In 2001, Raymond Van Leeuwen, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern College in Pennsylvania and a frequent author for magazines such as Christianity Today, wrote an article entitled, “‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’: Is This a Command or a Blessing?” At first glance, I thought I’d hotly disagree with him, but his words have been bumbling around in my head for awhile.
For instance, he writes,
Many Christians correctly oppose the sexual and marital chaos that has infiltrated our churches. But in this struggle against sin and for marriage and family, some Christian traditions take a wrong turn. They argue on the basis of the created order (sometimes called natural law) and Scripture that God has actually commanded married people to have children.
These Christians, who see this command as absolute, argue against birth control, except for what they consider the natural means of abstinence. They claim Genesis 1:28—”Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth”—as a proof text. Birth control seems to disobey this commandment, which is rooted in God’s purpose for creation.
Indeed, I am one of those Christians, having written the following in my Juggling Life’s Responsibilities book:
“As soon as God made Adam and Eve, He blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it…’ (Genesis 1:28, NKJV). Two more times in Genesis, God gave a similar command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ — to Noah (Genesis 9:1, 7) and to Jacob (Genesis 35:11) — and He has never revoked this command” (p. 25).
But author Van Leeuwen goes on to explain,
Much could be said in response, but only one comment is essential: Genesis 1:28 is not a commandment, but a blessing. It does not refer to what humans must do to please God, but to what God does for and through humankind. The text says, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply'” (RSV). Fertility is not a command but a blessing that God gives to his creatures, to animals as well as humans (Gen. 1:22). The filling of the Earth is a gift of God’s wisdom and shows forth his glory as Creator (Ps. 104:24, 31; Isa. 6:3).
In English it is easy to confuse blessing and command, because the blessing of Genesis 1:28 sounds like a command. This verse and its context is often called the cultural mandate. Instead, we should call it the cultural blessing. A look at Genesis 24:60 shows why. There, Rebekah’s family is about to send her off to marry Isaac: “And they blessed Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Our sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them!'” (RSV).
Here again, the first part of the blessing (“be the mother”) sounds like a command in English. But it is not. The human blessing appeals to God to make Rebekah and her descendants fruitful. In the next generation, when this blessing does not come for Rachel, Jacob angrily responds to her complaint, saying, “Am I in the place of God?” (Gen. 30:2, RSV).
The Hebrew grammar of blessing in Genesis 24:60 is identical to that in Genesis 1:28. But in English, the blessing comes through more clearly in the second clause of Genesis 24:60: “may your descendants possess” (RSV). In Genesis 1:28, of course, it is God who declares the blessing and fulfills it himself. So it would be inappropriate for the English translation to read, “May you be fruitful.” (Source)
This makes perfect sense to me, actually. I’ve heard it argued that if Genesis 1:28 were a command, we still wouldn’t need to obey it today, in our culture, because this was a command given specifically to the first man and woman — not to all humanity at all times. Today, our earth is over-populated (so the argument goes), and if we all had large families, how would we feed them all?
Yet my response has always been that immediately after Genesis 1:28, God promises to provide food for His creation:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food” (Genesis 1:29-30).
In fact, repeatedly through the Scriptures, God repeats that He will provide for our every need, including food.
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the LORD upholdeth him with his hand. I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. He is ever merciful, and lendeth; and his seed is blessed” (Psalm 37:23-26, KJV).
This verse in Psalm 37 seems to agree with Van Leeuwen, though. When God delights in a righteous man, He blesses his seed (children). One of the ways He blesses them is by not forsaking them or allowing them to beg bread. This would seem to apply to all humanity, though, not just Adam and Eve. However, it seems to be a blessing only for the righteous in humanity, not all mankind.
I’ve heard the argument that God commanded Noah to fill the earth as well, but that this command was only to him and his sons. After all, the population of the earth had been reduced back down to only eight people! Note that what I’ve called a command is actually labeled as a “blessing” right in the text, just as Van Leeuwen claims:
“Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything'” (Genesis 9:1-3).
As I’ve been working on writing a homeschooling history curriculum, one author I read brought out the interesting point that the animals on the ark would have reproduced at a much greater speed than mankind, so that’s why God put “fear and dread” of man into the animals. (See also Exodus 23:29-30.) God’s “blessing” of children again came with His protection and care over them (even though mankind quickly looked to Nimrod for protection as a “mighty hunter” and a builder of walled cities, rather than to God).
Finally, God gives a similar command — or is it a blessing? — to Jacob, also called “Israel.”
“After Jacob returned from Paddan Aram, God appeared to him again and blessed him. God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.’ So he named him Israel. And God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; be fruitful and increase in number. A nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I also give to you, and I will give this land to your descendants after you'” (Genesis 35:9-12).
Yup, looks like a blessing again. It also looks pretty specific, doesn’t it? This is a “blessing” made only to Jacob.
Or is it? His name was changed here to Israel, so this is a blessing made to Israel. The blessing specifically says “a nation” will come from you — but also a “community of nations.” Finally, God provides with the blessing His provision of a land for them to live in.
- It seems that this blessing or command, whichever it is (and yes, my tongue is in my cheek now), is given specifically to ONE person each time, yet it seems to assume that all of that one person’s descendants are included in the blessing.
- It seems that this blessing is always accompanied by God’s provision, whether food, protection, or a place to live. (I could take you to Deuteronomy 28 for yet another fear of having many children, which is poor health, to see God’s provision for that one… but wait — I think those verses are only for Israel, not for us… tongue in cheek again?)
- It seems that God’s blessing is always given to His chosen people, but that all people — from all tribes, nations, and tongues — are welcome to enter into His blessing by faith in Him and righteousness through His Son. I could list many verses to back this up, but that’s a topic for another day. (But if you like this stuff, take a peek at these: Genesis 12:3, Genesis 17:23-27, Genesis 22:18, Exodus 12:43-49, Isaiah 26, Isaiah 42:6-7, Luke 2:32, Acts 13:47, Acts 26:23, Ephesians 2:17-3:6… and I could go on.)
The application to my heart is this:
- God’s commands ARE blessings. Always. (See Psalm 119.)
- God never commands something without providing what we need to obey. In the same way, He would never bless us — then sit in heaven laughing at the distress caused by his “blessing.” Only the Greek gods did such despicable things. (See Deuteronomy 30:11-16 and Romans 10:6-8.)
- I am welcome to enter into God’s blessing, in the area of childbearing — or any other thing — when I come by faith in His promises. (See Hebrews 11 and Ephesians 2:8-10.) Wow, this is practical stuff!
So are children a blessing or a curse? Is to “be fruitful and multiply” a command for us today? May the Scriptures speak for themselves:
Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain.
In vain you rise early
and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Sons are a heritage from the LORD,
children a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are sons born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
Blessed are all who fear the LORD,
who walk in his ways.
You will eat the fruit of your labor;
blessings and prosperity will be yours.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your sons will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion
all the days of your life;
may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem,
and may you live to see your children’s children.
Peace be upon Israel.
P.S. Some other, more “practical” posts on this subject that you’ll find here on my blog are available here: