A rabbi lamented that some people use the Hebrew scriptures to justify human domination of animals and the earth. She was referring to Genesis 1:26, “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.” Genesis 1:26, KJV.
I took another look at this scripture. It did seem to be describing a relationship of domination between humans and animals. However, after a closer reading, a very interesting and puzzling thing appeared to me. This is the first time the Bible uses the plural pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our.’ It occurs in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image…” (italics mine). Who is this ‘us’ and ‘our,’ to which the Bible refers? Although I cannot say for sure, I do have a strong hunch.
Up to this point in the creation story, God has created Heaven, earth, day and night, separated the water from the dry land, created all the animals, everything except Adam and Eve. And up to this point, in creating all of these things, God acts alone. Then the Bible reports that God says, “Let us make man in our image…” This is very interesting. One interpretation, from the Catholic interpretive tradition, is that these plural-pronoun referents, ‘us’ and ‘our,’ refer to the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another interpretation, from the Jewish commentaries, understands these pronoun referents as referring to the Heavenly Host. I would like to propose a third way that one might properly interpret their meaning.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes two types of relationships, “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships, a concept inspired by the work of Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Buber claims that we properly recognize others as a “Thou” and not as an “It” in relating to the world, to other people, and to God. In this passage of Genesis, when God uses the words “let us make man in our image,” it’s as if God is addressing the animals and creation personally. The Bible seems to show God engaging all of creation as subjects in what Buber would describe as an “I-Thou” relationship.
In this passage, God addresses the animals and all created things directly. It is as though God takes a brief pause in this amazing creative act, a moment to reflect upon creation. It’s like a moment of gathering and growing excitement in this dramatic creation story. This is a moment of preparation for the singular event that follows. From this new perspective, I believe we can now propose another explanation for the words, “Let us make man in our image.”
The “us” and “our” refers to all of creation, that is, all things God has created, but also God the creator. At this moment, the Bible suggests, God intends to create man in the image of the creator and also in the image of creation. This is a plausible explanation because it squares with the widely understood nature of humans as being composed of both spirit and flesh, or “Heaven and earth.” Humans are created in the image of the creator – we have the power to create – but we are also created in the image of creation, we have the same characteristics as all created things. These characteristics are named in detail in the Genesis story. All creatures, including humans according to this view, are composed of:
- things that yield seed
- things that yield offspring like their own kind
- creatures that move
- creatures that multiply.
Therefore, a third way of interpreting Genesis 1:26, might be as one might view the process of any creative act. The artist or creator reflects upon her progress in the act of creating. That is, the creator ponders their creation, reflects and considers how the creation is progressing, and uses their reflexive feedback to inspire, influence and inform the subsequent creation. In this way, all parts of creation, light, dark, earth, moon, stars, land, water, plants, animals and humans are each unique in their own right, but all spring from the same basic physical material of creation.
God’s creation is a unity, inseparable and indivisible. All created things partake of the unity of the whole; the earth, plants, animals, human beings and all things are integral parts of the total work of the creator’s hand. From that we can say that God’s intent is that all are one, and all are intended by their creator to live together on the earth as a unity and holy community. So, what is different, unique about human beings is creativity, the power to create. This gives human beings a special power to envision and imagine the future and build the future they imagine.
This is what we refer to as the creative spirit, a special gift that gives humans great power, but also great responsibility. This responsibility demands that humans periodically pause to ponder their creation, reflect individually and collectively upon our creation, and upon our creative process. We must pause together as a global community and look at what we have created. When we do this, we should address our creation directly and ask these two questions: “What have we created?” “What shall we create?” Are we creating the world we want for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for the animals and the planet? One might even say, our unique responsibility and calling is to, “…let us make the world….” We humans, endowed by the creator to be the most creative force on this earth, get to decide to a large degree what this world will be. This may be the greatest insight from this passage in Genesis, that every moment of a human being’s life is a genesis, a new beginning, a decision point where one shall to reflect on the past and present, and decide the future we want. The Bible seems to show God modeling the artist’s way, in creating something good one must decide, must choose the future.
Failing to choose, to deliberately avoid reflecting on our individual and collective action is also a choice. In fact, the very definition of evil, according to Buber, is the inability to choose. He saw that letting human matters take a random course, be dominated by past decisions made in ignorance, chance or through fear, is evil. Not choosing is a choice. Human matters should be coached, guided and led through reason and in love and organized towards the greatest good for all. The greatest good is the common interest, a good in harmony with all earthly creatures, created through reason and especially through sympathy, empathy and care. Therefore, the third way of understanding the tiny phrase “let us make” in the Bible is, “let us together create something really good.”
Now, to add some contrast to this new picture we’re creating of Genesis, let us briefly address the second part of this scripture, “…let them have dominion over….” The English word ‘dominion,’ which is the word used in the King James Bible, springs from the Old English root word ‘dem’ meaning ‘house’ or ‘household.’ The English word ‘dominate,’ which is not the word used in this translation, springs from the Old English root word ‘dam’ meaning ‘tame’ or ‘overcome.’ Would this not lead one to wonder where a reader might get the idea from this scripture that humans should dominate animals and creation? One might rather expect the, thoughtful informed reader to understand that animals, human beings and all of creation dwell together in God’s dominion, should be properly addressed as “Thou,” are original inhabitants of this earthly home, and eternal members of the house of God.
Moreover, the I-Thou relationship continues to exist today between God, humans, animals, and creation. We should understand, therefore, that it is our responsibility to be good keepers of God’s house, and use our power, which God has endowed to us, to create a “dominion over,” that is, a just and wholesome household and spiritual roof over all humans, animals and members of God’s creation.
Whatever one’s particular understanding of the words ‘us’ and ‘our’ in Genesis 1:26, and whether the word ‘dominion’ most closely translates to one as ‘dominate’ or ‘domicile,’ this scripture certainly offers a thoughtful person some deep and important questions to reflect upon in our time.
Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka, Raleigh, April 20, 2008