Dominion (Genesis 1:26; 2:5)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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To work in God’s image is to exercise dominion (Genesis 1:26)

Creation and Creativity

In this article, Theology of Work Project Biblical Studies editor Sean McDonough explores what it means to exercise dominion in God's image, rather than domination.

A consequence we see in Genesis of being created in God’s image is that we are to “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” (Gen. 1:26). As Ian Hart puts it, "Exercising royal dominion over the earth as God's representative is the basic purpose for which God created man.... Man is appointed king over creation, responsible to God the ultimate king, and as such expected to manage and develop and care for creation, this task to include actual physical work."[1] Our work in God’s image begins with faithfully representing God.

As we exercise dominion over the created world, we do it knowing that we mirror God. We are not the originals but the images, and our duty is to use the original—God—as our pattern, not ourselves. Our work is meant to serve God’s purposes more than our own, which prevents us from domineering all that God has put under our control.

Think about the implications of this in our workplaces. How would God go about doing our job? What values would God bring to it? What products would God make? Which people would God serve? What organizations would God build? What standards would God use? In what ways, as image-bearers of God, should our work display the God we represent? When we finish a job, are the results such that we can say, “Thank you, God, for using me to accomplish this?”

God equips people for the work of dominion (Genesis 2:5)

The cycle begins again with dominion, although it may not be immediately recognizable as such. "No plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground" (Gen. 2:5; emphasis added). The key phrase is “there was no one to till the ground.” God chose not to bring his creation to a close until he created people to work with (or under) him. Meredith Kline puts it this way, "God's making the world was like a king's planting a farm or park or orchard, into which God put humanity to 'serve' the ground and to 'serve' and 'look after' the estate."[2]

Thus the work of exercising dominion begins with tilling the ground. From this we see that God's use of the words subdue[3] and dominion in chapter 1 do not give us permission to run roughshod over any part of his creation. Quite the opposite. We are to act as if we ourselves had the same relationship of love with his creatures that God does. Subduing the earth includes harnessing its various resources as well as protecting them. Dominion over all living creatures is not a license to abuse them, but a contract from God to care for them. We are to serve the best interests of all whose lives touch ours; our employers, our customers, our colleagues or fellow workers, or those who work for us or who we meet even casually. That does not mean that we will allow people to run over us, but it does mean that we will not allow our self-interest, our self-esteem, or our self-aggrandizement to give us a license to run over others. The later unfolding story in Genesis focuses attention on precisely that temptation and its consequences.

Today we have become especially aware of how the pursuit of human self-interest threatens the natural environment. We were meant to tend and care for the garden (Gen. 2:15). Creation is meant for our use, but not only for our use. Remembering that the air, water, land, plants, and animals are good (Gen. 1:4-31) reminds us that we are meant to sustain and preserve the environment. Our work can either preserve or destroy the clean air, water, and land, the biodiversity, the ecosystems, and biomes, and even the climate with which God has blessed his creation. Dominion is not the authority to work against God’s creation, but the ability to work for it.