The Real Meaning of “Subdue the Earth”

Castlewood Canyon State Park

Sitting beneath the weird conglomerate boulders of the Fountainbleau Area in Castewood Canyon, Colorado, I sunk my teeth into one of the hardest apples to ever cross my path. Undeterred, I pressed on, chiseling away until my teeth hit seed. Then, left with the core, I realized I had no bag to pack it out.

Looking at my fellow climbers, I asked, “Does anyone have a bag for trash?”

Such a simple question. But what followed was quite unexpected. One of the other climbers began to crack jokes. “Oh no, are you one of those over-the-top leave-no-trace kind of guys?” “Just toss it in the woods hippy.” “Give me a break. You care too much.” For five minutes, he continued to let me know how he disapproved of my LNT principles.

Until then, I’ve never been so chastised for caring too much about the earth. And while I succeeded in my mission of bringing the apple core home, this experience got me thinking once again about our role as environmentalists.

Now, many of you may be thinking: “Andrew, it WAS only an apple core. Doesn’t that decompose?”

And while yes, you are right. It does. That apple core would take months to go away, and it could have multiple negative effects on wildlife during that process (learn more HERE).

In the rest of this post, I argue that every decision we make matters for the earth. This argument is specifically addressed to the Christian culture, for I deeply fear that we neglect the earth and even sometimes misuse scripture to justify destructive behavior.

But I challenge anyone to read the following. Perhaps you will be introduced to a different Christian perspective than you have seen regarding the environment.

In my post “The Church as an Environmentalist – Are We?”, I suggested that Genesis 1:28 is the most misinterpreted passage in the Bible. Its charge to “fill the earth and subdue it” is too often interpreted as “we can do whatever we want to planet earth.”

Well, I would like to take a further look at what it means to “subdue” or “rule” the earth.

Here is the passage in full and 4 things to keep in mind:

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

(1) ALL SCRIPTURE SHOULD BE READ THROUGH THE LENS THAT GOD WANTS TO GIVE ABUNDANT LIFE.

This theme is represented throughout the Bible, from the very act of God creating the universe to God’s ultimate restoration of it. Humanity is left to decide whether we will align with this motive or work against it. I would even argue that every action we take joins God’s will for abundance or willfully works against the life that He is breathing.

(2) GOD’S FIRST COMMAND, TO “BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY”, WAS GIVEN TO OTHER CREATURES FIRST.

In Genesis 1:22, we read God command the fish, birds, and other creatures to “be fruitful and multiply.” God also gives the plants of the earth to other creatures for sustenance, just as He gave to humanity (Gen. 1:30). God’s desire seems to be to provide for all of creation, not simply for humanity. I am not arguing that other creatures take greater significance. But these verses, at the very least, indicate that we share our privilege to flourish with the rest of creation.

(3) THE WORDS “SUBDUE” AND “RULE” SHOULD BE READ IN LIGHT OF HOW WE WERE CREATED: “IN GOD’S IMAGE.”

It is no accident that God’s first unique command to humanity, to “fill the earth and subdue it”, is issued just after the reminder that we are made in God’s image. Should this not tell us about HOW we are to fulfill the command? The intent is for us to “rule” as God would rule. While I can’t unpack every passage that displays such rulership, perhaps one of the most prominent is Psalm 72:12-14. This passage speaks of God being devoted to the welfare of those God rules. In light of being “in God’s image”, we too should strive to exemplify this benevolence–not purely for human life, but for ALL that God has made and charged us to rule over.

(4) FOURTH, FINALLY, AND PERHAPS MOST OBVIOUS: ALL THAT GOD MADE WAS/IS GOOD.

Sure, I’ve heard it argued that the fall negates this. Some would say that because the earth is no longer as it was intended (“very good” or perfectly in line with God’s will), we shouldn’t worry about the environment. Not only does this seem foolish for our own ability to flourish on the planet, but this seems to neglect the final intent of God, to restore and redeem all things. We can either join in the restoration or ignorantly act against this desire. God declared all that was made to be “good,” and I full-heartedly believe it is part of our rule that we actively maintain the pieces that still are “good”. Perhaps, we are even to help in the restoration!

I hope that these thoughts have helped readers to find new understanding in Genesis 1. If I had to summarize my arguments, I would simply say this:

God has created us in His own image, to mirror His own benevolent rule and help in maintaining the goodness of creation. We can either align with God’s will for life to abundantly flourish or we can work against it. Everything we do does one or the other. Which path will the church choose?

With eyes wide open,

Andrew Bellisle
Owner/Lead Guide
Network 5.12, LLC

Thanks for reading folks! If you would like to keep up with the rest of this series, please JOIN our Network and stay updated with future posts. Other articles that have been/will be included in this series are:

The Church as an Environmentalist – Are We?

“A Theology of Abundant Life”

“Ways to be an Environmentalist”