20 feet away was a fleecy, but fiercely horned, mountain goat. I stood at a safe distance, waiting for it to move so I could continue. I’ve had similar moments watching a mama bear guard the tree her cubs were climbing in the Smoky Mountains, or gingerly moving around a rattlesnake sunning itself on the Appalachian Trail.
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
The more time I spend in the woods… climbing mountain ridges, staring up at century old trees, standing on jagged peaks…the more deeply I understand the psalmist’s question.
Once we get out of our secure, well-landscaped, city grids it is easier to understand that we are not the center of the universe.
This is terrifying. God created a world that is dangerous and demanding. Our lives are fragile. One wrong step, change in the weather, or wildlife encounter away from death. But something within us also drives us to take risks and push our limits in those parts of the world that are clearly out of our control.
“Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” (v.5-8)
Even with all of our advances in technology, these verses sound hopelessly naive. If you have ever spent a dark twilight throwing bear bags or tried for a season to grow a meager patio garden “dominion” seems out of reach. Even more puzzling is the use of this word in the context of the dangerous lives of our nomadic, agrarian, ancestors.
My Old Testament professor explained that the Hebrew word for dominion (and in Genesis 1) is very different from our modern understanding of the word. Far from “domination,” it should translated as something more like “skilled mastery.” Learning to find sustenance by respecting the delicate relationships of creation.
A healthy fear of the natural world allowed early humans to respect the wildness of animals, weather, and micro-organisms, and to express gratitude when harvest emerged. Humility wasn’t just a virtue, but a necessity of survival. Our fear fueled by scientific advancement and consumerism has pushed us into a different kind of “dominion”. Unable to cope with the danger and uncertainty of the world, we have done everything in our power to take control.
Divorcing verse 5 from verse 4, we’ve hunted Buffalo into extinction. Blasted tunnels through mountains. Dammed rivers. Drilled for oil and dug for coal. Genetically engineered crops and fed cows growth hormones. Built bigger and more sophisticated structures,and paved over the dirt.
Admittedly, some of this was necessary. We produce more food. We live longer, safer, more convenient lives. But survival has turned to lust. Dominion indeed, but what have we lost? And what have we really gained?
Our neighbors in the “global south” understand more than we do (yet) that our safety and security is an illusion. Because of the consumption of the west and “developing” nations, they struggle to find fresh water and fertile land. They catch fewer fish and lose ground to the rising oceans. They face more extreme heat and more destructive pests.
Perhaps what truly makes us “a little lower than God”, is our ability to rediscover the healthy fear that our ancestors had of the world, restraining our use of force and technology to manipulate it. Perhaps it is the ability to find the courage to live within the boundaries of natural processes, co-creating with God rather than trying to be God.
If we could learn to live within our limits maybe there would be reason for all creatures to recognize the name of the Lord as majestic.
Until then, I think more of us should go hiking…