Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reading Genesis

Genesis 1:28-30 presents some very beautiful language that is also imbued with just as much controversy. These verses read:
28 God blessed them [nascent humans] and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the entire earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give every green plant for food.” It was so. (NET Bible, underscore added)
From this we learn two things:

First, the first humans were told to “subdue” the earth, ruling over the three domains occupied by the animals: the water, air, and land. The Hebrew word here is כבש [kabash]. As the NET Bible explains:
Elsewhere the Hebrew verb translated “subdue” means “to enslave” (2 Chr 28:10; Neh 5:5; Jer 34:11, 16), “to conquer,” (Num 32:22, 29; Josh 18:1; 2 Sam 8:11; 1 Chr 22:18; Zech 9:13; and probably Mic 7:19), and “to assault sexually” (Esth 7:8). None of these nuances adequately meets the demands of this context, for humankind is not viewed as having an adversarial relationship with the world. The general meaning of the verb appears to be “to bring under one’s control for one’s advantage.” In Gen 1:28 one might paraphrase it as follows: “harness its potential and use its resources for your benefit.” In an ancient Israelite context this would suggest cultivating its fields, mining its mineral riches, using its trees for construction, and domesticating its animals.
It also is an invitation to construct crafts that can dominate all three domains. Thus, to “rule over” רדה [radah] was also originally meant to be constructive, not abusive. Unfortunately, while not originally intended to have negative consequences on the animals, following Adam and Eve’s fall, the negative consequences bore their ugly heads with humanity abusing the animals’s realms.

Was Life Created?

Second, we learn about the basis for the food chain. Regarding the last two verses, the Jewish Study Bible presents a note that interprets the text in the most painfully literal way imaginable:
Humankind, animals, and birds all seem originally meant to be neither vegetarians nor carnivores, but frugivores, eating the seeds of plants and trees.
This illustrates what happens if one interprets these verses without getting the point, or, by ‘not seeing the forest through the trees.’ According to this, humans were meant not to just be exclusively herbivorous, but were to be exclusively frugivorous, and animals were not just to be exclusively herbivorous with no scavenging and certainly no predation, but were also meant to be exclusively frugivorous. This of course is completely unhistorical, and ignores that the entire spectrum of vegetables, grains, legumes, as well as mushrooms, all fall into the domain of “every seed-bearing plant.” Also, fauna has always included carnivores, both scavengers and predators. (Compare with Psalm 104:21 where faunal predation is celebrated in song and 2 Peter 2:12 where faunal predation is considered natural.) Fortunately, old-earth creationist and astronomer Hugh Ross explains these verses better:
In Genesis 1:29-30 and 9:2-3 God gave humanity some specific dietary guidelines appropriate to their circumstances at the time. … With reference to animals, who rely on instinct rather than choice in their eating habits, His instructions reflect no change from one passage and time frame to the next. God simply stated and reiterated the importance of green plants. Both humans and animals ingest some nongreen plants, such as mushrooms. However, green plants are the foundation of the food chain. It seems likely that God emphasized to Adam and Eve (and us) that since all life depends on green plants for survival, proper management of these plants would be essential. (A Matter of Days, 2nd edition. 2015. P. 93)
His comments have the advantage of also harmonizing with Genesis 2:15 where God commands Adam to “care for it and to maintain” the Garden of Eden. The NET Bible footnote explains further: “Note that man’s task is to care for and maintain the trees of the orchard.” (emphasis original) It is also not stating that no animals were scavengers or predators: that is just as unhistorical as saying they were exclusively frugivores.

Thus, the original purpose of humankind was to be a benefit for the earth, the precious jewel that God bequeathed to them and us. We were to cultivate the green vegetation as we peacefully occupied the domains previously ruled over by the animals. Only after the entry of human sin did kabash and radah inherit negative connotations.

Additional reading: