With the heavy downfall accompanying the writing of this article, there have been incidences of floods reported in Malaysia and as far as Mozambique. As I contemplate with fascination the million raindrops streaming earthward, I realize that the heavy downfall and flood are symptomatic of the recent worldwide climatic changes. Yet such changes do provide an apt occassion for us to reflect on the role of humankind in relation to creation. In this short reflection, I propose a critical cross-textual study aimed at unpacking the different contexts which determine the multiple biblical meaning. The second section is a theological reinterpretation of the Genesis texts and includes a reflection on the metaphor ‘dominion.” Third, I contend that the ramification of human dominion has to be understood in relation to God’s Kin-dom (Kingdom). Finally, I postulate that the ecological role of humankind in relation to God is to be life-giving co-creators.
In the light of the accusation leveled against Christianity by certain ecologists, a rethinking of the biblical texts especially in the Genesis creation accounts is in place. It calls for a critical method of cross-textual study of the key word subdue as interpreted to justify capitalistic exploitation and instrumental utility of the earth and its rich natural resources.
In Genesis 1:28a, the Israelite community used the Hebrew word, kabash which means to subdue and dominate, the earth. In Aramaic, the same term denotes tread down, beat or make a path, subdue. Kabash is used in other texts. In Zechariah 9:15, it means tread down in a situation of conquest or tread down human faults in relation to the Israelites’ plea for God’s forgiveness as in Micah 7:19. In Numbers 32:22, 29, it conveys the meaning of being subjected to during a conquest and therefore become subdued (Jos 18:1), subjugated (2 Sam 8:11), reduced to slavery or brought into bondage (Jer 34:11).1 The meanings differ with the contexts, either a situation of war and conquest, or a penitential relationship with God.
In Genesis 1:28b, the term radu means to have dominion, rule, dominate. In Aramic, it means to tread, trample. In the Jerusalem Bible, radu is translated as ‘Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on the earth.” Other texts convey other shades of meaning. In situations of conquest, radu means to enslave the conquered (Isa 14:2), dominate the other kingdoms (Ezek 29:15, Isa 41:2), act as masters over a region, as Solomon over the Transeuphrates (1 Kings 5:4); in terms of relationship, radu means the rule that is harsh and cruel (Lev 25:43, 46, Ezek 34:4, Jer 5:31).2 Again the meanings of radu depend on the differing contexts: conquest, the rule of a king, relationship with fellow Israelites, between priests and Israelites, and God’s relations with the Israelites.
In doing a cross-textual examination of the Genesis texts, what clearly emerged is that the contexts determine the meanings of the texts. The use of kabash and radu suggests different meaning because they are based on the different contexts in the Bible, such as conquest, human relations, God’s relation with humankind. Our context is different from that of the Israelites in the Old Testament period. We live in the wake of the ecological crisis when humankind only begins to awaken to a new role.
In the light of this research, I contend that it does not do justice to the text to refer to radu without at the same time mentioning the biblical use of the wordkabash. I am not in agreement with the entire textual explanation of Rabbi Hayin G. Perelmuter although I do not debate the conclusion of his translation of the meaning of radu: ‘At the bottom the rabbinic conviction is that the ‘earth is the Lord’s and that we are not so much its masters as its stewards” (1994: 132).3 I much prefer an androcentric-free hermeneutical explanation of radu.
Instead I suggest that dominion be a possible metaphor to convey the meaning of kabash and radu in today’s context. I certainly do not suggest an unqualified dominion which will only warrant the current exploitative ‘power over” the earth. But I refer to a dominion which is qualified by God’s dominion over creation. God’s dominion, as suggested by the presence of ruah Yahweh is never aggressive and exploitative but gentle, creative and life-giving. In other words, humankind must exercise a dominion as being exemplified and practiced by God. It has to be a creative, just, responsible, life-giving and life-nurturing dominion over the earth. It can never be an irresponsible dominion of unjust exploitation of the earth and its resources for profit without due consideration of the sustainability of the earth and the future generations.
The multiple contexts through which Israel emerged as a nation and which gave shape to their biblico-theological truths are different from our cultural context today. Yet these biblico-theological truths must continue to govern humankind’s relation to the earth amidst the ecological crisis. I suggest that the theological truths be interpreted as: God is the creator of the universe. The creator is the God who exercises a dominion of justice over the earth. God’s dominion over the earth is the model par excellence for humankind’s dominion over the earth. In collaboration with God’s rule, humankind is duty-bound as God’s co-creators to guarantee the sustainability of the earth and of future generations.
