The Meaning of Dominion: Noah, the Bible, and Animal Theology (part 2)

Close to the end of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, the movie’s arch-villain, Tubal-Cain, has secretly stowed away aboard the ark and is colluding with Noah’s son, Ham, in order to ambush the boy’s father. When Tubal-Cain devours a small nearby animal, Ham expresses his horror: “The beasts are precious. There are only two of each!” Tubal-Cain takes the opportunity to give the boy a theological lesson:

“Your father fills a ship with beasts while children drown. He belittles you by telling you you must serve them. They serve us! That is the greatness of men. When the Creator finished making the sky, the ground, the sea, this beast, He wasn’t satisfied. He needed something greater, something to take dominion over it, and subdue it. So He made us in His image.”

Here we touch on what is arguably the film’s central conflict, one that echos an important dispute within theology over the meaning of the dominion given to human beings in Genesis 1:26-28:

“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26-28

While few Christians would be as blatantly callous and self-centered as Tubal-Cain is in the film, many still find these three verses in Genesis to be sufficient grounds to justify our current practices with respect to non-human animals. It is often assumed that these verses indicate that the rest of creation is made for the sake of human beings, and so, as St. Thomas Aquinas has said, “there is no sin in using a thing for the purpose for which it is.” (Summa Theologica II, II Q64). Similarly, because creation has been placed under the dominion of mankind, Christians have sometimes been guilty of downplaying the moral urgency of things like factory farming, animal testing, extinction, deforestation, and global warming, since any attempt to deal with these issues would inevitably impinge upon our supposedly God-given right to use creation as we see fit.

Beyond the obvious practical problems with such a view, there are numerous theological difficulties in interpreting Genesis in this way. First, as theologian Charlie Camosy notes, “Whatever dominion humans have over non-human animals, it is given by God and is therefore an extension of God’s dominion.” (Camosy 9:46). Our dominion, in other words, is not absolute. We do not own the other animals; they belong to God. We are therefore accountable to God for our care of His non-human creatures.

Second, these verses closely link our dominion to our position as God’s image in the world. While there is a long theological tradition that identifies the ‘image of God’ in humans with certain innate capacities that are assumed to be uniquely human (like reason, language, free will, etc.), most Biblical scholars believe that when Genesis says, “let us make man as our image” this is closely related to a common practice of the ancient near east, whereby an emperor would erect a statue of himself in remote parts of his empire as an image symbolizing his reign. On this view, God places humankind as a living symbol of Himself on earth, to represent His reign. In other words, the image of God in humans cannot be identified with any special innate capacity shared by all human beings. Rather, it is a theological task that has close ties with ethics. Likewise, our dominion is not carte-blanche to do with creation what we see fit, but is a responsibility that must reflect God’s providential love and care of creation.

Third, ‘dominion’ is given before sin, and is an idea closely related to the Israelites’ ideal conceptions of royal responsibility (Adams 8). Ezekiel 34:1-4, for example, warns rulers not to exercise their dominion in self-serving ways:

“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?…You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”

Similarly, Psalm 72:1-14 describes dominion that reflects God’s justice:

“Endow the king with your justice, O God…He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.”

Ultimately, we can only come to an understanding of what true dominion looks like through the example of Christ, the true Image of God (2 Cor 4:44; Col 1:15), who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). As Andrew Linzey has argued, human uniqueness, in a theological context, must therefore be understood in terms of our “capacity for service and self-sacrifice”. As he argues, “The groaning and travailing of fellow creatures requires a species capable of co-operating with God in the healing and liberating of creation.” Thus, human beings, according to Linzey, should be understood as “the servant species” (Linzey p. 45).

Finally, mankind’s dominion is constrained in it’s original context in Genesis by verse 2:15 – which explicitly states that God placed Adam in the Garden in order to keep and sustain it, not to exploit and destroy it – and importantly, verses 1:29 and 2:16 which allocate plants and not animals to human beings for food.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that Aronofsky envisions Noah as a vegetarian steward of God’s creation. In the film’s opening scene Noah’s father, Lamech, blesses his son, saying, “The Creator made Adam in His image, then placed the world in his care. This is your world now, your responsibility. May you walk alongside the Creator in righteousness.” Here, Aronofsky refers to Genesis 6:9 which describes Noah as “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” who “walked with God”. What’s interesting about this is how Aronofsky reads this description of Noah through the lens of Genesis 1 and 2, where man is put “in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Gen 2:15). In the film, mankind’s prelapsarian (that is, “pre-fall”) vocation to keep and sustain creation, is handed down every generation, from Adam to Seth, Seth to Enosh, and so on, down to Noah. Indeed, that Aronofsky sees Noah as a kind of second-Adam figure (which has subtle christological resonances), is made apparent when one of the “watchers” (Aronofsky’s creative take on the ‘Nephilim’ of Gen 6:4) decides to help Noah in his mission, saying, “When I look at you, I see a glimmer of Adam again; the man I knew, the man I came to help.” And indeed, the author of Genesis also establishes clear parallels between Adam and Noah. For instance, Adam is tasked with the responsibility to care for God’s creatures; they are each brought to him to receive a unique name. Similarly, the animals are brought to Noah who is charged with the task of caring for them and ensuring their survival through the flood. After the flood, God blesses Noah with the same blessing he gives to Adam in Genesis 1. The one is a story of beginnings, the other, of new beginnings.

