, which represents the concept of legal guardianship. To “be shomer” over someone or something means you are legally responsible for its protection, safety, and wellbeing. In this association, the earlier word, “work”, also takes on this protective concern. While perhaps foreign to our sensibilities in this age of industrial farming, historically, working the land included not just clearing it and breaking it, but also turning the soil, fertilizing it, weeding it, rotating crops, and leaving land fallow to help it recover. And so, if we allow the Scriptures to interpret and inform themselves, we find a very different spin on “dominion” than what came to be the norm in the industrial world. Again quoting Harper:

This is what ‘very goodness’ looks like: all humanity living into its call and capacity to exercise dominion. It looks like governance that honors and stewards the image of God in every corner of the earth and stewards the rest of creation with care and protection. This is God’s intent. This is what the Kingdom of God — the rule of God and governance of God — looks like. This is the very good news! (The Very Good Gospel)

Harper’s connecting dominion with shalom resonates strongly with both the logos theology of the Christian East (which means that it finds a solid home within historical, orthodox, Christian teachings), and the understanding of Creation proposed by Indigenous theologians as being consistent with Indigenous worldviews. On this latter point, Randy Woodley writes:

Many Native Americans understand the wisdom of living out shalom because it is a parallel concept of the harmony way of living that was given to our own people. We see harmony reflected in creation. We notice our own hearts have power to align with God’s intended ways of living. We know, as all people know, to honor the Creator and treat others in the way we want to be treated. (Shalom and the Community of Creation)

Later, he writes, “Living out shalom means taking into account all of creation in reciprocal relationships and learning from creation as object lessons for understanding God’s shalom provision.”

What such perspectives of creation tied to shalom do is suffuse our understanding of the world around us with wonder and thanksgiving. Yes, creation is a wonderful gift for humanity. But the proper response to receiving a gift is not “Take it. Rape it. It’s yours” but to take care of it. Anything less is ingratitude.

To summarize all this, here are the main points to take away from this discussion:

  1. The Genesis story ties human ‘dominion’ over the earth to our status as representative images of God in the world, and to our vocation to tend to and care for the earth.
  2. The duty to care for the earth establishes a relationship of protective responsibility for creation that is in keeping with the Biblical ethical ideal of shalom, the wholeness of God’s peace.
  3. The appropriate response to receiving creation as gift is gratitude.

The next post will shift from attitudes towards “the land” in general to Christian attitudes to specific lands. I will leave this post with some beautiful and spot-on words from the Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer: “If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become” (Braiding Sweetgrass).


*Note: This section is heavily indebted to Lisa Sharon Harper’s excellent The Very Good Gospel. For details, please see my book review, as well as the reading list for this series.

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