The Subdue and Rule Mandate, What Does It Mean?


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God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)


The Subdue and Rule Mandate is a big deal. A really big deal! Why? Because it has influenced every single person who has ever lived, is living, and will ever live on this planet. Even now, it’s continually working in and through you and every other human being.


We find the Subdue and Rule Mandate in Genesis 1:28, where God gives two foundational commands to the Couple that represents humanity’s totality on earth at that moment. Those two commands are to reproduce and subdue and rule the earth. There’s only one other command at creation that humanity must obey, and it’s in Genesis 2:17, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.”


We’ll look more closely at those three commands later, but we focus on the command to subdue and rule. Funny, as I write this, my grammar-checker keeps telling me, “Hey, dummy! Subdue and Rule are two commands in the Mandate, not a single command.” Oh, Grammarly, I beg to differ. You see, the two are simply two aspects of a single command.


God told humanity to subdue and rule, and those two functions are inseparable. Why subdue the earth and not rule over it to maintain its subdued state? Or how can a person rule something unless they subdue it first? Subdue and rule must go together as a process even though in Genesis 1:28, “subdue” is at the end of a sentence, and “rule” starts the next.


When God told humanity (the Man) to subdue and rule the earth, He wasn’t talking about Eden. Eden was already under control, and the Couple was standing within its borders. As God commanded in Genesis 2:15, the Man only had to cultivate and protect the Garden, implying an ordered, peaceful living place. If you read the previous section, do you remember how God set up humanity’s earthly home environment as a defined space of tamed land amidst an untamed global wilderness? Eden was like a Forward Operating Base from which humanity was to move out and expand Eden over the whole earth – Edenize the world, if you will. Therefore, an untamed, uncontrolled world was the aim of humanity’s Subdue and Rule Mandate. That was their God-given task.


Before we go further into this topic, I want to explain something. Genesis 1 and 2 are not chronological to each other. God didn’t create everything in chapter 1 and then restarted in chapter 2. Those chapters are two accounts of the same event – creation with humanity’s formation and commission. Parts of Genesis 1 precede 2, then 2 provides details that fill in 1’s timeline gaps, then 1 takes over, and so on. I’m going to integrate the events of Genesis 1 and 2 to help you understand in a more organized way what’s happening during the creation account and as I build my case.


Builders need foundations to start their structure. Houses need foundations, and large houses take large foundations. Since the Subdue and Rule Mandate is such a massive part of the Bible and human experience, I need to carefully lay a solid foundation of individual blocks and explain why they’re essential. Don’t worry. You’ll be amazed at how they fit together.


What does it mean for us to “subdue and rule” the earth? It sounds like a concise job description, doesn’t it? But as most of us who start new jobs find out, a job description is usually much more involved than we thought. To start, let’s delve into the biblical word meanings to help us clarify what the newly formed Couple’s Father commanded them to do. How about we get a little word-nerdy?


Foundation Stone #1: What Do Subdue and Rule Mean?


There’s much discussion as to the exact meaning and emphasis of “subdue” (Heb. kavash) and “rule” (Heb. radah) in scripture. Kavash (subdue) is a basic Hebrew root that means “to subdue, bring into bondage.” It’s used many ways in the Hebrew scriptures, such as “assault(1), brought into subjection(2), forced into bondage(1), forcing(1), subdue(1), subdued(5), subjugate(1), trample(1), tread under foot(1)” (NAS Hebrew Dictionary).


In its simplest Hebrew form, the word carries the meanings of “subdue, overcome, enslave” (Kohlenberger/Mounce Concise Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament). The general sense of the word as it’s used in the scriptures is to use force to bring an area into subjugation by conquering an opposing force or army (Numbers 32:23, 29; 1 Chronicles 2:18). It’s also applied to forcibly reducing people to slavery (2 Chronicles 28:10; Jeremiah 34:1, 34:16) and even rape (Esther 7:8), although the last use is rare. As you can see, kavash has a broad spectrum of intensity. In a basic sense, kavash implies bringing someone or something under one’s control.


Interestingly, the Hebrew word kavash is similar to the slang term “kibosh” (spoken with a Brooklyn accent which you just did, didn’t you?) as in “I put da kibosh on the whole thing!” Kibosh carries with it the same idea as kavash (to subdue) and is often used as an action “to put an end to something, finish it off, or put a damper on it” (blog.oup.com/2013/08/three-recent-theories-of-kibosh-word-origin-etymology). While scholars debate the exact origin of kibosh, the similarity between the three-consonant root structure of both words (Hebrew k-v-sh and the possibly Yiddish k-b-sh ) along with the similar sense and use of the two words, points to a fascinating linguistic bunny trail, if you really want to go there.


