According to the Bible, what is the role of humans in creation? The key word is “dominion.”
We have misinterpreted this word to mean that humans have a right to dominate and therefore use, abuse, and exploit the rest of creation for our own use. This understanding has had a tragic impact on our common life.
It has given us authorization to do just about anything we want to do to nature, without limits, for human benefit and for human pleasure.
“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” (Genesis 1:26).
The biblical mandate for humans is that we are to have dominion not domination. The command to “subdue” the earth (Genesis 1:28) relates to a time when human life was especially fragile in the face of threats from snakes and wild animals.
As such, God was giving directions for humans to “subdue,” that is, to be able to restrain that which would bring them harm.
The Hebrew word for “dominion” does not mean domination or exploitation. Rather, it means to “take responsibility for” and “to protect” Earth as a domain for which humans are responsible.
A ruler who had dominion over Israel would be expected to be like a shepherd caring for and protecting the sheep—expected to take responsibility for the people in his realm, not to tyrannize or exploit them but to see that the people were protected and that justice was done for the poor, the widows, and the orphans.
As such, “to have dominion over all the creatures” means that humans are to care for God’s good creation.
2.0 MEANING OF DOMINION
The words in Genesis 2:15 make this understanding of “dominion” abundantly clear.
“The Lord God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to till [serve] it and to keep [preserve] it.”
Here the human vocation is rooted in the command (traditionally translated) “to till and to keep” (Genesis 2:15).
We now know that the words for “till” and “keep” are more faithfully rendered “serve and “preserve.” The word for “serve” here is the word used for servants of a master, of a king, or of a priest. Humans are to serve the land, not dominate over it.
This completely reverses and upends the misunderstanding of “dominion” as “domination.” Instead of being in a hierarchical position “over” Earth, we are placed in a position of subservience so as to use our power to care for the well-being of all that God has created.
And we are to preserve creatures and plants so that they survive and thrive. In a sense we are all to be like farmers, called to care for the land so that we preserve it in a sustainable way for future generations.
As we are called by Scripture to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, so we are called by Scripture to be Earth keepers. We are called to cultivate the land—to help the land fulfill its God given role to bring forth plants and animals.
That is why God created humans in God’s image, to care for creation as agents of God so that the land, all plants, and all animals can flourish!
We see the nature of these responsibilities to care for creation in Bible that follow, such as the story of Noah preserving all species from the flood.
And we see it in subsequent biblical traditions, such as the Sabbath laws that give rest to cattle on the seventh day and direct that the land should lie fallow on the seventh year.
This mandate to serve Earth is reinforced by the teaching of Jesus who says that our whole ethical posture in life is to be one of service.
“Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wants to be most important must be everyone’s slave. For even the son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life . . .” (Mark 10:43-45).
Although this teaching focuses on relations between humans, it echoes the command “to serve and to preserve” and thereby equally represents the approach that humans are to take in relation to all of life.
This vocation to care for Earth is foundational for what it means to be human beings. We have lost this sense of relationship to Earth. As humans—individually and collectively—we are called now to renew this vocation and to discover what this vocation means for.