First of all, if God made human beings in His image and likeness in order that they could fulfill their God-given purpose (Genesis 1:26), there must be a correlation between the Creation Mandate and the ways human beings are like God. Also the mandate was given to Adam and Eve when they were still dwelling with God in the Garden of Eden, before they sinned against Him in an episode called the Fall (Genesis 3). And before sin came into the world human beings could dwell with one another in harmony. This correlates to God’s purpose in creating human beings in His image with the God-like nature of personhood. For it is as persons that human beings have the God-like ability to communicate and fellowship with God and with one another.
God created human beings male and female so that they also have the God-like ability to procreate in order to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They were commissioned to “fill the earth” so that they would eventually “subdue” the whole earth and “rule over” all the other living things that populate the earth. As John Walton (2001:186) points out,
If people were going to fill the earth, we must conclude that they were not intended to stay in the garden in a static situation. Yet moving out of the garden would appear a hardship since land outside the garden was not as hospitable as that inside the garden (otherwise the garden would not be distinguishable). Perhaps, then, we should surmise that people were gradually supposed to extend the garden as they went about subduing and ruling. Extending the garden would extend the food supply as well as extend the sacred space (since that is what the garden represented).
The Garden of Eden was a “sacred space” because in this place God, who is holy, had direct fellowship with Adam and Eve. Since God is holy, those in fellowship with Him must also be holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). Thus within this space God’s will must be done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10). So when they later sinned by disobeying Him they were driven out. The need to submit to God’s will is not just because of His holiness but is also for the good of the human race. For in practical terms doing God’s will on earth is about loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18) by doing justice and loving mercy (Micah 6:8). This correlates to God’s purpose in creating human beings in His image with God-like qualities—the capacity to love and a sense of justice. Only then can we have true fellowship with one another and experience real happiness.
It is unfortunate that the words “subdue” and “rule” have been misunderstood to mean exploitation and domination, and the Creation Mandate has thus been wrongly blamed for the global ecological crisis. Depending on the context these English words and the respective Hebrew words they translate can have negative or positive connotations. Consider the different connotations of the word “subdue” in the following sentences: “The criminal subdued his victim” (negative); “The police subdued the criminal” (positive). In the Bible the two Hebrew words do sometimes have negative connotations (Nehemiah 5:5; Ezekiel 34:4) but not here in the context of the Garden of Eden before the Fall, when sin and greed had not yet come into the world.
Within Eden human responsibility to the earth was “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). The mandate to “subdue” the earth was in the context of filling, and thus inhabiting, the less hospitable earth outside of Eden (cf. 1 Chronicles 22:18). As surmised by Walton, to “subdue” the earth would then mean further forming the earth, making the whole earth hospitable like Eden, and thereafter, “to work it and take care of it.” Hence the idea of exploiting the earth is not only foreign, but opposed, to the mandate.
And to “rule” or “have dominion” need not imply “domination” (cf. Leviticus 25:43). Human beings, made in God’s image, are to have dominion the way God Himself would. When God later decided to destroy humanity through the Flood (Genesis 6) because of widespread evil as a consequence of the Fall, He commanded Noah to build an ark not only to protect and preserve his own family but also other living things that would have otherwise perished. God’s idea of Noah’s “dominion” over them involved protecting and preserving them!
Furthermore, according to the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:8-11), not only human beings, but also the animals are to rest from work (at least) one day a week. And even when the animal is working it must not be mistreated. This is clearly seen in the law that forbids the owner from muzzling his ox while it is threshing so that it can eat some of the grain while it is working (Deuteronomy 25:4). The spirit of the Sabbath commandment was further applied to the sabbatical year, when even the land was to rest for a year out of seven (Leviticus 25:1-7). Therefore domination and exploitation of God's creation were prohibited. Faithful stewardship of the earth is clearly implied here.
The Sabbath commandment has the goal of curbing economic greed. This is best seen when its application to the sabbatical year was extended to the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-28). On this year, agricultural land that was sold had to be returned to the original owner. When enforced, this law would have had the effect of helping the people overcome the temptation to covet their neighbor’s land and thus observe the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17). It is not a coincidence that the commandment that embodies stewardship of the earth has as its goal the curbing of economic greed. For it is not difficult to conclude from reports related to the ecological crisis today that at the root of the problem is economic greed.
