Permaculture and Dominion: An Unlikely Love Story
David R. Weiss – July 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #32 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
This is my fifth and, for the time being, final essay on the biblical creation narratives (the others are GIT 27, 28, 29, 30). These origin tales from our distant religious roots don’t offer perfect ecological wisdom. They grew out of a culture and worldview already knocked askew by patriarchy. But they harbor wisdom born of a relationship more attuned to both the divine and the mundane than is common today. And the power we often borrow from them to fuel our domination of the planet comes to us only by misreading the terms and ignoring the distance between their context and ours.
So, dominion. The word (in Hebrew rahad) appears in Genesis 1:26-28, where it describes the relationship God sets us in with respect to the rest of creation. But wait. This account—like all Scripture—does NOT objectively record God’s actions or inclinations. To say these verses report “the relationship God sets us in …” is accurate enough of the words themselves, but hardly sound as theology. Truer to say: in these verses an ancient Hebrew storyteller imagines God setting humans in such relationship. Theology is always expressive of decidedly human imagination, and to do theology responsibly always involves a readiness to critique that imagination.
Still, if there there’s a blank check in the biblical creation accounts, whether from God or from that ancient storyteller, it’s “dominion.” Arguably no concept has so fueled our un-ecological relationship with the planet as dominion. But what if these verses never meant that? What if we’ve been raised to misread this text to our own planetary peril?
As I explained earlier (GIT 29) the context for this creation account/liturgy is on the far side of national disaster—and that makes a big difference. We don’t know its exact dating, but scholars agree it was written either for people living as refugees, exiled to a foreign land, or for Israel’s post-Exilic community, former refugees seeking to rebuild after having lost everything. For such people to be told (Gen. 1:26) they were created imago Dei (in the image of God) is far from a prideful assertion. It is the sacred reaffirmation of a dignity by then thoroughly shattered by the world.
Similarly, to be set into a relation of rahad/dominion with the natural world—whatever that might mean—sits differently when you realize the word comes to people who’ve been scattered and whose best technology can only hope to eek out reliable harvests but cannot inflict real damage on the earth. Context matters. But so does original meaning.
Imagine: there are other ways to arrange the stars in the night sky besides the constellations so familiar to us like the Big Dipper. But by now our eyes insist on seeing those patterns. At least since the King James Version (1611CE) the Hebrew word rahad has been rendered as dominion. Against the backdrop of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Age of Discovery,* translating this word as the “politically correct” version of “domination” made a certain sense—because it took (West European) humanity’s burgeoning hubris and dressed it up as God’s own commission.
*More accurately: “The Emerging Scourges of Colonialism, Capitalism, and White Supremacy.” Seriously.
Considering how rahad is used elsewhere in the Bible and how it functions in this text shows that domination has NO relationship to rahad. “Dominion” is, in fact, a very poor choice to translate this word for God’s desired relationship between humanity and the rest of creation. Nowhere in the Bible does rahad carry a sense of domination or oppression. Most significantly, in Psalm 72 rahad describes the rule of the king who ensures that justice is done and that the needs of the vulnerable are cared for. Thus, rahad, minimally, is “righteous reign.” But we can suggest even more.
Rahad is established as the human vocation before humanity is distorted by sin so its later uses (as in Psalm 73) may name those fleeting glimpses when humans manifest the wholeness for which they were intended. And because the Priestly editors chose to place this creation account first, as a sort of prelude to the (earlier) Yahwist account, they likely meant to show the naming of the companion creatures in Eden by the original Humus Being (adam) as original rahad/dominion. Yet this naming creates the conditions NOT for oppression but for relationship—for intimacy. In this regard, rahad, far from what we think of as dominion, is much closer to the Native American notion that sees humans in familial relationship to all other creatures.
I’ll go one step further. When Jeremiah (22:13-16) describes God-pleasing kingship he echoes Psalm 72: doing justice and protecting the vulnerable are defining royal deeds. But then he asks, most evocatively, “‘Is not this what it means to know me?’ says the LORD.” That verb, “to know,” is the same Hebrew word for love-making. It carries the sense of deep authentic intimacy. For Jeremiah, to practice justice and mercy is to know God … intimately. Without being explicitly sexual about it, rahad is God’s commission that we stand in erotic relationship to the world around us. To know creation intimately, to name it well, with a deep mix of wonder, awe, understanding, and care. This is rahad, and it’s a love story.
Given these rich justice-driven, mercy-friendly, eco-sensitive connotations, the challenge isn’t to “redeem” some nuanced version of “dominion,” it’s to find a phrase that actually carries rahad into English. Something like: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind [adam: humus beings, earthlings] in our image, according to our likeness; and let them exercise rahad/dominion [an eco-intimate and just-knowing relationship] with the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and with all the earth and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26) That’s rahad.
Of course, almost right after this (Gen. 1:28), we’re instructed, as one primary expression of rahad, to kabash the earth. For 400 years we’ve read kabash as “subdue,” translating it in tandem with the “dominion” rendering of rahad. But, having reframed rahad, it becomes evident that kabash actually means nothing more—and nothing less!—than to “till and keep” the garden. (Gen. 2:15) In fact, drawing all the richness of rahad into kabash, it’s fair to say that kabash anticipates permaculture as the most practical expression of our human vocation.
Words matter. And translation is no innocent enterprise. The 2016 film Arrival is (among other things) a compelling reflection on the stakes in translation, where humanity’s fate (not unlike our own!) hangs in the balance over how to translate a single word from an alien message. Is it “weapon” … or “tool”? And what leads us to select one over the other?
It is the height of folly to think the biblical creation tales authorized our ecocidal exploitation of the planet, but it’s equally foolish to write them off as fairy tales that ask us to believe in magic. These texts bear deep wisdom. This Priestly account invites us to see our relationship (rahad) to the earth and our companion creatures … as a love story. Doing so won’t solve the climate crisis, but it will offer us a warmer and wiser posture from which to address it, providing us with an unlikely but essential love story as we prepare to meet the tempest coming our way.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 For instance, see Lynn White, Jr., “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155 (1967), 1203-07.
 My thoughts here are indebted to and in conversation with Lloyd H. Steffen, “In Defense of Dominion,” Environmental Ethics 14:1 (Spring 1992), pp. 63-80.
 On the “the erotic,” see Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic,” (1978) in Sexuality and the Sacred, eds. Marvin M. Ellison and Kelly Brown Douglass (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 73-77.