Genesis 1: Critique (ii)

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I wrote in my previous post about how Genesis 1, with its picture of human beings as the ‘crown and culmination’ of creation, carries within itself a temptation to indulge in human “exceptionalism” – the belief that we’re categorically or essentially different from all other animals, and that we’re the ultimate ‘kings of the castle’. Genesis 1 was, of course, originally written in Hebrew, so we should give consideration to some of the words the authors or editors have chosen to use, even though others were available to them.

In verse 26, God says “Let us make human beings in our image, in accordance with our likeness.” This making of humans in the likeness of gods is immediately linked to the intention that they should “rule over the whole Earth and ever living creature on it.” The word for “rule over” is the verb ‘radah’ which means ‘to tread down (as in a wine press); to have dominion, to rule, to dominate’. This is a strong word. Humans are to be the masters, and all other living creatures the mastered. 

In verse 28, the above reading is reinforced when God instructs humans to “fill the Earth and subjugate it.” The word for “subjugate” is ‘kabash’, which means ‘to subject, to make subservient’ and, in the book of Esther 7:8, ‘to violate, to rape’. This is followed by the repeated command to “rule over .. every living creature” exactly as in verse 26 above. These are rather embarrassing words, which need not have been chosen. They cause many commentators to work hard at softening or counter-balancing their forcefulness, but there they are, on the page to see, for anyone armed with a Hebrew Bible and lexicon. Sadly, irrespective of the debatable extent to which they share responsibility for it, they do describe the way we humans far too often behave towards our fellow creatures as well as this planet, which is our only home.

As I pointed out in my previous post, we humans are very much the world’s johnny-come-lately’s, who inherited a very liveable-in environment, thanks to the contribution and interaction of all the species which lived on this planet for the three and a half billion years before us. Many of the few remaining species which helped shape our planet are increasingly disappearing from it in growingly shameful numbers. Due to our reckless and selfish greed and wastefulness, our planet’s natural resources ‘cupboard’ is being steadily emptied, especially the fossil fuel section, even though, for the foreseeable future, there’s no nearby cosmic ‘shop’ to provide fresh supplies. We’re in the habit of criticising fellow humans who trash an inheritance, and yet we are, at the same time, behaving in the very same way.

What a grotesque tragedy if we, the supposed ‘kings of the castle’, are the very ones who bring it crashing down in ruins, taking our blameless fellow creatures along with us. Instead of ‘subjugating’, ‘violating’ and ‘raping’, we need to rapidly rediscover what it means, and costs, to care for our world. We need to ‘muck in’ together with our microbial, plant and animal fellow beings, to begin to halt and reverse the damage, and to rebuild what still remains. Then, perhaps, like the God of Genesis 1, we might one day be able to look back at all we had managed to achieve, and see “that it was very good”. If only ….

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