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Fall 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 2 · pp. 16–25 

Rethinking Dominion Theology

Theodore Hiebert

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.” (Gen. 1:27-28 NRSV)

Few biblical texts have had more influence on how we understand ourselves as human beings and on how we think of ourselves in relation to God, to other humans, and to the world around us than these verses from the creation account in Genesis 1. They have been quoted to defend views of human dignity, of the relationship between women and men, of human sexuality, and of the human role in nature. It is this last issue, the biblical assignment of dominion to humans in the natural world in Gen. 1:28, that I would like to take up and reconsider here. How are we to understand this definition of the human place in the world in an age of environmental {17} crisis for which humans themselves have been largely responsible?

Which theology of creation serves us best—
the dominion (Gen. 1) or dependence (Gen. 2) theology?

Let me begin with a few words about how these reflections are indebted to the work of Elmer Martens, to whom this volume is dedicated, and about how they may reflect the study of the Bible in a post modern world, the broad theme suggested for these essays. I would probably not be writing here at all were it not for my first class at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Elmer’s Introduction to the Old Testament. This was the experience that first really interested me in the literature and ideas of the Old Testament. I distinctly remember our introduction to the documentary hypothesis as one way of explaining the relationship between the creation account quoted above and the alternative account in Genesis 2, a hypothesis that I have taken more seriously, as can be seen below, than Elmer may have intended. The fault is mine, not his.

I do not know much about the post modern world; at least, I do not know how to talk about it very well in post modern language. But there are some emphases in recent interpretation, which appear to be part of the pantheon of post modern approaches, that are to some extent reflected in the observations on dominion theology in Gen. 1:28 that follow. The first is a concern for context, a very old idea in new dress. How does the context of the biblical writer—historical, political, social, economic—influence a text’s perspective, and how does the context of the reader—in all its various dimensions—influence the meaning discovered in the text? A second emphasis is an attention to power, that is, to the ways in which biblical texts might have legitimated and maintained certain kinds of social power in antiquity, and ways in which modern readers might interpret biblical texts to enhance their own power and privileges. A third emphasis is an interest in “decentering” the process of interpretation, an act that I take to be a willingness to step out of a position of privilege, to question the relationship between one’s interpretation and one’s own interests, and to consider the way a text might be read from a different perspective (The Bible and Culture Collective, 1995).


Of all biblical texts brought into discussions about the human place in nature, and about environmental values in the Bible and in Western religious traditions, none has been quoted more frequently and with more emotion than Gen. 1:28. And within this verse, no concept has been debated more fervently than the meaning of dominion. In my experience, dominion is the concept people are most familiar with and most curious about when the topic of the Bible and the environment is raised. For this very reason, so much has been written about it that I am a bit apologetic about taking the concept of dominion up again. Yet I do so for two reasons. In the first place, interpretations of dominion in Gen. 1:28 tend to be one-sided, arguing either that dominion is {18} a terribly dangerous idea legitimating exploitation of the environment (White 1967), or that it is a wholly admirable idea encouraging responsible care of creation (Anderson 1975, 1992); and I think more nuance is demanded by the text and its contexts, ancient and modern. In the second place, views of dominion in Gen. 1:28 are usually discussed in relative isolation from the ancient social context of Genesis 1 and from its larger canonical context in the Bible as a whole, both contexts that have much to add to our understanding of dominion theology in biblical thought.

The inescapable fact about the biblical term “dominion,” from the Hebrew verb radah, is that it grants humans the right and responsibility to rule, to govern the rest of creation. It establishes a hierarchy of power and authority in which the human race is positioned above the rest of the natural world. Such a conclusion is clear from the use of radah elsewhere in the Old Testament, where it is employed for the rule of the head of the house over household servants (Lev. 25:43) and of Solomon’s officers over his conscripted labor force (1 Kings 5:16 [Hebrew, 1 Kings 5:30]). On the international scene, radah is used for the rule of Israel’s king over Israel’s enemies (1 Kings 4:24 [Hebrew, 1 Kings 5:4]), or for the rule of Israel’s enemies over Israel itself (Lev. 26:17). In all cases, radah signifies the power, control, and authority of one individual or group over another.

The verb radah does not itself define how this dominion is to be exercised, whether benevolently or malevolently. The laws of Leviticus, when they stipulate that household servants are not to be “ruled” harshly (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53), imply that this kind of dominion may be kind and humane. Yet the use of radah in the context of international relations, where it is more commonly employed, carries a decidedly more antagonistic tinge, since it signifies rule over one’s enemies. It occurs frequently in descriptions of military conquest, where it is paired with such verbs as “destroy” (Num. 24:19) and “strike down” (Lev. 26:17; Isa. 14:6). When used of the Israelite king, radah always refers to dominion over his enemies, not to rule over his own Israelite subjects, for which the verb malak, “reign,” is the usual term.

