Over the last two weeks, we've been looking at God's original purpose for Mankind. Namely, what is our work? What is our function? We find the answer in the first chapter of Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
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.” Genesis 1: 26-28 (ESV)
Today, we hone in on the meaning of the word "Subdue." Out of these original three commands, including "having dominion" and "filling," this one is possibly the least tasteful but it shouldn't be so. The word originally comes from the Latin "subdere" which means "to place beneath." One of the definitions means “to bring land under cultivation:” and that is the sense that is given here. It means to take control of or harness nature. This is something that out of all creation only humans, so far as we know, can do. I’ll give two senses to try and illustrate this further. In a negative sense, it’s like clearing a piece of ground from what has happened or could happen naturally. Anyone who owns a home should be engaged in this activity in your yard work or, eventually, even your house will be overrun with what naturally happens when we don’t stop Nature from doing what it does naturally. We have to subdue nature to have any sense of what we call Civilization and all its' comforts. Some will protest that this is exactly the kind of behavior that is destroying this planet; but that goes back to the subject of our Dominion - our responsibility over all God’s Creation. No doubt we should be doing a better job of taking care of our habitation. Pretending that we have no right or responsibility to subdue the same is willful ignorance. Pretending that we are simply another kind of animal purely within Nature and not superior to it is ignoring who God made us. The fact is that God created us to be able to overcome — and even escape — our natural habitat; but more on that in a bit.
In a positive sense, we have the idea of cultivation. Humans have become so comfortable and insulated in the last century, however, that it’s difficult to see the progress we’ve made outside of the Natural until you return to it. Some people can survive in the wild. Most people who try to do so find it to be a novelty and so camp or hike occasionally but are more than content after some time to return to the comforts of Civilization. If one chooses to live in an un-cultivated environment it requires much more cultivation of Self. That’s something we typically don’t like and is, generally, more difficult to do. While we can survive in the wild doing so also takes its' toll on a person. Lack of consistent food and water, difficulty in maintaining shelter, limited access to washing facilities and health care not to mention the accompanying isolation makes survival “on the lam” very difficult indeed. Also, almost everything on this planet is trying to kill you. Seriously. Whether it’s microbes or poisonous plants or animals (many of which through their physicality alone would be higher on the food chain than our species) all of existence is a threat to our own. Even the Sun is a carcinogen! Returning to and pondering on nature helps us to appreciate the benefits of Civilization and all the services we take for granted. This is our ability to Subdue the Earth at work.
This begs the question, what was it like for us to ‘Subdue the Earth’ before the curse in Genesis 3? The most direct answer is that we can never really know. It would have been amazing though. The more nuanced answer is a world reengineered using our creative abilities to harness the Earth’s resources in a way that only humans can do without the dangers that Nature presents us in a fallen world. All while keeping perfect care of our planet under the guiding hand of our loving, working Creator God. God’s best for us would have been in the truest sense impeccable. But it's in our Nature now to settle for God’s permissive will rather than His perfect will for our lives specifically and our race generally.
Think about it: we’ve left the planet! THE PLANET! We’ve used our genius to escape our natural habitation. We’ve blasted off from the Tower of Babel and have reached the heavens. If only we could achieve the unity of purpose found in that story! There is nothing we’re not capable of now. Except for, of course, subduing our own Nature. I’m not speaking of physical laws but metaphysical, spiritual ones. Even the best of our species are subject to the foils that are common to each of us. Go to a bookstore and read. Every biography has flaws in it - even the ones in the Bible. Before we can learn to truly subdue Nature appropriately, we first have to subdue our own.
The fact that we cannot is probably one of the greatest pieces of evidence to the validity of the gospel message. Since Western Civilization has kicked God out we’ve advanced dramatically in technology but that’s only brought us perilously close to our destruction. Psychology, Psychiatry, and humanism, while they have their benefits, have not brought us the utopia their pro-generators promised nor do they bring individuals closer to the true source of their difficulties in life - their in-dwelling sin. Nothing in secular culture can cure it either. We can mask the effects of sin but it’s always there, underneath the surface, mocking us in all our fallible brilliance.
Where does that leave us? "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." Ecclesiastes 1:2 (ESV) He writes again in the same chapter, "What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted." (Ecclesiastes 1:15 (ESV) The easy thing to do would be to throw our hands and give up on the whole human experiment. Many people do but God hasn't. He's been sowing His word into our hearts for millennia now and it's making a difference. But cultivation takes patience. Good thing He has it to spare. His patience waited for me. His word and His waiting are working still.
Any activity, plan or purpose we set our hands to must be met with the same patience. Ecclesiastes 11 begins with speaking about those who look at the difficulty of life and give up; or maybe just give in. Anything worth having in life is worth working for. Many things worth working for will be difficult. Some of them excruciatingly so. But "let us not grow weary in doing good" Galatians 6:9 (ESV) One day, we are sure to reap what we’ve been sowing.
“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalms 126:6 (ESV)