Does Christian Environmental Thought Rest on a Mistake?

Much of the debate within modern Christianity about the environment might rest on a bad translation of Genesis.

Talk to Christians interested in relating their faith to environmental concerns, and at some point the phrase “Dominion Theology” will arise.  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 “dominion” looms large, both for those Christians who are environmentalists and those who are skeptical of environmentalism.  The latter see the notion as meaning “dominate” or more pointedly, “use for human purposes.”  They thus reject the notion that preservation of nature is good in and of itself.  The former see it as expressing the notion of stewardship, and thus embracing the idea that preserving nature is good for it’s own sake.

But the problem is that it’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.  The Bible does not say “let them have dominion.”  Instead, it uses the Hebrew verb yirdu.  And what does that mean?  Well — it’s hard to tell.

The Hebrew verb root y-r-d means “to descend” or “to go down.”  So in one way, the phrase really should read “and let them descend to the fish of the sea” etc. etc.  What might that signify?  I don’t know, but it’s hardly unproblematic to read it as “have dominion.”

It gets trickier.  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 doesn’t take that form.  The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, which is sort of the gold standard of Biblical Hebrew translation, doesn’t even attempt to define it.  Most of the time, if a regular (Qal) verb form is put into Piayl, it signifies intensifying it in some way.  For example, when the root k-t-v, it means “to write”; when it’s in Piayl, it means “to engrave.”  So what would it mean to intensify “descending”?  Well, we can have a lot of arguments about it, but “have dominion” doesn’t seem the most obvious translation.  Later on, God tells Adam to “subdue the earth,” and that does indeed seem to be a good, straightforward translation, but we need to know more about what that might mean.  Subdue for what purpose?

And that means that all these arguments about the meaning of “dominion” beg the question of what God is saying to begin with.  My initial impression is that in this case, “to descend” means something akin to “commune with”, or “go on the level of.”  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 “Briggs” in the Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary was Charles Augustus Briggs, the great late 19th and early 20th Christian scholar.  This might be an interesting place for fruitful interchange (so to speak) between Jewish and Christian thinkers.  But before doing this, we all need to get away from the idea of “dominion.”

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

18 thoughts on “Does Christian Environmental Thought Rest on a Mistake?”

  1. While this is being debated, perhaps it would be good to review other sections of Genesis, in which the Almighty observed that each of the Almighty's acts of creation was "good" — before humans were placed upon the scene. If the Creation is the only physical evidence we have of the Creator, and if it was good before we came along, then it is clear that any diminishment of Creation (such as by removal of entire species or ecosystems) is an act of blasphemy, and diminishes our understanding of the Creator, which we are commanded to undertake.

  2. Not to be snotty, but isn't religious revelation a pretty far piece from "reality based"? Belief in supernatural beings is as far as one gets from reality — why does this keep coming up at a website devoted to dealing in facts?

  3. JMG, much as it may pain you, the existence of religious traditions is one of the most important facts about the contemporary social world. And what the texts say, and how they have been interpreted over time, are factual questions, though the preachers like to deny it. Hundreds of millions of people care what the Bible says. If you're not among them, and if you don't have any interest in being able to communicate with them, I suggest you skip these posts, or read them as exercises in applied multi-culturalism.

  4. Actually the Hebrew word used in Genesis 1:26 is רָדָה ("radah"), which is variously translated to mean: to tread down, to crumble off, have dominion, prevail against, reign, rule over. I take this from Strong's Concordance, another gold-standard hermeneutical tool used in Christian seminary training ('s_Concordance). One principle of interpretation is to see how the same word is used in other texts or passages. This same word is used in Numbers 24:19 (“and one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of the cities!”), 1 Kings 4:24 (“for he had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza…”), Nehemiah 9:28 (“and you abandoned them to the hand of their enemies, so that they had dominion over them”), Psalm 49:14 (“and the upright shall rule over them in the morning”), and Psalm 72:8 (“may he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!”). These passages hardly fit with the interpretation of an intense form of descending or going down as Jonathan suggests.

