Theological Reconstruction of Human "Domination" of Nature in Genesis 1
Rev. Douglas Olds
21 March 2019
What Reist (1991,167-171) calls the “heuristic” function of theology to address social and human problems is a reconstructive task that revisits traditional Biblical doctrines and readings that have ceased being useful or helpful to contemporary human challenges. Examples given by Reist include McFague’s (1993) proposal that feminizes the divine and discerns the natural world as God’s “body.” By this reading, Reist and McFague intend to bypass a problematic patriarchy and focus on divine transcendence that gives rise to hierarchical cultures that too readily exploit nature for humanity’s material desires and refuse to engage with the enchantment of our non-human surroundings.
The primary reconstructive task, therefore, is heuristic: it is to find an alternate reading of texts and traditions that answer urgent contemporary problems. Jenkins (2013, preface) describes the process this way:
Religious creativity is always particular and contextual, so throughout the book I work with Christian projects and make constructive theological arguments. I do so in order to depict one moral tradition undergoing change as it is variously redeployed and renegotiated, and for the wider freedom one has to make constructive proposals as a participant within one’s own tradition.
We understand we are engaging in heuristic hermeneutics when we read the Bible with “contrition” (Reist 1991, 170), lamenting how prior readings of the Bible have caused pain, suffering, injustice and degradation. Today, that may include as most paramount Global Warming and the Crisis of Atmospheric and Climate Disruption. Reading the Bible heuristically as with a sense of contrition enhances the reconstruction of an appropriate Atmospheric Care ethic—Trusteeship—and a reconsideration of the disruption of human moral agency that leads societies to treat the atmosphere as a cost-free carbon dump. Reconstructing the theology of Genesis 1 is designed to re-read its supposed “domination” by the divine over the disorder of nature, and its supposed grant of “dominion” qua “domination” to humanity by God. Heuristically—from the vantage of contrition--I recover a more appropriate reading that is gentler and harmonizes with God’s task to humanity given in Genesis 2.15.
Genesis 1 has been a problematic reading for environmental ethics since the advent of European monarchy and the imposition of Roman Catholic imperium. As White (1967) famously publicized during the awakening of the Ecology Movement in Western societies, the presuppositions of Western humanity’s relationship with the natural world that surrounds it were shaped by its formative intellectual traditions—in our case, Christianity as it moved from considering nature as heuristics of the divine to a more utilitarian and anthropocentric material substrate:
[S]lightly before A.D. 830 … Western illustrated' calendars [changed]. In older calendars the' months were shown as passive personifications. The new Frankish calendars, which set the style for the Middle Ages, are very different: they show men coercing the world around them-plowing, harvesting, chopping trees, butchering pigs. Man and nature are two things, and man is master… Our daily habits of action, for example, are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient. It is rooted in, and is indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology.…Especially in its Western form, Christianity [became] the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. (White 1967, 1205).
White’s use of words such as “coercing,” “master,” “teleology,” and “anthropocentric” demonstrate the medieval cognitive presuppositions regarding Creation and humanity’s placement in and struggle with it derived from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.
I am convinced that Genesis 1 has been misread since the time that White describes, up to (and in part including) post-modern Christianity. I propose a reconstruction of Biblical theology regarding human “dominion” and “coercion/subuing” of nature. This hierarchical epistemology was associated with and influenced by medieval social structures (Glacken 1967, 293; 312-4).
Others have proposed this reconstruction to a more biocentric, less hierarchical and anthropocentric placement of humanity within the scheme of God’s creation (Reist 1991, McFague 1993, Tinker 2008). I will attempt to justify my reconstruction not by transcendentalizing immanence and sexuality (McFague 1993) nor by resort to non-Christian spiritual traditions (Tinker 2008). Instead, I will engage in a close reading of the Hebrew of the Creation accounts in Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Deutero-Isaiah (specifically Is. 45). As will be discussed toward the end of this chapter, Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-48) contains a neglected but supplementary account of Creation.
