People have a rose coloured view of what very good in Gen 1:30 means – thanks in no small part to Catholic father Augustine. But God’s words show the order of Genesis 1 included a forceful putting down of opposition and rule by humanity over the beasts. not only meat eating but conflict. Not what most literal creationists following a form of Augustine’s The Fall theology think.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth Gen 1:28 KJV
I wanted to understand these verses as talking about a benign rulership of humanity over creation – taking the world God created and stewarding it in His stead. But that’s not what the Bible actually says.
Consider the uses of the word subdue (graphic from the Word Study Tool in Logos software):
There is no nice sense of the word – it is all conflict – a point the Theological Dictionary of the OT points out:
The Hebrew verb kāḇaš is one of several that express the exercise of force. The meaning of kāḇaš can be realized in various contexts: in military hostilities, when whole territories and their populations are subdued, in the conquest of established kingdoms, but also in individual cases, when someone is enslaved, or in the sexual realm when a woman or girl is importuned and assaulted. The verb always presupposes a stronger party as subject and a weaker party as object
Fight and prevail over the lesser elements in creation (the fish birds and land animals) humanity is told. The 13 other occurrences of the word allow no positive connotations (even if the intended outcome might be positive as in Mic7:19).
Once they have subdued they are to have dominion/rule over the creation. The Hebrew occurs some 22 times and comes from a root word to tread (down). It is translated as follows:
What does the word imply about the quality of the rulership? Some examples to illustrate (all from the NET):
- You must not rule over him harshly, but you must fear your God Lev 25:43
- I will set my face against you. You will be struck down before your enemies, those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee when there is no one pursuing you Lev 26:17
- His royal court was so large because he ruled over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River from Tiphsah to Gaza; he was at peace with all his neighbors 1 Kings 4:24
- These men worked for Solomon as supervisors; there were a total of 250 of them who were in charge of the people 2 Chron 8:10
- May he rule from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth Psa 72:8
- The Lord extends your dominion from Zion. Rule in the midst of your enemies Psa 102:2
- You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them Ezek 34:4
The rulership is about control – treading down. It can sometimes yield peace (per Solomon’s reign and Psalm 72) but in these instances it is a rulership that controls the hostile nations to enforce peace. When used of ruling God’s people it has a negative connotation. Eg Solomon’s labour managers and the priests who exploited the people.
The Complete Word Study Dictionary says:
A verb meaning to rule, to have dominion, to subjugate. This Hebrew word conveys the notion of exercising domain, whether legitimate or not, over those who are powerless or otherwise under one’s control. It is related as the exercise of authority by the priesthood (Jer. 5:31); by slave owners over their slaves (Lev. 25:43); by supervisors over their workers (1 Kgs. 9:23); and by a king over his kingdom (1 Kgs. 4:24[5:4]).
The word is not neutral like the Hebrew word used for the rule of the sun and moon in Gen 1:16 a word which means:
dominion, rule, authority, province, realm. Often this term denotes the ruling power which one in authority exercises over his domain or kingdom…In other places, the word refers to the territory over which one rules or governs…Once it refers collectively to an envoy of powerful ambassadors, such as rulers, princes, or chief officers
To see the word subdue and rule as having negative – either violent or exploitative – overtones is not necessarily popular and many commentators from all sides resist it. Eg Brueggemann
The “dominion” here mandated is with reference to the animals. The dominance is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals. Or, if transferred to the political arena, the image is that of a shepherd king (cf. Ezek. 34)
But there is nothing in the words to present this benign stewardship (and Ezek 34 has exploitative rulers depicted).
Gen 1:28 means that conflict, violence and yes death were an inherent part of the very good order of Genesis 1. Because very good means everything was great – it worked as planned. Not that it was somehow a different state of existence to now.
 Ben Stanhope’s blog post prompted this inquiry Semitic Scholarship Confirms Animal Death Before the Fall in Genesis 1 (bstanhope.com)
 Wagner, S. (1995). כָּבַשׁ. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 7, p. 56). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.