A three-part series of Bible lessons about stewardship. The first session looks at how Genesis uses words like “image of God” and “dominion” to talk about stewardship.
Living in God’s Abundance: Perspectives from Classic Texts in Scripture
God Almighty, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Grant us, we pray, to be grounded and settled in your truth by the coming of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. That which we know not, reveal; that which is wanting in us, fill up; that which we know, confirm; and keep us blameless in your service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
— Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 86
In reflecting on stewardship, it is good to go “back to the beginnings” within Scripture to Genesis. The matter of stewardship comes up there immediately. That means that stewardship is actually not only the responsibility of the Christian. It is a basic responsibility of every person.
The familiar creation story at the beginning of Genesis ends with the creation of humanity at 1:26-31, followed by a brief but important section on the Sabbath (2:1-3). Both of these are important for a discussion of stewardship. In 1:26-31 God gives to humanity the responsibility to rule the earth and all its creatures.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29 God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
The passage contains two points that have to do with stewardship explicitly. The points are made by the use of metaphors from ordinary life in the world of the Bible. The metaphors are not common in the modern world, but they can be explained in light of ancient ways of thinking and living.
The first is that God created human beings in his own “image.” Being created in the “image of God” (1:26-27) means that human beings are to be God’s representatives on earth. The concept of a person being created in God’s image is related to ancient ideas of kingship. In ancient cultures surrounding Israel the king was thought to be the representative on earth of a particular god. He bore that god’s image and therefore ruled in that god’s place.
In the Genesis account of creation that idea is expanded in a revolutionary way. Each person bears the image of God. That means that each person who comes into the world has a responsibility to rule in God’s place on earth. That does not mean that any one person is sole ruler. That would be pressing the imagery too far. But each person has a ruling responsibility on earth. That will mean that not only Christians have that responsibility, but all persons who share a place on the planet.
The second explicit point, expressed by another metaphor, is that people are to “have dominion” over all the other creatures upon the earth (1:26, 28). The Hebrew word in question can be translated either as “to have dominion” (as in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible) or “to rule” (as in the New International Version of the Bible). The term is used in the Old Testament often to speak of the rule or dominion of kings over their subjects (1 Kings 4:24; Psalms 72:8; 110:2).
The implication is that human beings, created by God, have a special ruling function over all other creatures upon the earth.
Every metaphor used to describe human responsibility under God has problems. That is true of any analogy. Metaphors are limited in what they can do.
The downside of the metaphors used in this part of the Bible (humans as created in the “image of God” and “to have dominion”) is that one might get the impression that there are no limits, then, to human power over the earth, even over the universe. Indeed, some people have suggested that it is the very concept in Genesis of humanity having “dominion” over everything else in the creation that is the basis for ecological disasters. People have gotten the idea from Genesis that they can do whatever they want to do. God has given us absolute power.
But the accusation is without foundation. It is not likely than anyone who seeks to exploit the created order has first sat down and read this part of Genesis, reflected upon it and then concluded that he or she is authorized by God to seize, exploit, pollute or damage the creation to the extent of one’s ability to do so. Such ways of thinking and behavior are much more likely based on greed arising from a distorted view of one’s place in creation.
The metaphors used in this part of Genesis, like all metaphors, are approximations, and the reader is to gain from them the meaning that is intended by their use, and not go beyond that. Clearly within the context of this chapter of Genesis, human beings are responsible to God who has created them and all else. The ruling that is expected of humans is a ruling that is in accord with the will of God for all that has been created.
Care for the earth and all that inhabits it are God-given responsibilities that are placed in the hands of men and women the world over. That means that stewardship is rooted, first of all, in the doctrine of creation and is the responsibility of all people prior to any other specifically Christian considerations.
Christians, however, need to reflect upon stewardship and to live lives of responsible stewardship. That necessity arises, first of all, out of their being a part of the human race, sharing with all others the future of the earth and, indeed, the entire cosmos. But it arises also out of their discipleship to Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, Christians are prompted to heed the will of God for humanity and for the creation as a whole as set forth in the Scriptures about their place in the created order.
Christian stewardship, based on a person’s understanding of his or her place in creation, involves a series of commitments.
- It involves caring for the earth itself. One must look to the future and secure the health of the planet for generations yet to come.
- It involves caring for humanity. A just and peaceful world is a prerequisite for human habitation to flourish in the world. In order to have justice and peace, military strength and national security are important but not sufficient. People need to be able to have decent incomes, food, water, clean air, shelter, clothing, education and health care.
- It involves caring for community. Human beings are social by nature and need companionship. They also need communities to support them in their struggles. The Bible stresses community more than individualism. In this way it is very wise. People long for community, and Christian churches provide it. At their best, churches also seek community development in secular society. Both Martin Luther and the Lutheran confessional documents speak explicitly about “civic righteousness.” That is to say, we do not gain righteousness in the eyes of God for our justification, but we do seek to attain civic righteousness, doing our part in promoting the common good.
- It involves Sabbath. As indicated at the outset, the story of the creation of humans and the assignment of responsibilities to them is followed by the little section on the Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3). There is therefore a connection between the Sabbath and creation. The Sabbath is built into the creation. It is the day of rest for God in that story, and later on it becomes the day of rest for the people of Israel (Exodus 20:8-11). Although Christians do not observe the Sabbath of the Old Testament (technically, a Saturday), they should be reminded by this portion of Scripture that times of rest are integral to the well-being of humanity. That applies not only to the life of the Christian but to all persons. The risk of avoiding that truth is for people to get worn out from work and other activities.
Stewardship is not simply about the use of our possessions. On the basis of the creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3, it has to do with much more. We are to be involved in those life-giving and caring activities for which we have been created by God.
1. When and where is “stewardship” discussed outside the church, if at all?
2. When the word “stewardship” is used, what thoughts come to mind?
3. What differences are there between “dominion” over all living things (Genesis 1:26) and “exploitation” of them?
4. If communities have stewardship responsibilities, what does that mean for the congregation in society and within the larger church?
Almighty God, in giving us dominion over things on earth, you made us co-workers in your creation. Give us wisdom and reverence to use the resources of nature so that no one may suffer from our abuse of them, and that generations yet to come may continue to praise you for your bounty; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
— Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 80
Arland J. Hultgren is the Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
Click on these links to access the other articles in this three-part series:
Arland J. Hultgren is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary.
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