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Origins of stewardship

Origins of stewardship

Origins of stewardship

Key aims:

  • To examine key critical texts from which ideas of stewardship are derived
  • To show that words meaning 'stewardship' do not explicitly appear
  • To indicate how crucial terms in the texts are open to various interpretations

The oldest and most influential source for the idea that humans are meant to be stewards of the earth is the Bible, and in particular the opening chapters of the book of Genesis.

For example, Richard Bauckham, a biblical scholar and theologian, has suggested that Genesis 1 (in particular verses 26 and 28) is 'the basis on which the whole discussion of stewardship ultimately rests'.1 Genesis 2.15 is also an important verse. So in order to understand where the idea of stewardship comes from, it is crucial to consider the biblical texts and their influence.

Interestingly, however, the words for 'steward' and 'stewardship' do not actually appear in Genesis 1-2 and are rather uncommon in the Bible, especially in the Jewish scriptures, the Christian Old Testament.  In fact, nowhere is humanity explicitly depicted as the steward of creation. People may interpret dominion to mean ‘stewardship’, but that word is not actually there.

Genesis 1-2 contains the two creation stories that form the opening of the Christian Bible.2  The first story is found in Genesis 1.1–2.3 (or 2.4) and the second begins in Genesis 2.4 and continues on into chapter 3.

Notice how the ending of the first story meets the beginning of the second. By comparing the stories, it becomes clear that they are in some ways similar, but in other ways very different.

One of the differences between the two creation accounts is how they show the making and status of humanity.

Genesis 2 declares that the human is made from the earth (Genesis 2.7). There is a significant wordplay in the Hebrew here: ha-adam (the human) is made from ha-adamah (the ground). This means the human is explicitly an 'earth-creature', 'the human from the humus'.3 The female is made by taking a rib from the original human, and human beings are then distinguished as man and woman - in Hebrew, ish and ishshah. There is no detailed description of the creation of other animals, but this comes after the appearance of the first human (Genesis 2.19).  The human's job is to till and keep the garden into which he has been placed (Genesis 2.15) and this has contributed to the development of stewardship - the idea that humanity is responsible for the world. 

Genesis 1 gives an ordered account of God making all the various elements of creation. This culminates in God making humanity:

"Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them."4

This has been a hugely influential description of humanity - made in the image of God.

Genesis 1 also records a divine declaration about humanity's vocation and role in the world:

"Let us make humankind…and let them have dominion… 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 air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."5

There has been a great deal of discussion about exactly what these words mean, particularly the words translated ‘have dominion’ and ‘subdue’. For many, they show humanity as given a kingly role, or sovereignty, in relation to creation. Lynn White’s argument (see Is Christianity to blame?) was that these ideas gave birth to the view that humanity was distinct from nature and had a God-given right to use and exploit nature for human benefit.

Over the years, the way this text has been interpreted has changed (see History of stewardship). Biblical scholar Norman Habel, for example, argues that the Hebrew words imply harsh domination and control, and he notes that they are used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) to speak of crushing opposing forces.6

Others argue that this dominion should be seen as a caring and responsible attitude, more like stewardship than exploitation. Biblical scholar Claus Westermann, for example, writing on Genesis 1.26-31, sees the kingly role as involving care rather than exploitation:

According to the ancient view… there is no suggestion of exploitation; on the contrary, the king is personally responsible for the well-being and prosperity of those he rules. His rule serves the well-being of his subjects.7

So a crucial part of the idea of humans as stewards comes from interpreting ‘dominion’ as a responsibility to care for the earth, rather like a king is meant to care for his subjects (see, for example, Psalm 72). On this view, what the Bible has to say about God as king, or about the earthly kings who reigned over Israel and Judah, might also be applied to the way in which all humanity should relate to the earth.8

As noted above, the actual language of stewardship is uncommon in the Bible, and nowhere explicitly used to depict humanity's responsibility for the earth. One place where the language does occur is in certain New Testament parables, in Luke 12.42 (see verses 37-48) and Luke 16.1-13.

In these parables, a rich person who owns property and slaves puts a 'manager', or 'steward', in charge during his absence.9 The parable in Luke 16 is especially strange, since its advice seems to be the opposite of what we might expect: 'make friends for yourselves by means of unjust wealth' (verse 9). But the basic point in these parables is that the steward should act wisely (even shrewdly) because the master may unexpectedly return.

These biblical ideas about stewardship have also played some part in informing modern ideas about environmental stewardship, though again there are questions about whether this is a good or a bad model for human relationships with the rest of nature (see Criticisms of stewardship).

  • Does the idea of humans being 'in the image of God' set them apart from the rest of nature? Is this a valuable idea or a damaging one (or both)?
  • Is this a good model of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature in an ecologically informed age? (See Criticisms of stewardship)


1Richard Bauckham, Bible and Ecology (London: DLT, 2010), pp. 11-12

2This is also the case with Jewish scriptures, where Genesis opens the section known as Torah, from the Hebrew word meaning 'law'.

3Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (London: SCM, 1978), p. 77

4Genesis 1.26-27, NRSV. There may also be evidence in these texts of an ancient view about the plurality of gods - "let us make", and also the Hebrew word translated 'God' is elohim, which is a plural form.

5Genesis 1:26-28, NRSV

6Norman C. Habel, 'Geophany: The Earth Story in Genesis 1', in Norman C. Habel and Shirley Wurst (eds), The Earth Story in Genesis (EB2; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 34-38 (pp. 46-47)

7Claus Westermann, Genesis, trans. David E. Orton (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark 1988), p. 11

8 However, the idea that humanity is made 'in the image of God' is actually quite rare in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament - see Genesis 1.26-275.39.6 and Wisdom of Solomon 2.23Psalm 8 also expresses a comparable view about the status of humanity.

9The word translated 'manager' is the Greek oikonomos, which can also mean 'steward'.