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On the Interpretation of Four Hebrew Words:
Radah, Kabash, Abad, Shamar

There are four Hebrew words in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 that express how God intends humanity to relate to the rest of creation. The first two are in Genesis 1:26-28, where God gives humanity the mandate to 'rule' the animals and all the Earth, and the second pair are in Genesis 2:15, where God gave the man the responsibility to work the Garden of Eden and take care of it.

The four Hebrew words are:

The central word is 'radah', with the others helping to fill out the overall picture of the role of humanity on the Earth. It seems to me that we must take them together in order to understand the meaning of each. A number of authors have believed similarly.

Of great interest also are the two words given to elucidate the human task; 'to work it and keep it'. The first verb is a cognate of obed, (Heb. 'servant'); the second, shamar, has more OT usage suggesting the 'keeping' of God's commands, or 'hearkening' to his words.

The sound farmer, with tomorrow in mind, serves his land by taking note of its demands.

David Hanson, 2020, Used with permission

However, there are some who argue that radah in Genesis 1 is about "strong and forceful action" directed at a resistant Earth, a wilderness, while the gentler Genesis 2 words are directed at a garden. I find several problems with that, not least that it feels very out of kilter with the rest of what Scripture says about the heart of God and the attitude he wants in us. Also, personally, I love wilderness more than I love gardens. Is that sinful of me? I honestly don't think so, because there is no feeling of pride, self-will or Adamic-rebellion at the bottom of my love of wilderness. But if Scripture really tells me I should not love wilderness, then it is I who must change. So I need to find out what Scripture really says.

So, let us examine the four Hebrew words. What I do in this page expands on my brief discussion of 'radah' - that page might provide a useful introduction to this deeper analysis :-).

See also Detailed Analysis of 'Radah', which looks at every usage of radah.

How I Analysed the Words

My way of examining them is not just to look up a hebrew-English dictionary, nor even a lexicon, but to go further: to look at how these words are used throughout Scripture, and also what other words might have been used instead but weren't. I also try to read the word in its sentences and textual context, taking note not just of the semantic meaning but also the pragmatic (what the writer or speaker seems to have been trying to achieve with the utterance that contains the word). In these ways, I get a feel for the concept behind the word and how it is nuanced away from similar concepts. I used Young's Analytical Concordance to find the verses that translate from these four words.

The reason I do this is that even translators and commentators are writing from within a relatively modern culture, different from those of the original author millennia ago, and hence their interpretations might be influenced by their own more recent culture. When a Hebrew word is used only a few times, its meaning is even less certain.

The main question is not whether 'radah' denotes force, but what kind of force is intended. Is it that of the powerful military ruler who imposes his will on those who resist, sometimes destroying them, or the force that a potter exerts on clay to make it into a delicate vase? The question is not whether there is a difference between 'the Earth' and 'the Garden', but what the overall picture is of humanity's role.

The Analysis of Four Hebrew Words

My attempt to understand the four Hebrew words in this way is in the following Table.

Radah Kabash
Radah, used in Genesis 1:26-28, is not a common word in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. According to Young, in the KJV, it is translated:

  • 'rule', 'rule over', 'reign' etc. 15 times
  • 'have dominion', etc. 8 times
  • 'prevail against' 1 time (in Lam 1:23 in KJV, but the Hebrew is now r'degah)
  • 'take' 2 times (in Judges 14:9, when Samson took the honey)

which group together into about a dozen places. But what kind of ruling or dominion is this talking about? We can determine this by looking at what other Hebrew words are translated as 'rule' or 'dominion', and by looking at the other verses that use it.

The Hebrew words most frequently translated as 'rule' is mashal (57 times). Mashal seems to refer to the operation and result of ruling and of force as in God ruling over the raging sea [Psa 89:9]. Radah (15 times) seems to refer to authority rather than force, as in Psa 110:2, where the Messiah will rule over his enemies, Psa 68:27, where little Benjamin rules them, and as in I Kings 5:16 which refers to supervision of workers. With 'have dominion' we find a similar pattern, with mashal referring to the kind of cruel oppression that the Philistines exercised over Israel in Judges 14:4, while radah refers to authority. Further, in most places radah authority is linked to, or within the context of, God's superior authority, which seems not to be so true of the other words.

Most uses of radah are descriptive, but the few places where it has normative force include Ezekiel 34, where shepherds were condemned for ruling harshly, and Leviticus, where harsh rule is forbidden. This implies that radah is authority that is firm and effective but never harsh or oppressive.

If this is so, then humanity's radah over the rest of creation should be with authority, under God's authority, and never oppressive or harsh.

In Genesis 1, radah is linked with the idea of 'imaging God', representing God, showing God's characteristics, etc. So radah is not what we might think of as forceful, but the kind of authority that enables the ruled things to develop and open up as they should rather than that which uses them as resources for our own sakes. If God is love, then so should we be towards the rest of creation.

As I have argued in my shorter page on radah, this is also the sense radah has in Ezekiel 34, where shepherds' authority is to be used for the sake of the sheep instead of for their own sake.

Kabash is even less common, so we must be very careful about making dogmatic statements about its meaning. It is translated:

  • 'subdue' etc. 8 times
  • related to 'bondage' 2 times
  • related to 'subjection' 2 times
  • 'force', 'keep under' 2 times.

