Script Out Texts: Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion




Hespeler, 11 October, 2015 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 1:26-2:3, Mark 10:35-45, Psalm 24
     There is so much that is so right about the Harvest Festival of Thanksgiving. It is a day to be thankful, but thankful in very particular ways. We especially focus on the good things that are provided to us by the earth itself – the fruits and vegetables, the bountiful harvest, the grain, the meat and the wonderful foods that we can create when we put them all together.

      It is good to be thankful for these things because they are good things provided for our blessing. And, yes, one of the ways in which we connect to our thankfulness for these things can be by overindulging in them. I don’t know about you, but I fully intend to express my thankfulness specifically for turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy in some very concrete ways when I gather with my family at my sister’s place tomorrow. These things are not just given for our sustenance but also so that we might rejoice in abundance.
      So it is all good, but is there not also a potential dark side to the notion of these things having been provided for us. God’s gift of all these things for our benefit is described to us in that famous passage in Genesis that we read this morning. God has been busy creating the world and on the sixth day he comes to what humans call the great climax of his work of creation – the creation of humanity. (Of course, if you asked the fish, for example, what they thought was the most important day of creation, they might have a different answer!)
      Anyway, on the sixth day, God creates people: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” And to these newly made people God gives a very interesting command: “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.”
      Now, people have been reading that particular verse of scripture for a long time. And, for most of that time, they have seen that verse as being very positive. After all, for most of human history, the world has been a pretty scary and dangerous place. The world seemed to be out to get us. We were hunted by terrible beasts. There was constant danger of starvation and disease. The earth itself seemed to be an enemy that had to be defeated and subdued.
      And so that is what we set out to do – to tame the world, to dominate it and to reshape it to suit our own needs and desires. And, folks, we’ve been hugely successful at it. We’ve gotten very efficient at finding the earth’s resources, extracting them and using them to make life comfortable and productive and profitable to suit ourselves.
      But there’s a problem. As we have grown and developed as a human race, we have grown more and more efficient at dominating the earth until today we are without any doubt and question the most dominant species on the planet. Just about everything that lives on this planet is directly impacted by human activity in one way or another. You might even say that that command given by God in the first chapter of Genesis, “fill the earth and subdue it,” has finally been fulfilled in our own time.
      But, just when we’re finally dominating the earth so much, we suddenly begin to realize that this might not really be such a good thing as we once thought. Sure we can extract the many riches from the earth, but such mining can take a terrible toll. Huge territories are devastated and the wildlife they support are killed. We show our mastery and ingenuity by doing such things as extracting the crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands, clear-cutting old growth forests, damming mighty rivers and even harnessing the energy found in an atom. Pretty powerful stuff, but a lot of it has negative impacts on the natural environment – entire lakes poisoned by tailings from the mines, species pushed into extinction by the loss of habitat and so much carbon dioxide being pumped into the air that it is actually changing the climate of an entire planet.
      And when we raise objections to all this devastation, what is the response? The Christian answer seems to be, “Well, what are you going to do? We’re only doing what we were told to do – we are subduing the earth and exercising our dominion. This is war, us against the earth – that is the language that is used in Genesis, after all – and in a war there are always casualties and collateral damage.”
      That is why a lot of people aren’t so happy with this particular verse from Genesis. And I must confess that there are times when I am one of those unhappy people. It seems to be a part of the problem. And the ironic thing is that this verse, that once gave humanity the attitude and approach that allowed us to survive on this planet, may end up destroying us. What if we end up dominating the earth to such an extent that it becomes no longer able to sustain human life? That is what Stephen Hawking warned about a few years ago. He said that, unless human beings are able to colonize other planets (which may well be impossible) we may find ourselves trapped on an unliveable planet. And I’ve heard that Stephen Hawking is a pretty smart guy. So maybe it would be better for all of us if this verse wasn’t in the Bible at all.
      But wait, before we just get rid of it, maybe we had better ask if we’ve really understood it and applied it like we should. Let’s look at the verse in its context. This command to subdue is but one small part of a much longer tale of creation. In the seven-day narrative, God’s work is portrayed not so much as creating things out of nothing – although he does do that too – but God’s more important task seems to be to impose an order on all that exists.
      On day one God creates light and then very carefully separates it from the darkness. God then spends the next two days sorting out the water – separating the water above from the water below, the water on this side from the water on that. Then God creates the sun, stars and planets. And these, we are told, he puts there to regulate the flow of the times and the seasons. Then it’s onto the creation of the animals. But the animals too are very carefully sorted out as they are created. As it is repeated again and again that each animal is made, “according to its kind.”
      So, basically, the picture we get of the Creator in these opening pages of the Bible is of a God who is imposing order on a chaotic universe – putting everything in its proper place, carefully balancing opposites of light and dark, water and land. It is as much an act of subjugation and dominion as it is of creation as God’s divine order is imposed on all that is made. And it is in this context that we must understand God’s command to the newly minted humans to subdue the earth. Basically, God is telling them to continue the work that God has begun. They are to rule in order to keep things sorted and balanced out.
      But, if that is the real intention of this command, then it means something quite different from, “Go out and rape the earth and make sure that you rip all of the wealth that you can out of it, no matter how much destruction you may cause.” It is a call to exercise leadership, certainly, but not the kind of leadership that we usually seem to find at the head of some corporation where they are willing to do whatever it takes to create more shareholder value. God seems, indeed, to be talking about the same kind of leadership that Jesus called his disciples to exercise: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” If God gave us dominion over the earth, the intention was not that we would simply exploit it for our own ends but rather that we would serve all creation and protect it from harm as much as we can.
      So I think that we have failed to understand this passage because we have failed to understand exactly what kind of dominion and subjugation God is talking about. God is talking about servant leadership and we have been thinking about exploitative leadership. No wonder we are having so many troubles.
      But there is something else – something deeper – about this story that we have also failed to understand. I have said already that most people who read this story conclude that the great climax of the story comes on the sixth day with the creation of humanity. But that is just a plain wrong conclusion. The climax of this story doesn’t come on the sixth day, it comes on the seventh. That is what this whole story of creation is about – that is why it is set up as a seven-day story in the first place. The whole point is to get you to the seventh day when you can experience rest and Sabbath.
      You don’t understand the point of creation when you get to day six and humanity is handed dominion over the earth. That’s just a step on the path. You only understand it when you get to day seven and you discover in the rest what God’s plans for the universe really are. The whole idea of the Sabbath is that you can at last have a day when you experience life as it should be.
      In other words, what I’m trying so say is that “fill the earth and subdue it” is not the Bible’s final word on our relationship with the environment. Sabbath is the final word. Yes, we as human beings are likely never going to stop exploiting this earth for our own profits in some ways. But we must never forget that we are called, I would suggest even more forcefully, to let the earth rest and regenerate. This was always part of God’s creation plan. And maybe if we learned this, the world would just be so much more sustainable over the long haul.
      So, I don’t know. I’m not quite ready to script out this passage. It may just have some real wisdom for us if we look in the right places. I also rather like reading it on Thanksgiving Sunday because I think that the distinction between exploiting the earth to get all of the profit out of it that we can stands out in sharp contrast to an attitude of thankfulness for all that we may receive. On this Sabbath Sunday and on the day of rest that I hope most of us also get tomorrow, let us remember the power of a thankful attitude as we offer both to the world and to ourselves some genuine rest in gratitude.

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