dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
“Dominion” (radah) refers to the reign of a monarch. So mankind — male and female — serves as the “image” or “likeness” of God by — like God — reigning over the earth. But this is not about ruling autonomously and so not having to answer to a higher power. Quite the opposite. We reign on behalf of our King. God rules the earth through his image-bearers.
What is the nature of this rule? Well, we get some more detail in chapter 2 —
(Gen 2:15 ESV) The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
“Work” is ‘abad. “Keep” is shamar. These same words are used of the services performed by the Levites and priests in the tabernacle. For example,
(Num 3:6-8 ESV) 6 “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. 7 They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister [‘abad] at the tabernacle. 8 They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister [‘abad] at the tabernacle.”
(Lev 8:35 ESV) “At the entrance of the tent of meeting you shall remain day and night for seven days, performing [shamar] what the LORD has charged, so that you do not die, for so I have been commanded.”
Somehow, Adam and Eve’s working and keeping Eden was a priestly function, revealing to others the nature of God. In fact, it would appear that their care for the the Garden was an act of worship.
To “work” the Garden means to farm it or otherwise to do the work of agriculture — vine dressing, caring for an orchard, growing a crop. It’s to take raw land and make it productive for human enjoyment.
This teaching contradicts any notion that human consumption of natural resources is contrary to God’s will. The Garden had to be tended and made productive to support Adam and Eve. Putting a plow to the ground or planting a vineyard is no sin, even though both necessarily restructure nature into something designed to serve man.
On the other hand, to “keep” the Garden refers to protecting or guarding the Garden. It’s the role of preservation. Hence, Adam and Eve were to render the Garden productive without destroying it. After all, the Garden would need to continue to support human life for countless generations. It should not be wasted or spoiled.
In tabernacle usage, the words refer to any service rendered for the benefit of God and to keeping God’s rules for the tabernacle, whatever they might be. And so we see that making the Garden serve the needs of mankind is parallel with serving God at the tabernacle. Meeting the needs of humanity is worship of God. Why? Because God is far more concerned that we be fed and cared for than that rituals be performed in his tabernacle.
You see, one of the fundamental errors in worship theology is the beginning, unspoken assumption that worship of God means benefiting God separate from benefiting mankind. We see these as two very different things, with the worship of God not only not benefiting man, but very likely being expensive and costly to man. The goal of worship is assumed to be the minimization of humankind to thereby glorify God, as though we can only make room for God by failing to meet human needs.
But in truth, God is a God of grace and chesed. His greatest joy comes not from being praised and honored at the expense of humanity but in humanity being benefited and served in his name.
You doubt this? Well, consider —
(Mic 6:6-8 ESV) 6 “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Who gets the benefit from justice and kindness? Other humans.
(Isa 1:11-17 ESV) 11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? 13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations — I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”
Again, who is benefited when we do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow’s cause? People.
God could not be more plain than worship is far more about guarding and keeping the Creation — including fellow humans — than getting ritual right.
We all have a bit of paganism in us. We just can’t help but assume that God wants us to suffer so he’ll be happy. We think he wants us to give up every pleasure for him so that he’ll be glorified. Indeed, we assume that God’s glory necessarily requires our loss, our misery. And there are times and circumstances where those who worship God have to suffer — but not because our suffering is God’s delight. That would make God a monster! No, sometimes we suffer for the sake of God because the world is broken and his enemies attack him through his followers. That’s the nature of things.
But as a rule, God wants his children to be happy and cared for, kept and guarded — so much so that caring for our fellow human beings as image bearers — in the name of God — is true worship.