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What is the significance of God giving mankind dominion over the earth?

One reader wrote in, “My niece recently came home from her first year of college. At our annual family celebration of Memorial Day in Cape May she did not eat any hamburgers or hot dogs, but instead brought veggie burgers. We got into a discussion about her new lifestyle. I was saying that it could not be wrong for us to eat meat because God gave us dominion over the earth and its animals, as it says in the book of Genesis. My niece agreed with me, but said that just because we have dominion over something does not mean that we can treat that thing any way we want. For example, I have dominion over my house, but it would be wrong for me, and ungodly of me, to let it go into disrepair out of laziness. Though at the end of the day I think it is ok for us to eat meat, I have started to rethink the morality of factory farms.

Anyway, my real question is not about cows and pigs. This issue also made me think about our relationship to the Neanderthals some 40,000 years ago. Scientists tell us that the Neanderthals are not Humans, but they are very similar to humans and lived at the same time and even crossed paths with us. Did God give us dominion over the Neanderthals in the same way as other land animals? If so, do you think the appropriate treatment of the Neanderthals by us would have been different in God’s eyes than the appropriate treatment of cows and pigs?”

Since I see two questions here (one related to dietary restrictions and the way that we care for the world and the other related to the Neanderthal comment), my plan is to break it into two weeks. This week I will answer the question, “What does it mean that God gave mankind dominion over the earth?”

When God gave humanity dominion over animals, they did not eat meat. The process of eating meat did not begin until after the Flood (Genesis 9:1–3). After that point in time, God “gave” animals to humans to eat (if they so desire). So, clearly, dominion doesn’t mean “have a BBQ.” What does it mean?

In Genesis 1:26, God, after creating mankind, delegates authority to him to have dominion. This word, dominion, strongly means to rule or have power over. This is reinforced in Genesis 1:28 were God said that humanity was to subdue the earth.

The picture that we have here is that humanity, uniquely (as compared to aardvarks or bumblebees), is placed in a leadership role over the earth. God rules man. Man rules the earth, and as mankind is subject to God, the world is subjugated to humanity.

Biblically, we refer to this idea as stewardship or management. God’s command to subdue the earth does not, necessarily, mean to “do whatever you want with it” as many have argued. On the contrary, scholars have suggested that a more accurate translation of Adam being placed in the garden to work and to keep it might be to protect and to serve it.

As parents, you are stewards before God of your children. You have dominion over them as they lay on their backs and kick their feet at the ripe age of 2 months, but not a single person I know would argue that means you can do whatever you want to them! Having received this stewardship from God, we count it a privilege and care for our children. If a parent fails to do this, we feel as though this stewardship responsibility should be legally stripped from them.

This is to say that with the authority to rule comes the responsibility to rule well. We have the right to rule, but we do so under God. We answer to him for how we rule. Subdue, which can also be translated as cultivate, implies caring.

Having dominion over animals and the earth alike should prompt with in us responsibility. We should value them as a resource. Our job is to represent God to the world, to care for his creation. When we abuse his creation, are we accurately reflecting him? I don’t think so.

So, are we allowed to eat meat? Yes. Should we empower cruel and inhumane practices? No, I don’t think that we should. Is it biblical to think about and strive for sustainable, environmentally responsible methods of agriculture and so on and so forth? Absolutely.

The line, I think, that is crossed by some environmentalists is all about maintaining proper perspective. We are subject to God and the earth is subject to us. When we start valuing the earth over people or start elevating to the level of God, then I think we are treading on dangerous ground.

Care for the earth, yes, but do it as an act of worship to the One who created it!