God ordered humans to “subdue (כָּבַשׁ) the earth” (Gn 1:28). What does this mean? What does this command have to do with the vocation of humans? This article will review humans’ vocation in the light of Genesis 1.
Oxford Languages defines “to subdue” as “to overcome, quieten, or bring under control”. Strong’s defines the Hebrew word for “subdue”, כָּבַשׁ, this way: “to tread down, to conquer, subjugate, violate:—bring into bondage, force, keep under, subdue, bring into subjection” (2009:54).
God told humans to subdue the earth. Does this order give us humans permission to mistreat the earth? Does it allow us to exploit this world? If understood out of context the verse appears to give permission to humans to “tread down” the earth. But only a superficial reading, that ignores the cultural context, allows this perspective.
The vocation of humans
Right at human creation, God announced the vocation of humans: they were made to co-rule this world together with God (Gn 1:26-28). Being made in the image of God is linked to humans’ vocation. In the ancient oriental view, they understood kings as being the image of God—they were representatives of God here in this world (Wenham, 1987:30). God creating all humans in his image, and not only the kings was a radical new idea.
“The image-bearer shares in the authority of the one imaged and that being in the ‘image of God’ gave humanity some form of dominion over the world as God’s representatives” (Mangum, 2012:Gen 1:1–2:3).
Humans were given the responsibility to co-rule this world as God’s representatives. God passed “on to human hands a delegated form of God’s own kingly authority over the whole of his creation”(Wright, 2006:426). Ps 8:6 confirms this view by proclaiming “you [God] appoint them [humans] to rule over your creation; you have placed everything under their authority” (NET). Peter defines the mandate given to humans as “man’s responsibility to build a wholesome culture in which man can live as a true human being according to the moral order and creative purpose of God” (1984:140).
Being created in the image of God is a vocation, a calling (Walton, 2015:175). Understanding this vocation of humans is crucial for understanding the role of humans in God’s mission and the proper understanding of the word “subdue”.
“Because man is created in God’s image, he is king over nature. He rules the world on God’s behalf.” (Wenham, 1987:33). But what was expected of kings at that time?
“Ancient oriental kings were expected to be devoted to the welfare of their subjects, especially the poorest and weakest members of society (Ps 72:12–14). By upholding divine principles of law and justice, rulers promoted peace and prosperity for all their subjects. Similarly, mankind is here commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king, acting as God’s representative over them and therefore treating them in the same way as God who created them” (Wenham, 1987:33).
Subduing the earth
Kings were supposed to rule in a way that led to shalom. The Hebrew word shalom has “the notions of wholeness, health, and completeness” (Healey, 1992:206). In this light, we need to understand the word “subdue”. God told humans to subdue the earth in order to bring forth shalom. Important to note here is that humans were supposed to subdue the animal kingdom and the earth and not other humans!
But why does the Bible use a verb that implies “bringing under control by force”? The context of the whole chapter helps us find an answer. In Genesis 1, creation is portrayed as being threatened by the powers of chaos and evil. From the very beginning, chaos is part of creation (Gn 1:2). God created this world by overcoming the chaos and establishing his shalom in Eden.
Then he gave humans the task to “carry on the work of development: by being fruitful they [humans] must fill [the earth] even more; by subduing it they must form it even more. Mankind, as God’s representatives on earth, carry on where God left off” (Walton, 2001:136). As God pushed back chaos and evil so we must join in his work of establishing shalom. We can do this by subduing the earth. We need to control this earth. But the goal of our subduing is not harming the earth but rather establishing and keeping shalom in this world. This task includes pushing back the powers of chaos and evil that constantly oppose God and therefore threaten this creation. We push back the powers of evil and chaos by establishing the kingdom of God in this world. The kingdom of God manifests wherever the will of God is done. The way of the kingdom is marked by the self-sacrificial love that Jesus taught us through his life. Therefore, our way of ruling and subduing must not be marked by violence and dominance but by humility, servanthood, and love. This is the way Jesus modeled to us what it means to rule. Through his life and death, Jesus subdued the evil powers (Col 1:13; 2:15; 1 John 3:8) and gave us the task to manifest his victory of the evil powers in this world.
This leads us to some important questions:
Do we rule and subdue this earth in a way that reflects God’s character well?
Does the way we subdue the earth lead to shalom for humans and creation or to destruction and harm?
What are forces of chaos and evil that threaten this earth right now which we need to subdue?
Healey, J.P. 1992. ‘Peace: Old Testament’. In: Freedman, D.N. ed., The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5). New York: Doubleday.
Mangum, D., Custis, M., and Widder, W. 2012. Genesis 1–11. Bellingham: Lexham Press.
Peters, G.W. 1984. A biblical theology of missions. E-Book. Chicago: Moody Press.
Strong, J. (2009). A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Greek Testament and The Hebrew Bible (Vol. 2, p. 54). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis (p. 136). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Walton, J.H. 2015. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.
Wenham, G. J. (1987). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, p. 33). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Wright, C.J.H. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press.
Other interesting articles: