Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dominion over the Earth

In Genesis 1:28, God gives to his newest creation, human beings, "dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Then in the next verse God gives humans plants for food, although in verse 30 this is also given to animals and birds. The dominion thing has been a stumbling block for some Christians who interpret it as a mandate to exploit the earth for our own benefit. Just as when you give a dog a chewy toy, you don't expect the dog to preserve and sustain it, God by this interpretation is giving us something to play with and maybe clean our teeth.

The key word here is "dominion" (unless you don't regard the Bible as authoritative, in which case none of what follows is going to be of more than trivial interest). If I had studied Biblical languages, I could tell you what the original word was and how it relates to the two passages I am about to cite. But I didn't, and so shall plunge directly on to...

The Two Biblical Models of Kingship

The Chew Toy Model. In I Samuel 8, Israel demands that the prophet Samuel appoint a king for them. Samuel doesn't want to, but God, while taking the demand as a personal rejection, suggests Samuel do it anyway, after explaining to the people exactly how awful kings really are. So Samuel does:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 

When the Israelites remain unconvinced, Samuel adds this kicker:

And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

The Good Steward Model. Quite a different picture of kingship is described by the prophet Isaiah, who could at other times be as grumpy as Samuel. But in Isaiah 9, he waxes rhapsodic about the good king to come. This king does not see the kingdom as his personal chew toy, but uses his reign to benefit all:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

I don't think it takes that subtle a reading of the Bible to discern which model has scriptural sanction, and which does not. This is particularly true for Christians, who interpret Isaiah 9 as referring to the coming of Jesus Christ. Reading this interpretation of "dominion" back to the Creation story suggests that God surely expects more from us than exploitation of His creation.

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