Genesis 1:26-28 and Environmental Rights

By Liz Jakimow
www.wypr.org

By Liz Jakimow. This article is part of our February 2013 focus on Religion and Human Rights.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
     in the image of God he created them;
     male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

In a 1967 essay titled “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” Lynn White argued that Christianity was an anthropocentric religion which could be blamed for our ecological crisis. Not everyone agrees with that view. However, most people would agree that the bible has often been interpreted in an anthropocentric way. As opposed to what I will suggest is the proper Christian attitude, Christians’ attitudes towards the earth have often elevated human rights over environmental ones.

Rather than giving human beings rights over nature, these verses give us the responsibility to care for nature in a way that is consistent with God’s will

One of the reasons for Christianity’s anthropocentrism can be found in Genesis 1:26-28. There we see that God made humans in his own image and that he gave them “dominion” over every living thing upon the earth. Throughout history, many Christians, even up to the present day, have read this to mean that human beings are the most (or even only) valuable part of Creation. They have also thought the non-human parts of nature are valuable only so far as they benefit humankind. For example, Wesley said that all creatures were made for human beings and Calvin said all things were ordained for the use of man. In addition, the command to “rule” and “have dominion” over the earth was often seen as a right to subdue, alter and even exploit nature.

While Genesis 1:26-28 suggests that human beings have a special role within Creation, it does not necessarily follow that they have more value than the rest of Creation. One interpretation of how human beings bear the image of God (and the most popular view among Old Testament scholars today) says that human beings are like God because they perform the functions of God and are God’s representatives. As God’s representatives, Genesis 1:26-28 indicates more of a caretaking or stewardship role. Traditionally, these were known as the dominion verses. A more accurate description may be the stewardship verses. Rather than giving human beings rights over nature, these verses give us the responsibility to care for nature in a way that is consistent with God’s will.

While it is impossible to reach any certainty about God’s will, for Christians the Bible does contain clues as to what God’s will might be. God calls Creation good six times before human beings are even created, suggesting that nature has intrinsic worth. Romans 8:21 says that Creation will be liberated, showing that God has a plan for it. Revelation 11:18 says that those who destroy the earth will themselves be destroyed, revealing that God does not like people to damage the earth. An insight into God’s attitudes towards the environment can also be found in Leviticus 25:2-5:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, “When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a sabbath to the LORD. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath to the LORD. You shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard. What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine, for it is a year of rest for the land.”

Later on in Leviticus, God says the land must not be sold permanently because it belongs to him. The Year of Jubilee (which happened every 50 years and involved special land regulations) contained a commandment that all people can return to the land that was owned by their ancestors (Leviticus 25:13). Leviticus 25 reveals a God who wants the land to be looked after and for all people to have access to the earth’s resources. As such, it is a good biblical example of why Christians should care about environmental rights. Furthermore, it is consistent with many other passages of the bible that display the same attitude.

Genesis 1:26-28, therefore, is not saying that human beings have more value than the rest of Creation. Nor is it an excuse (let alone a right or a requirement) for human beings to plunder the earth for their own ends. Rather, it is a responsibility to care for the earth and all living things in the way that God would wish. The stewardship role of the Christian therefore should involve ensuring that the rights of every aspect of Creation (both human and non-human) are protected.

Liz Jakimow is currently completing a Bachelor of Theology at St Mark’s Theological Centre in Canberra. She has a keen interest in ecotheology. Her blogs may be found at God and Gum Nuts and Fringe Faith. She also moderates an Australian Christian Environmental Group on Facebook. You can contact Liz at godgumnuts@hotmail.com.

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  • Samuel Blanch

    I largely agree with you Liz, stewardship is surely a more wholesome picture than hungry dominion. Yet more positively, Genesis surely begins a narrative, a way of viewing creation holistically, that is arguably superior to that of modern (and post-modern) fundamentally voluntarist conceptions of rights. As Oliver O’Donovan and others have argued, it is modernity’s frankly flat conception of ecology that has emancipated humanity to exploit creation so heroically. Such that even the defence of the environment has a frequent underlying selfish hue (“my” right to look at whales versus “my” right to eat whales). See http://andrewerrington.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/oliver-odonovan-on-the-roots-of-our-ecological-malaise/