Note: The new book Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life publishes papers delivered at colloquia that were held by the Oikonomia Network in 2019. This innovative, cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration is now available in an inexpensive paperback. This is an excerpt from a chapter in the book; footnotes have been omitted.
As I have argued elsewhere, the account of humanity’s creation in the image of God in Genesis 1:26-28 is specifically crafted to lead the reader to conclude that God’s intended outcome, his purpose for creating humanity in his image, was to create flourishing communities, not just flourishing individuals. The cultural or creation mandate as it has been called – God’s command to be fruitful, multiply, fill and subdue the earth, and to rule over the living things on the earth – is rightly seen as a command to fulfill God’s intention. Humanity is to fill the earth and bring about flourishing. God created us in his image for this very purpose.
But how are we to flourish in the presence of sin? What role, if any, does the mandate which flows from our creation in God’s image, play in our flourishing in the presence of sin? Traditionally, the creation mandate has been mined for flourishing with regard to stewarding the world’s resources, and with regard to culture and the structures of civilization. When issues related to sin are dealt with in this traditional approach, the role of the mandate is to remind us that God’s world is still good, and that we can direct our stewardship of natural resources and cultural structures towards God in worship. That the world will be redeemed and our relationship with creation will be restored as part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption is also typically included, but only from the larger narrative arc of scripture, not from the mandate itself.
These are fine approaches which are very valuable, and which serve as trustworthy guides to our interaction with God’s creation. Yet, it seems that this approach has potentially misunderstood one element of the creation mandate, the command to subdue the earth.
Trouble in Paradise?
This command, along with the command to rule over the creation, has been perceived as problematic for some time now. Some even question whether flourishing is really the intention of the creation mandate. The presence of the terms רדה (exercise dominion, reign, rule) and כבשׁ (subdue) have caused great concern that the mandate in Genesis 1 is a license for humanity to exploit the earth and abuse others. Far from being a mandate to flourish it is seen as an authorization for selfishness and brutality.
This view does not fit the literary context of the command, nor subsequent uses of כבשׁ in the Old Testament. Humanity is not given “absolute or independent power; he was to govern as the viceroy and regent of the One in whose image he was created.” [Daniel I. Block, “Eden: A Temple?” p. 5.] It is clear from Genesis 1 that God’s intention in creation was to provide for the needs of the creatures he made. He designed creation to flourish and he blessed it. In light of this account of creation, if humanity is to represent God, then they must represent his care for creation. Further, if they are to reign as God’s representative then they exercise a beneficent reign like his.
Like many aspects of the creation story in Genesis 1-2 the mandate is told twice. The first instance in Genesis 1.26, preceding the creation of humanity, uses only the royal term רדה, to rule. In the second instance, the mandate is expanded. In Genesis 1:28, the giving of the mandate is preceded by the act of blessing and the mandate is given in greater detail. Not only is humanity to rule (רדה) all living things and the earth itself, but humanity is also to subdue (כבשׁ) the earth. If we explore the term רדה, which seems to be the more general category for humanity’s prescribed role, we find strong evidence to support the contention that humanity’s representational reign should be caring and constructive, not domineering and destructive. Leviticus 25:43 specifically contrasts harsh rule over another with the character of YHWH. Furthermore, the “reigning king of Psalm 72 is also the champion of the poor and the disadvantaged. What is expected of the king is responsible care over that which he rules . . . Man is created to rule. But this rule is to be compassionate and not exploitative.” [Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, p. 138.]
The question of כבשׁ (subdue) is more difficult, as this term denotes more force than רדה and it assumes some level of hostility between the subduer and the one subdued. It can used for subjugating someone in war, into slavery or for assaulting someone. This is the harder term as it seems to assume conflict and conquest. So how would this fit in the idyllic world of the creation mandate and how does it relate to ability to flourish in the midst of sin?
The Meaning of Subdue
Although it is possible to read כבשׁ in light of the beneficent nature of רדה, or to see it as subduing the land agriculturally as Hamilton does, it seems more likely that “subdue” is added in light of the conflict in the garden that will come in Genesis 3. As I will demonstrate in the survey below, there is no lexical evidence to soften the force of “subdue,” and the idea of subjugating the land agriculturally does not fit with the usage of כבשׁ in the Hebrew text or extra-biblical texts. So what does it mean to subdue the earth? The textual and theological usage of subdue in the Old Testament suggests that rather than subduing the earth, through use of its resources or agriculture, the intended meaning of this portion of the mandate is the subduing of the inhabitants of the earth. As we shall, see this makes perfect sense in the pre-curse garden where the serpent comes to tempt Adam and Eve to rebel against God. The conflict intimated by כבשׁ is needed even in the garden once sin is present. This is not license for harshness or violence, but rather the just force needed to protect the earth and its inhabitants, and to exercise the representative reign for which humanity was created….
The Creation Mandate, Flourishing, and Justice
If the reading I have suggested above is accepted, it would entail that flourishing and justice are part and parcel of the creation mandate. Humanity’s rule is designed to facilitate flourishing and to enact justice. Any attempt to separate the two will fail as it will not fully reflect humanity’s mandate, abandoning humanity’s creation in the image of God as the basis for both flourishing and justice.
As I attempted to move from this reading of the creation mandate to our contemporary context, it seemed clear that there are several elements of the narrative we must attend to if we want to arrive at valid definitions of flourishing and justice that are truly reflective God’s design and are operative in our post-Genesis 3 world.
From Genesis 1-2 we must maintain the priority of the image of God and we must maintain that our creation in the image is just that, our creation. We must apply the dignity and honor of being created in the image both to ourselves and to others. It must apply to me and to you if we are both to flourish and if there is to be justice for both of us. It is the image which most fundamentally binds us together as humans.
Following on from our creation in the image of God, we must recognize that flourishing and justice must both be communal and cooperative. Humanity is designed to function communally and cooperatively. This means that conceptions of flourishing or justice that are individualistic either in origin or implementation are not aligned with our creation mandate.
Flourishing and justice inherently involve economics. True human flourishing is more than economics and advancement. It includes a right relationship with God, healthy relationships with others, and a God-honoring relationship with the creation itself. Without each of these there may be glimpses of flourishing, an echo of the goodness seen in God’s intent for humanity, but not true flourishing. Yet, human flourishing is not less than economics.
If you will permit a brief foray into the New Testament, notice how Jesus weaves together these ideas in the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not be anxious . . . but seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:25-33). What are “these things” to which he refers? – our lives, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear. It is not the case that these are unimportant things, that they are excluded from the flourishing life of the kingdom. Far from that, we ought not worry about them because our Father knows our needs, and just as he cares about the intimate details of the animal world we are to oversee, so, too, he cares for us. Yet, the most important thing is to pursue our relationship with him, the kingdom and his righteousness. To put it in Genesis terms, we need to realize he is our creator and we are made in his image, and now we are recreated, born again in Christ. That is foundational to the activities and needs of flourishing that are found in the mandate’s commands. So flourishing in both the Old and New Testaments is more than economics, but it is not less than that.
Justice clearly involves economics, though it, too, cannot be reduced simply to economics. It must include the rule of law and a just society as exemplified in the instruction God gave to Israel. It must also involve the protection of the most vulnerable as seen in the laws against unjust judges, false witnesses, and favoritism. Justice must be pursued and maintained personally, interpersonally, and societally. In each of these contexts, sin must be subdued. Ultimately justice involves both judgment and salvation, though intermediate forms of both salvation and judgment may often fall far short of what we rightly expect in the fullness of the coming kingdom.
Defining Flourishing and Justice
God created humanity in his image so that we might be enabled to carry out his mandate to rule over and to subdue the earth. These two commands represent his express intention for humanity to flourish, to live in and rule the world as his royal representatives. In our own small ways we are to create and order the world for the benefits of its inhabitants in line with the example we have from God. Rightly related to him and to each other we flourish communally and cooperatively as we live out the mandate in our personal lives, in our interactions with those closest to us, and societally as our communities work in complementary and cooperative fashion to build God’s good world.
Where sin threatens, we are mandated to subdue it. We are to subdue it in ourselves, lest it rule over us. We are called to subdue it in one another lest we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to subdue it communally as society confronts the lawbreaker, protects the vulnerable, and ensures a truly just system that is founded on the very person of God as we see in the law’s refrain “because I am YHWH.”