War and Conquest in Genesis 1?

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God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28; NASB)

Because of their less than biblical worldview, theistic evolutionists often strive to find supposed imperfections in the creation week in Genesis 1. A common argument from theistic evolutionists is that the Hebrew words used in Genesis 1:28 for “subdue” (kābaš) and “rule” (rādâ) imply that there was death before the fall. In a recent YouTube video, apologist and theistic evolutionist Michael Jones (Inspiring Philosophy) used this argument:

As noted before, young-earth believers say before the fall the earth was blissful and perfect with no death or suffering. But Genesis 1:28 suggests the opposite was true. Humanity is told to subdue the earth and have dominion over all animals. In Hebrew, these words are extremely harsh. The first word [kābaš] is used of war conquest and enslavement. The second word [rādâ] refers to ruling harshly over someone or oppression. So God is telling humans to make a warlike conquest on the earth because it needs to be subdued, implying the earth wasn’t perfect and humanity was elected to transform the earth into a better place. But to do that meant tackling the harsh environments forcefully. The scholar Joshua John Van Ee notes the use of the second word for ruling over the animals seems to suggest humans had the right to use animals for any purpose like food and clothing, implying they already had the right to kill and eat animals. But this implies the command from God was not a perfect, blissful creation. Instead, this verse implies the earth was chaotic and needed order brought to it. Also, humans seem to be given the right to kill animals, implying death was already in existence.1

Do the words “subdue” (kābaš) and “rule” (rādâ) in Genesis 1:28 imply that mankind (Adam & Eve) were to make a warlike conquest on the earth to transform the world into a better place?

For example, in Leviticus, rādâ reflects a benevolent, peaceful rule towards a person among the Israelites who has become poor (Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53).

It is true that the Hebrew word kābaš can imply physical danger (Esther 7:8), subjecting someone to slavery (2 Chronicles 28:10; Nehemiah 5:5; Jeremiah 34:11, 16), and conquering people (Numbers 32:22, 29; Joshua 18:1; 2 Samuel 8:11; 1 Chronicles 22:18; Zechariah 9:13). But these things are implied by the context and not by the word itself. For example, the prophet Micah uses a powerful warlike image of God “treading”(kābaš) out our iniquities, which is a compassionate act (see Micah 7:19). It is also true that the word rādâ can be used for ruling harshly (Isaiah 14:2, 6, 41:2), but again the context must determine the meaning of rādâ. For example, in Leviticus, rādâ reflects a benevolent, peaceful rule towards a person among the Israelites who has become poor (Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53). Likewise, King Solomon brought about a benevolent rule that resulted in peace and safety with each man under his own fig tree (1 Kings 4:24–26). Solomon even spoke of beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish. (1 Kings 4:33). These are the same categories of animals that mankind was to rule over in Genesis 1 (Genesis 1:26–28). God created mankind to be his viceroys (royal figures) who would represent him by “ruling”2 wisely over his creation. Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna reasons why the kingly power bestowed on mankind to “subdue” and “rule” the earth cannot include a license to harmfully exploit creation:

the human race is not inherently sovereign, but enjoys its dominion solely by the grace of God. Furthermore, the model of kingship here presupposed is Israelite, according to which, the monarch does not possess unrestrained power and authority; the limits of his rule are carefully defined and circumscribed by divine law, so that kingship is to be exercised with responsibility and is subject to accountability. Moreover, man, the sovereign of nature, is conceived at this stage to be functioning within the context of a “very good” world in which interrelationships of organisms with their environment and with each other are entirely harmonious and mutually beneficial, an idyllic situation that is clearly illustrated in Isaiah’s vision of the ideal future king (Isa. 11:1–9).3
Furthermore, the model of kingship here presupposed is Israelite, according to which, the monarch does not possess unrestrained power and authority; the limits of his rule are carefully defined and circumscribed by divine law, so that kingship is to be exercised with responsibility and is subject to accountability.

