The terms dominion and subdue are used to describe man’s divinely ordained relationship to his sphere of sovereignty, the natural order. Neither of these terms signifies merely extraneous commands imposed on man, but rather each represents a part of the moral fabric of man’s being, as made in the image of God. Both the dominion over and subjection of the created order to man’s lordship are, nonetheless, moral responsibilities.
The terms dominion (Heb. râdâh; Gk. archō) and subdue (Heb. kâbash) are, as they stand, morally neutral; conceptually, they can carry connotations which are either good or evil. Today, in terms of conventional usage, both ideas ring of power-grabs and/or oppressive despotism. Biblically, the terms can have this negative sense. For instance, Torah warns the priests against this sort of rogue “dominion” (Lev 25:43, 46, 53). And later, in the prophetic material, this type of tyrannical exercise by the priests invokes Yahweh’s wrath (e.g., Jer 5:31; Eze 34:4). The negative aspect of dominion is the result of failing to exercise this capacity in a way that honors and reflects God’s glorious dominion over all.
The positive sense, which is clearly meant here in Gen 1:26—28, would mean to lay hold of creation to the glory of God, to cultivate and subdue ever-expanding territories of the earth in a way that honors God and is consistent with his “very good” design and purpose for the creation, not least man. Originally, in God’s goodness toward his vice-regents, he gave man a “land” that would be in service to him and to his rule over it as he sought to be in service to God. In the fall, however, man rebelled against the Yahweh’s dominion and Lordship over him, therefore, man’s judgment was to find his own domain in complete rebellion against his efforts to “subdue” and “have dominion” over it.
Since the fall, man would find himself in a life and death struggle in his attempt to subdue and exercise dominion. Additionally, because every person since the fall is naturally disposed to rebellion, God’s people find themselves struggling not only with the natural order but also with other peoples and nations. The land given to Adam anticipated the land promised to Abraham, which his offspring was to inherit. Likewise, the thorns and thistles of the curse manifested in the wicked nations then occupying the promised land.
Talk of subduing the land is heard in the wandering years (Num 32:22, 29), and in some measure is accomplished as a result of the conquest under Joshua (Jos 18:1). However, it isn’t until David that the borders of the land are secure and “all the nations” are subdued (2 Sam 8:11). David, being a bloody man of war (1 Chron 28:3), through his warring, brought “peace on every side (of the land)” and subdued the land before Yahweh and the people (1 Chron 22:18).
Subduing is a necessary precondition of dominion. Subduing is cultivating through various means the creation/culture bringing it into a state of submission and of stability. Not until this work is done can dominion be established, exercised, and maintained. David was able to pass on the subdued land, the kingdom, to his son, Solomon. This allowed Solomon to exercise dominion throughout and extending beyond the borders of the promised land (1 Kgs 4:24; cf. Ps 72:8).
Psalms 72 points beyond David’s son Solomon to a greater son, who is Messiah. Jesus is that son who is of David’s loins and exacts the obedience of the nation (Rom 1:1—5), he is the Archō (Rom 15:12). Jesus is the One who has subdued the enemies of God and now exercises dominion over the land promised to Abraham, i.e., the whole world (Rom 4:13).
It is often thought that Jesus’ signs and wonders he worked in his earthly ministry were tokens, even proofs, of his deity. However, these events could better be understood as Jesus fulfilling the covenant of works that the first Adam failed to do, subduing the earth (e.g., stilling the sea, feeding the four/five thousand) and exercising dominion (e.g., exorcisms). Looking at Jesus and his wonder-working ministry is to see true humanity as it was and is supposed to be.