Similar conclusions may be drawn about the phrase “subdue the earth” in Gen. 1:28. The verb “subdue,” from the Hebrew kavash, depicts a hierarchical relationship in which humans are positioned above the earth and are granted power and control over it. The verb kavash is even more forceful than radah, describing the actual act of subjugation, of forcing another into a subordinate position. It is used for military conquest, where the same phrase used in Gen. 1:28, “subdue the earth/land,” can be employed to depict the destruction and occupation of conquered territory (Num. 32:22, 29). It is also used of the king’s forcing his people into slavery against God’s wishes (Jer. 34:11, 16), and of rape (Esther 7:8; Neh. 5:5). In many of these cases, the abuse {19} of power is patently obvious.

I wish to return to the kind of dominion implied by the terms radah and kavash, but at this point I simply want to make the point that these terms clearly set up a hierarchy in which humans are placed above the rest of nature and regarded as having authority and control over it. Moreover, this conception that humans have a special status above the rest of creation appears to be corroborated by other details of the creation account in Genesis 1. While all other life originates within the sphere of the earth to which it is related—according to the divine command, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (Gen. 1:20), or “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind” (1:24; cf. 1:11-12)—humans do not originate in this way. They are created by God alone (1:26). Furthermore, and even more significant, humans alone among all forms of life are made in God’s image.

The entire picture of human beings in Gen. 1:28 in particular and in this creation account as a whole is one of power and authority. The human race is positioned at the top of a hierarchy of creation by virtue of its divine image and its divine mandate to rule over the earth and its life. There can be no doubt that Gen. 1:28 reflects an impressive theology of human dominion. The only real questions, to which I wish to turn now, are how this dominion theology was understood by biblical society and how it is to be understood by ours.


Helpful perspectives on the theology of dominion in Gen. 1:28 are provided by examining this verse within three of its contexts: the text in which it occurs, the social world of the text, and the canonical setting of the text, that is, its place within the Bible as a whole.

The text itself, that is, the larger creation account of which Gen. 1:28 is a part, has been the context to which most attention has been directed in an attempt to understand the fuller meaning of dominion theology. Within this textual context, several clues have been discovered suggesting that dominion was understood in it as benevolent rule characterized by restraint. One of these clues is the image of God itself, a feature of this account that emphasizes human distinctiveness and authority. Yet if the image of God means that humans have not a special essence but a special function or task, and if that special function is to act as God’s representative or authorized agent on earth, as some have claimed (Bird 1981, 137-44), then human rule is not absolute, but is to be carried out in accordance with the intention and design of the divine sovereign who delegated it. And if that divine sovereign exercises power benevolently as Genesis 1 in fact depicts God as doing—bringing all of life into existence, considering it all good, placing it all within a {20} harmonious ecosystem—then humans, as God’s representatives or agents, should exercise the power granted them in order to achieve the same ends. Such a concept of benevolent rule may be corroborated by comparing it to God’s commission to the heavenly bodies (Gen. 1:16-18). The sun and moon are given authority to rule the day and night—though here the verb is malak rather than radah—and this rule must be understood as rule exercised as an integral part of a harmonious natural system. Finally, human rule itself is limited by at least one important restraint: dominion over the animals does not include the right to kill and eat them (1:29-30). Before the flood, humans were given only plants for food (Gen. 9:1-7). The first humans were vegetarians.

These elements of the textual context of Gen. 1:28 have provided the basis for transforming a rather straightforward dominion theology into a stewardship theology. Rather than regarding the human being as the sovereign authority over creation, the human is seen as an agent or deputy, exercising only delegated power, and exercising it according to the life- giving designs of the creator God. Humans are still positioned above the rest of nature with authority over it, but they occupy this position as God’s “stewards,” a term that has been used more widely than any other by biblical scholars and theologians in recent years to describe humanity’s place in and responsibility for nature. Such a stewardship theology has come to define almost entirely the biblical position on environmental values (Hall 1990; Gore 1992, 167-81, 238-65).

There is much to be said for the stewardship interpretation of dominion theology, an understanding of dominion theology certainly closer to the biblical point of view than interpretations that see biblical dominion in Gen. 1:28 as unrestrained and exploitative. But this stewardship understanding of dominion theology is still too simple to do justice to the biblical perspective on dominion. This becomes clear when turning to the second context of Gen. 1:28, the social world of the text. Two observations are in order when looking at Gen. 1:28 from the perspective of its social world, observations which reemphasize the forcefulness of the concept of dominion but connect this emphasis with particular circumstances in the biblical world.

