Genesis 1:28 instructs the first couple—and by extension the entire human race—to “subdue” the earth and to have “dominion” over nature (KJV). Since the 1960s, virtually all secular environmentalists have assumed that Christians interpret this to mean that God gave the human race carte blanche to use nature without any regard for other created life. But is this what the passage actually means? Not at all.
There is a fundamental rule of biblical hermeneutics that applies to this verse. All passages in Scripture must be interpreted within context of surrounding passages as well as within context of other passages that speak on the same topic. A single passage rarely provides the full meaning or total teaching on any particular subject. There are many doctrines in Scripture, such as the Trinity, that require a systematic study of numerous related passages. Following this rule, let’s explore the closest related passage to Genesis 1:28. It’s found in Genesis chapter two:
[T]he LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed (Genesis 2:7-8).
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (2:15).
So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man (21-22).
Verses 7 and 8 relate that God created a garden in Eden and placed Adam in it. Verse 15 adds that Adam was instructed to “take care of” the Garden (i.e. stewardship). It was later, after these events occurred, that God create Eve (21-22). In light of this chronology, it’s important to note that the so-called dominion instructions were given to both Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 1:27-28). Thus, since Eve was created after Adam was placed in the Garden—and before their banishment from Eden—the “subdue” and “dominion” instructions had to have been given while the couple resided in the Garden.
This important to understand because the harsh sounding words “subdue” and “dominion” in Genesis 1:28 are softened and qualified due to the Garden setting where the instructions were given. In other words, the natural environment in which Adam and Eve lived before the Fall was a paradise. It’s preposterous to think that the command to subdue the earth and have dominion over nature had anything to do with battling or destroying nature. There was nothing to conquer in the Garden of Eden! This alone strongly suggests that whatever “subdue” and "dominion" mean in Genesis 1:28, they do not give the human race complete freedom to exploit nature as they see fit. (Notice that in many modern translations “dominion” [KJV] has been changed to “rule,” which better denotes to actual meaning of dominion.)
Critics who claim that Genesis 1:28 provides a license from God to exploit nature solely for human pleasure fail to heed the cardinal hermeneutical principle of interpreting a single passage within context of related passages as well as the whole biblical teaching on the topic. Critics select Genesis 1:28 (often quoting the King James Version) as a primary proof-text and disregard the host of other passages that reveal what God actually means by His instructions to mankind to subdue the earth and to have dominion (rule) over nature.
So what exactly does the Bible mean when it instructs the human race to have to dominion over creation? Well explore this in my next blog.
This article is adapted from my book, Should Christians Be Environmentalists? (Kregel Publications, 2012).