Radah (rule) is also a basic Hebrew root meaning “to have dominion, rule, dominate” and is used in the Hebrew scriptures as “dominated(1), had dominion(1), have dominion(1), prevailed(1), rule(12), ruled(4), ruling(1), subdued(1), subdues(1)” (NAS Hebrew Dictionary). Its simple Hebrew form means “to rule over” (Kohlenberger and Mounce). Its use in the Hebrew scriptures carries the general sense of having and exercising dominion over individuals or a group of people (Leviticus 25:46; 1 Kings 4:24; Isaiah 14:2). According to one scholar, “while (radah) itself certainly does include the idea of decisive rule, the term does not necessarily picture harshness…Therefore, radah can just as easily be used to describe appropriate supervisory work initiated by the central government” and carries with it a “regal aspect” (Manahan).


Okay, word-nerdiness aside, the words for subdue (kavash) and rule (radah) in Genesis 1:28 combine to carry the idea of bringing something (or someone) under control and then managing what is controlled. But as you can see, there’s a wide range of meanings for the two words across the Bible that reflect intensity, especially with kavash. Some scholars see the words as having a gentle and loving sense, while others regard them as much more coercive and forceful. Therefore, to understand these words and how they apply to the Subdue and Rule Mandate, we have to look at how they’re used in context.


Foundation Stone #2: The Command to Subdue and Rule


The Subdue and Rule Mandate is a command. That’s right. No sooner was humanity created than God started telling us what and how to live. Well, as God, He can do that.


Even though a quick read of most English translations seems to indicate the Subdue and Rule Mandate is just a general instruction to the Man and Woman, it is, in fact, a command from God as a part of His original creation covenant with humanity (to be explained later).


How do we know “subdue and rule” are parts of a command? Because both kavash and radah are in the Hebrew verb form (the Qal imperative – nerd alert!), indicating a command. Therefore, God commanded humanity to “subdue and rule” the world, bring the earth and its creatures under control, and then maintain control.


As a command, this is very revealing.


Seeing subdue and rule as commands implies that when God created the world, He apparently created the planet and its creatures in a wild state, not the lush, cultivated tropical paradise so often depicted in Sunday School worksheets. And as the pinnacle of His creation, humanity was commanded to do the job of bringing the undomesticated world under subjugation on God’s behalf and for their benefit.


Since humanity was facing an unrestrained eco-system, a certain amount of force would be needed by the Man and Woman to tame (kavash, subdue) the newly created, untamed world. Once it was restrained, some degree of force would also be needed to sustain humanity’s control (radah, rule) over its freshly subdued territory.


And being a command from God, subduing and ruling the world was not an option for the Couple.


Another word for “command” is “mandate,” meaning “a command, a judicial or legal order” (etymonline.com, “mandate”). Mandate’s Latin root literally means “to give into one’s hand.” That’s right. God put the task of bringing His creation under control and keeping it that way entirely into our hands. Not only that, but after God created the first Couple, He gave us the responsibility of creating more human beings through the “reproduce” command.


So, God created the universe, then delegated the task of overseeing earth to us. I guess He figured that out of the gazillion planets He created, He would entrust us with just one to see how we would handle it.


Not very well, evidently. And yes, we’ll look at that, too.


As a cool side note, C. S. Lewis wrote a sci-fi series, Out Of Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, of which the second, Perelandra, is his take on the creation account. Happy reading!


Since “subdue and rule” is a command, a mandate, from our Creator to all human beings, this became a part of our very being. How do we know this? Because it’s linked to the mandate for humanity to reproduce. God created humanity to subdue and rule the earth as much as He created us to self-replicate (Genesis 1:28). Generally speaking, as the drive to reproduce is part of humanity from the start, so is the drive for dominion.


Yes, I know the questions about the reproduction mandate/sex-drive—all in due time. The foundation block I’m putting down now is that absolutely everyone has been given the drive to subdue and rule the world around them, and it’s as in-built as the drive to reproduce.


We all have a God-given, inherent drive for dominion or “rulership” over the world we live in. Of all creatures on earth, only human beings are under God’s Subdue and Rule Mandate, and it sets us in a unique position relative to God’s creation. To rule (radah) the earth “describes the relationship of humans to other creatures which share the earth. Its message of human superiority over the creatures appears also in Psalm 8:6 where the essential idea of ‘dominion’ is spelled out as putting all things under the feet of humankind” (Isaacs).


Psalm 8:4-8 says, “what is a human being that you remember him, a son of man that you look after him? You made him little less than God and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all the sheep and oxen, as well as the animals in the wild, the birds of the sky, and the fish of the sea that pass through the currents of the seas” (italics author).


It sounds exactly like Genesis 1:28, doesn’t it?


And now for a bit of fun. To better understand our God-given Subdue and Rule Mandate, our inborn drive for dominion over our world, we need to take a closer look at what being “created in God’s image” means because just as subdue and rule are inseparably linked, so are the Subdue and Rule Mandate and God’s Image.


Pastor Jay Christianson

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