Rather than beginning with Paul’s gospel--as is often the case with Christian theology--of the need of humanity for a restored relationship with God through Christ’s redeeming work, I start (with Tinker 2008) with a reconsideration of the Christian doctrine of Creation as found in the first statement of the Creeds professed by many Christians over the centuries. I begin by unpacking God’s creation of the earth and the Spiritual wind hovering over the waters, then I move into a harmonization of the prior vision with the latter directives to humanity to take “dominion” over nature.
It is often claimed that the Genesis 1 account of Creation inhabits the Ancient Near Eastern worldview of the divine ordering of pre-existent chaos as exemplified in the Mesopotamian epic, Enuma elish. Herman Gunkel in the 1890s proposed that “Chaoskampf” (struggle with chaos) and the larger motif of "Theomachy"—divine conflict—is a thematic constant of ANE creation accounts (Walton 2008, 48-9). The vanquishing of a personified chaos-monster by the divine is indeed part of Enuma elish. However, with Walton (2008), I find no evidence of this conflict—or violent force of any kind--in Genesis 1:1–4 (NRSV)
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept [hovered] over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
There are allusions to theomachy in other ANE myths and Biblical texts outside Genesis:
[T]here is no doubt that Yam-Nahar was the chief Ugaritic counterpart of the Babylonian Tiamat, defeated by Marduk [in the Babylonian myth Enuma elish] and (from a more adjacent cultural milieu) of the biblical monster defeated by Yahweh, who is variously called Yam (Ps. 74:13 Job 3:8(?) 7:12 26:12), Rahab (Ps. 89:11 Job 9:13 26:12 Isa. 51:9), Leviathan (Ps. 74:14 Job 3:8 40:25ff. Isa. 27:14) or simply ‘dragon’ (tannîn Ps. 74:13 Job 7:12 Isa. 27:14 51:9) or ‘serpent’ (nāḥāš Job 26:13 Isa. 27:14; bāšān Ps. 68:23)… In the Babylonian myth it is related how Marduk after the death of the monster created the firmament out of its [Tiamat’s] carcass.
In contrast to these examples of Chaoskampf, Exodus 15 (The Song of Moses) demonstrates God’s power that lures a martial force toward its destiny with the sea, which may be consequential but is not directed violently. The Song of Moses is an ancient vignette of the Hebrew Bible:
Ex. 15.1 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:
“I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
The writer of Exodus contrasts the frantic activity of warhorses in this scene with what Boyd (2017, vol. 2) exegetes as the paradigmatic illustration of “God’s Aikido-like way of overcoming” Pharaoh’s martial forces with non-violence. This redirection of an enemy’s energy against him is active but not violent; hence it’s characterization as “Aikido-like.” This aspect of God’s activity coheres with the non-violent method of God heuristically discovered in the Genesis 1.1-4 Creation account. Should the surface of the “deep” in Gen. 1.2 rear up like a horse, God’s ruach likely responds with a “gentling,” such as detailed in the verbal aspects detailed in footnote 3.
As noted above, theomachy may appear as a scriptural theme in the Psalms, Job, and Isaiah, but this comes later in the Biblical narrative than the foundation of the Genesis 1 Creation account. Yet it is my contention (along with Walton 2008) that Genesis 1 does not demonstrate divine conflict with chaotic forces bound up with nature. Instead, the spirit/wind from Elohim “hovers” above תְּהוֹם, the deep waters. I am not persuaded by the claim that the name of the chaos-god-monster “Tiamat” is linguistically or metaphorically related to תְּהוֹם found in the Hebrew of Gen 1.1. God’s creative activity is akin to “gentling” rather than “breaking” a horse, if the metaphor holds that the sea gallops absent the ruach from God hovering over it (Gen 1.2 וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת).
Moreover, as I will demonstrate more fully in my discussion of Deutero-Isaiah later in this chapter, the Genesis 1 creation account is an innovation of cosmogonic non-violence inside the ANE cognitive environment of violent human ordering of natural chaos. This Hebrew innovation is consistent with creatio ex nihilo, with Gen. 1.2 וָבֹ֔הוּ תֹ֙הוּ֙ [“void and emptiness”] a hendiadys for “nothingness.” There is no reason to read into tohu v’bohu any chaotic enemy of the divine. That pair harmonizes in this Creation account with the hovering wind from God to suggest a verbal aspect exemplifying non-violent physicality, Aikido resistance, and gentling.
It is therefore important to re-read closely the imagery of creation that is involved in the opening paragraph of Genesis 1. With the non-violence of the verbal aspects discussed, I conclude that the foundation of the Gen 1. 1-4 creation account is non-violent and does not presuppose theomachy between the Creator and pre-existent or natural chaos. The latter myth arises in Mesopotamian accounts where a “strong man” (Marduk in Enuma elish) as proxy for a later monarch exerts his violent will to organize and introduce order, hierarchy, and peace in his society. The possible priestly writers of Genesis 1 are reacting against this domination and are innovating a different type of foundation myth that, as I will argue below, presupposes a Hebrew ideology of servant-monarchy that contrasts with monarchical dominion inside other ANE cultures. This distinction of monarchical ideology is reflected in the contrasting and distinct foundation cosmogonies of Babylon and exilic Judah.
Contemporaneous with the Babylonian exile, the prophet in Deutero-Isaiah (“First Persian Isaiah” [Coote 2004]) weighs in with a distinction between the Mesopotamian and Judahite Creation accounts:
Is 45:18–19 (emph. Added):
18 For thus says the LORD,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it a chaos,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
19 I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
“Seek me in chaos.”
I the LORD speak the truth,
I declare what is right.
This prophet from the Isaianic school seemingly recognizes Exilic Judah contemplating Mesopotamian cosmogonic foundations and warning against them. It is during or soon after this time that the Priestly writer(s) of Genesis 1 integrated a novel cosmogony absent hostile chaotic forces.
At the end of the sixth day of Creation, God pronounces the integrated whole “very good.” The penultimate act of the 6th day of Creation is portrayed as the divine instruction to humanity:
Gen. 1. 27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 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.” 29 God 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 for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
With the use of the imperative verbs for “subdue” ( כָּבַשׁ kāḇaš) and “have dominion” ( רָדָה rāḏâ) we seem to re-enter the ANE cognitive environment of forceful monarchical power granted to divine agents, standing for an historical relation between human groups. However,
Gen. 1:28 (like the entire text of vv. 26–28) does not envision [the] dominion [of humans over others]. Instead, it supports the utopian anthropological maxim that every human individual is a “ruler” of the world.
[T]he “land” is not to be thought of in literal (e.g., agrarian) terms, but as the whole territory shaped by human habitation, as an historical entity…The Hebrew verb kāḇaš …always presupposes a stronger [human] party as subject and a weaker [human] party as object (Wagner 1995, TDOT VII, 54-56).
With the contemporary attitude of contrition for the manner in which this hierarchical consideration of coercive force has been applied against weaker force, it is my reconstructive intention to propose that this verse is NOT to be applied to humanity’s ecological surroundings (as a modern person might read “land”) but instead characterizes the reality of human political history (with “the land” standing as a proxy for sovereignty considerations). “Subduing” in Gen. 1.28 is a consideration for political history and not necessarily part of an environmental ethic. As discussed above, it coheres with the negative application of divine force as “resistance” (Aikido) and not the positive force of coercion or domination.
Regarding the divine grant to humanity to “have dominion” over the land as political rather than ecological construct (employing the imperative of רָדָה rāḏâ), two further heuristic thoughts may be ventured:
1) There is a second trigeminal Hebrew root רָדָה rāḏâ, which means to “scrape or draw off, out (bread from oven)” (Brown, Driver, & Briggs 1977, 922). Translating the Hebrew verb with this meaning changes the implication of this verse from one of domination to one of eking out a living—the allusion of this verse changes in agency from monarchy to householding. The environmental ethics that flow from a monarchical foundation compared to a householding basis and need are quite distinct. The latter may require determined human effort inside nature but not necessarily a divine directive to human domination of nature. Moreover, the literary context of this verb is the succeeding announcement that humanity’s ecological base is given for its food. There is no utilitarian foundation for economic extraction and exploitation for other material wants and needs, such as the manufacture luxury goods and services fueled by hydrocarbon combustion (see also below).
2) Most significantly, the idea of “dominion” requires its meaning be established by determining how monarchy functioned in the Hebrew scriptures and what monarchical dominion entailed. There are two foundational textual strands germane to these determinations: first, there is the critique of kingship theme in the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) and second, the precepts in the Law of the King (Dt 17. 14-20) limiting his autonomy and prerogative. Both theme and precept involved in these textual strands fit in with a more general theme of Israel’s adaptation to vassalage in the Hebrew Bible than with hierarchy and domination (Wright 2014). This critique of kingship is one of the most important themes of the Deuteronomic scriptures. From the foundation of the institution of kingship in Biblical Israel, kings were judged for their failure to bring in God’s blessings of security and righteousness. And the consequence for that failure was the loss of “the land” (=loss of sovereignty) (Campbell and O’Brien 2000, 18-19).
A steady drumbeat of acrimony to the institution of monarchy was kept up by keepers of the Deuteronomic scrolls. This acrimony was remarkable because the monarchic court funded the production of the very rhetoric that limited its own power. The court funded the storage and dissemination of that anti-court rhetoric during the half millennium of kings from Josiah to Herod.
To bring about wise rule in the conditions of vassalage under the rule of dangerous superpowers—first of Philistia, then of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—the temple elite subordinated the House of David as the glorified servant of the Torah. This process begins with prophetic legitimation of the monarch. As the Deuteronomic Torah is written, the subordination of the king progresses, so in Dt. 17: 14-20 (known as the “The Law of the King”), the king is humbled by compulsory Torah performances, limitation on his appetites, and humility with regard to his kinsfolk. It is in this context of monarchical limitations and piety that the Hebrew concept of “dominion” needs to adhere. Dt. 17.18-20 describes how the ideal monarch may become a long-term trustee of his domain:
Dt. 17.18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.
Yet is the failure of dominion to adhere to this humility and trust that leads to the alienation and estrangement of God’s people from their historical construct labeled “the land.”
If we agree that reconstructing רָדָה rāḏâ, indicates the pre-modern economic process of householding (Polanyi 1944)--scraping out—rather than a monarchical hierarchy of humanity over AND dominating nature for its provision of non-subsistence hedonic desires, then we can resume the theological and ethical reconstruction of Gen. 1.28 by going deeper into the allusions and symbolic nature of the directives from God to humanity delineated by the Hebrew imperatives of כָּבַשׁ kāḇaš and רָדָה rāḏâ.
רָדָה rāḏâ is cognate of יָרַד yāraḏ, so that repeatable internal movement is involved (Zobel 2004, TDOT XIII, 31ff). Implicated in the search for the verbal meaning of כָּבַשׁ kāḇaš:
The derived noun keḇeš appears [as the] description of the precious throne that Solomon made of ivory overlaid with gold. This throne also had a footstool “in gold” (weḵeḇeš bazzāhāḇ lakkissēʾ). The meaning is easily derived from the basic meaning of the root, with emphasis on the concrete notion of treading underfoot. The other derivative, kiḇšān, “(smelting) furnace,” is hard to associate with the meaning of kāḇaš; at best, one must appeal to the association with metallurgy, in which the metal is “subdued” and “trodden.” (Wagner 1995, TDOT VII, 57 emph. added)
Symbolically, the movement engaged by Jesus walking on the water has some aspectual analogy to these verbal aspects in the Gen. 1 account, which has verbs indicating “treading” as subjection. In the Jesus vignette, however, the treading is not an application of domination over the Sea of Galilee upon which he treads, just as the “hovering” by God’s ruach over the deep waters is not a domination of those waters. Contrary to Peterson’s (1999, 137ff) universalizing Chaoskampf, the Jesus divine force does not wrestle with watery chaos in order to impose order and dominance hierarchies. The symbolic nature of Jesus treading on the Sea of Galilee is equivalent with the presence of the divine ruach over the deep of Creation. As Jesus walks on water, he symbolically “hovers” (Gen 1.2) above it, and in horizontal movement he “subdues it” by establishing a flattening hierarchical relationship with it that does not imply the application of force, just his “presence.” Reading Gen. 1 inside the canonical narrative that culminates with Jesus’s walking on water demonstrates that God’s imperative to humanity to “subdue and have dominion” in Gen 1.28 is not a domineering and coercive or violent application for humanity towards the rest of creation. Humanity is to “subdue” the land through its Christ-like presence. Gen. 1 should be harmonized into an Atmospheric Care ethic--with רָדָה rāḏâ in Gen. 1. 28 heuristically translated for humanity to “have trusteeship” for rather than “have dominion” over “the land.”
