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The Bible and Human 'Dominion' Over Animals: Superiority or Responsibility?

Part of the story of God's creating the universe in seven days involves creating a cosmos that God made to be good. Human beings must maintain an order that allows each thing to be and do all of what it is and does, animals included.
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The cover girl for last week's Time magazine is not pretty, by conventional standards. She's a bit jowly, for one thing, and whiskers sprout from her cheeks and chin. The deep brown eyes that gaze into the camera are frankly a bit off-kilter, and she cops some attitude: "Way to go, Einstein" floats in a thought bubble over her droopy ear. But hey, she's a dog -- a pug, judging from her smushed-in nose.

Anyone who lives with animals or has observed them at any length will tell you that they can seem pretty darn smart. 2010-08-13-Timemagdogcover.jpg Recent studies confirm that they are, in diverse ways and to varying degrees. That's the point of the magazine article. So why our history of ignorance, why our dismissal of them as "just a dog" or "just a bird"? The article pins partial blame on the Bible -- on one sentence in particular -- and the absolute authority that people give to such biblical texts.

Citing the biblical book of Genesis, Jeffrey Kluger (the article's author) observes, "Human beings were granted 'dominion over the beasts of the field,' and [for many people] there the discussion can more or less stop." He's right. Truth is, though, the discussion stopped even before that point. Few people ask, for instance, "What does it mean to have dominion?"

Genesis was originally written in Hebrew, and since every translation involves interpretation, we do well to ask about that English word, "dominion." (Some translations read "rule over," instead.) In biblical Hebrew, the word indeed supposes a hierarchy -- someone in a position of power exercises this quality over inferiors. So "rule over" or "have dominion" is actually quite accurate. However, its interpretation as the right to exploit and despoil is not.

On the contrary, in this biblical story, human superiority brings not self-serving privilege but grave responsibility. That "dominion" phrase appears in an intriguing description of the creation of human beings in which God makes human beings, simultaneously male and female, "in the image of God." Part of the story of God's creating the universe in seven days, the image of God is represented by God's power and authority in creating and organizing a cosmos that God made to be good. Human beings have the unique responsibility, then, to work creatively at maintaining an order that allows each thing to be and do all of what it is and does. And that, this first chapter in Genesis declares, is good.

This story no more justifies rejecting animals' capacities to think, dream, feel, suffer, and be happy than it does prioritizing men over women. While the text may allow for the necessity of employing and controlling animals to survive in terribly difficult circumstances, it does not deny those animals the possibility of diverse intelligences.

I don't know how to parse the intelligence of animals, but I'm glad that there are people out there doing it. While I doubt that the dog on the magazine's cover figured out the theory of relativity and kept mum about it, I don't doubt that animals deserve our respect and whatever care allows them full lives according to their kinds -- dogs with companionship and purpose, for example; and cats with, well, the space to determine it for themselves, thank you very much. Einstein again:

"Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others...for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy."

He was talking especially about human beings, as he implies in the next sentence; but like the equally human-centered Bible, Einstein reminds us that the intelligence and capacity of human beings is at its best when infused with compassion. Maybe human intelligence simply isn't without allowing for the intelligence of others -- finned, four-legged, winged, and waddling -- too. And maybe with our acumen comes the charge to protect, support, and love, to treat with respect and dignity each according to its kind. That sounds good to me.

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