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.”
Contrary to what many have argued, this is not a command (or a “Dominion Mandate”) but a blessing. A similar blessing is given to other aspects of Creation in verse 22. Rambam in particular emphasizes the fact that this is a blessing.To quote from this article which I wrote on the subject (and others):
This is not a commandment. This is a blessing. We know this, not just because it explicitly says God is blessing them here, but because of how blessings, including repetitions of this particular blessing, are handled elsewhere in the text.
In Genesis 35, Jacob is blessed similarly, also with imperative wording in a way that might be considered a command. But later, in Genesis 47, after God has blessed him with an abundance of children (remember that Jacob’s kids were explicitly the product of God playing musical chairs with the wombs of his wives, and so not within his control), he tells his kid that this was something God caused to happen… as a blessing. Deuteronomy 1:10 makes a similar statement, leaving no doubt that this is a blessing that God causes to happen, not a commandment. This interpretation makes Genesis 1:22 make more sense, because if we interpreted this sort of thing as a commandment, the animals were similarly commanded. Which is silly.
Dr. Nahum M. Sarna addressed this from the same angle, and cited 4 other cases in the Bible in which imperative grammar is used in a blessing – Gen. 24:60, Exod. 4:18, Deut. 33:18, Gen. 9:2.
There is absolutely no justification for the claim that this is a binding commandment. The use of harsh words like “subdue and dominate” are simply parts of the blessing detailing the extent of our power and not… sanctioning cruelty. On the contrary, at this point in the text mankind does not even have permission to consume animals. The Creation account sets up an ideal world as one in which humans eat plants, and mankind does not get explicit permission from God to eat animals until after Noah saves all of the animals in the Flood (although they did eat meat before this, following the Fall). Animals getting a similar blessing in verse 22 is the cherry on top of a substantial cake arguing against those who interpret this as a commandment.
It is also worth pointing out that, while God here gives us rulership over the Earth, this is not an excuse to harm it or rule BADLY. Management of resources and ensuring the well-being of one’s subjects is part of ruling/leadership.
Also, unlike many other Creation stories of the day, mankind exists not to labor for or amuse the gods, but has value in himself, life is given to him as a gift as part of Creation, because God is seeking to create something which is good. See commentary on Gen 2:7
Targum Onkelos: And the Lord blessed them, and said to them, spread abroad, and become many, and fill the earth, and be strong upon it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heavens, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
Rashi: and subdue it: The“vav” [in וְכִבְשֻׁהָ is missing, [allowing the word to be read וְכִבְשָׁה, the masculine singular imperative] to teach you that the male subdues the female that she should not be a gadabout (Gen. Rabbah 8:12), and it is also meant to teach you that the man, whose way it is to subdue, is commanded to propagate, but not the woman (Yev. Yev. 65b).
Rambam: God blessed them directly saying, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and have control over it,, and have control over the fish in the sea, the birds in the heavens, and all the animals which travel over the earth.
Ibn Ezra: God blessed them and said, “Because I have blessed you, you will be fruitful and multiply. You will fill the earth and conquer it. You will rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the small animals which walk on the earth.”