by The Rev. Canon Pam Hyde
I think I was in first grade when I first heard in Sunday school that God gave mankind dominion over the whole Earth. We were being taught the creation story from the book of Genesis that morning. “Dominion” is a big word for a child that age, so I’m sure that my Sunday school teacher explained what the word meant, most likely saying that we were “in charge” of what God created.
The Oxford dictionary defines “dominion” as “authority to rule; control.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “supreme authority; sovereignty.” But do we properly understand what it meant when God gave us dominion over his creation?
Genesis 1:28 tells us that God told the first humans, “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.”
But we need to ask ourselves if our modern understanding of the word “dominion” contained in Genesis is really accurate. We tend think and act as if God created the earth for our use, and our authority to use it is absolute. We set ourselves up as the supreme authority over all that God created. The question is, does scripture give us that authority? Or have we just decided to take that power into our own hands? Are we guilty of planetary-scale hubris?
Two pieces of scriptural evidence in the first chapter of Genesis help to illuminate the fact that the dominion given by God to humans over his beloved creation is not absolute, but in fact is relative. The first is that the narrative makes it clear that God is the Creator, and the Creation is his. He is the giver of life, we are not. The second is that humankind is made in the image of God. Thus our dominion over the earth must “be carried out in the image of God’s dominion — a dominion not of destruction, but of care, order, and creation.” 1
Other parts of scripture confirm this understanding of dominion. When God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38-39), he made it clear that Job — and by extension, humankind — was “not the unique reference point for all God’s purposes in creation.”2 I alone am the Creator, he reminded Job, not you.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
and the wicked be shaken out of it?
Do you give the horse its might?
Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,
and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes its nest on high? (Job 38:4, 6-7, 12-13; 39:19, 26-27)
We think that we know everything about the earth and are capable of managing it in God’s stead, but it turns out that what we are best at is destroying it. It is by God’s wisdom that the hawk soars, but it is because of humankind’s actions that ten percent of hawk species are endangered. God created the sky, but we have changed balance of the atmosphere by emitting greenhouse gases and as a result are fundamentally altering natural processes on earth.
It’s time we rethink our place in God’s creation and what it means to exercise dominion over every living thing on the earth. We hold God’s creation in our hands as a special gift entrusted to our care, not as something given to us to do with as we please. Our fate and our future are interwoven with the fate of all of creation because we’re a part of creation, not separate from it. And we are no more or no less beloved by God than a blade of grass or a squid or a giant sequoia tree. “If we love the Creator,” our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry once said, “we must love the Creator’s creation.” And these truths call us to exercise lightly the dominion over the earth we’ve been given, with the same love and care with which God created everything in the beginning.
1 Cambry Pardee, “Making Earth Heaven: Ecological Implications of Genesis 1-3,” Leaven: Vol. 21: Iss. 3, Article 3. Accessed at: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol21/iss3/3.
2 Richard Bauckham, Living With Other Creatures (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012), 8.
The Rev. Canon Pam Hyde is the Canon for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona.