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Created for Creation

By Dr. Steve Bishop

Recently I heard Fr. Richard Rohr describe his earliest formation experiences in Franciscan spirituality. As a novice he was told to write inside his books “ad usum Friar Alexander”, that is, ‘for the use of Friar Alexander’ (Fr. Richard’s adopted name). At the beginning of his formation he was taught that nothing belonged to him, it was simply entrusted to him for his use. Everything in our life, from the air we breathe to the book we read, is on loan for our use. This truth is expressed succinctly in Psalm 24 “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

In the first creation account (Genesis 1) humanity is given a charge by the Divine Council to act as co-regents with the Divine in caring for the earth and all that is in it. When Elohim says to the Divine Council, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” the words used are suggestive of idols and icons. Yet, on further examination, it is also the language of offspring, so used by the biblical writer in Genesis 5:3, “When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.” This language of Divine and human parentage is further extended in the Royal Coronation Psalm 2 when God says to the newly enthroned king, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”

In Genesis 1:26 Elohim expresses the desire or intention that humans, yet to be created, have ‘dominion’ over all life in the air, water, and land, that is, the creaturely world just created. As ‘images’ of the Divine humans are created with an express intention of exercising ‘dominion’ or ‘rule’ of all other creatures of the earth. In verse 28 the desire becomes command, indicated by the use of the imperative voice. In this context, four imperatives are given by Elohim to the humans: be fruitful, multiply, fill, and subdue.

It is the fourth imperative that has caused many interpreters to trade the world of the text for a more benign understanding of ‘subdue’. The fifteen occurrences of the verb ‘subdue’ and its derivative in the Old Testament all involve some type of violence. The connotations range from ‘rape’ in Esther to conquest of the Canaanites and forced servitude in Nehemiah. That this word could somehow project an ethos of conservation appears contrary to the textual witness. Is the text then approving a literal abuse of the earth, as we are engaged in now? I don’t think so.

In its context the command to ‘subdue’ is fourth in a string of imperatives, the first three of which have to do with procreation. Using the literary technique of parallelism, the biblical writer is expanding on this command by joining it with “fill the land”, in the same way that ‘fruitful’ and ‘multiply’ are joined to expand the idea of populating the land. ‘Subduing’ (or ‘conquering’—Robert Alter’s translation) must be read in relation to ‘filling’. In an ancient context the earth (eretz), or more properly the land, is not viewed as a willing partner in the domestication of life. Pursuing the technologies of agriculture or mining or foresting will require humans to exert force to control or master their environment. This is not a command to abuse but a command that reflects the harsh realities of survival in the ancient world. To fulfill Elohim’s intention of ‘dominion’ and ‘rule’ humanity must take an active or assertive role, for the ancients this work was viewed as contentious. The imperative commands cannot be realized if humans are passive.

Just as Elohim exercised their will in bringing order out of chaos, so too, as ‘images’ of the Divine, humans must exercise their will. Seen at its broadest, the command to use ‘positive will’ in their function as the representatives of Deity on earth, the human expression of will should correspond to that of the Divine who can declare that each outcome of creating is ‘good’. Humans are to fulfill their divine imitation in creating new technologies of survival that preserve the goodness of the primeval creation. If they mar and destroy or selfishly indulge their desires to the detriment of that for which they have been created to oversee, then they fail the original intention of their Divine likeness.

If we are to be stewards of the original imperatives, then we must strive with all our will to live fully into reflecting or ‘imaging’ the Divine by insuring our work for survival on the ‘land’ culminates in the declaration that our oversight is ‘very good’.

What are you doing today to insure your oversight of the ‘land’ is very good?
How do you reflect your ‘image and likeness’ in the use and conservation of resources?
What feeling arises when you know that we are all created to represent the Divine to the rest of creation?

This fall, Sowing Holy Question will explore questions of stewardship, reflecting theologically on practical decisions about money, possessions, ecology and our connection to God’s creation.

Dr. Steven Bishop, associate professor of Old Testament, came to the Seminary of the Southwest in 2004 from the Boston area, where he earned three graduate degrees and taught at several universities. Formerly an ordained minister of the Church of Christ, he served churches in Texas and Massachusetts before beginning graduate studies in the early 1990s. Dr. Bishop’s academic interests include the poetry of the Hebrew Bible and literary translations of it into English, and the influence of Hellenistic thought on Hebrew wisdom literature. In addition to writing book reviews and presenting scholarly papers, Dr. Bishop assisted the well-known Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson in editing and revising two books: Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today and Contours of Old Testament Theology. Dr. Bishop worked again with Anderson as an editor and contributor for the fifth edition of Understanding the OldTestament, published in spring 2006. In 2015, Dr. Bishop was elected to the steering committee of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars.


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