    As far as interpretation, I too struggle with Jonathan about exactly what Genesis 1:26 means. What I’m quite certain of from other Biblical principles that I hold to be true is that it shouldn’t be interpreted to imply the extreme anti-environmental position that Jonathan suggests some take (i.e., to dominate for human purposes so that the preservation of nature is no longer viewed as good). I’m more drawn to the implication of stewardship, but probably interpret stewardship a little differently than Jonathan might imply. I can be a good steward of nature but make it work for my good pleasure, just as I can be a good steward of money but make it work for my good pleasure. I am coming from the Christian perspective, so I would be very interested in other Jewish perspectives on this.

    As to JMG’s point, please do explain why any discussion pertaining to a supernatural deity is categorically not “reality based”. Let’s set aside which deity wins out in terms of the major religions. I have good evidence that a deity really truly exists. But I know how this argument plays out though, because I’ve had it a million times. You’ll say no I don’t have any evidence, and what you really mean is that I don’t have any evidence as you define “evidence”. Your definition of “evidence” will likely be some sort of narrow, positivist, scientific definition of evidence, in which only things that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or otherwise tested in a laboratory can possibly be a part of reality. Of course you don’t live by that same definition for one day of your life, because you bank on certain realities, truths, and historical facts every day that you have no scientific proof to back up. So in dealing with folks who make your arguments (at least based on what I expect you to make from the premise you started out with), you have a very narrow definition of “reality”. I make to you the proposition that if ever something was real, there is nothing more real than God.

  5. Bux —

    We may be using different texts. I'm using an Artscroll right now, and it very clearly says "Yirdu." And this might be the heart of the problem: perhaps there isn't one accepted text.

  6. In 1959, I took a contemporary religious thought class, at Carleton College, taught by Ian G. Barbour, then professor of physics and religion. One book for that class, Philip H. Phenix, "Intelligible Religion," helped me make useful sense of the nature of religious thought as a significant aspect of the human condition. For me, religion is about that which I believe to be important which I do not understand, and science is about that which I believe to be important which I do understand. Because there is nothing not trivial which I understand totally without error, I experience every event of my life as of both religion and science.

    So what? As one who later studied communication theory in formidable detail, words are tools for symbolic communication of meaning, and, of themselves, have no intrinsic meaning. As I learned communication theory, any given communication symbol may convey any amount of information (i.e., meaning) and any amount of meaning may be conveyed by any communication symbol. If one allows that intra-personal and inter-personal communication involves fading, noisy, dispersive, non-stationary communication channels with serious encoding, decoding, modulation and demodulation errors, perhaps the battle of what word was used in some ancient social context might be augmented with some semblance of direct observation of human behavior and resulting consequences.

    If there is any aspect of the human phenomenon which is troubling or bothersome, I have yet to find any approach which leaves out major aspects of human beliefs that portends of any reconciliation of human society with its substrate. Therefore, I am glad for being allowed to observe the honest exchange of valid concerns, as demonstrated by a diligent effort to make intelligible sense of what beliefs, however useful in the past, may have become effective saboteurs for humanity now. Were there exactly one totally accepted text, what would prevent it from having within it many forms of grave and tragic error remaining to be unfathomed?

  7. Funny, I am also using the Artscroll Tanach (volume 1 of 2 for Bereishis) and it gives the same reading Bux is using (also in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia). BHS has just about every documented variant reading in the world in the critical apparatus at the bottom of the page, but there is no variant reading for this one.

    Artscroll also has Rashi's charming comment to the effect that the spelling in the Masoretic text (with the 'u' sound indicated by a vowel marker under the 'shin' consonant rather than the letter vav following the shin to indicate the plural) means that the text could be read as a singular masculine such that "he" should subdue "her" to teach that it is the male who subdues the female so that she should not be a gadabout. Artscroll also has Rashi teaching that the obligation to be fruitful and multiply was directed to the male whose function is to subdue.

    OK, anyone care to out-pedant that?

  8. Gee, it sounds like when the creationists argue that we need to "teach the controversy."

  9. You're not the first to notice this. I think it was Matthew Scully in Dominion who also notes the meaning of the word is not dominion at all. Haven't read the book, but read about it years ago.

  10. Hang on! My bleary eyes did not focus on Bux's entry properly. I was looking at Gen 1:28, not 1:26. This is a much more congenial reading, with Artscroll's footnotes quoting Radak having noted that yirdu implies both dominion (from radah) and descent (from yarad). This looks like just a Qal imperfective form of radah, but could also be from yarad, if there were a long "e" under the yod. Radak's comment is that the verb means that when man is worthy he dominates the animal kingdom, and when not worthy he descends lower than them. It looks like one of those situations where the lack of vowels in the written Hebrew could admit of more than one reading. The Masoretic text places vowels where a Torah scroll lacks them. This is not a matter of a variant text, but of a vowel ambiguity.

    The verb in 1:28 has some pretty domineering meanings, which Rashi interpreted as he did. It is related to meanings such as raping or violating a woman, making slaves out of people, etc. So there is still a problem here, but it is two verses later.

  11. "Your definition of “evidence” will likely be some sort of narrow, positivist, scientific definition of evidence, in which only things that can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or otherwise tested in a laboratory can possibly be a part of reality."

    Shouldn't a "scientific definition" be a definition that an actual scientist would endorse?

  12. Thanks Ed Whitney. Very interesting. My Strong's Concordance has the same word (radah) being used in both 1:26 and 1:28, but it appears as if this may or may not be the case due to the vowel ambiguity you note.

  13. Right, Bux; the verb radah is in both 1:26 and 1:28 and relates in both verses to the dominion over the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air etc. But 1:28 has "kavash" for the subduing of the earth itself, and Rashi's comment relates to the dropping of the vav for the vowel and its replacement with a vowel pointing under the consonant instead, as meaning that the male should subdue the female.

    The truly interesting thing is that it hath pleased the Holy One to communicate in a medium which allows for multiple simultaneous meanings. Just as quadratic equations in algebra have two different but correct answers, there are "higher order equations" in religious language in which multiple simultaneous correct answers are possible.

    Somewhere in the Confessions Augustine cites an example of an eternal truth in the form of the proposition that seven plus three equals ten, has always equaled ten, and will forevermore equal ten. There is only one correct answer to the question of what the sum of seven and ten is. But if you asked "Which two numbers, added together, equal ten?" you can respond eight plus two, or six plus four, or nine plus one, or five plus five. Multiple right answers does not mean "anything goes," since six plus three is a wrong answer. The way Augustine sets up the question may account for much mischief done in the service of theological dogma.

  14. IMHO the problem is not the translation, but rather the societal ethics that have been derived: does anyone doubt that Dominionist theology has been the handmaiden to authoritarian governments since Constantine coopted Christianity as his religion of imperial unification and dominance?

    How many of the authoritarian right in this country profess the most literal and dominionist version of Christianity? A version of Christianity that is a mirror image of the authoritarian Islam professed by al qaeda and the taliban……..

    No religion is right that does not profess as fundamental that humans are a living part of a living system. If we stand apart ideologically from this truth we are denying ourselves and thereby become an active danger to our continued existence in the living system, which will continue on without us.

  15. I think that divadab's comment is very close to the mark. There is not a lot to be gained from looking to lexicons or syntax textbooks for new systems of thinking. We end by re-filtering our own perspectives and prejudices through the lexical and grammatical sieve. If you think that the male should dominate the female, the rules of orthography will allow you to figure out a way to see the very thing in the text that you wanted to see all along.

    The biosphere cannot be plundered as if it were a passive entity placed there for our convenience, at least not indefinitely. It has its own internal dynamics which have to be respected. The sciences of living systems, and not the minutiae of Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, are the sources of the necessary insights for understanding these dynamics. Being scientific, they will have some uncertainty attached to them, making it difficult to counter the exuberant certainty of the Dominion Theology crowd.

  16. You're a little out of date. The current standard is Koehler & Baumgartner which does translate it as "rule" in this verse (see p.1190, column 2). OTOH the verse, as far as I know, is never cited in a halachic context, so it's hard for a Jew to argue that it is of normative significance.

  17. I'll just note that I find N T Wright's interpretation of dominion to fit well here. Man, made in God's image, is the way God displays himself and his continuing care and creative power to the rest of Creation. Man is made to rule–to have dominion–as God's image-bearer.

  18. The hebrew verb "rodeh" means to rule, as in one people ruling another people. It indeed is related to the word that means to go down.

    On the other hand, the verse can be interpreted as a prediction, not neccessarily as some kind of command.

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