Thursday, August 28, 2008

Genesis 1:28 Freed from Tradition

I recently saw a post on the Boundlessline Blog discussing the number of children that we are having in today's society. I decided I would lurk around for a while.

Now, I am the first one to believe that marriage and children are important to a society. In fact, I believe that every church community has the duty to have people who are about the task of having and raising covenant children. I believe that every church must have people as part of this ministry.

However, it appears some have gone a step further, and declared that it is a sin to be able to have children, and yet not have children. In fact, it appears that these people would like to say that you are not holding to a Christian worldview if you disagree with them. I have even heard words like "liberal" being thrown around. I find this humerious since I have written against abortion and homosexuality, defended inerrancy numerious times, defended the Christian faith against the attacks of atheism and feminism, believe in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentatuch, the Davidic authorship of most of the Psalms, a literal seven day creation, and am a member of a denomination in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that was formed as a reaction against liberalism. Yet, according to these people, because I disagree with them on this issue I am a liberal. It was sad to see, but mostly all I saw from the people promoting this position was rhetoric.

For instance, on argument that was continually brought up is that children are a blessing therefore you should have them if you can. However, using this logic, you must acquire everything that is a blessing if you can. In other words, no person can ever reject having anything that is a blessing. Such means that, if you can afford a swimming pool on a hot day, because it is a blessing, you must buy a swimming pool on a hot day. If you decide to put the money in a savings account instead, you must be engaging in sin, because you don't really believe that having a swimming pool on a hot day is a blessing.

In fact, I have heard Albert Mohler go far to say that, if you don't have children because of money, then you don't view children as a blessing, you view them as a financial inconvenience. Again, would Dr. Mohler be willing to say that every person must have every blessing, and money is no option? In other words, you must overdraw your checking account into the millions of dollars so that you can have a mansion, a swimming pool on a hot day, servants to do everything for you, and money is no option. If you don't do that, then you don't view a mansion, a swimming pool on a hot day, or servants as a blessing, but only as a monitary inconvenience.

The easiest way to refute these arguments is to follow the same principle. Force the person making these arguments to be consistent, and apply their standard across the board.

A girl by the name of Laura posted an argument that was a little bit better. However, even her argument was circular. Here is her argument as she posted it:

1. What does God say in his word about children?
2. Is God ultimately in control of our fertility?
3. If God calls children a blessing to be welcomed, and if he is in control of our fertility, do we have the right (as people whose lives are to be conformed to God's desires and values) to say, "I don't want kids" or "I want to put off having kids until ____"? Why or why not?

The crucial premise is #3. The statement "God calls children a blessing to be welcomed" can be interpreted in one of two ways. The key is how you take the term "children" here. The first possibility is that you take the term "children" to be referring to the actual child. The second possibility is that you take the term "children" here with an implied "having" [i.e., God calls having children a blessing to be welcomed]. We often times use nouns in this fashion. For instance, take the phrase "Fruit is good for you." We do not mean by that statement that the mere existance of fruit is good for you. It does you no good unless you eat it, or use it in some way, and that is what we mean by the statement "Fruit is good for you." Hence, #3 can be interpreted in one of two ways:

3' The actual child is a blessing to be welcomed.

3'' Having children is a blessing to be welcomed.

If Laura is taking the statement "God calls children a blessing to be welcomed" to mean 3'', then it is true that bearing children is a blessing, but the phrase "to be welcomed" begs the whole question. Is it true that, in every instance, we must welcome the bearing of children if we are able to bear children? Well, that is the whole question being asked, and thus, if 3'' is what she means by "God calls children a blessing to be welcomed," then she is simply engaging in a circular argument.

If Laura is taking the statement "God calls children a blessing to be welcomed" to mean 3', then she has stated something that is irrelevant because, while the actual child is indeed a blessing, the second half makes no sense because, before conception, the child simply doesn't exist [unless you are a Mormon, and believe in preexistence]. How can you welcome something that doesn't exist?

Rhetoric aside, though, Genesis 1:28 was brought up again. Honestly, I get so tired of hearing this verse quoted in this discussion, because no one wants to do any exegesis of this passage. The whole verse is generally not even cited. Generally only "Be fruitful and multiply" is cited!!!!!! It just seems like the folks on this forum think that, if you cite this text in this context ad nauseum, people will start to believe that it is talking to them as an individual couple. Never mind all the exegetical arguments to the contrary, and never mind that you cannot read that text in a consistent fashion like that.

As I have said before, if you take this interpretation, then how does one explain the next phrase, "Fill the earth?" If you say, on the basis of this text that, because I am able to have children, I must have children, then you are caught believing that I also must have seven billion children so that I "fill the earth." No one can read this text consistently in that fashion. You have to end up inserting an arbitrary break in the text, making the subject of "be fruitful and multiply" different from the subject of "fill the earth." In short, if "Be Fruitful and multiply" is a command directed at every individual couple, then so is the command "fill the earth."

Not only that, the subject is not even that hard to find. For instance, note Genesis 1:27:

A. And God created man in his own image.
B. In the image of God he greated him.
C. Male and Female he created them.

Notice how both the singular pronominal suffix "him," and the plural pronominal suffix "them" are used to refer to the singular "man." Generally when this happens, the term translated man, ~d'a', should be translated as the more general "mankind."

Now, let us take a look at the parallelism between verse 27c and 28a:

27c. Male and Female he created them.
28a. God blessed them and said to them,

Notice how the term "them" now matches up to 27c, which, as we have just stated refers to mankind. In fact, it is exactly the same form in Hebrew, ~t'ao [Direct object marker with 3mp suffix]!!!!!! Also, it is only two words later in the Hebrew text!!!!! Now, what warrant do we have for going from mankind in 27c, to individual couples only two words later, and then back to mankind again for "fill the earth?" How is that not arbitrary? Is it not more natural to see 27c-28 as referring to mankind as a whole the whole way through the verse?

In fact, adding more credence to our exegesis is the fact that, in verse 22, the same command is given to the birds, the fish, and "creeping animals," and they are spoken of in verse 21 as being created "according to their kind" [Whneymil.]. Because of this, it is rather hard to imagine God as commanding individual couples of birds to have children, and more than likely refers to each species of birds, fish, and creeping animals filling the sky, waters, and earth.

While I hate to use the term "species" of man [since it implies that we are equal with the animals], I think it might be appropriate here. It is the "species of mankind" that is commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth in Genesis 1:28, not individual couples.

If you read the text "Be fruitful and multiply" as commanding individual couples, then you are caught not being able to explain the next phrase "fill the earth," without being arbitrary. Not only that, but you have to ignore the fact that verse 28 is a continuation of verse 27, and refuse to follow the suffixes from 27c-28a. Yet people still blindly quote the text in a discussion about whether or not individual couples must have children if they can. I believe this is done because of tradition. Tradition is a powerful thing. We believe something just because it is what we have always been told, or because one of our favorite teachers tells us it must be the case, and we refuse to actually examine what we believe carefully. That is why we should never just throw a text out blindly like this without first considering if we are using it properly. If we do not, the result is going to be that we end up putting the commands that come from our own traditions into the mouth of God.


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Ken said...

As a happily married father who does not fear a population explosion, I thank you for this post.

Parenting is not for everyone.

(I am the Ken from

Anonymous said...

I don't have the Hebrew text in front of me, but I believe the command in Genesis is correctly translated as "Rape the earth and subdue it."

While the divine inspiration behind this sentiment was presumably perfect, I think the human scribe and his language left a great deal to be desired.

In fact, the Old Testament has so many problems I generally just refer to the four gospels.