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Dominion through service

Dominion through service

Daily Office readings for Sunday, January 12:

Psalm 146, 147 (Morning)

Psalm 111, 112, 113 (Evening)

Genesis 1:1-2:3

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:29-34

As much as I dearly love the Creation story, there’s a real spiritual tension I feel in it when it comes to the words “dominion” and “subdue.” The Hebrew counterpart to the word “subdue” (kavash) is not helpful either–it’s the origin of the colloquialism “kabash/kaibash” as in “I’m gonna put the kabash (i.e., the squelch) on THAT.”

The noun form, “kevesh,” literally means footstool or a place to put your foot, as in the custom of the victor putting his foot on the neck of the vanquished. For me, that’s a pretty ugly image in what I mostly consider a beautiful story.

We get a little help, but not much, in the Hebrew word for the act of having dominion over someone or something. The Hebrew counterpart to the word “dominion” in the creation story is the word “radah.” Although “radah” is more commonly used as a term of political hierarchical authority, it can also be used in a way that speaks to the process of growth and spread, and this alternative notion can at least infer an aspect of stewardship.

As often happens when we study Scripture through the Daily Office readings, sometimes it’s necessary to cheat a little and look at the parts of Scripture that flank our intended reading, to get a fuller picture. (Well, ok, there’s no “left flank” to this one because it is, after all, Genesis 1, but we do have a “right flank.”) This seems to be the case in today’s reading. If we look ahead at Genesis 2, when human beings come in the story, we get our first introduction to that topsy-turvy world of what that means in God’s economy, and what it will come to mean in the Gospels–that what we’ve been commanded to do isn’t exactly in the way we tend to think of it.

In Genesis 2:15, we discover that God’s notion of dominion and subjugation is putting Adam in the garden “to till it and keep it.” (Or, in King James English, “to dress it and to keep it.”) The Hebrew word that goes with that? “Avad”–“serve”–to serve as a slave serves a master. Reading ahead makes this a real game changer. It changes the notion of dominion over the Earth to something more like, “Ok, humankind–here’s the deal. This planet? It’s yours. You have the power to either crush it, or tend it. You have the power to suck it dry, or help it to grow and flourish. But if you choose the latter in those choices, it means you have to serve it. You have to do what’s best for it, and not what’s best for you.”

This very first notion in Scripture that God has commandments for humans opens the door to what we will experience in the stories of the Gospel–that God’s world is one where the last is first, the lowly are uplifted, and to rule means to serve. It also opens the door to the possibility that serving God and Christ can occur through the ways we protect and honor the Earth and all creation. When we choose greener options for our homes and transportation, we are all victors. When we choose to advocate for animals–whether it’s humane treatment of our meat supply, creating protected spaces for threatened/endangered species, or particpating in stray rescue operations, we are also serving Christ.

Oh, make no mistake, we are most strongly called to serve one another–but we won’t get to that “am I my brother’s keeper” part until Genesis 4. Yet, even that commandment is underpinned by the more basic and all encompassing command to serve all creation.

When is a time you’ve exercised “dominion” through service?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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