Some thoughts on what Genesis means by dominion. It might not be what you think.

Reflection for Lent 2020 March 9th.

Last week in the main service Iain Dunlop reflected on our lent book by Ruth Valerio- Yes to life- from the perspective of a working scientist and one of great points that he made was that in the first creation story in Genesis one there is no hint that humans are coming. Every phase of the story declares that what God has created is good and that God wishes it to thrive and abound.

But there are not yet any people.

Genesis 1.20-23.

And God said, ‘ Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind.

Humans have a place, but they are not the only part of creation which matter to God.

But a study from the Israel science foundation, published in 2018, revealed that in kilogram weight domestic chickens exceed that of all wild birds threefold.

Wildlife is not teeming anymore- we have taken over.

After the service a couple of people stopped me and pointed out that Iain stopped before he got to verse 26, which says.

Then God said, ‘ Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth.

This would indicate that human beings have been put in charge by God and are given arbitrary power over the earth and all its creatures.

Which has often been interpreted as meaning we have carte blanche to do what we want to the world. The world and all its teeming life is our playground and bread basket.

How this understanding of Genesis came about is not simple to explain. Certainly in this country one of the culprits was a lawyer Francis Bacon who without possessingmore than a minimal training in mathematics and natural philosophy laid the foundations for the experimental method in science, way back in the C16th.

It has been argued that his background in the common law, with its emphasis on precedent, experience and evidence directly shaped his ideas.

He argued that all claims should be tested, and being a devout Protestant that to do so was to glorify God. To justify human hegemony- over animals and the planet’s resources he put a particular spin on Genesis’ reference to dominion- one that I am not the first to point out, was not uninfluenced by the political circumstances facing the Tudor and Stuart Monarchs of his time.

The word, rada in Hebrew, rendered in English means rule.

 But the question we have to ask is what does the writer of Genesis mean by rule?

The Hebrew Scriptures are, you will recall, extremely sceptical about kingship as an institution.  James 1st being damned by an anonymous critic as the wisest fool in Christendom would seem quite complimentary compared to the way the Old Testament writers describe their own kings.

There are only three who are given a positive hearing, and the best of those, David, is far from a paragon of virtue. He is convicted of the rape of Bathsheba and arranging the death of her husband Uriah, by sending him to the frontline in a battle.

There is a wonderful scene in 2 Samuel where just after this terrible incident the prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him a disguised version of his own crimes and allows him to convict himself; David says.

As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.

You will also remember that the prophet Samuel, clearly speaking for God, was very resistant to the lobbying of people just a few years before when they sought a king, and they ended up, of course, with the very flawed King Saul, who looked the part but was not very good at the actual job.

The word often translated dominion is thus difficult to equate with absolute power over other animals and the environment

This becomes even clearer notice that Genesis 1 goes on to describe the first humans as vegetarians- a clear limit being set upon their consumption!

The Genesis creation stories do describe humans as being made in the image of God. But that seems more about the recognition that although of nature- adam, which importantly does not mean male, but human, is a deliberate echo of the word for dust- we are different.

 We are of the earth, but have all the qualities that set us apart.

And to use a lovely colloquial expression, ‘ not in a good way,’ always

The two creation stories that are set at the very beginning of the Bible are full of insights about what it means to be creatures, God created, but they do not justify any of our excuses for doing as we please.

A final note to underline this is the way that throughout the Old Testament both God and those who exercise political power are urged to be like shepherds.

The relationship is moulded along the lines of the one described in Psalm 23; tender and protective, not one based on exploitation and pure utility.

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