Aronofsky’s decision to depict Noah and his family as vegetarians (or vegans to be exact) makes sense in light of his vision of Noah as second-Adam. After all, so far in the Genesis account, God has done nothing to overturn His command in verses 1:29 and 2:16, which provide only plants for human consumption. It’s no stretch to think that when Genesis describes Noah as “a righteous man” that this means that his life and actions were in-keeping with God’s commands up to this point. There is, however, a glaring problem with this view from a biblical standpoint. Unlike the film, Genesis 8:20-21 relates that after the flood subsides:

“Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

The opening verses of Chapter 9 continue:

“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will be on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” (Genesis 9:1-3)

This concession is immediately followed by an important qualification: “However, you must not eat flesh with it’s life, that is, it’s blood.” (Gen 9:4).

This stark reversal of the vegetarianism prescribed in the Garden raises a number of perplexing questions. First of all, if Noah was a righteous man who obeyed God’s will, then why do we find him sacrificing animals when God had not yet even conceded animal flesh for human consumption? Indeed, how could he have killed these animals if there were only two of each aboard the ark? Wouldn’t this have rendered these species extinct? More disturbingly, perhaps, why is God depicted as being moved to mercy by the “pleasing odor” of Noah’s violent sacrifice? And most pressing for Christian vegetarians, what are we to make of Genesis 9:3 which effectively reverses the vegetarian ideal given in Genesis 1 and 2?

In the following post, we will assess what some theologians and biblical scholars have said regarding these passages, and examine what can be said from a Christian-vegetarian perspective in particular, in order to determine what, if anything, these verses may contribute to Christian ethics today.

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NOTES:

Adams, Carol J. “What About Dominion in Genesis?” in A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals (The Peaceable Kingdom Series) (p. 8). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition

Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. University of Illinois Press, 1994. p45

‘Noah’, the Bible, and Animal Theology (Part 1)

Reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah have been flooding the internet for two weeks now, and feelings appear to be mixed. Religious critics, in particular, have expressed much concern over what they feel are excessive creative liberties, suggesting that Aronofsky has not shown sufficient respect for a text that many regard as sacred. A few have even accused the film blasphemy or of promulgating heretical views like Gnosticism. Most of these criticisms, however, have come from Christians who are unfamiliar with many of the Jewish traditions – like the Talmud, the Rabbinic commentaries and Midrash – that Aronofsky draws from to fill out the details of the sparse Biblical account. The “watchers”, for instance, are Aronofsky’s Tolkein-esque take on the “giants” or “nephilim” mentioned in Gen 6:4 and which are often understood as fallen angels in some parts of the Jewish Midrash (see here). Likewise, the movie’s villain, Tubal-Cain, who is only briefly mentioned in Genesis 5:22 as a decendant of Cain, brother of Naamah, and as an “instructer of every artificer in bronze and iron”, has been discusssed and elaborated on in the Midrash (Genesis Rabba, for instance, names Tubal-Cain’s sister, Naamah, as Noah’s wife) and is later discussed by the medieval Rabbi Rashi who claims his work in bronze and iron “refined the Cain’s craft to make weapons for murderers.” (see, his comment on v. 22, here) Aronofsky is clearly aware of this tradition, and many of the other unbiblical, or perhaps we should say extrabiblical, details can be similarly traced to Jewish tradition, though Shem’s wife, “Ila” as she’s called in the film, is all an invention of Aronofsky’s apparently added simply for dramatic interest later on in the movie (without, I think, fundamentally distorting the story).

Yet what seems to have upset some Christian moviegoers the most is the suggestion that God’s wrath and judgment (in the form of a monstrous deluge) could have had anything to do with a fallen humanity’s violence, devastation of God’s Creation and wanton destruction of nonhuman animals. Wesley J. Smith of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Human Exceptionalism (yes, that’s a real thing), has denounced the movie for being “anti-human” and “radically environmentalist”. For Smith, Aronofsky’s Noah is just the most recent conspiracy in Hollywood’s carefully coordinated “war on humans”. But while many religious commentators have either dismissed the movie wholesale, or have sought to defend it’s every innovation, few have taken the time to explore the potentially illuminating theological questions it raises. Why exactly does God send a massive flood? If humans are somehow responsible, why did so many non-human animals die as well? What is the nature of mankind’s “dominion”? Does God give homo sapiens carte-blanche over the rest of creation, or does it somehow imply responsibility and stewardship of the earth? What about meat-eating? Was Noah really a vegetarian? What about the animal sacrifice at the end of the story (which Aronofsky conveniently omits)? And what are we to make of God’s statement in Genesis 9:3 that “Every living thing that moves shall be food for you”? Doesn’t this conflict with the vegetarian diet God prescribes in Genesis 1:29,30?

In order to make reading here a bit less of a Herculean effort than it has tended to be in the past, I have decided to explore these questions in a series of three shorter posts, instead of all at once. The next post will discuss a focal conflict in the movie over the meaning of dominion. The following post will explore, what, if anything, this story might mean for Christian vegetarians and vegans, who see their “dietary pacifism” as rooted in their Christian faith. The series will end with a third and final post exploring what this passage (along with recent ethological research) might have to say about morality, sin and atonement in relation to nonhuman animals.