Genesis 1:28 says "And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…"
The foremost question I want to answer concerning this verse is: "To what extent are we required by God to ‘be fruitful and multiply'?" I see three ways to argue the point.
1. God blessed us with fruitfulness, but did not necessarily command us to multiply.
The proximity of "God blessed" and "God said" ("And God blessed them, and God said unto them…") appear to portray the two clauses as parts of a single act. God said "Be fruitful and multiply" two other times, once to the animals in v22 and once to Noah and his family in 9:1. In all three instances, the statement was intimately linked to a blessing. Therefore, the phrase "Be fruitful and multiply" is merely a blessing much as we might say, "Get well soon," to a sick friend.
The problem with this argument is that there is a vital difference between the way that God blessed the fish and birds and the way that he blessed mankind. In v22, he does not appear to be speaking to the animals so much as over the animals: "God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply…" which could be reworded as "God blessed them by saying…" However, in the verse currently under consideration, Moses wrote "God blessed them, and God said unto them…" implying a qualitative difference in the nature of the blessing, as well as a logical division between the blessing and the "command." But is this difference enough to make a command? I'm not convinced.
2. God categorically commanded mankind to be fruitful and multiply.
The qualitative difference demonstrated above, namely that God spoke directly to mankind and that the name "Elohim" is repeated as the subject of both clauses, certainly seems to support this interpretation. Elohim is Hebrew for "judges" or "rulers" and so it appears that, by repeating the name of the Creator, Moses was emphasizing the authority with which God spoke. The command is valid until the Kingdom in which men will become like the angels and no longer lawfully procreate. (At least that is the commonly accepted interpretation of Matthew 22:30.)
However, Yeshua said in Matthew 19:12 that some people are eunuchs from birth and some are eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul also recommended that unmarried Corinthians should remain unmarried if they are able. This means that we can't say that every person who refrains from marrying and having children is disobeying this command from God. It can only be a command to mankind in general and not to each and every individual.
3. God commanded mankind to be fruitful and multiply, but only to a certain point.
God commanded us to multiply, but if the purpose of the command was to enable mankind to effectively govern the earth<1>, a point might come (or might have already come) at which further multiplication becomes unfruitful. "Replenish the earth" is an integral part of the command to multiply, so once we have populated the earth, the command may be considered fulfilled. This is the argument of the environmentalist who favors zero or negative population growth (and commonly also favors abortion and coercive measures to discourage growth, but these negative and ungodly attitudes are not inherent in the argument).
Although most theologians and men of God whom I respect believe this is not the case, I am not convinced either way. Since "subdue the earth" is part of the same statement, governance of the earth is at least a major part of the purpose for man's creation, so this argument can't be easily dismissed.
How does this question effect real life?
Believing that "be fruitful" is a blessing and not a command might change how you affect family planning or if you attempt to plan the growth of your family at all.<2> Some people will see rejecting a blessing from God as too presumptuous, even if it isn't commanded, and decide not to make any special attempt either to avoid or prevent children. Others might want to time the arrival of children at the moment they believe will maximize the blessing.
Since the command is ambiguous, no one should be ostracized or harassed because they choose to have a large or small family or no children at all. I believe that most economic reasons for not having children are petty and faithless, but there are many other reasons that I am not capable of judging, such as precarious health of the potential mother, genetic disorders in either parent, or any number of other circumstances.
Paul wrote that under certain circumstances it is better to remain unmarried, and it might be that under some circumstances it is better to remain childless or to stop conceiving children. I cannot say for certain what all of those circumstances are, but I am not willing to judge the hearts of other men and women based solely on how many children they have. God knows and judges the heart in such situations.
I believe that we can say definitively that celibacy is not morally superior in general to marriage, although it's possible that it might be in very limited circumstances. A divine command (or even a bit of divine advice) to multiply is also a divine command to have sexual intercourse.
The misogynist, anti-sex tendencies of a great number of Christians are proved in the very first chapter of Genesis to be perversions. These tendencies were no doubt inherited at least in part from the pagan philosophies that were popular in the early centuries of the Church. The Manicheans of Augustine's day believed the whole physical universe to be the product of the Evil Kingdom's invasion of the good. They believed that sex, by causing the continuation of the physical and by being surrender to physical pleasures, is the ultimate evil.<3> Many prominent Christian teachers of that day, Augustine included, were never able to completely purge this heretical taint from their doctrines, and it has infected the Church to varying degrees ever since.<4>
What about subduing the earth?
