Talk to Christians interested in relating their faith to environmental concerns, and at some point the phrase â€œDominion Theologyâ€ will arise.Â This comes from Genesis 1:26, which is conventionally translated as
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
The above translation (with my emphasis) is taken from the King James Version, but it is very close to just about every other English translation, including Jewish translations such as the Artscroll and the original 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition (the difference is that the phrase has had little impact in Jewish environmental thought).
The word â€œdominionâ€ looms large, both for those Christians who are environmentalists and those who are skeptical of environmentalism.Â The latter see the notion as meaning â€œdominateâ€ or more pointedly, â€œuse for human purposes.â€Â They thus reject the notion that preservation of nature is good in and of itself.Â The former see it as expressing the notion of stewardship, and thus embracing the idea that preserving nature is good for itâ€™s own sake.
But the problem is that itâ€™s an inaccurate translation!
One of the tasks of being a rabbinic student is spending a lot of time learning how to translate, and this really jumped out at me a couple of days ago.Â The Bible does not say â€œlet them have dominion.â€Â Instead, it uses the Hebrew verb yirdu.Â And what does that mean?Â Well â€” itâ€™s hard to tell.
The Hebrew verb root y-r-d means â€œto descendâ€ or â€œto go down.â€Â So in one way, the phrase really should read â€œand let them descend to the fish of the seaâ€ etc. etc.Â What might that signify?Â I donâ€™t know, but itâ€™s hardly unproblematic to read it as â€œhave dominion.â€
It gets trickier.Â Yirdu is a very strange way to conjugate the verb: it is in a verb form called Piayl, but the root y-r-d usually doesnâ€™t take that form.Â The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, which is sort of the gold standard of Biblical Hebrew translation, doesnâ€™t even attempt to define it.Â Most of the time, if a regular (Qal) verb form is put into Piayl, it signifies intensifying it in some way.Â For example, when the root k-t-v, it means â€œto writeâ€; when itâ€™s in Piayl, it means â€œto engrave.â€Â So what would it mean to intensify â€œdescendingâ€?Â Well, we can have a lot of arguments about it, but â€œhave dominionâ€ doesnâ€™t seem the most obvious translation.Â Later on, God tells Adam to â€œsubdue the earth,â€ and that does indeed seem to be a good, straightforward translation, but we need to know more about what that might mean.Â Subdue for what purpose?
And that means that all these arguments about the meaning of â€œdominionâ€ beg the question of what God is saying to begin with.Â My initial impression is that in this case, â€œto descendâ€ means something akin to â€œcommune withâ€, or â€œgo on the level of.â€Â But that in and of it raises more questions than it answers.
Christian theologians know their Hebrew; the language is required at most seminaries worth their salt, and indeed, the â€œBriggsâ€Â in the Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary was Charles Augustus Briggs, the great late 19th and early 20th Christian scholar.Â This might be an interesting place for fruitful interchange (so to speak) between Jewish and Christian thinkers.Â But before doing this, we all need to get away from the idea of â€œdominion.â€