The Bible Does Not Validate Endless Exploitation and Domination of the Environment

© Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman

Layers of Creation

Art by Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman

Gen.I:26 And God said, “Let us make the human creature in our image, after our likeness. They shall have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.”

Gen. I:27 And God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female God created them.

Gen. I:28 God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

As a college student in the early 1970’s, in one of the first environmental studies programs (U.C. Berkeley—CNR) in the U.S., I was taught that the “Judeo-Christian” tradition was, in part, responsible for our present-day environmental  crisis.   We had been required to read historian Lynn White’s influential essay, “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” in Science magazine, in which he argued, among other things, that the Bible gave humanity a mandate to control and exploit the natural world.[1]  As a young person who had no knowledge of the Bible nor any positive experience of religion, I naively accepted this idea.  

White’s interpretation of the biblical creation stories had enormous ramifications on a whole generation of environmentalists and their students, as well as on many Christian and Jewish clergy and scholars.  White’s article also had an enormous effect on me.  It caused me to ask questions about how Judaism understood our relationship with the natural world.  I began studying the biblical portion of the week and realized that those who argue that dominion means domination tend to take the verse out of context, paying scant attention to the verses that precede or follow this mandate.   Furthermore it was—in part—in response to Lynn White’s essay that I came to found the first national Jewish environmental organization, Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth, in 1988.  

A colleague asked me recently, why do we need yet another essay on dominion?  That’s simple.  Because the idea that the biblical creation story has led to the human exploitation of nature is still very much alive in certain circles today, and when this position is taken as the authoritative interpretation of Genesis I, it can be divisive.  Furthermore, if religious people took seriously and acted upon the Bible’s first command to care for—rather than exploit—the creation, I believe we would be one step closer to insuring a healthier future for the earth and all its inhabitants.


It’s impossible to grasp the meaning of dominion without understanding the vision of Genesis I. The primary trope of Genesis I, the first biblical creation story, is that everything, every aspect of the creation, is designated good.[2] Everything created, all that exists, is called tov or good.  The light is tov; the water, air, and earth are tov[3]; the trees and vegetation are tov; the stars and planets are tov; the fish and birds are tov, and the land animals are tov.  Tov-ness or goodness is proclaimed seven times in the story.   The rabbi, philosopher, and physician Maimonides, writing in the twelfth century, said that the goodness of all the creatures is a testament to their intrinsic value.  Goodness does not rely on any human measure.  Each organism is good in its essence, just as it is.  Each has a purpose and a place.  Each has integrity, each contributes to the whole and is required for the whole.  The world is built on the foundation of the goodness of the creatures, without which it could not exist.

In this story, on the sixth day of creation, after all the habitats and all the other beings are established, the human creatures are dreamed into being.  Just as all the creatures have their purpose and place, so do the human ones.  Human creatures are an integral part of the whole natural system and humanity is given the charge to preside over— have dominion over—the land and its creatures (Gen I:26, 28).[4]  The job of humanity—our job—is to help ensure the life and health of the whole biological world.[5]  This profound ecological instruction is humanity’s first and foremost assignment in the Bible.  When we understand, as Genesis I does, that the world is built on interconnections of all the creatures and suffused with tov—goodness—it becomes clear that the only response adequate to the call for dominion is love.    

Dominion as Communion

 Above and Below are One © Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman

And God said, “Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness.”

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The understanding of dominion as domination (as critics suggest) assumes that we humans stand over and above the whole creation, entirely separate from her.  And yet we could not be more intimately related.  The very goodness—the ultimate goodness—proclaimed on the sixth day, after the entire creation has been completed, alludes to all the creatures together—the web of life—and not just compartmentalized humanity as many moderns surmise.[6]  Since we are all born of the One, we are kin to the earth and its creatures.  This understanding moved the Jewish philosopher and rabbi A.J. Heschel to speak of the earth as our sister.[7] 

A midrash on this text imagines a sense of trust and intimacy between animals and humankind.  The midrash wonders: who is the us that God is referring to in the enigmatic verse, “Let us make a human in our image.” The midrash posits that us refers to all the creatures.  The story goes that they gathered together to ask God to design the human with dominion in order to keep the peace among them. They feared that without one being to preside over them, they might destroy each other.[8] 

No creature is entirely independent; no creature is an island.  Everything exists bound up with everything else.  Being alive means being in ceaseless relationship with others: other people, creatures, the earth, the water, the air.  Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote poignantly of the intimacy between humankind and the creatures.  He understood dominion as a loving presence: “The ground and the animals over which I have dominion constitute the world in which I live—without which I cease to be.”[9] Created last, the human creature is vulnerable and depends on all the other creatures in order to survive.  Bonhoeffer continues, “In my whole being, in my creatureliness, I belong wholly to this world: it bears me, it nurtures me, it holds me.  It is my world, my earth, over which I rule.” Bonhoeffer uses the word “my”—not in terms of possession—but in terms of relationship. He is reflecting the sentiment of the Bible where there is no concept for human ownership. Rather, dominion implies a deep connection, a communion with nature.

