Baal Shem Tov, or Besht — the founder of Chasidism —
The usual translation of the first half of Gen 1:28 is, "Be fruitful and multiply, fill up the land and conquer her".
What does it really mean? The verse most definitely does not mean what "fill up and conquer" sounds like: overrun every habitat and use up every species and resource. Here's another translation:
"Bear fruit and multiply and fill the land and occupy her mil'u et ha'aretz v'kivshuha, and dominate the fish of the sea and the bird of the sky and every animal creeping on the land."
"Conquer" is one valid translation of the word kivshuha (in the sense of "Occupied France"), and it reflects Nachmanides' intepretation that humans have "power and authority to do their will...to build and to uproot...to dig copper from her mountains" etc. But it's not the best translation because it leaves out all other valid interpretations. "Occupy" can also mean, for example, live in a place without owning it.
A lot of people soften this verse by reading it in light of the second chapter, where it says that "YHVH Elohim put the human in the garden to serve her and watch over her." Starting there seems too apologetic to me, and reading the two stories as if they were one doesn't give us the space to focus on the profound differences between the two stories (including the radical gender equality of the first) – see below. *
Reading the verse in light of the story of the Tower of Babel, where the people build a tower "lest we become spread out nafutz in the land", provides a better context to understand "fill her and occupy her". In this story, the people refuse to connect with the land (seemingly because the land remains tied to the memory of the flood), creating a tower that challenges heaven and exalts them over the earth.
"They are united, and this is what they decide to do?" says God, k'ilu in a kind of shock.
The unity of Babel is like the unity of globalization. The human "mission", in contrast, is to seek and support diversity, to create unifications, rather than unity. "Fill the land and occupy her": go to every continent, seek out every species, become intimate with every ecosystem.
This is also an apologetic reading, but it's one that has a chance of fitting the p'shat, literal meaning, of the text.
* Concerning the two creation stories, there's far more to say than can fit here, but it's worth noting that each story holds an essential piece of the puzzle: The first creation story portrays a world in which complete equality exists between the man and the woman, and it includes both the advent of Shabbat and the affirmation of the whole of creation as "very good." The second story starts from an assumption of parity between the human and the animals and emphasizes the connection between adam and adamah, earth or soil. (The first story doesn't even mention adamah.) Yet it has no shabbat and emphasizes the social inequality between men and women. It seems fundamental to the text that we cannot construct a whole worldview without using both stories.
Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006