God’s granting humankind ‘dominion’ over the earth has been taken for license to do as we please: Because, so some have thought, the Creator has deemed us buck-stoppers in the here below, we may impose our will upon the creation freely, unburdened by concern for its flourishing. Why should we care whether diseased livestock are confined in their own excrement so long as we can buy ground beef on sale? Animals are ours to abuse (or rather, ours to let Big Agriculture abuse, out of sight and out of mind). The barrier reefs are ours to bleach and the rainforests ours to fell. Oil and coal are ours to burn. The planet is ours to pollute – and don’t let any effete ninny in Paris tell you otherwise! But while the book of Genesis indeed says that God has given us ‘dominion,’ ‘dominion’ does not mean ‘carte blanche.’ Quite the contrary.
For one thing, ‘dominion’ is not ours alone. Before God made women or men, God made the sun and the moon, made, to quote the scriptures, ‘the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night.’ The heavenly bodies are personified as ‘rulers’ in their own right. God distributes a sort of responsibility for governance amongst them as well, and they preside over an array of natural phenomena. So, far from absolute, whatever authority God vests in us is shared and checked. The tides, the winds, the turning of the seasons, the cycles of light and darkness, of living and dying – these owe their obedience not to us. The equilibrium, which is to say, the good and the peace, of much of the created order is not, is not ours to upset. Keeping with imagery of Genesis, global warming, for instance, can be understood as our violating the ‘dominion’ of another, as staging a coup and bringing down the kingdom of the spheres, founded by divine right.
For another thing, there is a sense, scripturally, that with great power of course comes great responsibility. Immediately before talk of our ‘dominion’, we read that human beings were set in the world as bearers of the image of God. Seeing us is akin to seeing God, or at least it is supposed to be. We are, literally, to represent God, by practicing a certain godlikeness – loving as God loves, caring as God cares, doing as God does. So our ‘dominion’ over creation must mirror God’s own ‘dominion’; we must relate to the world as God would relate to the world. And the opening of the book of Genesis takes great pains to show us a generous and self-giving Creator who lavishes regard upon the creation. Over and again, we hear God say, ‘Let there be…’ Now, no doubt, something could have come from nothing with just a snap of the fingers: God could have said ‘Abracadabra!’ or commanded sea and earth and sky, ‘Appear!’
But God does not give orders; God gives, so it seems, a capacity for all things to participate in their own becoming. ‘Let there be…’ – these are words God speaks in what is called the jussive mood, an inflection of language Hebrew has, but English cannot capture. ‘Let there be…’ is like an imperative, in that there is a speaking out, a projection of God’s will, but is also unlike an imperative, unlike a straightforward ‘do this’, because jussives have the grammatical aura of a wish or a prayer. They are gentler, more open. Consider, as a less elegant, overstating-it-to-make-the-point translation of ‘Let there be…’, ‘I wish that there would be…’ or ‘I pray that there would be…’ God’s language is invitational and confers upon its addressees a certain dignity, encouraging them as it does to make a glad, free response – to themselves be, be what they will.
To come at that same point from another angle: in the creation story, there is a looseness to the weave of cause and effect. Sometimes, God says ‘Let there be…’ and then actually brings such-and-such to being; like, we see God not only speak into existence the separation between earth and sky, not only speak into existence sun and moon and stars, but, more, then make and give shape to them. Other times, though, God says ‘Let there be…’ and the thing almost be-s itself into existence. God says, ‘Let there be light,’ and then we read, ‘and there was light’, there just was light. Light is subtly imparted the kind of integrity that comes with having its own quiet activeness. Still other times, God does not say ‘Let there be…’ at all, but engages what already is, endows it with holy power, and elevates it as a creative partner. God says, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants, and fruit trees’. The earth is entrusted with the awesome and almost miraculous charge of bringing life to be. It is incredible – life, the first life, in fact, comes not after a pointing of God’s finger and a poof!, but thanks to the nurture and ministry of Mother Nature. God delegates the work of creation, in large part, to the creation itself.
The point is: God’s power over the world is not rawly asserted. Actually, it is portrayed not as power over at all, but as power with. God’s power, in the opening of the book of Genesis, is but the source of a terrific and surprising empowering of that which is not God to share in God’s own work. One might go so far even as to say that creation’s high, high calling is to improve upon God’s work. While, over and again, we see God appraising what is made and declaring it ‘good’, a thing’s being good is not the same as a thing’s being perfect. An arc of becoming stretches out before the young world, and we are led to imagine that more and more life and more and more beauty yet await. This is only the beginning, and there is no indication that God has contrived an ending to which all things will be yanked along. For, remarkably, the first chapter of Genesis comes to a close with God resting, resting on the Sabbath Day, resting in the confidence that the world, duly empowered as a partner in creation, can see to some measure of its own sustaining and prospering. God ceases altogether from acting for, and even acting with the world, and opens God’s own self to be acted upon. God stands aside from God’s influence over all that is and, in that, becomes wholly receptive to the praise and the gladness and the suffering God’s creatures would bring. On this joyous Sabbath Day, the whole cosmos is truly let be.
We are, as bearers of the image of God, as ones uniquely called to represent God by practicing a certain godlikeness – we are to mirror this letting be. We are to allow the world to act upon us, to share its beauty and its abundance with us. We are to enjoy the splendor and goodness of creation as did the Creator – we are to look on raptly as we see it teem and thrive, and rejoice in its freedom and integrity of being. We are to witness to the grace and the gentleness and the kind regard of God. We are to protect and to serve in God’s stead. We are, dominion having been given us, we are to accompany our charge – the world – on into days of more and more life and more and more beauty. God’s granting humankind ‘dominion’ over the earth has been taken for license to do as we please, but this is an untenable reading. We hold our dominion as a trusteeship; we are duty-bound to be in the world as God would be in the world: as masters who would make ourselves servants.