Indigenous communities know they cannot take from their environment without giving back in return. This reciprocal relationship puts the responsibility to nurture everything around them at the centre of their lifeways.
Towards the close of the ‘Creation Hymn’ (Gen 1)1 God says:
“… fill the earth … and have dominion (radah)… ”2
Tragically, many have taken this single biblical word ‘dominion’ as a license to wreak devastation across our planet. However, the key to this phrase is recognizing humans are ‘made in the image and likeness of God’. That we are ‘to image God’ in the way we live within the earth.
Radah indicates a wheel rolling and occupying space, or something spreading out like a veil: inspiring fear, respect and reverence. It can mean doing so with, within, alongside or in, but not over.3 So, the traditional translation, ’have dominion over’, is simply wrong. Rather we are called to move across the earth with, within, alongside or in wild nature, not over it; and we are to do so with reverence and respect.4
Jewish rabbis remind us the phrase ‘have dominion’ (v’yirdu) also has a sense of ‘to descend’ within it. If we fail to ‘image God’ we will descend below the rest of the natural world and they will rule over us, and the earth herself will descend into ecological destruction. If we truly ‘image God’ then creation will ascend to be a paradise. So simply looking around at wild nature - whether flourishing or languishing - tells us the extent to which we are exercising true dominion, or not. Some rabbis see v’yirdu as a call for us to ‘descend’ from our position of power and ‘to spread out’ and to ‘wander’ within wild nature as an equal and nurturing companion.
Radah comes from the language of ancient kingship, which was indeed coercive; but God’s example of kingship is ‘meekness’ (‘strength under perfect control’).5 A biblical understanding of meekness holds together as a single concept, three intriguing and seemingly incompatible ideas:6
These three interwoven strands of meekness are all about life-giving nurturing relationship, which is the one true biblical understanding of dominion. This is how God rules.
All these ideas are deepened by two key words from the ‘Eden Story’ (Gen 2):
“The Lord God placed the human in the garden of Eden
to work it (abad) and take care of it (shamar)”7
Both abad (‘to take care of’) and shamar (‘to watch over and preserve’) are an instruction to serve and nurture wild nature in a way that enables it to flourish and achieve its full potential.
‘Everything is nurtured’, also includes all humans. True dominion makes sure every injustice and want is removed wherever it is found, whether among poor and destitute humans, or within wild nature. We also challenge and work to overthrow all destructive systems and structures that prevent creation in its totality from thriving.
1 In this piece we refer to the biblical creation stories in Genesis because we believe they give a profound insight into how we should understand the world and how we should act within it. We believe in evolution, so do not see these stories as an historical account of how the world came into being
2 Gen 1:28
3 The content of this paragraph (very slightly adapted) is taken directly from Douglas-Klotz N. 2003, The Genesis Meditations: a shared practice of peace for Christians, Jews and Muslims, Quest Books; 266
4 This matches exactly what we are told about Jesus being, ‘with the wild animals’ (Mk 1:13)
5 See Zech 9:9-10
6 See F Hauck and S Schulz article ‘Praus’ in Kittel G and Friedrich G (eds). 1968, ‘Theological Dictionary of the New Testament’, Eerdmans; 645-651 and Barclay W. 1956, ‘Gospel of Matthew (Vol 1) The Daily Study Bible, St Andrew Press, Edinburgh; 91-93
7 Gen 2:15