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The Meaning of Dominion

“Dominion” is better conceived as the human exercise of skilled mastery among our fellow creatures, with special reference to perpetuating food security for all.

Edward Hicks
Edward Hicks

The notion that God intends humans to “have dominion over” other living things (Gen 1:26, Gen 1:28) rightly makes many readers of the Hebrew Bible uncomfortable, knowing as we do the abuses that notion has seemed to lead to in the modern period. Human activity is a key factor in the currently galloping rate of species extinction. The factory farming of animals and fish is a major driver of environmental degradation in North America and, increasingly, around the world—not to mention the suffering of creatures who live out their short, unhealthy lives in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Certainly this kind of “dominion”—more honestly termed “domination”—is unlike anything the biblical writers (or their premodern readers) could have imagined. Yet unquestionably the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible takes a “special species” perspective with respect to humans; three times we are told that humans (only) are made “in the image of God.” In order to understand what that special role might entail, we need to consider both the wording and the immediate literary context of the key phrase that appears alongside it and is normally rendered, “have dominion over.”  

The common translation “have dominion over” is problematic, above all because “dominion” is so readily confused with “domination.” Since the Renaissance, Gen 1:26 has frequently been invoked in the West to support the project of “conquering,” “commanding,” or “enslaving” nature through scientific and technological means. Another difficulty with the common translation is that the Hebrew phrase (radah b-) includes a preposition that is in most cases not equivalent to the English preposition “over.” A more satisfactory translation of that crucial verse might be “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, so they may exercise skilled mastery among [or, with respect to] the fish of the sea and among the birds of the air.”  These are the same creatures that were specially blessed by God—“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22)—on the fifth day of creation, before humans were created. We fulfill our role in the created order only when we recognize our responsibility to help perpetuate other creatures’ fruitfulness.

Although Genesis does not specify what exactly the exercise of skilled mastery entails, an important clue appears in the immediately following verses (Gen 1:29-30). The chapter is otherwise terse, but it goes into surprising detail as God describes the ample food available for every living being. There are grains and fruit trees for humans and herbage for the nonhuman creatures—vegan food chains in a world where no blood has yet been shed! We can infer that the human role is to live in such a way as to honor this divinely ordained, secure food supply. This is a sobering view of human “dominion,” in this age of habitat destruction and extinction, when countless species are dying off precisely because human activity has disrupted their food chains.

  • Ellen F. Davis

    Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School. Her research interests focus on how biblical interpretation bears on the life of faith communities and their responses to urgent public issues, particularly the environmental crisis and interfaith relations. Her most recent book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2009), integrates biblical studies with a critique of industrial agriculture and food production.