Bereishit: Bad Stewardship

What happened to my book about moral psychology in Genesis?  I finished it—then realized that examining why most of the characters in Genesis do the wrong thing is not enough.  I needed an ongoing argument about why humans find it so hard to take the high road out of Eden.

Now I am doing more research and rewriting my book.  Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first version.  The Torah portion this week is Bereishit (“In a beginning”), and tells about the beginning of everything, including good and evil.


Humans Dominate the Earth

And God made beasts of the land according to their type, and cattle by their type, and all creeping things of the earth by their type; and God saw that it was tov. (Genesis 1:25)

tov (טוֹב) = good; functional, attractive, beneficial, or virtuous.

Fourth Day of Creation, Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the first creation story, God sees that seven creations are tov: light (day 1); the separation of dry land from waters (day 3); plants (day 3); sun, moon, and stars (day 4); swimming and flying animals (day 5); land animals excluding humans (day 6); and the whole world (day 6).1  In all seven of these divine observations, tov means functional, attractive, or beneficial for some divine plan, but not virtuous.  Stars and fish are not moral agents.

All the land animals, including humankind, are made on the same day, but God only considers the other animals tov.  When God makes humans, God blesses them, but does not see that they are tov.

And God created humankind in [God’s] image; in the image of God [God]created it; male and female [God] created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth vekhivshuha; urdu over the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over every beast that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

vekhivshuha (וְכִבְשֻׁהָ) = and subjugate her, make her subservient, rape her, bring her under control. (An imperative form of the verb kavash, כָּבַשׁ.)

urdu (וּרְדוּ) = and subdue, dominate, rule over. (An imperative form of the verb radah, רָדָה.)

Humankind is the only creation that gets a blessing and a directive from God.

Why does God tell humans to subjugate and rule over a perfectly good world? What if they ruin the earth and its animals?

A Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1630

If God had created an imperfect world and given humankind the job of improving it, humans might have organized an uncivilized wilderness into parklands and gardens. The Garden of Eden might have served as a model, as well as being the source of humankind’s awareness of the categories of good and evil. But God does not create an imperfect world; God sees that the entire creation is already “very good”.


What if God expected humans to be good stewards of the earth? Since humans have the free will to choose between good and evil actions, and since we have the intelligence to learn and extrapolate from experience, we could have multiplied only until we filled the earth without overtaxing its resources. And we could have husbanded the earth rather than raped it.

Instead, our widespread adherence to a red meat diet led to overgrazing, which caused desertification (that’s why the Sahara is so big) and deforestation (e.g. to create more pastureland in 20th century South America). Our demand for lumber at unsustainable rates has led to millennia of clear-cutting, which changes biomes and causes more deforestation. (The bible praises the cedars of Lebanon, which used to be a vast forest and now consist of isolated urban trees and endangered wooded enclaves high in the mountains.) During the last century humans have also poisoned the air, soil, and water, and released greenhouse gases that are causing permanent climate change. Worldwide, humans have had neither the right intuitions nor the wisdom to be good stewards of the earth.

What if God, who gives humankind free will in the Garden of Eden, does not know whether humans will be good stewards or not?  What if God’s instruction to subjugate and dominate the earth and its animals is a temporary authorization, conditional upon good behavior?

Some classic commentators have proposed that at first humans were afraid of other animals and needed to be encouraged to control them by using their superior intelligence.2 The project of bringing wilderness under cultivation must also have seemed daunting.

But by the time humankind achieved the power to alter the earth’s ecology, the divine instruction to the first humans was no longer useful.

Bereishit Rabbah, a 5th-century C.E. collection of commentary, presents one rabbi’s opinion that people with merit will dominate the animals, but people without merit will descend to the state of being dominated by animals—perhaps by the beastly side of their own natures.3

This interpretation is based on an ambiguous word in God’s initial remark about letting humankind rule over the earth and all the animals:

And God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, like our likeness, veyirdu the fish of the sea and over the flyers of the skies and over the big animals and over all the earth and over all the crawlers that crawl on the earth.” (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

veyirdu (וְיִרְדּוּ) = and they shall subdue, dominate, rule over. (An imperfect form of the verb radah, רָדָה)

The word veyirdu is another form of the verb radah only when it is spelled with the Masoretic vowel pointings added to the Torah in the 6th to 10th century C.E.. But there were no vowel pointings in the Torah scrolls the Masoretes annotated.4  Therefore commentators are free to interpret a biblical passage as if one of the words originally had different vowels. Bereishit Rabbah is perhaps the earliest, but not the only, commentary that spells the word v-y-r-d-u as veyeirdu.5

veyeirdu (וְיֵרְדוּ) = and they shall go down, descend; and they might descend. (An imperfect form of the verb yarad, יָרַד).6

According to this interpretation, God still tells humankind to subjugate and dominate the earth and its animals, but only after predicting that humans might descend to the level of unthinking animals themselves.


In the 21st century it looks as if our beastly natures have won. Too many of us have acted in ways that control the earth without thinking about the consequences. Yet human intelligence could also be used for restoring the earth, or at least minimizing its degradation. What we and all the other animals and plants on earth need now is for every human leader, in governments and industries, to choose ethical actions over selfish short-term benefits.

Humans already rule over the earth, for good or bad. Our rule has already caused global climate change, with some areas flooding and others burning up.  Our only hope now is to stop choosing what seems good, tov, because it is functional, attractive, or beneficial to only a few individuals, and start choosing what is virtuous because it reduces the harm to all humans and all living creatures on earth.

  1. Genesis 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, and 1:31.
  2. e.g. Nachalas Yaakov in Siftei Chakhamim, a 17th-century collection of commentary; Haamek Davar, a 19th-century commentary by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin.
  3. Bereishit Rabbah 8:12.
  4. At services today Jews still read out loud from parchment Torah scrolls on which scribes have copied the letters without vowel pointings or other diacritical marks indicating pronunciation (nikkudim).
  5. e.g. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), and Jacob ben Asher (13th-century rabbi) in Kitzur Baal Haturim, Nachalas Yaakov (ibid.).
  6. Biblical Hebrew has no past, present, or future tense. Veyeirdu is in the imperfect aspect, which means that its action has not been completed. Often the context indicates that an imperfect verb in Biblical Hebrew should be translated as a future tense verb in English, but in this case the imperfect verb yeirdu could be translated equally well as “they will descend”, “they shall descend”, “they could descend”, or “they might descend”.


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