The metaphor “dominion” speaks of a power-laden rule. Its ramification has to be understood further in relation to the Kin-dom (Kingdom) of God.4 John Dominic Crossan observes that the Kin-dom (Kingdom) of God is ‘power and rule, a process much more than a place, a way of life much more than a location on earth... The Kingdom of God is people under divine rule... The focus of discussion is not on kings but on rulers, not on kingdom but on power, not on place but on process. The Kingdom of God is what the world would be if God were directly and immediately in charge” (1995: 55). To exercise dominion over creation, humankind has to bring about God’s rule and power. That exercise of rule and power is conditional upon whether humankind has entered into God’s Kin-dom (Kingdom). Crossan adds that ‘one enters that kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice, or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of the future” (1995: 56). Subjected thus to God’s dominion, humankind’s dominion need to dismantle the patriarchal chauvinism which perpetuates the axis of oppressive power in society, right down to humankind’s utilitarian relation with the earth. Human dominion under the rule of God will have to exercise a power which initiates an open (global and local) society ‘equally accessible to all under God” (1995: 60), especially the destitute and the nobodies.5 Human dominion must mediate God’s dominion so that humankind not only lives justly among womankind and mankind but harmoniously between creation and humankind.
God is the creator who exercises a just and nurturing dominion over the earth. What then is the role of humankind in relation to God? I propose that we think of humankind as co-creators. Creation is an unfinished story. As a work of art, it is an ongoing ‘project’ for God who has covenanted Godself to humankind. God continues to extend God’s invitation to humankind so that we can collaborate with God in the fulfillment of God’s dream for the universe. In this sense I concur with John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago who remarks: ‘humanity is now being summoned to an unprecedented exercise of its role of ‘domination’ over creation ...humankind now stands center stage in the process... We now recognize that we must go to great lengths to recover a sense of healing and directive power of the divine presence ...a responsibility whose full dimensions are only beginning to unfold in our time” (1994: 45-6). Integral to this role as co-creators is the responsibility of humankind to bring divine healing and fullness of life to mother earth. The faithful fulfillment of this role of co-creators is essential to the restoration of the harmonious relation between humankind and mother earth. The earth-humankind relation is after all inseparable. As Samuel Rayan comments, ‘earth finally becomes mind and heart, self-conscious and free... the human is of the flesh of the earth... the point of convergence of the rest of life, where the earth’s awareness, sensitivity, freedom and love and joy gather, come to focus and become incandescent” (1994: 223).
As the heavy downpour brings abundant rain to the different parts of the earth, and, as water accumulates to become flood, it is important to remember that water has its theological significance for believers. God is the creator who brings life out of ‘the earth which was then a formless void, with darkness over the deep and the breath of God (Ruah Yahweh) sweeping over the water” (Gen 1:1). God is the creator ‘who did not send rain on the earth. Instead water flowed out of the ground and watered all the surface of the soil” (Gen 2:6). Water is a symbol of God for God is life-giving. This does not suggest that the destructive aspect of water be overlooked especially when villages, villagers, livestock have been drowned. If God is the principle of life or the breath of life within the earth and the water, how much more must humankind be life-giving, especially when we derive life from the Creator who breathes life into our nostrils and humankind become living beings (Gen 2:7)! Indeed, to be life-giving makes us God-like for wo/mankind are indeed created in the likeness and image of God (Gen 1:26). Even the psalmist acknowledges this much: ‘I look up at your heaven, shaped by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you firm - what are human beings that you care for them? Yet you have made them little less than gods” (Ps 8:3-5).
The current situation of heavy downpour and flood around the globe is a moment of grace for theological reflection on humankind’s relation with the earth. It is important for humankind to take center stage as co-creators and exercise a dominion which mediates God’s dominion. Insofar as humankind exercises a godly dominion over the earth, humankind truly lives the truth about “being created little less than gods” in the God who is the Creator and Author of life in all of creation.
1.For greater detail, see no. 3533 in Brown 1997: 461.
2.For details, see no. 7300 in Brown 1997: 461.
3.Earlier Rabbi Hayin G. Perelmuter postulates (1994: 132) that radu is a word in the Talmud (Yebamot 65b) that speaks of ‘rule’ in the sense of ‘procreation’ and not ‘mastery.’ Alas, this explanation of rule as procreation is too analogously related to the biological function of procreation. See Perelmuter 1994: 132.
4.The term Kin-dom (Kingdom) is preferred for its affinity to the Asian focus on the value of kinship and second, for reasons of gender-sensitivity.
5.For a deeper explanation of the destitute and the nobodies, see Crossan 1995: 61-4.
Brown, F. S. Driver and C. Briggs
1997 The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: With anAppendix Containing The Biblical Aramic. Peabody,Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publisher, Inc. 1997.
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Pawlikowski, John T.
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