Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
(Genesis 1:26-28 NRSV)
Context matters. Because the Hebrew scriptures present a variety of witnesses to the steadfast love and faithfulness of Israel’s covenant God and a variety, also, of responses and reactions from different times and circumstances to the promises of that God’s love and faithfulness, we need to be very wary of modern interpretations that absolutize biblical declarations as though they had no context within human life and history, no relation to circumstances current at the time, and no elasticity in speaking God’s truth or faith’s response in ever-changing times and conditions.
The short passage quoted above from Genesis comes to us out of the time of the Jewish exile in Babylon, hence it’s similarities to (but also radical departures from) the Babylonian creation myth. The human context for such a grand view of the world’s creation is a time of deep discouragement and powerlessness. All around this hymn to the Creator swirl fears that chaos has won out over life, that the oppressive empire is all-powerful and invulnerable, and that (dare any even think it?) Babylon’s gods might be greater than the God of Israel. So, behind the thrust of this hymn is the prophetic word of hope and salvation, saying, in effect, Take heart! Your Redeemer God is also the Creator of heaven and earth (we would say of the universe). Your arms may be weak and your legs unsteady, but to your God, the sun and moon (deities to their captors) are just lamps in the heavens not worth naming, and the greatest nations are (in the prophet’s words) just a drop on the rim of the bucket not worthy of mention.
It is one thing to tell the powerless and humiliated that they were created to have dominion. They have little control over even their own lives, and our modern abilities to pollute the air we breath, the water we drink, the earth on which we live, and even the oceans that cover the majority of our planet would sound to them just plain crazy. The reality that we have bombs sufficient to split the earth itself (our home planet!) lies far beyond their worst nightmares. That humans could (or would) wipe out species for pleasure and profit would be too great an evil for them to contemplate. It is quite another matter to tell people with our modern powers of pollution and destruction to exercise dominion any way they please, just because they can.
So, the time has come for those of us who care what the Bible says to listen anew and rethink our understandings of this Genesis passage so often misused to justify our “right” to treat God’s earth and its nonhuman creatures as though we were commissioned to be, not stewards, but tyrants. The earth is not our warehouse of resources to use up. Nature is not just raw material for industry. Neither are people “human resources” to be used up and discarded. In my short time as a Boy Scout, we were taught always to leave a site where we had camped as we found it or better. Do no damage, and leave no trace.
To be created in the image of God is not to look like God or “be as gods” in the world. In the ancient world, statues of the monarch represented his lordship over his lands, reminding citizens and foes alike who it was that ruled within the boundaries of his kingdom. Human beings are, in this Genesis view, created to represent the Creator in a world that does not belong to them, to be living images of God’s care for God’s world. We are, Genesis has it, made to be stewards, care-takers of the created world. We are also to be care-givers for each other. In Genesis 4, Cain denies his own humanity when he asks of Abel whom he has murdered, “Am I my brother’s keeper (guardian)?”
More than a few ecologically minded people today regard Christianity as part of the problem and the Bible as support for human greed and arrogance, for the willful exploitation of the earth and thoughtless destruction of the natural world. While I believe they are wrong, I also know they can present considerable evidence to support their moral indictment. It’s time to rethink, with much more humility than we have been accustomed to showing (or feeling). It’s not helpful simply to dismiss some of the religiously environmental as pantheists, as though labeling them answered their accusations or silenced their protests. Certainly, we misuse our own Bible if we offer it up in support of unbridled greed and pride in acquisition. We need to listen. We need to get outside more and recover our sense of wonder. We need to hear anew and take to heart the Bible’s insistence that the world does not belong to us.
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. (Psalm 24:1 NRSV)
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
(Genesis 1:31a NRSV)
O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
(Psalm 104:24 NRSV)