If "be fruitful" is a command then so is "subdue it." To subdue means to forcibly subjugate, but I don't believe that any kind of brutality is intended. In fact, the requirement of a Sabbath for the land in Leviticus 25:1-7 and a Sabbath for domestic animals in Exodus 20:10 indicates the opposite.
The point of the command was not to grant permission to conquer, but to grant the authority over nature which we require to effectively govern it and to use it for our livelihood. We were not commanded to go out and conquer all of nature for the sake of the conquest itself, but we were blessed with the ability and the authority to reshape it and redirect it as necessary.
In all cases, possession of the authority to do something when necessary is not a requirement to do it whenever possible. Environmental extremism and pseudo-scientific theories of anthropogenic climate change aside, it is impossible to witness the methods and abuse heaped by some men upon nature and call it righteous. Excessive abuse of authority is justification for rebellion. If we abuse the authority that God gave us over the land, we will eventually be thrown off by it. There are many examples all over the world of exactly that happening. We are not to simply ignore all of nature either. Adam was placed in the Garden in order to tend, protect, and cultivate it. The maintenance of the Garden—and by extension the whole earth—was one of his very first tasks.
Mankind, men in particular, can rarely be truly fulfilled living in the concrete hives we call cities nor in a scarred, oily wasteland of pure industry. We will be most happy living close to the earth, earning at least a part of our living through work with our hands. I have experienced few sensations as gratifying as burying my bare hands in rich soil and shaping and encouraging the growth of new life. The personal anecdotes of many others testify to the same phenomenon in their own lives.
God gave mankind, both male and female, authority over the earth so that we might be able to support ourselves through it and effectively tend it and protect it. Like the ox treading the grain, we may extract comfort and sustenance from the earth, but to take from the land more than we can use merely for the accumulation of wealth is an abuse of our authority.
Authority over land and house
The authority which a husband has over his wife is similar to the authority mankind has over nature in that his authority does not exist for its own sake and must not be abused. Men were given that authority for a purpose: in order to effectively guide and protect their wives and to facilitate their role as fitting helpers. If mankind abuses its authority over the land, the land will reject him; this is justice. If a husband abuses his authority over his wife, she will reject him; this too is justice.
Dominion over the land does not mean that the land exists solely for mankind's benefit, nor does a man's authority in his house mean that the woman exists solely for his benefit. She exists to be a support to her husband in whatever task God has given him and to be a mother to her children, but not to be a slave to either one. I absolutely do not mean to excuse the wife from submitting herself to her husband in matters where he is not terribly abusive or where he does not demand immoral behavior of her, but a man who mistreats his wife for his own purposes is in rebellion against God's purposes and has rejected the headship of Messiah over him. He has no right to demand submission of his wife when he refuses to submit to his own head.
All of these things--children, marriage, fertile soil, and the authority to make them productive--are blessings that necessarily incorporate some commands: Do not commit adultery. Do not covet your neighbor's wife. Don't muzzle an ox when it treads the grain. Etc. Whether in having children, loving your wife, obeying your husband, or cultivating a field in a manner that preserves it for future generations, living according to God's design, trusting him and his good will towards his creations, brings blessings in the form of peace, personal fulfillment, and abundance.
<1> Although I doubt that he would have openly supported the idea which I wrote next, this is the view promoted by Rushdoony: "The meaning of the family is thus not to be sought in procreation but in a God-centered authority and responsibility in terms of man’s calling to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it." Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law. (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973.) 164.
<2> I do not mean abortion, abortifacients, oral contraceptives, or the self-centeredness which our society calls "family planning."
<3> Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions of St. Augustine, Books I-X. Trans. F. J. Sheed. (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1942.)
<4> Many Christian and Jewish writings from the period extending several centuries in either direction of the Incarnation feature this heresy. The Books of Adam and Eve and the Shepherd of Hermas are notable examples.
copyright 2023 Jay Carper, American Torah