Servant Leadership in Genesis 1-2

By Mark D. Roberts

June 3, 2015

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

Genesis 2:15


Ever since Robert Greenleaf’s essay “The Servant as Leader,” published in 1970, the notion of servant leadership has been bandied around in leadership circles. Many prominent leaders have been proponents of servant leadership, including Howard E. Butt, Jr., in The Velvet Covered Brick and Max De Pree in Leadership Is an Art. But the idea of servant leadership goes back much further in time. Not only did Jesus teach a form of servant leadership (Mark 10:35-45), but also this idea can be found all the way back in the opening chapters of Genesis.

In Genesis 1:27-28, human beings are created in God’s own image and given authority over the earth (“subdue it; and have dominion”). Though Scripture does not identify the first humans with the word “leaders,” clearly they are to exercise a kind of leadership over creation.

Chapter 2 reiterates the human task of working in and caring for the earth. Verse 15 says that God put the man in the garden of Eden “to till it and keep it” (NRSV). Other contemporary translations of this phrase vary: “to work it and take care of it” (NIV); “to work it and keep it” (ESV); “to farm it and to take care of it” (CEB). The original Hebrew could be read more literally, “to serve [‘avad] it and to keep/watch [shamar] over it.” “It” refers either to Eden or perhaps to the ground. Though the nuances of ‘avad can be appropriately conveyed in “till, work, or farm,” in a most basic sense, God put the man in the garden in order to serve it.

In tomorrow’s devotion I want to work with you on some implications of the use of “serve” in describing the first part of the human task in the garden. For now, I want to us to consider the way Genesis sets up this task as a kind of servant leadership. We are to have dominion over the earth and we are to serve it. Missing completely from the Genesis account is any notion that human leadership over the earth is to be despotic or despoiling. Yes, we have been given authority over the earth. But we are to exercise this authority by serving the earth.

The phrase “servant leadership” may find its roots in the 1970s, but the notion of servant leadership and the creative tension it implies goes all the way back to the beginning of God’s story, indeed to the Beginning of all things.


When you hear the phrase “servant leadership,” what comes to mind? How do the accounts of the creation of human beings shape your understanding of the human task? How do you exercise servant leadership in your life? How can you serve the people you have been called to lead today?


Gracious God, thank you for people like Robert Greenleaf, Howard Butt, Jr., and Max De Pree, who have helped us to understand servant leadership and its benefits. Thank you for their modeling of servant leadership, both in their writings and in their own leadership.

Thank you for creating us as people who not only have authority over the earth but also the job of serving it. Right from the beginning, you have created us to live in the tension of servant leadership. You have made us to be servant leaders. And you have revealed yourself in the one who is both reigning Son of God and Suffering Servant.

Help us, Lord, to understand what servant leadership means and how we might live it out in our lives. Help me to be a servant to those whom I lead today. Help us all to serve the earth even as we exercise dominion over it.

To you be all the glory. Amen.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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