To determine its meaning we must look at other Hebrew words translated as 'subdue' or 'bring into subjection', of which there are many: chashal (to make feeble), kana (to humble), kara (to cause to bow), shephal (to make low), lachats (to press or crush). All these have the idea of subduing something against its own nature or will, of conquest (specifically, of or by Midian, Ammon, Philistines, Moab, etc.), and many speak of human action.

By contrast, kabash is used mainly of Yahweh subduing the land. This has the idea, not of humiliation or force against will, but of making things as they should be, of peace and shalom. That is, subduing something in line with its nature and for its own good and the good of all else. It makes me think, not of a tyrant crushing a revolt, but of a parent with a crowd of noisy children, calming them down - subduing them - and they become happier as a result.

If this is so, then humanity's subduing of the Earth implies effective action to bring the Earth into the state it should be, a state of dynamic shalom in which blessing emerges. Human brings are a necessary part of this process, in God's Plan.

Example: C.S. Lewis suggests that the plant kingdom is designed to vibrantly thrive, unruly, each plant or species competing with each other. Humanity has the mandate to curb that, to calm it down in line with its nature.

Humanity is not given a mandate to oppress it or destroy it or deny its nature. Treating the Earth and its denizens as mere resources is to deny its nature, and when humanity has treated the Earth as mere resources it has always led to oppression and destruction.

Like radah, kabash seems to imply to subdue for the good of the things being subdued rather than for our own convenience, pleasure or resource.

Abad Shamar
Abad is the English transliteration from two completely different Hebrew words, one starting with Aleph, the other with Ayin. The former means 'destroy'. The latter is the one in Genesis 2. According to Young, in the KJV it has been translated:

  • 'serve', 'do service', etc. 34 times
  • 'do', 'bring to pass', 'execute', etc. 17 times
  • 'till', 'dress' (as seeds) etc. 12 times
  • 'work', 'labour' etc. 8 times
  • 'worship' 5 times
  • other things: 3 times

The meanings 'serve', 'execute' and 'till' or 'dress', which are 80% of the times it is used, all speak of undertaking some formative action for the sake of the object, to develop or help the object.

For the Cornwall Alliance, Beisner [2009] tries to argue that abad does not mean to 'serve' the Garden, but rather means 'worship' of God . However, all five of its translations as 'worship' are in II Kings 10:19-23, referring to worshippers of Baal. These could equally be called those who serve Baal in his temple.

So, I see no reason why we should not see abad as meaning to 'serve' in the sense of doing something for it that is for its good and development.

Shamar is translated in the KJV:

  • 'keep', 'keeper', etc. 312 times
  • 'observe', 'mark''regard', 'heed' etc. 120 times
  • 'preserve', 'save', etc. 23 times
  • others 3 times

When translated 'keep' it includes to keep God's commandments. Thus shamar seems to refer to careful keeping that watches over the object with careful observation and attention.

Beisner [2009] tries to argue that it does not mean 'keep' but rather 'obey'. Even in relation to God's commandments, to keep them is fuller and richer than to obey them, requiring care. Young does not record a single instance of it being translated with anything like 'obey'.

Even without taking abad or shamar into account, it seems that the full meaning of radah and kabash is to exert effective formative power or rulership for the good of the object, rather than for our own sake. This meaning seems to be built into them, and does not need to be forced upon them artificially. The words abad or shamar serve to strengthen this, to 'double' it in the time-honoured Hebrew manner.

Therefore, the role of humanity in relation to the rest of creation - whether wilderness or garden (if indeed they are meant to differ) - is one of having authority for the sake of the rest of creation, for its own development, rather than for the sake of humanity. As I have argued more in 'Radah', The Role of Humankind, this links very naturally with the idea that we are to 'image' God, i.e. represent God to the rest of creation by expressing his character. God's character is one of self-giving love. So should our radah be.

See Also:

1. For a less detailed discussion of radah, see an earlier page, Radah, which also discusses some of its implications.

2. For a more detailed discussion, see Detailed Analysis of 'Radah': Should radah be 'tread down' or 'manage responsibly'? An analysis of where it is used throughout Scripture.

3. For discussion of implications of this meaning of radah, see section Radah - The Role of Humankind.

References & Notes

1. Some who distance Genesis chapter 1 from Genesis chapter 2. The Cornwall Alliance is an organisation set up with the specific purpose of turning evangelical Christians away from environmental responsibility. They find the interpretation of radah as loving rule inconvenient, so have tried to distance Genesis 1 from Genesis 2, in Beisner's article below.

2. Beisner, C. 2009. A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor, published by The Cornwall Alliance. He tries to interpret the four Hebrew words above as indicating that humanity should use the rest of creation merely as a resource as it wishes. He uses a lexicon originally published in 1907, a Bible commentary and a book about a new kind of church. I have written a detailed critique and rebuttal of Beisner's document.

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About This Page

Offered to God as on-going work, this page is designed to stimulate discussion on various topics, as part of Andrew Basden's pages that open up various things from one of the Christian perspectives. Contact details.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden at all the dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

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Created: 18 October 2015 Last updated: 17 July 2016 See also links. 19 February 2017 reqquest dashes. 19 January 2020 David Hanson.