It is a fallacy to read the present state of the world, which includes death, disease, war, famine, subjugation of people, predators, back into the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1. This assumes that the things we observe in our present fallen world are the way they have always been. In Genesis 1, the words kābaš and rādâ must be taken in their benevolent and peaceful context and not in a harsh warlike context.

What about the suggestion that in Genesis 1 humans were given the right to eat and kill animals, implying death was already in existence?

When ṭôb (good) is accompanied by me’od (very), it is a moral evaluation implying much more than a beautiful creation.

Prior to God creating mankind in his image, he had already stated six times that his creation was “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). But when God had finished creating, he declared his creation to be ṭôb me’od, “very good” (Genesis 1:31). When ṭôb (good) is accompanied by me’od (very), it is a moral evaluation implying much more than a beautiful creation. The phrase “very good” indicates that “God created the world perfect”4 with no evil in it. The goodness of God’s creation reflects his moral character, as goodness belongs to him alone and is reflected in his works (1 Chronicles 16:34; Psalm 34:8, 100:5, 106:1, cf. Luke 18:19). The main contextual pointer surrounding “very good” in Genesis 1:29–30 indicates that man and the animals had a vegetarian diet before the fall, which of course rules out carnivorous activity or killing animals for food or clothes (cf. Genesis 3:21).5 Even after the fall Adam and Eve were to eat the herb of the field (Genesis 3:17–19), and it is not until after the flood that God states, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” (Genesis 9:3). Genesis 9:3 clearly describes that a change in diet is permitted at this time. In the beginning, God gave mankind “the green plants,” an obvious reference to the vegetarian diet prescribed for Adam, Eve, and the animals in Genesis 1:29–30. But now, after the flood, God states that everything that moves shall be food for them. In other words, prior to that time, man was not permitted to eat animals, but following the flood, God instituted a change and man could then eat meat. In the context of Genesis 1, there is no danger implied because God’s creation is morally “very good.”

Furthermore, as God’s image-bearers, we are supposed to model his perfect rule. God gave mankind the responsibility of representing him in his creation, which means we should act as he would. For example, even in a fallen world, God calls us to show kindness to animals (Exodus 23:12; Proverbs 12:10; Jonah 4:11), but if animals were suffering and being mistreated in God’s “very good” world, then this would not reflect well on his character and render his creation “not very good.” However, God is not wasteful or indifferent with his creation, nor does he act in a cruel or harmful way towards it; therefore we should not. The misuse of God’s creation is a result of our sin and not being obedient to his command.

The fact that God declares his creation to be “very good” rules out the possibility of death and suffering of any kind before the fall of man in Genesis 3. The Bible links the reality of death and suffering to the first man’s sin, which thereby brought corruption into God’s “very good” creation (Genesis 2:17, 3:17–19; Romans 5:12, 17, 8:19-22; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Before Adam sinned, there was only the blessing of life in creation (Genesis 1:22, 28), but after he disobeyed God’s command, man became subject to death and creation was cursed and now lives under the bondage of corruption until the day of its redemption (see Genesis 3:14–19; Romans 8:19–22).

Footnotes

  1. See “TOP TEN Biblical Problems for Young Earth Creationism” by Inspiring Philosophy, Dec 12, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AoLYeFi2ms. This supposed “biblical problem” for YEC was third in Jones’ list. The relevant section is between: 13:38–15:02.
  2. The word rādâ is often used of royal rule (1 Kings 4:24; Psalm 110:2).
  3. Nahum Sarna, Genesis: The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 12–13.
  4. Critical Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad says of the phrase “very good”: “…expressed and written in a world full of innumerable troubles, preserves an inalienable concern of faith: no evil was laid upon the world by God’s hand; neither was his omnipotence limited by any kind of opposing power whatever. When faith speaks of creation, and in doing so directs its eye toward God, then it can only say that God created the world perfect.” Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: Old Testament Library (London: SCM Press LTD, 1961), 61.
  5. This is the first reference to the death of an animal in the Bible.

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