“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Genesis 1: 28, KJV
I have heard complaints from some of my friends, most of whom are animal lovers, vegetarians and environmentalists, who are confused and sometimes angered by this passage. They are confused because they believe the Bible is saying that humans should dominate the fish, birds, animals and all life on the earth. Even some church leaders teach a domination perspective. Of course, this is sometimes paired up with a sermon about a final battle between forces of good and evil and the Rapture, where all deserving humans are taken up into Heaven before the final destruction of the earth.
This interpretation could not be further from the meaning of this Bible passage in my view. I do not believe this passage is an endorsement of domination. In fact, the English word ‘domination’ is nowhere contained within the verse, at least in the King James translation. The human domination interpretation is far from the true meaning and spirit of this Bible passage. Let me briefly outline another interpretation and explain to you why I, a commissioned Pet Chaplain to people who love animals, do not have a problem whatsoever with Genesis 1:28. In fact, I believe that for animal-lovers, environmentalists, and others concerned about the animals and the earth, animal habitat destruction, pollution and global climate change, this may be the most vital passage to study and live by.
The confusion, in my opinion, hinges around two English words appearing in the King James Version, those words are ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’. First I will address the original meanings of these English words, then I will discuss what I believe to be the true meaning of the Bible passage in light of their original meaning.
The word ‘dominion’ comes from English root ‘dem’ meaning ‘house’ or ‘household.’ From this root you also get English words such as ‘domicile,’ ‘dominate,’ and ‘domestic.’ The word ‘subdue’ comes from the English root ‘deuk’ meaning to lead. From this same root you also get English words such as ‘conduct,’ ‘educe’ and ‘educate.’ Now compare the King James version with two newer translations, The Living Bible and the New International Version.
The Living Bible (TLB): “And God blessed them and told them, “Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; you are masters of the fish and birds and all the animals.” In TLB, the phrase “have dominion” is translated as, “you are masters.” The word ‘master’ comes from the English root ‘me’ meaning ‘great.’ From this same root you also get English words such as the prefix ‘mega,’ as in megaphone, ‘megavolt’ and ‘megalomania.’
New International Version (NIV): “God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” In the NIV, the phrase “have dominion” as in the KJV is translated as, “rule.” The English root for the word ‘rule’ is ‘reg,’ meaning ‘stretch out’ or ‘reach for.’ From this same root you also get English words such as ‘regiment’ and ‘regime.’
Putting these meanings side-by-side, we have the following:
- KJV: dominion/house
- TLB : master/great
- NIV: rule/stretch out
The meanings of the English words in these versions of the Bible are very different. If we use the word ‘home’ as the meaning of ‘have dominion’, you get a very different meaning for this scripture than you do if you use either the words ‘great’ or ‘stretch out.’ The ideas of becoming great or stretching out are domination ideas, which are very different than the idea of house or home. I believe the author of Genesis was describing the earth as a house. It’s our house, the good earth created by God for us and all God’s creatures.
A television story once aired on PBS about a man who trained horses. They called him the Horse Whisperer. He lived on a ranch with his wife and 17 children (several were adopted or fostered). He trained horses for a living and became famous as someone who was so gentle in his training technique that it was said that he whispered to the animals and they responded. The particular television special I viewed showed him working with a wild Mustang from the Nevada desert. Many said that Mustangs are too wild to train. In fact, many trainers have died trying. The Horse Whisperer proved he could train any horse, including wild Mustangs using a different form of training, a form that respected the animal’s need for relationship.
From a young age, Monty Roberts, the Horse Whisperer, began to wonder about a different way of seeing our relationships with animals. At 13, he witnessed his father whipping a horse with a chain. The horse was reluctant be ridden. The man nearly killed the horse in the process. When Monty objected to his father’s treatment of the horse, his father turned his anger towards the boy. Because of this experience, Monty became convinced that another way of training horses, a gentle way, was needed. From that day, he resolved to watch horses in the wild and examine their behavior. He sought to understand how they interacted with each other and learn their language.
He found that horses are social animals by nature. He learned that a horse wants more than anything to belong, to have strong leadership, and to feel a part of a protective family group. He learned this by watching how the lead mare would eject a young colt if he was excessively harassing others in the herd. She would nip at the young horse and force him out. What Monty realized was that when a horse was cut free from his herd, especially a young male, the horse would feel anxiety from being exposed to danger. He was fearful of being challenged and possibly killed by lone stallions, especially the one guarding his herd. The lead mare would know when it was time to allow the male to return when he began exhibiting certain behaviors that the Horse Whisperer observed. These were a certain way of moving the jaw in a grinding motion and nodding of the head. These were messages to the mare that the unruly pony was ready to accept her leadership. His behavior indicated to her that he would not harass the other horsed if he were allowed back.
Likewise, the Horse Whisperer learned to train his horses to accept his leadership, to subtly isolate the horse and raise its anxiety until it eventually let him approach, saddle, and finally mount and ride him. The PBS special demonstrated Monty’s method by actually filming him following a wild Mustang for days. He isolated the horse away from its herd and then followed it on horseback for more than one hundred miles into the Nevada desert. Eventually the horse began to exhibit the chewing and nodding behaviors. When Monty saw this, he slowly acclimated him progressively to the rope, the bridle, a saddle, and eventually a rider. All this occurred in the span of a few days without violence to the animal.
This leadership, this non-domination approach to leading, is what is meant in our passage in Genesis by the word ‘subdue’. The word simply means educating, or leading. I do not believe there is any connotation of domination or violence intended in this scripture. The word domesticate has the same root as dominion ‘dem,’ meaning home. To domesticate an animal means, therefore, to bring it into your home and teach it to live in harmony with you and your family, just as you might teach your children, at least when you are being the kind of parent the Bible intends, gentle and loving. The Bible has many examples of this important point. Noah brought animals into the Ark two-by-two, pairs of animals in relationship with one another brought together into the family of animals and humans.
– Pet Chaplain Rob