The first observation is about biblical society, namely that it was a society whose economy was largely based on subsistence agriculture. Such agriculture was preindustrial, without modern machinery, high-yield crop varieties, or chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, it was practiced on the rocky slopes of the biblical hill country and was completely dependent on rainfall, which in these hills is variable and unpredictable (Hopkins 1985). In such an environment, life is a constant struggle to survive, demanding extremely hard work to coax out of the rocky, hilly soil each year a tolerable {21} crop. Within this context, it is not difficult to understand how the human relationship with the earth could be viewed in adversarial terms, and how the human task of producing food could be regarded as overpowering the intractable ground, as gaining the upper hand over it, of “subduing (kavash) the earth,” in the words of Gen. 1:28. It is in this same context that we may also find the reason for the use of the verb radah, rather than the more common malak, for human rule over creation. The verb radah is most often used in the Bible for rule over enemies, and this may have been considered the appropriate nuance for human rule in creation, a creation that in the ancient, preindustrial agrarian society of the Mediterranean highlands was a kind of adversary that had to be subdued and controlled—overpowered, in a way—in order to survive at all.

This is a more forceful and raw reading of dominion in Gen. 1:28 than the stewardship interpretation of it. But it must be recognized that such a conception of dominion arises not out of a context of human power but out of a context of human powerlessness. For biblical society, the balance of power was decidedly in nature’s favor. This means that the dominion theology in this text could not have signified the kind of control of nature now possible after the industrial and technological revolutions. Such control was not even conceivable in antiquity, when humanity was viewed as essentially impotent before the vast powers of nature. This also means that the dominion theology in this text takes on an entirely new meaning when read by a twentieth century society in light of its new control and power over nature. And this in turn raises an important question for the modern reader: Is this image of dominion a legitimate and appropriate one for a society that sees itself as powerful rather than powerless, for a society whose sense of its own power is decidedly different from the biblical society within which this image of dominion arose?

Before responding directly to this question, one further aspect of the social context of Gen. 1:28 deserves examination. That is the social role of the priestly group considered by many to be responsible for the creation account in Genesis 1 (Coote and Ord 1991). The biblical record is quite clear that priests held a prestigious position in Israelite society. They are closely associated with kings and with royal authority (1 Kings 1:28-40). They are the leaders of Israel’s religious establishment and are regarded in Israel as the mediators of God’s presence to the people (Lev. 8-9). It may well be that this distinctive and preeminent role played by the priests in the social world of ancient Israel lies behind their conception of the preeminent role of the archetypal human in the world of creation as a whole. Thus the first human in the priestly account of creation in Genesis 1 is a kind of priestly figure representing the divine and mediating God’s rule.


If this is so, then the dominion theology in Gen. 1:28 has roots in the powerful social role its priestly authors held in their own society. And its conception of human authority over the world of nature reflects the priestly authority in the cult and society of biblical Israel. According to this line of analysis, the concept of dominion in Gen. 1:28 arises directly out of its author’s own position of power and authority. Such a suggestion appears to be in conflict with the analysis just undertaken of Israel’s agrarian society, where dominion theology was explained as arising out of the experience of powerlessness rather than out of the exercise of power. But this conflict is more apparent than real. Ancient Israel, together with its priests, lived in an era of human history in which humans were essentially powerless, having gained little control over the vast powers of nature. But there are different ways of responding within such a context. One, reflected in the priestly theology of Gen. 1:28, is to regard human survival as a struggle to be won by human dominion, by the subjugation and control of nature. That this is not the only way to respond becomes clear when we examine the dominion theology of Genesis 1 in its third context: the canon, the broader biblical setting within which it occurs.

What becomes clear immediately when we move out of Genesis 1— as soon as we read into Genesis 2, in fact—is that dominion theology is not the only theology of the human position in the world. There are distinctively different viewpoints in the rest of Scripture, but these have received only a fraction of the attention that the dominion theology of Genesis 1 has received. This is true partly because we usually read no further than Genesis 1 on the topic of creation in the Bible, and partly because, once armed with the concept of dominion from Genesis 1, we knowingly or unknowingly tend to harmonize other biblical commentary on creation with this conception. There are certainly other biblical texts that contain the same theology as Genesis 1, Psalm 8 being one of the best examples, but there are other theologies too. And in order properly to contextualize dominion in Gen. 1:28, at least one of these alternatives deserves a brief examination.

Genesis 2 contains what many biblical scholars have regarded as an alternative story of creation—not a continuation of the account of creation in Genesis 1 but a truly distinctive tradition about the origin of the world. In this tradition, the human being is positioned very differently within the world of nature. Here the archetypal human is made not in the image of God but out of topsoil, out of the arable land that was cultivated by Israelite farmers (Gen. 2:7). As a result of this kind of creation, humans hold no distinctive position among living beings, since plants and animals also were produced from this same arable soil (2:9, 19). Moreover, the role assigned humans within creation in this story is not to rule (radah) and to subdue (kavash) but rather to {23} “serve” (avad; Gen. 2:15; 3:23). The Hebrew term avad is properly translated “till” in these verses (NRSV), since it clearly refers to the cultivation of arable land. But avad is in fact the ordinary Hebrew verb “serve,” used of slaves serving masters and of humans serving God (Gen. 12:16; Exod. 4:23).

Thus Genesis 2 presents us with an alternative to the dominion theology of Genesis 1. Human beings are not created with special privilege or power. The first human is made of the same stuff, the arable soil of the biblical hill country, as are all of the other forms of life; and the divine breath blown into his nostrils is the same breath with which all the animals live and breathe (Gen. 2:7; 7:22). The language with which the role of the human in the earth is described is not the language of lordship but of servanthood. In this account of creation, the theology of the human place in creation is not a theology of dominion but a theology of dependence (Hiebert 1996). This theology too has representatives in other parts of Scripture, of which Psalm 104 and the Book of Job are two of the best examples (McKibben 1994).


When we look for theological resources in our Scriptural traditions in order to help us find a proper response to the environmental crisis, we are thus presented not with a single theology, the theology of dominion in Gen. 1:28 with which we must make do in one way or another; but rather we encounter other theologies as well, one of which is the contrasting theology of dependence in Genesis 2. To be responsible to Scripture we must take both of these theologies seriously. But how is this to be done in our particular time? Are both equally relevant or irrelevant to a highly urban, industrialized, technological society in ecological trouble? Or is one or the other a more appropriate theology for the twentieth century? In conclusion, let me offer two personal responses to these questions, not to resolve them but to provoke further thought.

First, there may be some merit in preserving in our age both theologies, just as they were once preserved in the biblical era. Between them they capture the paradox of human existence. On the one hand, we believe ourselves, as does Genesis 1, to be particularly ingenious and powerful among all forms of life, a belief that has been realized in the twentieth century like never before by our new ability to control nature for good or for ill. We have the ability to enhance human health and longevity, and also the ability to destroy the human race entirely with nuclear armaments and wastes. In such a context, it seems reasonable—even necessary— to fashion a theology of human power exercised benevolently for the good of creation, that is, a dominion theology in a stewardship mold which many have seen in Genesis 1.

On the other hand, we know ourselves as humans, as does Genesis 2, to {24} be only a single species in a large and complex web of life we do not entirely understand and can never really control. The web of life functioned beautifully without us before we arrived as humans in the very last fraction of creative time, and it would do fine—much, much better in the last 100 years—without us. Our only hope of survival, in fact, is in recognizing our dependence on this web of life and adapting our behavior to conform to the process created into it and to the demands it makes upon us. In such a context, it seems reasonable—even necessary—to fashion a theology of human dependence, like that in Genesis 2, in which we conceive our responsibility as one of service within the world of God’s creation.

Of these two biblical perspectives, the dependence theology of Genesis 2 deserves special attention in our age. This is so, in the first place, because it is the aspect of biblical theology and of our own self-understanding that has been most neglected in recent years. Almost all of the discussions of the Bible and the environment have focused on the dominion theology of Gen. 1:28 and on how it can best be understood and most responsibly practiced. And this, at best, is only half of the biblical and human story.

Special attention to the dependence theology of Genesis 2 is important, in the second place, because our greatest temptation as individuals and as a race is to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. Indeed, it may not be an oversimplification to say that it is just such a proud and self-centered perspective that has allowed us to exploit nature for our ends and has brought upon us the ecological crisis we now face. Perhaps what is most needed in our day is not a new view of power, a sanctified dominion theology, but rather a new humility, a new sense of our dependence upon the larger realm of creation. Perhaps what is needed in our day is a new “decentering” by which we read our texts and our lives from the point of view of the whole creation rather than from our human perspective alone. Only then may we be able to take the serious steps necessary to conform our styles of life to the needs of the entire creation upon which our survival on this earth depends.


  • Anderson, Bernhard W. “Human Dominion over Nature.” In Biblical Studies in Contemporary Thought. Ed. Miriam Ward, p. 27-45. Burlington, VT: The Institute, 1975.
  • ______———. “Subdue the Earth”: What Does It Mean? Bible Review 4 (1992): 10. {25}
  • Bible and Culture Collective. The Postmodern Bible. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1995.
  • Bird, Phyllis A. “ ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen. 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation.” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 129-59.
  • Coote, Robert B., and David Robert Ord. In the Beginning: Creation and the Priestly History. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg/Fortress, 1991.
  • Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1992.
  • Hall, Douglas John. The Steward: A Biblical Symbol Come of Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990.
  • Hiebert, Theodore. The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Hopkins, David C. The Highlands of Canaan: Agricultural Life in the Early Iron Age. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1985.
  • McKibben, Bill. The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.
  • White, Lynn Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.
Theodore Hiebert, challenged and mentored as a seminary student by Elmer Martens, is currently Professor of Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.

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