The Meaning of Dominion by Ellen F. Davis

The notion that God intends humans to “have dominion over” other living things (Gen 1:26, Gen 1:28) rightly makes many readers of the Hebrew Bible uncomfortable, knowing as we do the abuses that notion has seemed to lead to in the modern period. Human activity is a key factor in the currently galloping rate of species extinction. The factory farming of animals and fish is a major driver of environmental degradation in North America and, increasingly, around the world—not to mention the suffering of creatures who live out their short, unhealthy lives in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Certainly this kind of “dominion”—more honestly termed “domination”—is unlike anything the biblical writers (or their premodern readers) could have imagined. Yet unquestionably the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible takes a “special species” perspective with respect to humans; three times we are told that humans (only) are made “in the image of God.” In order to understand what that special role might entail, we need to consider both the wording and the immediate literary context of the key phrase that appears alongside it and is normally rendered, “have dominion over.”  

The common translation “have dominion over” is problematic, above all because “dominion” is so readily confused with “domination.” Since the Renaissance, Gen 1:26 has frequently been invoked in the West to support the project of “conquering,” “commanding,” or “enslaving” nature through scientific and technological means. Another difficulty with the common translation is that the Hebrew phrase (radah b-) includes a preposition that is in most cases not equivalent to the English preposition “over.” A more satisfactory translation of that crucial verse might be “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, so they may exercise skilled mastery among [or, with respect to] the fish of the sea and among the birds of the air.”  These are the same creatures that were specially blessed by God—“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22)—on the fifth day of creation, before humans were created. We fulfill our role in the created order only when we recognize our responsibility to help perpetuate other creatures’ fruitfulness.

Although Genesis does not specify what exactly the exercise of skilled mastery entails, an important clue appears in the immediately following verses (Gen 1:29-30). The chapter is otherwise terse, but it goes into surprising detail as God describes the ample food available for every living being. There are grains and fruit trees for humans and herbage for the nonhuman creatures—vegan food chains in a world where no blood has yet been shed! We can infer that the human role is to live in such a way as to honor this divinely ordained, secure food supply. This is a sobering view of human “dominion,” in this age of habitat destruction and extinction, when countless species are dying off precisely because human activity has disrupted their food chains.

Ellen F. Davis, "Meaning of Dominion", n.p. [cited 26 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/meaning-of-dominion

Contributors

Ellen F. Davis

Ellen F. Davis
Professor, Duke Divinity School

Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School. Her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their responses to urgent public issues, particularly the environmental crisis and interfaith relations. Her most recent book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production.

 

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Gen 1:26

26Then 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 ... View more

Gen 1:28

28God 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 b ... View more

Gen 1:26

26Then 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 ... View more

Gen 1:22

22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”

Gen 1:29-30

29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them ... View more

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