This is part of a series on Ellen F. Davis’s book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. You can see the first post here.
In Genesis 1, God gave humanity a key responsibility within his creation. This responsibility is a significant part of what it means to be created in the image of God.
Unfortunately, some have taken this responsibility to mean that we have the permission and power to do with God’s creation whatever we please. As a result, we too often see the careless exploitation and abuse of the land, the wildlife, and even the animals we have been given for food. This is done, presumably, without recognizing that we too are part of God’s creation and that whatever negatively impacts a part of creation negatively impacts humanity as well.
In the second part of chapter 3 of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Ellen F. Davis discusses three key terms that relate to our God-given responsibility with regard to creation: dominion (v. 26), image of God (v. 27), and conquer (v. 28).
Davis points out that the root meaning of the word commonly translated “dominion” or “rule” (v. 26) actually has to do with the way a shepherd manages a flock—a nurturing, cultivating kind of oversight. She suggests that rather than translating it with a word that connotes domination, we should use a term that suggests firmness without harshness, such as “mastery among.” To say that humanity exercises “mastery among” the creatures and the land is to recognize not only the unique power of humanity but also our place within—and not over or apart from—creation.
Image of God
Davis says that “the single enabling condition for the exercise of ‘mastery’ among the creatures” is our “conformity to the image of God” (Kindle loc. 884). For all the talk about the imago Dei (image of God), Davis points out that the term only occurs five times in all of the Hebrew Scripture, and three of those occurrences are in two verses in Genesis 1. Paul picked up that imagery again in 2 Corinthians where he described Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (4:4).
The phrase itself—image of God—comes from the Ancient Near East concept of kingship as the “capacity and right to represent the divine will in political, social, and cultic matters” (Kindle loc. 892). Genesis 1 radically applies this concept not only to kings but to every human being, and teaches that one of the primary ways we reflect the image of God is through our “mastery among” the creatures and the land.
As the story of the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) unfolds, it becomes clear that God intended Israel to be the people who would show the world what it means to reflect the image of God, and that the primary way they would do this was through the rhythms of their community life. Israel was to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2 among others). But as Davis says, “Holiness in Leviticus is not primarily a quality of individuals (“you” is a grammatical plural here); holiness is the character of a community observing a comprehensive pattern of life that is healthful” (Kindle loc. 897-901).
This includes, among other things, securing the food system that God gave to sustain all life, a key concern of both Genesis 1 and Leviticus: “Recognizing and perpetuating the sufficiency God has provided is an important element of how we humans are to live out our unique resemblance to God and exercise mastery among the creatures” (Kindle loc. 928).
Davis notes that the command for Israel to exercise mastery among the creatures and the land is the only time in Genesis 1 when a command of God is not followed by “and it was so.” This not only emphasizes the freedom of the human will but also calls into question how well Israel (and humanity as a whole) obeyed.
Since the first readers of Genesis were likely those of the wilderness generation preparing to enter the land of Canaan, the language of conquering the land (v. 28) would have had a strong resonance and special significance. This “mastery among” the creatures and land was to be Israel’s model once they took possession of the land of Canaan. The land belonged to God, and he was giving them responsibility for it. He had built sustainability features into it, and they were responsible for maintaining those features and assuring the health of the land. This was part of their vocation —to ensure the continued natural fruitfulness of the land by keeping the regulations of the covenant.
The potential applications of Genesis 1 for our time are plentiful, and I won’t get into them in this review, but Davis has given us a strong, biblical rationale for the care of creation as an essential part of what it means to be human, not to mention what it means to be a part of God’s covenant.
Note: A careful reader pointed out that, in the “Conquer” section, I mischaracterized Davis’s view of who the original readers of Genesis 1 might have been. For more, see the comments on this blog post.