Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s program committee had suggested, last spring, that I focus the Bible study I’d be convening on texts dealing with environmental matters.
At first I resisted this suggestion, because I felt the topic had been done to death. Over time, though, I came around to the program committee’s point of view. I realized that, as someone who has been working in the religious-environmental field for a quarter of a century, I really have a rather skewed perception of the matter. Most Friends haven’t been nearly as involved in that field as I have been; the scriptural issues are not old and tired to them, as they are to me. Most know a few good starting points, like Genesis 1:26,28 and Psalm 8:6, and that’s about it.
Now, actually, the interesting thing about Genesis 1:26,28 and Psalm 8:6 — to me, anyway — is the way in which these verses are nearly always misread. Each of them contains a key Hebrew verb that is typically translated as “to have dominion” or “to rule”, so that we assume these verses are talking about people being given “dominion” over the creatures. And this is of course problematic for the Jewish and Christian religious environmental movements!
People who are indifferent to environmental concerns, or who side with industry and want development given a free hand, generally assume that the “dominion” in these two verses means exactly what it sounds like: total control and the right to exploit. Jews and Christians who are in sympathy with the environmental movement, on the other hand, generally hasten to say that “dominion” actually means (or is tempered by) stewardship, i.e., that it is a limited dominion answerable to God, and therefore, one that contains an obligation to conserve even as one goes on exploiting.
In fact, though, the Bible systematically treats wild beings as under God’s control and care, not under any sort of control that God has delegated to humankind. No explicit human right to control or exploit wild creatures, or even to be stewards (managers) of wild creatures, is mentioned anywhere in the Bible.
Did God give humanity dominion over these? (Sanzio Raffaello [“Raphael”], “The Creation of the Animals”, detail, from the Stanze e Loggia, 1518-19)
And in other places in the Bible where these same Hebrew words, which we translate as “to have dominion” in Genesis 1:26,28 and Psalm 8:6, appear in connection with some other rôle that God is laying out as part of His design for the world — and, also, in other places where the idea of a “rulership” or “dominion” within God’s design is discussed, even when completely different words are used — it is always clear that what is meant is nothing at all like what our English words “dominion” and “stewardship” mean.
Within God’s plan, there is no room for “rulers” or “having dominion” in the ordinary worldly sense. What God does is to give people and other creatures rôles that are pivotal in a given drama or situation, and these rôles are described by the same Hebrew words that, in more worldly settings, mean “king” or “ruler” or “to have dominion” or “to rule”. But the rôles are not the rôles that worldly kings and rulers have; they don’t come with the powers that worldly kings and rulers get to wield. They are, in fact, the rôles of servants, lacking any power to dominate, control or exploit. They are the rôles of clerks of the meeting as distinguished from bosses; the rôles of stars of the show, but not of producers or production managers, or even of assistant producers or producers pro tem.
So when one takes this kind of close look at the logic of the Bible, it becomes clear that, in Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, both the word “dominion” and the concept of “stewardship” are in fact inappropriate. These are passages that describe what God has in mind for humanity in the unfolding Divine Comedy, and within the Divine Comedy — within God’s plan — these key verbs mean something like “to be the stars; to be the ones who determine whether it all works out as a comedy or a tragedy”.
— Which is in fact the true case. The salvation (or, conversely, the destruction) of the natural world depends on our (humanity’s) behavior. What we do, for better or for worse, will determine whether the creatures survive as living souls like ourselves or are reduced to meat robots in agribiz farms — and whether the world as a whole survives or is destroyed by human abuse. As we choose sin or righteousness, we save or damn all creatures around us.
It’s not “dominion” at all, then. It’s influence and responsibility.
Well, this is an interesting thing to explore — or anyway, I think it’s interesting! And it gave me an easy starting point for our discussion on the first day. We took up the whole of Genesis 1 as our very first text, and I asked the group what their thoughts were regarding it. The idea of “stewardship” came up, naturally, along with some perceptive comments on the significance of God’s statement that what He’d made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and some speculations on the nature of the story as a whole.
And then, with the group’s kind permission, I took them on a whirlwind tour of just a few of the passages that suggest “dominion” and “stewardship” really don’t fit the meaning of those key verses.
Alas, there wasn’t time to look at all of the relevant passages! But we looked at some of the most striking ones: Genesis 1:16,18, Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Mark 10:42-45, and Genesis 1:29.
And of course, not everyone agreed with my proposed replacement translation. But everyone did seem to have a good time with the discussion.
Friends, if you’re curious, a closer — and more thoroughly documented — look at the Bible’s “dominion” passages appears in my essay Creation Encountered, which you can find and download here.