What are the ethical demands of Genesis 1? What is the first commandment given to humankind in this litany? To be fruitful and multiply. What does this say about sexuality? It is part of the goodness of the created order. Christian asceticism has often missed this point and validated celibacy over intercourse. A lot of ancient Gnosticism came into Catholic teaching through the monasteries, by the way. The question for us today is whether this commandment has the same relevance in our day that it had 2500 years ago. When this litany was recited by the priests of Israel, there were many uninhabited parts of the world and large cities were the size of average-sized universities. What do we do with this now that the human habitat has overwhelmed the entire planet? What do we do now that death has been kept at bay for decades for most people and there seems to be no longer a natural check on population? Should we rethink the command to be fruitful to mean more than simple sexual fertility?
Perhaps the commandment to be fruitful should be taken to mean that we should produce good fruits or be productive. This would be consistent with the second chapter of Genesis where humans tend the garden in Eden and till the ground after the expulsion.
The commandment to have dominion over the world has become problematic. Originally this was probably related to the fact that humans developed agriculture and mastered the ability to plant and harvest plants that we eat. We have also been able to domesticate other animals and use them for our ends. We cannot tame every beast, but we’ve turned wolves into dogs and bovines into cattle. We train dolphins to jump through hoops for our entertainment. The only animal that domesticates humans is the cat. But humans have never had mastery of the whole earth, nor can we subdue the entire earth. We should acknowledge hyperbole in the Scriptures. The quest to assert our power over the elemental forces has had some dire consequences.
All good teachings can be twisted to demonic ends, including the commandment to exercise dominion over the earth. We should not let the twisted versions of this text keep us from recognizing the positive nature of the commandment.
Genesis 1 affirms that humans are part of the web of creation and are in relation to the world. Notice that this commandment does not extend to the heavens, just to the earth. Here is how the Bible bring the vastness of creation down to a human scale. Christian doctrine teaches that God freely chose to make humans the stewards and caretakers of this small planet in the universe. It has been useful to explore the stars and send probes into space, but we have a fundamental responsibility to this planet that God has given us to care for.
Chapter 2 of Genesis tells us that we are Adam or earthlings; creatures of mud and divine spirit who are asked to till and protect the world. The stewardship of the earth is the second commandment given to human beings: male and female. If you believe in divine justice and judgment,you might want to ponder Jesus’ parable about the unjust steward who abused his office and was punished by the householder.
For too long we have asserted our power through manipulation and control, treating creation as an inert thing rather than as a precious gift loved by God. Perhaps things would be different if we viewed this world as a grace, as a gift, as a sacrament, as a sacred thing with an ecosystem that reflects the intention and goodness of the creator. Perhaps things would be different if we viewed dominion the way the ancients did, which is to govern wisely for the good of all. Perhaps it would be different if we recognized that the creator loves every creature, each according to its kind. Perhaps it would be different if we recognized that all that is, including humans, is contingent upon God not upon us. Perhaps things would be different if we were worthy of the trust that God places in us.