be fruitful, increase, fill, subdue, rule.
Quite a collection of imperatives indicating that human beings are to rule over all categories of created reality. Even over those we can’t control, like the creatures who don’t share our habitat. It is incumbent upon us then to evolve strategies and technologies to overcome physical barriers.
The natural human environment though is the ground, and the word repeatedly used to describe land-living creatures is ‘teems’ or ‘moves along the ground’ (v 21, 24, 25, 28 (the only place where it refers to all living creatures)).
This is crawling creation where the issue is height. In v28 human beings are to ‘rule’ over this crawling creation. It is almost as if the writer is saying that in among these living creatures there is one who towers VERTICALLY above them, and this one is to rule over them from this dominating, towering position.
The other imagery in these verses is the fruitful, increase, fill instructions.
crawl, this is HORIZONTAL spreading imagery. Animals are given this command in the first place (v22), and then it is extended to human beings (v28).
Between these two images is the essential paradox of human identity.
We live suspended between heaven and earth, between the VERTICAL and the HORIZONTAL. To put it another way, we exist on both the vertical and the horizontal plane at the same time. And getting one or the other out of kilter is a the sure way to trouble.
Humanity spreads, teems, multiplies like all the animals but can also observe it all from above with sharpened self-awareness.
Now this may shed light on some other difficult texts.
The context here is of God’s great disappointment at the outcome of creation. And in the passage there is the bringing together once again of the imagery of vertical and horizontal. Human beings spread/teem/increase horizontally across the earth. But there are among them creatures known as the Nephilim who are ‘giants’ (v4). These are creatures who, in the words of Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, suffer from ‘an excess of verticality’.
This excess leads to destruction.
In Numbers 13:31-33 the spies return from the land and bring eyewitness reports of GIANTS. They encounter these powerful beings in the land that had been promised to them but they see only their tinyness and humiliation. They suffer from an excess of horizontality.
This excess leads to despair.
The catastrophe that unfolds in Num 13,14 is notable. Those who saw only their smallness – fall down to the ground (14:3, 5, 29, 32-33).
Living between heaven and earth is tough. Zornberg writes of the terror of standing upright, that ‘the vertical being is assailed by the vertigo of his dual nature’.
No wonder Paul instructs us not to be conformed to the patterns of the world (horizontality) nor to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (verticality) (Rom 12:1-3).
No wonder the great hymn in Philippians 2:1-11 features a movement down from heaven to earth and then back again – a humbling and an exalting, restoring the right balance again for the only creature with the dual identity.
for a deeply literary and midrashic treatment of the above text, check out Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s commentary Genesis – The Beginning of Desire