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Dominion or Service: Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2?

9 August, 2010

b picIn Sunday school yesterday, we had a very good discussion of humanity’s call to exercise “dominion” in Gen 1:28–30, in relation to Adam’s call to “work and keep” the garden of Eden in Gen 2:15–17. I thought I’d share some of our discussion and my additional thoughts here.

In Gen 1, humanity’s commission to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” is a glorious calling, and comes as a result of our creation in the image of God—the image and dominion language is repeated twice:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:26–28)

This is key, because it means our commission to dominion is part and parcel of what it means to bear God’s image, and so understanding the character of our dominion flows from understanding the character of our image–bearing.

There are many things to say about what being created in the image and likeness of God means, but it’s interesting to look particularly at the characteristics of God on display in this particular passage: God creates and commissions humanity (vv. 26, 28), blesses us (v. 28), orders all things (vv. 26, 28, 29), and gives all things to us to do with likewise (vv. 26, 28).

When we think about the dominion God has given us over the earth, then, we need to keep in mind the character of the God whose image we bear. If we think that blessing or causing to be fruitful are odd ways of thinking about subduing and having dominion over the earth, then we’re not thinking in terms of the character of God’s good rule.

This dominion, exercised in ordering and blessing, gets to the relationship between our commission as described in very different ways in Gen 1 and 2. Unlike Gen 1, humanity’s origin and calling in Gen 2 doesn’t at first glance seem so glorious: rather than speak of the image of God, Gen 2 says that humanity has been created out of dirt just like the rest of the “living creatures” (2:7, 19). Instead of the language of subduing and dominion, we get the language of working and keeping, the language of service rather than rule (2:15). In light of God’s character and his commission for us, however, these accounts show themselves to be complimentary rather than contradictory.

God’s commission for humanity is precisely a dominion of service and blessing, under God; it’s a rule that brings about fruitfulness for us and the rest of creation rather than tyranny or abuse, because we exercise dominion under someone else’s authority. Though we are created in the image and likeness of God, it’s no less true that we’re made of the same “dust” that other creatures are. Human image–bearing is a gift and a calling, not an intrinsic superiority:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet…. (Ps 8:3–6)

As in Gen 1, in Gen 2 Adam is called to exercise subordinate headship and bring meaningful and productive order, in naming the animals (vv. 19, 20) as well as cultivating his garden sanctuary. And as in Gen 1, in Gen 2 God calls Adam to fulfill his commission on behalf of humanity as his created image. Adam is to display the character of God, and accomplish his charge in faithful obedience (2:16). And finally, just as God created, ordered and then rested, so too humanity was created with a commission to productive labor which had as its end to join in God’s own blessed rest (cf. Heb 2:6–8).

None of this is seen as it should be in Adam, or in humanity’s twisting of God’s image and our commission to subdue and exercise dominion. How prone to tyranny is our rule, and how susceptible to abuse is our dominion! We curse more than we bless. But in Jesus we get a window into how total dominion and complete fruitfulness come together—how being “subdued” and being “blessed” can be true at the same time. He is the true image of God, after all, and the true and perfect man. As he has borne our image in becoming man, we are being transformed into his image, the image of Christ (1 Cor 15:49; Rom 8:29).

Jesus’ image–bearing and exercising dominion are not like ours in every way; it’s crucial to understand that his work of redemption comes in light of and in response to sin, not as an integral part of creation or Adam’s creaturely commission. This shouldn’t be overlooked, as so often nowadays creation care or the cultural mandate, in response to what has too often been Christian neglect or disinterestedness in fruitful dominion, are overplayed, as a part of the message of the gospel. These things are part of the image of God and humanity’s creaturely commission, yes; but the fact that they are is rather testimony to our failure and rebellion, not good news.

Servant leadership and responsible stewardship are good things, and we could even say that Christians who know their Creator truly, who are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Col 3:10), are those who should truly understand and exercise dominion—as long as we recognize this commission as law, not gospel. Our human calling is fulfilled as it should be by Christ, not by us; as sinners, our image–bearing and pursuit of dominion are always compromised and ambivalent. This should keep us from either abdicating or abusing our creaturely dominion, or making it into an idol or an addition to Christ.

At the same time, what is created is what is redeemed: humanity, and ultimately as a result, our curse and death’s effects on the rest of creation. The heart of the similarity between Adam’s image–bearing and commission and Jesus the Second Adam’s work, is faithful obedience before God unto blessing and fruitfulness for all he is responsible for. Where Adam failed, Christ succeeded, and the fruits of his labors are nothing less than a new heavens and new earth, the “Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb 4:9). In our attitudes and actions in response to humanity’s call to exercise godly dominion, we should reflect his image, as he has borne ours.

One Comment
  1. Donna Ellis Burrell permalink
    10 August, 2010 1:49 pm

    Thanks for the recap and the insights. It does not seem like the issue of dominion should cause such a diverse reaction, but considering our “nature” as being sinful, we will tend to see things the way we want them to be, especially if we think it affords us superiority or control.

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