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Decoding the Bible

Should we be fruitful and multiply?

By Therese DesCamp

The first creation story of the Bible tells us that God’s command to all living creatures — including ha-adam, a name that means “dirt person”— was to be fruitful and multiply. A close look at our physical world verifies that the nature of life is fecundity: flocks of birds, bursting seedpods, schools of fish, the dozens of shoots coming up around my willow. I will admit to wishing that the Divine had limited this exuberant fertility in certain cases — mosquitoes, for instance.

In one of the creation stories from ancient Mesopotamia, a story that predates Genesis by almost a thousand years, the gods felt the same way about human beings. There were so many people, and they made so much noise that their ruckus disturbed the gods as they slept. In that story, the short-term solution to pesky human proliferation was the flood; the long-term solution was stillbirths and miscarriages. Their plan backfired when there weren’t enough people to offer sacrifices, and the gods went hungry.

The biblical writers, in contradiction to the views of surrounding cultures, affirmed that God loved fertility. Children, many children, were a sign of God’s favour. Children would work the land, tend the flocks, weave the clothes; children would have grandchildren to carry on the family; children would feed you when you were old, care for you when you were dying. Plus, big families made sense. In a world where most of your children died before the age of five, you needed a few extras.

These days, we don’t really live in a part of the world that celebrates copious and indiscriminate reproduction. In North America, where most children don’t die young, lots of births mean lots of kids to raise — an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Most of us don’t need descendants to work the land or secure our old age; children are a choice, not a necessity.

Regardless of our beliefs or choices, though, human fertility is a fact. At the right age, most humans produce vast numbers of gamete cells ready for mating. This fecundity means that the world population is skyrocketing: in my lifetime, it will likely increase four or five times. With good reason, we worry about the groaning of the Earth under this load. So what do we do with those first words that God spoke to humanity — “Be fruitful and multiply” — in the face of what looks like imminent planetary collapse?

We could begin by reading Genesis 1 closely. We might notice that in the midst of creating, God repeatedly declares, “That’s good.” Life is, in and of itself, good. Regardless of suffering, hunger, wars, earthquakes and abuse of every kind, it is a high and holy thing to be incarnate.

It’s not just human life that God calls good. It’s the sun, the moon and the stars, the vegetation of the earth. Even before humans arrive, God blesses the fish, the birds and the animals, and tells them to multiply. According to God, it’s all good.

Then we might notice that God gives the human, ha-adam, sovereignty over all creation, and we might just ask ourselves: what kind of rulers have we been?

The answer is ugly to behold. We’ve been rulers content with gross inequity: one North American city of three million consumes the same amount of resources as 97 million Bangladeshis. We’ve been rulers happy to plunder our own irreplaceable resources and leave our children destitute. We’ve been rulers who don’t see the teeming, blessed species around us as inherently good, but as tools to be sold, used or tossed.

Like those ancient Mesopotamian gods, we’ve responded to the benefaction of fertility with destruction; like them, we may soon find ourselves without food. While part of the solution is surely population control, the deeper solution — the solution toward which the Scriptures point us — is surely greed control.

There’s a word in Genesis used to describe those that tend the earth: ha-adamah. Derived from the same root as the name Adam, it’s translated as “husband,” a verb that means to conserve and use economically. To husband the world is to love, cherish and respect it, to recognize that our lives are forever intertwined with the life of creation. It’s all a good gift from the good God. Maybe it’s time for us to return to our roots, dirt people that we are. Maybe it’s time that we began to husband this fertile, lovely gift of a world.

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