Dominion is Conditional

The Bible hints that dominion is not given to humans arbitrarily.  Dominion is conditional. It is given and can be taken awayThe Hebrew word for dominionRDH, points to this conditionality.  Since Hebrew words are built on a system of three-letter roots, and one root can lend itself to multiple meanings, sometimes even a word and its opposite share the same three-letter root.[10]

In certain grammatical forms (in the imperative form and the plural imperfect for 2nd and 3rd person) including the form that RDH appears in Gen 1:26, RDH looks exactly the same as another Hebrew word, YRD “to go down.”  When RDH appears in one of these forms, you must determine the word’s meaning by its context.  Rashi, the foremost medieval rabbinic commentator, pointed out the wordplay inherent in this root.  He explained that if we consciously embody God’s image, ruling responsibly  with wisdom and compassion, we will RDH, have dominion over, the creatures and insure a world of harmony;  but if we are deny our responsibility to the creation and take advantage of our position, we will YRD, go down below the other creatures and bring ruin to ourselves and the world.[11] If we upend the blessing to further selfish goals, the blessing becomes a curse.  It is upon us to choose.  

Bonhoeffer recognized the conditionality of dominion.  He stressed that we bear the likeness of God, but only when we act on behalf of “our brothers and sisters,” the earth and its creatures.  Dominion implies service to all the creatures of the Creator.  Bonhoeffer laments that if we do not regard the earth and its creatures as my kin or my relations, if we abuse our dominion and seize it for ourselves, then dominion becomes domination and we are no longer worthy of the role we have been assigned.  We lose our kinship with God and we lose our kinship with earth.  There can be no dominion without serving the whole, the One.[12]   

Dominion Out of Context

In the academic and environmentalist circles in which I often work, dominion is rarely understood as a life-affirming relationship, a communion with the creatures.  As I mentioned at the outset of this essay, many people read the dominion of Genesis I:28 as a mandate to control nature, and the root cause for the ruin of our natural world.  

Many clergy, academics and even bible scholars, writing in thousands of articles have apologized for and tried to distance themselves from the aggrieved verse.  The esteemed Israeli soil scientist and irrigation expert, Daniel Hillel, critiquing Genesis I:28 wrote, “His [the human’s] manifest destiny is to be an omnipotent master over nature, which from the outset, was created for his gratification.  He is endowed with the power and right to dominate the creatures toward whom he has no obligation.”  Some, like Hillel, who disavow the first creation narrative, Genesis I, laud the second story where Adam is bidden to serve and observe (work and guard) the creation (Gen. 2:15).[13]  Hillel considers the human creature to be “arrogant and narcissistic” in Genesis I, yet “modest and earthly” in Gen II.[14] 

The reading of dominion as domination has always struck me as a mis-reckoning.  It is a profoundly unfortunate example of how biblical texts have been distorted to satisfy the desires of those in power.  Sadly, the idea of dominion as domination has endured a long and dark history that has led to terrible suffering and disastrous consequences, particularly for native peoples around the world. The verse was appropriated by the pope in 1493 to justify the Doctrine of Discovery and legitimize the confiscation of native lands everywhere.[15] Tragically, this ideology persists. I believe that redeeming the deeper ecological meaning of dominion is therefore all the more critical today.

The Bible is itself an ecosystem—a whole; you can’t pluck a word or verse from among its neighbors and expect to grasp its meaning.  Extracting a word or verse from its context is like removing a tree from its habitat—taking it from the soil, the mycelium, and the creatures with which it lives in total interdependence. Isolating words or verses and analyzing them out of context, mirrors the reductionist tendency that has characterized much of western thinking in modern times. For centuries scientists have attempted to break down the world into its smallest constituent parts in order to scrutinize the pieces.  But scientists now recognize that we can only truly understand things in relationship, in the context of the whole.  Dominion, too, only makes sense in the context of the entire biblical creation narrative, in the context of the whole of the creation.

To conflate dominion with domination, as exploiters of the text have done and continue to do, is reductive and harmful.  It narrows the scope of the meaning of the word.  Dominion from the Latin domus is related to domicile, dame, madam, all words related to the household.  The earth is God’s household and the job of the head of the household is to serve the household. Dominion means perpetuating the good of all the creatures and preserving the wholeness of the creation.  Anything else is not dominion.  

The word dominion, of course, is a translation that is used in the King James Bible, and other terms could be substituted; Jewish Publication Society uses rule.  Govern, preside over, and take charge are all appropriate translations.  I continue to translate RDH as dominion because I believe it forces us to confront both dominion’s positive side of dignity, wholeness and justice and its negative side of domination and exploitation.  The word dominion preserves the layers of meaning that the word RDH implies.  Dominion is not intrinsically bad; it depends on us and how we exercise it.   We can recognize our responsibility to nature and rise to the occasion to uplift the world, or we can deny our responsibility and exploit and dominate nature, further destroying the world and its peoples.  

While the term RDH has garnered the most attention, the other problematic word in Gen 1:28 is KVSH, which is generally translated as subdue or master.[16]  If you view the text generously, mastering the earth means utilizing skillful means to tend and sustain it, so that it can continue to yield its fruits forever.  While, KVSH does convey the use of force, the nature and degree of the force is determined by the context.   If you ask a farmer, they will tell you that they master the earth to grow crops by subduing weeds, cultivating the soil, laying down mulch, creating terraces, growing stands of trees, and planting cover crops.  They are adding value to the soil.  

Jewish tradition often relies on rabbinic commentaries to help elucidate difficult texts, yet for the last 2000 years, the rabbis have barely even mentioned the word dominion.  It’s as if the entire idea were outside of their experience.  Historically, Jews were often marginalized and prohibited from owning land, and would not have had an opportunity to exercise dominion over the earth.  When the rabbis did comment on dominion, they considered it in terms of the governance of nature.  Adam’s stewardship of the garden of Eden in the second creation story was their prototype of dominion (Gen. 2:15).  

Dominion as Hierarchy?

The King is in the Field © Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman

Some people are less concerned with the actual meaning of the words dominion and mastery and more disturbed by a connotation of hierarchy or kingship that they associate with these words.  Since the word dominion (RDH) often refers to royal contexts in other places in Torah, one might assume that dominion in Genesis 1:28 refers to kingship.   In the ancient near east, the ideal king was thought of as a vessel funneling energy and abundance from the source of life down to all the creatures of the earth.[17] There was a sense of interconnectedness between the king and his subjects.  Together they comprised one corporate body—the kingdom.[18]  It was in the king’s best interest to rule benevolently for the good of the whole.[19]  Were the king to rule justly, the land and people would be fertile, the seasons temperate, the grain abundant, cattle would flow with milk, rivers with fish; the afflicted would be protected and victory over enemies assured.  Were the king to rule in his self-interest, neglectful of the people and creatures, the land and the people would become barren, the rivers would dry up, the fish would die, the poor would suffer, and the kingdom’s enemies would triumph.[20]   

But, although the language of Genesis I may seem to suggest the archetype of kingship, notably, there is no actual king.  Rather, ordinary people, regardless of race, religion and gender, are elevated to royal stature and given royal responsibility.  Rejecting the ideology of kingship and its power and privilege, the Bible’s concept of dominion, suggests a radical egalitarian worldview that affords dignity and responsibility to all human beings.  All of humanity stands in the image of God and all are obligated to the creation.

Dominion in Context: The Blessing: Fruitfulness and Dominion

God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and master it, and have dominion over. . .  

As I have been asserting throughout this essay, context matters.  Dominion is bestowed as part of a two-fold blessing or bracha. The word bracha in Hebrew is related to the word beracha, a pond of water.   A blessing is enlivening and regenerative, like an oasis in the desert.  The blessing in verse 1:28 is for both fruitfulness and dominion.  It lays the foundation for the two basic necessities of life.  Fruitfulness promises generativity of the body and dominion—through the human creature’s benevolent rule—promises generativity of the earth and its creatures.  Barrenness of body and barrenness of land (famine) would be the greatest threats to the Israelite people, while fruitfulness in both realms would be the greatest gift.   The two-fold blessing for fertility and land reverberates through the Torah in the promise that God makes to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Israelites.  

Given that fruitfulness and dominion are knit together into one blessing, "God blessed them and said to them: Be fruitful and multiply. . . and have dominion over,” some rabbinic commentators extended the idea of fruitfulness to mastery and dominion.  They imagined dominion metaphorically as fruitful productivity, the beginning of culture and civilization.[21]  Saadia Gaon, the eleventh-century sage,  said that mastery of nature meant harnessing the energy of water, wind, and fire, cultivating the soil for food, using plants for medicines, fashioning utensils for eating and writing, and developing tools for farming, carpentry, and weaving.  It meant the beginning of art, science, agriculture, metallurgy, architecture, music, technology, animal husbandry, land use planning, and urban development.[22] 

When considering the context of a text, it’s also important to keep in mind the verses that follows the text in question. Immediately after God grants dominion to the human creature, God assigns the seed plants for food for the humans, and the leafy greens for the animals.  Dominion, then, ensures that both people and animals can eat and thrive.  Without this invitation to partake of the creation, perhaps the adam, the human creature, so awed by the beauty of the world, would have hesitated to eat from it.  Notably, dominion over the animals does not include the right to eat them (1:29-30).[23]

The Risk of Dominion 

A blessing is a gift.  According to anthropologist Lewis Hyde, “the recipients of a gift become custodians of the gift.”[24]  The word custodian implies a sense of humility; it originally meant care for children. Our role on earth is as custodians of the earth. We are here to care for the earth as an intimate relation, a sibling, a beloved.  

But we have become so disconnected from the earth and her creatures that we are often blind to the good of the entire natural world and oblivious to our dependence on the rest of creation.  Domination occurs when we are indifferent to the gift of creation and fail to approach dominion with love and careful attention.

Dominion in the context of creation is both humbling and elevating.  Dominion wants to lift us out of our customary human focused reality to regard the whole of creation. Dominion calls us to help raise up the other creatures—not to force them down; to preserve and perpetuate the original goodness, the integrity of all life.[25] Even though we are given dominion over the earth and its creatures, the Torah never suggests that we can own or possess the earth, just like we cannot own the waters or the air.  “The land cannot be sold in perpetuity.” (Leviticus 25:23). The land is the commons and therefore belongs to all its inhabitants equally and jointly.  In the biblical system, private property does not even exist because God owns the land and everything in it.  

The earth is the source of our lives.  It provides our air, water, food, clothing and shelter.  The blessing of dominion over the earth calls us to participate with nature so that the creation will continue creating for future generations. Dominion asks us to lovingly and carefully consider which lands and which creatures should be designated for the needs of civilization, and which must remain untouched by human hands for the health of the world and the good of the whole community.  

Some of the rabbinic sages, as well as the Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, read dominion allegorically and suggested that people must have dominion over their own desires, and master the tendency towards gluttony.  Such readings have heightened meaning today in view of our insatiable craving for the resources, services and products of the earth.  Dominion over the earth first requires dominion over our selves.   "We, in this generation, must come to terms with nature,” wrote Rachel Carson.  “We're challenged as [hu]mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves." [26]

The rabbis questioned why God created humanity, with this tendency towards self-aggrandizement, in the first place; wouldn’t people just destroy themselves and the world?  But the freedom to choose is what characterizes us as human beings.  To practice dominion as a respectful, caring relationship with nature is our greatest challenge, our growth edge.  It demands that we guard against our own excesses and exercise a constant degree of heightened awareness.  It is upon us to decide if we will make of ourselves a blessing or a curse, if we will work toward the preservation of the earth and her inhabitants, or if we will allow ourselves to despoil her and our collective future.


Bios:

Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is an eco-theologian and author of numerous books on the intersection of Judaism, Bible, and Ecology including most recently The Promise of the Land: A Passover Haggadah.  She founded the first national Jewish environmental organization Shomrei Adamah, Keepers of the Earth in 1988.  To learn more about her, please visit www.ellenbernstein.org.

Dr. Ruth Pinkenson Feldman, AKA the Green Bubbie, is a painter and life-long Jewish educator.  
To view more of her work, please visit https://www.ruthfeldmanfineart.store

Footnotes:

[1] Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Science 155, (10 March 1967)

[2] Gen 1.4,10, 12,18, 21, 25,  31

[3] While the acknowledgement of goodness doesn’t occur on the 2nd day, when the waters were initially divided and the air was formed, “goodness” is proclaimed twice on the 3rd day--first after the water and earth emerge as distinct habitats and again after plants are created. Ecologically speaking it makes sense that the declaration of goodness comes only once after all three elements or habitats are completed—they form one interconnected whole. The biblical author extols the goodness of the habitats before all else. A disregard for habitat is the beginning of all of our environmental problems.