So if people live according to the teaching of the Old Testament, there would not be an ecological crisis. These ecologically friendly instructions were given after the Fall when sin had corrupted the God-like qualities of human beings. So it is inconceivable that the mandate given before the Fall to have “dominion” over God’s creation could imply “domination” over it.
But how would the multiplying of human beings and the filling, subduing, and ruling over, of the whole earth actually work out in history? When God rested from His work of creation (and renovation) on the seventh day, as Albert Wolters (2005: 41-42) puts it,
This is not the end of the development of creation, however. Although God has withdrawn from the work of creation, he has put an image of himself on the earth with a mandate to continue. The earth had been completely unformed and empty; in the six-day process of development God had formed it and filled it—but not completely. People must now carry on the work of development; by being fruitful they must fill it even more; by subduing it they must form it even more. Mankind, as God’s representatives on earth, carry on where God left off. But this is now to be a human development of the earth. The human race will fill the earth with its own kind, and it will form the earth for its own kind. From now on the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature. In a single word, the task ahead is civilization.
Thus the Creation Mandate is to build a civilization that would spread to the whole earth. This correlates to God’s purpose in creating human beings in His image with God-like abilities other than the ability to communicate and procreate; they have the abilities to further “form the earth” from where God left off. But what kind of civilization would this be? As we recall, the Creation Mandate was given before Adam and Eve sinned and were in direct fellowship with God. And since “filling and subduing and ruling over” the earth involves turning the whole earth into Eden, where God would dwell with human beings, the civilization God intended would not only be global but also be in fellowship with Him, and hence, consistent with His will. And as we have noted, consistence with God’s will, which involves loving one’s neighbor as oneself, would ensure true fellowship with one another.
The rest of our exposition will highlight how this civilization is to be built so that it fulfills the Creation Mandate. It will also highlight how God moved and still moves history so that such a civilization would eventually be built. If one does not accept this biblical teaching on God’s purpose for humanity, what are some alternatives based on the other dominant belief-systems?
According to Mesopotamian polytheism, human beings were created to relieve the gods of manual labor and to serve the gods by meeting their needs, especially their need for food and drink through the constant offering of sacrifices (Bottéro 1992: 222, 225-6). In contrast, the Creation Mandate involves serving God by meeting the needs of fellow human beings, not the needs of God, who is completely self-sufficient. In the Old Testament, the offering of sacrifices was to meet the need of human beings for the forgiveness of sin.
According to New Age pantheism, which affirms our oneness with “God,” our problems are due to our ignorance of our godhood and hence our failure to tap into the divine power already within us. So we are to be transformed by changing our consciousness to become awakened to the awareness of who we truly are and what we can really do. This can be achieved through a range of techniques such as channeling (spirit contact), mind-emptying meditation and consciousness-raising seminars. Some still believe that when sufficient people are thus transformed they will bring in an utopia, a “New Age” of peace, prosperity and perfection (Newport 1998: 4-18).
Materialism as expressed through the theory of evolution claims that life on earth came about by accident. It naturally has difficulty answering the question, “Why are we here?” Evolutionary psychologist Steve Stewart-Williams (2010: 194, 198) is candid enough to answer, "we are here because we evolved, but we are not here for any purpose." He is not denying that "we can have ends and purposes and tasks in our lives, and ... that we all choose little goals for ourselves. However, if we're interested in the question of whether life is ultimately meaningful ... there is no reason to suppose ... that life has any ultimate meaning or purpose.” While he tries to explain how this "gloomy conclusion" does not mean that life is not worth living, he acknowledges that, "for a species [the human race] inclined to see itself as the very purpose of the universe, some of the implications of evolutionary theory [like the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence] may be unpalatable."
If we presuppose (scientific) materialism, which means all that really matters in life is the material, then the “ends and purposes and tasks in our lives” that we can have, and the “little goals” that we all choose, will most sensibly be centered around material things. In fact, the term “materialism” often refers to this (economic) view and way of life. Hence scientific materialism justifies economic materialism and with it, economic greed.