 In the history of Western religion, however, earth and nature have commonly been subordinated to the centrality of the drama between humanity and its God. The Bible “presumes a sharp dichotomy between redemption and creation.… Thus nature [in the Old Testament and the historical Church] is not only separated from human culture, but it is regarded as subservient to it.” (Hiebert 1996, 3-6).
This decentering by Biblical religion of the world of nature became the organizing environmental ideology of the European church age.
 NRSV confusingly translates the Piel participle of רחף as "swept" when lexicons translate the Piel of רחף as “quivering, meaning to hover with fluttering wings, characteristic flying behavior.” Koehler, Baumgartner, et al . 2000, 1220)..
While Piel Hebrew verbs were thought to intensify the Aktionsart of the Qal verbal stem, “Piel tends to signify causation with a patiency nuance.” (Waltke and O’Connor 1990, 355.
The Piel stem of רחף applied in Gen 1.2 “represents God as the agent and the [wind] as having been caused to be put into the state of” trembling or fluttering. (Ibid., 363). The English translation of “swept” neither adequately conveys the causative aspect of agency (divine medio-passivity) nor the “patiency nuance” applied to the verbal stem. (Ibid).
See also: “PIEL, to brood over young ones, to cherish young (as an eagle), Deut. 32:11; figuratively used of the Spirit of God, who brooded over the shapeless mass of the earth, cherishing and vivifying.” –(Gesenius 2003, 766).
 Gibson & Driver (2004, 7). See also Walton (2008).
Also see these ANE parallels of Chaoskampf:
1) “The conflict between the Storm-god and the forces of chaos represented by the serpent (illuyanka- in Hittite) was the focus of two different tales known in second-millennium Anatolia, both of which served as etiological cult myths of the important Hittite festival.” Hallo & Younger (1997, 150).
2) Merikare (Egyptian Instruction), Hallo & Younger (1997, 64):
Well tended is mankind — god’s cattle,
He made sky and earth for their sake,
He subdued the water monster,
He made breath for their noses to live.
They are his images, who came from his body,
He shines in the sky for their sake;
He made for them plants and cattle,
Fowl and fish to feed them.
 As footnote 6 details, I am presuming that the Deuteronomic scriptures were formalized prior to the Priestly. Thus reading Genesis, primarily a priestly source (Carr 2015), hermeneutically within the strictures of the Deuteronomic is neither anachronistic nor unwarranted. Understanding what “dominion” means to the Priestly writer builds upon what P knows of the critique of Kingship in the Deuteronomic scrolls. The idea of “dominion” to P is founded on what monarchy’s limited and humbling prerogative is in D. Add this to the exemplar of Kingship demonstrated by Jesus, and a Biblical theology of “dominion” must dispense with the aspect of “domination.” As Carr (2015, 465-6) notes, “the D/Deuteronomistic tradition remained an important source of pentateuchal conceptuality and phraseology.”
 A parallel may exist in the reference to “smelting” in the Egyptian Creation myth, “Hymn to Ptah” (4, 3–5, 1; Hallo & Younger (1997, 21):
PHARAOH has come before you, Ptah:
he has come before you, god distinguished of form.
Greetings before your originals,
whom you made after you evolved in the god’s body,
(you) who built his body by himself,
without the earth having evolved, without the sky having evolved,
without the waters having been introduced.
You tied together the world, you totalled your flesh,
you took account of your parts and found yourself alone,
place-maker, god who smelted the Two Lands.