[4] RDH does mean rule, however elsewhere in the Bible when RDH occurs, it is modified by an adverb that indicates harshness. Without the adverb, the feeling tone of RDH is neutral and depends on context.  

[5] The Hebrew word for rule (or have dominion) is RDH; we’ll be exploring the Hebrew RDH in more depth later.

[6] Many commentators assume that “very good” on the 6th day refers to the human creatures created on that day.  But a close reading of the text indicates that “very good” refers to “everything” that was created—the whole web of life.  

[7] Heschel, A.J. God in Search of Man, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Reprint edition 1976 

[8] The “us” of God expresses the plurality in God’s Oneness.  The “us” of God mirrors the “us”—the diversity of life on earth.  

[9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, N.Y.: MacMillan, 1969, P.67

[10] The root of the Hebrew word for “have dominion over,” RDH, generally refers to the “rule over subjects;” it can also mean supervision.  It is often found in regal contexts and its carries a sense of restorative justice.  The tenor of the word is usually neutral.   When the Bible wants to indicate a harsh rule, it adds the word perach to modify the word RDH—to rule ruthlessly.  

[11]  Rashi, Commentary on Genesis I:26

[12] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, P.67

[13] It’s always surprising to me that so many progressives champion the Genesis 2 story, since here, woman comes from the rib of the man—an afterthought--while in Genesis 1, male and female are created simultaneously as equals.  In addition, in the Genesis 2 version, the world revolves around the human creature—it is anthropocentric while Genesis 1 can be understood as theocentric and/or biocentric.

[14] Daniel Hillel, Out of the Earth, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, p.13-14

[15] https://christianhegemony.org/the-doctrine-of-discovery-manifest-destiny-and-american-exceptionalism

[16] In English KVSH appears to be a 4-letter root, but SH is one letter in Hebrew.

[17]  Benjamin Franklin Lowe, The King, As Mediator of the Cosmic Order, Ph.D. dissertation, Emory University, Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms Inter- national, 68-11963, 1968), pp. 2-16

[18] Raymond O. Faulkner, Myth Ritual and Kingship Essays on the Theory and Practice of Kingship in the Ancient Near East and in Israel, ed. S. H. Hooke, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1960, p. 75. The natural consequence of this understanding "was that theoretically everything in religious and secular life was linked with the king, and every religious ceremony and ritual was in a sense a royal ritual" (ibid., p. 76).   150

[19] Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 3; pp. 277-78

[20] This is the model of kingship in the royal psalms.

[21] The conclusion of George W. Coats, "The God of Death," Journal of Bible and Theology 29 (July 1975): 229, argues that the primary focus of dominion terminology is not rule or exploitation but productivity: David Tobin Asselin, "The Notion of Dominion in Genesis 1-3," CBQ 16 (July 1954), p.282.

[22] Rav Saadia Gaon, Commentary on Genesis I:26

[23] We are not told this directly—the story is built on positive affirmations, not on negative decrees.

[24] Lewis Hyde, The Gift, N.Y.: Vintage, 2007

[25] The farmer poet Wendell Berry contends: “The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made.  He thinks the world is good and He loves it.  It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. . .If God loves the world, then how might any person of faith be excused for not loving it or justified in destroying it?  , “How, for example, would one arrange to ‘replenish the earth’ if ‘subdue’ means, as alleged, ‘conquer’ or ‘defeat’ or destroy?”    Wendell Berry, What are People For?  San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p.99

[26] NY Times obituary of Rachel Carson

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2 thoughts on “The Bible Does Not Validate Endless Exploitation and Domination of the Environment

  1. A fascinating piece. Thank you Rabbi Ellen.
    Here in Australia, the environmental organisations (including Jewish, Interfaith and other) are in the final throes of persuading conservative politicians to urgently commit to Emission-Reduction (Net Zero by 2050 or earlier), and catch up to many other counties commitments.
    The Glasgow Summit is just around the corner… our PM may not attend.
    Several politicians of influence are people of faith…
    Rabbi, I am thinking about forwarding your wonderful thought-provoking essay to them. You cool with that?
    And, despite being in Lockdown with no Synagogues open here in Melbourne, being Pashat Beresheet, I’ll post it to some Jewish co-religionists as well.
    Shalom
    Abe
    Abemelb@gmail.com

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