Reformed Christians often talk about “the cultural mandate”; and they usually apply this term to Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” By some it is interpreted as a commandment to develop the sciences and technology. Others see in it a basis for “taking dominion” of the culture-forming institutions of society. It is often put forth as a justification for industrialism and the technological society.
But all these views are wrong, and abuse the text by eisegesis. The text must be interpreted in the light of the context, as addressed to an original audience who were vastly different from us, and without reading things into the particular terms used that were never intended.
First, it is not a mandate, but a benediction. It does not say, “take dominion”, but “have dominion”. A benediction from God conveys what it pronounces. It is not a command for man; but words spoken when presenting a gift. If I put something in your hands and say “I want you to have this” no one would understand it as a command, a mandate, a covenant, or any of the things that this benediction has been called.
Second, it is chiefly a blessing of fertility upon early man, so that the human population would grow swiftly. We see the fulfillment of this in the succeeding history.
Third, it has to do with agrarian – not technological – culture, that is, the cultivation of the earth for the benefit of man and the family in the agrarian social order.
Fourth, it has to do with man’s relationship to living things – not, as some have said, the earth’s inanimate resources. This is explicit in the text; and it surprises me that so many have missed it.
Howard Douglas King
Revised March 24, 2019