Exercising Our God-Given Dominion over the Earth

by Aaron Dunlop

A few months ago we dealt with the question, who owns the earth? In that article we considered the words of the Psalmist—“The earth Is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). You can download the PDF of all three articles on environmentalism here.

The second part of the answer to this foundational question is that the earth belongs to mankind; it is his “domain.” In Genesis 1 we read that the first assignment the Creator gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden was to “subdue [the earth]: and have dominion.” Man was given the earth to live on and he was to make it his home in the same way a tenant makes his apartment his home.

In Psalm 8:6 the psalmist states clearly that although the Lord is the sovereign, yet He has graciously endowed mankind with the honour of being vice-regent over the earth. In this psalm the psalmist celebrates in poetry what the author of Genesis records using other literary techniques. In Genesis, immediately after giving the account of creation in chronological order (1:1–2:3), Moses begins another account of creation. This second account of creation has an ingenious layout which focuses on the creation of man and his environment. Had Moses been interested in man only he would have simply rehearsed the work of the sixth day, but instead, he breaks into his subject at the beginning of the third day (1:9) after the universe was created but before the plants and herbs and animals were created: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew” (2:4–5, emphasis added).

This important arrangement of the text highlights the place that mankind has as the apex of creation. But it also focuses on the environment in which man exists with the reference at the beginning to the vegetable kingdom (vv. 4-5). This reference to the plants and vegetation highlights the fact that all the activity of the first five days of creation was preparatory for the creation of man—the Lord was building an environment for him.

If the earth was created for the benefit of mankind as we have seen, it is not surprising that when man was created, God “blessed him” and gave him the command to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). There are three distinct elements in this first assignment to the newly created humanity: first, fill the earth, which addresses the population of the earth; second, subjugate the earth, which was the command to make the earth subservient for survival and comfort; and third, rule the earth, which was the command to rule that which is conquered.

Leaving aside for now the closely related subject of population—for this is a big factor in the mind of the environmentalist—let us consider the God-given command to subjugate and dominate the earth. This is a very potent command and it is not surprising that some environmentalists see it is a threat to their movement—for it is indeed a threat. The word subdue means to bring into subjection or into bondage (as in Nehemiah 5:5) to the needs of mankind, or to force (see Esther 7:8) the earth to serve mankind. Dominion is the result of this subjugation; having prevailed (Lamentations 1:13) over the earth, mankind is to rule it. 

Man is one of the weakest of God’s creatures and certainly much weaker than the elements, yet he has been enabled over time to conquer the most savage of creatures, to discipline the most adverse frontiers, and to extract from the most obscure and difficult regions of the earth that which he needs for life. Man has learned over time through his ingenuity and skill to harness the wind, control water levels, and utilize the sun’s rays, to use his wits against strength and his accumulated knowledge against the forces of nature—and in doing this he is revealing the image of God (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 8:6).

Very early in history we see humanity developing from the simple hunter-gatherer into shepherds (Abel—Genesis 4:2), arable farmers (Cain—Genesis 4:2) and metalworkers (Genesis 4:22). The earth was being subdued with the domestication of animals and the use of technology and tools in the cultivating the ground. The sons of Lamach learned the art of music for their enjoyment, originating both wind and stringed instruments (Genesis 4:21) for which they also used the stuff of the earth.

James speaks of putting bits into the mouths of horses in order to make them “obey us”: “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body” (James 3:3, emphasis added) which shows the extent of the power that man has over the animal kingdom. James goes on to say that “every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind.” This is illustrated also in the story of Samson when he harvested honey from one of the smallest and most vicious of God’s creatures, extracting it from the carcass of one of the larger and fiercest of animals, the lion. We read, “And he took [had dominion—it’s the same word as in Genesis 1:28) thereof in his hands, and went on eating, and came to his father and mother, and he gave them, and they did eat: but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcase of the lion” (Judges 14:9).

In exercising this dominion, mankind manifests God-likeness—it was the first characteristic of the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and the first assignment given to unfallen man (Genesis 1:28). It is not the will of God for us to be satisfied with the status quo. We are to pursue dominion and, in this fallen world, to pursue change and development that redeem aspects of life from the effects of the fall. As Christians we are to be ambitious, industrious, and innovative to find ways and methods that enable us to enjoy the Lord, that enhance our experience of Him, and that make our souls to enjoy the good of our labour (Ecclesiastes 2:24).

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