No doubt the language in my title evokes a certain kind of expectation about the ensuing discussion, a discussion that raises the controversial subject of evolution and the merits of reading Genesis in conflict or harmony with the current scientific consensus of the history of life and the universe. This expectation indicates how far our discussions of Genesis 1 have drifted from the concerns of the text. Debates concerning evolution neglect the functional significance Genesis 1 attaches to the components of creation, the least of which not being humanity! Literally speaking, Genesis 1 is a divine imperative that should fundamentally shape the worldview of humanity.
And 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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens 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. (Gen 1:28-30)
Tapping into the agrarian worldview of the Hebrew Bible, Ellen F. Davis hones in on the imperative facing humanity in the text of Genesis 1 (Chapter 3, Seeing With God: Israel’s Poem of Creation, 42-65). She makes a passionate argument that this imperative is rooted in Israel’s agrarian perspective. It is of no little significance that the imperative concerns the fruitfulness, not just of humanity, but of their interaction with the earth. They are not merely given food, but food which yields seed (זֹרֵעַ זָרַע zorea’ zara’). The use of the verb “to conquer,” a word that evokes in our memory of the conquest of Canaan (Num 32:22-29; Josh 1:18), reminds us of a land that is not their own, one that is exceedingly fruitful but only for those who honor it (i.e. observe the laws in the Torah that regulate the proper relationship between the human and the land).
Perhaps it is fair to argue that our modern industrial agricultural system captures the imagery of conquest, that we are fulfilling the divine imperative by “conquering” the earth. Yet our system does not recall the imagery referred to above, but rather that of the violence by which Canaan’s conquest was achieved. Our society’s modern agricultural system makes a mockery of a productive and fruitful relationship between the human and the land. It must be remembered that even Israel’s conquest was a once-for-all moment in history, not a self perpetuating system of violence (see here). Indeed, such violence is unsustainable, which is precisely how informed and concerned individuals are describing our modern methods of agriculturalism (cf. eg. Michael Pollan; Francis Moore Lappé).
Taking Genesis 1 literally has little to do with theories of cosmic origins and everything to do with the way in which we respond to the imperative laid before us in the text. The true literalists will be concerned with the way their lifestyle incorporates them into the system God has created, the one in which the land is dependent on the human who is, in turn, dependent on the land–and both are dependent upon God. Maintaining the viability of this system while reveling in its “good”ness is the ultimate literal reading of Genesis 1.