The very first command addressed to humanity in the entire Bible is to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:28).
This always felt very authoritarian. No room for compassion, dignity, or respect. We see humankind displaying this type of dominion when it comes to pollution and extraction of the Earth’s most precious resources. This type of dominion is present when it comes to the way human activities are changing the natural greenhouse effect of the planet. Over the last century, the burning of fossil fuels like coal and the deforestation of land has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Was this control and “domination” what God had in mind when this beautiful Creation came into being?
Pope Francis addresses this question of dominion in his Papal Encyclical. He rejects the “dominion” theory that gives humankind total domination over creation. This view, based on Genesis 1:28, was used to promote the industrial revolution and its desire to use the earth as malleable clay that people could pound and shape into whatever they wanted. This interpretation is distorted.
Instead, Pope Francis reads further into the Creation story to Genesis 2:15, which finds God telling Adam to till and tend the garden of the world. “’Tilling,’” writes Francis, “refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” God gave humanity a command and said to tend or keep the garden. The Hebrew word for ‘tend’ or ‘keep’ is ‘shamar,’ and it means more than just to keep it neat and tidy. The Hebrew word means to guard or to watch and protect.
The other Hebrew word in this verse is also important. The word ‘work,’ or as some translations more accurately say, ‘to cultivate’ is from the Hebrew word ‘abad,’ meaning to serve.
Genesis 2:15 would better be read as: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and to guard and protect it.”
Serve. Guard. Protect.
As I read this using those words for the first time, I could not help but associate with my life as a Foster Mom. In the last two years, I’ve had four newborns in my home. And in the last two years, I have sent four newborns on to the next phase of their journey.
I started to see some parallels between our shared call to protect and serve the earth and my own call to protect and serve these babies.
These babies do not belong to me. I will not be present for all the phases of their precious lives. I will not see what potential they achieve. For the days I held them though, I was responsible. Who and what they may become was shaped by the love (or lack) that they found in my hands, in my home, and in my actions.
I could have tried to exert dominion over them. I could have used them to fill empty places in my own life. I could have tried to control every moment, every choice.
But, in this sacred calling, there is no room for power. No room for ego. No room for control.
It is indeed much like our shared sacred calling to preserve and honor God’s very good Creation. Our shared sacred calling to ensure that we do all that we can to mitigate environmental degradation like climate change so that we have a planet that can be passed on beyond ourselves.
There is no space for dominion. No space to question how this calling will fulfill our own selfish purposes or needs.
There is only space for ‘abad.’
Serve. Guard. Protect.
We are stewards of the Earth and will be required to account for how we’ve kept and tended what God has given us.
The Presbyterian Church in the USA is a proud partner of Blessed Tomorrow, a coalition of faith leaders committed to serve as faithful stewards of creation. Founded by ecoAmerica, Blessed Tomorrow offers tools, resources, and communications to demonstrate visible climate leadership, inspiring and empowering faith leaders to speak about, act on and advocate for climate solutions. Learn more about our partnership and the resources available to you here.