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God's Babies

John McKeown

4. The Old Testament Context

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1I begin this exploration of the Old Testament context by looking at the ancient Near Eastern background in its agricultural, demographic, economic, political, and religious dimensions. I will then focus on the canonical and theological contexts of the verses most commonly used by natalists (Genesis 1:28 and Psalm 127) to identify a range of plausible original meanings. This analysis leads to a comparison of the arguments advanced by modern natalists with features of Old Testament exegesis and theology from which significant differences emerge. In the first place, Old Testament blessings contribute materially to prosperity, and were regarded as a reward for loyalty to God: when modern natalists rebuke those supposedly refusing additional blessings, they lose sight of this original meaning. Secondly, distinctive features of the original text are ignored by natalists as inconvenient, for example the gender preference for sons. Finally, I will examine some recent attempts by biblical scholars at contemporary application (for their Christian readers) of significant fruitful verses.

  • 1 The only Old Testament books never cited in my catalogued sources are Esther, Song of Songs, Danie (...)
  • 2 The five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) written by Moses, according (...)

2The modern natalist sources that I analyzed make 264 references to the Old Testament, and these cover 27 out of the 39 canonical books.1 Just over half (139) of the citations are to the Pentateuch,2 including 84 to Genesis. “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) is the most popular text, but the patriarchal narratives from Abraham onward account for over half (46) of the references to Genesis, and there are 35 references spread across Deuteronomy. Psalm 127:3-5 is the second most popular text, but spread across the books outside the Pentateuch are 75 other verses that receive 109 mentions. Natalists refer to verses from different parts of the Old Testament, so the historical context is broad.

The background

  • 3 “Old Testament” is the Christian name for a canonical collection of books that roughly corresponds (...)
  • 4 “Near East” is the term used in archaeology and biblical studies to label the region that outside (...)

3The various parts of the Old Testament3 were composed in the ancient Near East.4 Their dates are generally uncertain and controversial. According to tradition the Pentateuch was wholly authored by the prophet Moses in the wilderness before 1200 BC. Few academic scholars accept that, but many think early narratives and laws were incorporated by later redactors (Ska 192) and that some parts date from various early periods including the time of Judges, the early monarchy from the 10th century BC, later in the First Temple period, after the Babylonian invasion and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, and after the return of Jewish exiles. However, most of my points about context are not sensitive to particular dating because the features of the demographic, agricultural, economic, social, cultural, and (popular) religious context that are relevant to family size changed little across the range of possible dates. Even the political context, which did change, had an element of continuity in that one or another nearby empire was always a prominent feature.

Demographic context

  • 5 In the centuries before the foundation of the monarchy and the states of Israel and Judah (in the (...)

4A rough chronology derived from archaeology finds proto-Israelite farmers settling during the 13th or 12th century BC in the hill-country or highlands of modern Israel (Dever, “Who” 196). The highland region where the early Israelites5 lived was sparsely populated. Other peoples already occupied the coast and lowlands, so the Israelites had settled in the central hill-country which had fewer occupants. The area was even less populated than it had been a few centuries earlier. The population of the Near East during the late Bronze Age, from the 15th through 13th centuries BC, had declined by half (Liverani 328, 381). Finkelstein estimates that numbers in the highlands had shrunk to only a third of the Bronze Age peak (Dever, “Who” 156). When the Israelites arrived in the 13th or 12th century, the highlands were less populated than they had been, and so through the early formative centuries of Israelite history there was “more land than people” (Liverani 22).

5In the ancient Near East, high rates of premature mortality made numerous births necessary just to maintain a population. Death stalked all age cohorts but especially infants, as more than a third died before the age of five (Meyers, “Family” 19). A typical family unit had between two and four surviving children (Blenkinsopp 51), and this produced a slow increase. Between the 13th and 12th centuries, inward migration by Israelite settlers in the highlands was the main cause of population growth, but in later centuries the slower growth of a “long-resident population” is observed. Archaeologists offer various estimates for the number of Israelites living in the highlands. William Dever suggests 12,000 in the 13th century, 55,000 in the 12th century, and 75,000 in the 11th century (“What” 110). So the average annual percentage rate of natural increase was around 0.3% for the latter century. By the 7th century BC, the highland population was 150,000 (“Who” 196), giving an average rate of less than 0.2%, which probably masks fluctuations during those centuries. Either rate is typical for the ancient world, and much lower than some developing countries today which exceed 3% annual increase.

  • 6 Some neighboring cultures followed a similar pattern: a surviving contract formula for Assyrian we (...)

6Child survival, health, and strength were more important than maximizing the number of births. Spacing between births was desirable not only for the mother’s health, but also for the child’s robustness. After a birth there is normally a time of natural infertility (postpartum infecundability) that includes suppression of the menstrual cycle. With on-demand breastfeeding as the only sustenance, natural low fertility (lactational amenorrhea) can persist up to 18 months, and this was common in pre-modern societies (Gruber 62). Beyond that, in some (especially polygamous) cultures, husbands avoid sex with lactating wives. Among ancient Israelites breastfeeding usually lasted three years (King and Stager 41). Hannah waited until weaning Samuel before delivering him to the Temple (1 Samuel 1:22), and the specification of his substitute offering as a three-year-old bull is indicative of his age (Blenkinsopp 98). A later text includes the saying: “I carried you in my womb for nine months and I nursed you for three years” (2 Maccabees 7:27). This often resulted in a helpful spacing between births.6

7For ancient Israelites the demand for reproduction came very close to home. About 80% of people lived in clan-based rural settlements of less than 100 people (Meyers, “Family” 12). Each of those communities depended for its perpetuation on a small number of women of childbearing age. Given the likelihood of some being infertile and other women dying prematurely (especially as a result of childbirth), and the randomness of demographic events, such a small scale community would occasionally encounter crises in which reproduction temporarily threatened to be insufficient for local viability. In those circumstances it would be unthinkable for a woman to choose to opt out of reproduction.

8Old Testament writers had some awareness of demography. At a popular level, farmers breeding livestock (Genesis 30:31-41) knew about demographic patterns. Casual observation of birds and other wild animals would reveal a pattern of many births with many dying young. The degree of excess varied greatly: some species’ numbers periodically soar and crash, for example locusts and frogs (Exodus 8:13; 10:15). Other species seem fairly stable over many generations. Though it is easier to perceive demographic patterns in creatures with a short lifespan, they also knew about human demography: for example, that women bore many babies who died in their first year or as children. They might see an extended family living on the same land as they had for generations and deduce that numbers had not much risen. Scribes and rulers shared that popular knowledge, but they also knew tax records and perhaps old censuses. Old Testament texts include genealogies, enumeration of clans, and they mention royal efforts to count people with a view to taxation, labor (1 Kings 5:13), and military recruitment.

Cultural context

9The writers of the Old Testament were scribes and priests. Though they were part of a religious elite with wider concerns than farming, around 95% of ancient Israelites were farmers (Blenkinsopp 54), and the writers would have been aware of agricultural concerns. It is helpful to consider the contribution of material culture to Old Testament ideas about fertility. In brief, ancient farmers would normally esteem prolific human fecundity, and that was accentuated in early Israel due to their circumstances.

10Archaeology suggests that the early Israelites grew cereals, grapes, and olives, and kept livestock (Meyers, “Family” 3). The land was hilly with small intermontane valleys. Much was scrub woodland which was, however, deficient in valuable timber trees. The land was rocky with poor soil. The highlands demanded more labor than lowlands to clear the scrub (Joshua 17:18) and remove stones. The farmed land was mostly sloping with rare flat areas, so farmers had to do the “very laborious” work of building and maintaining terraces (Dever, “Who” 113). The effect of these conditions was an “extraordinary intensification” of the demand for labor, and since the early Israelites did not have many slaves there was a need for “large families” (Meyers, “Procreation” 581), beyond even the normal pre-modern desire for offspring.

  • 7 Though mothers only benefited if they survived childbirth. For each birth, the maternal mortality (...)
  • 8 Meyers suggests this may be reflected in Leviticus 27, where a lower compensation value is assigne (...)

11As in other pre-modern agricultural societies, parents benefited practically from having numerous offspring.7 Though the period of infancy was an economic loss due to the time spent caring and feeding, ethnographic studies of modern subsistence cultures suggest that from age five a child of subsistence farmers would help in tasks such as food preparation, gardening, water-carrying, wood-gathering, and guarding livestock from predators. As a child grew, the range of tasks and the hours worked would increase to the point at which production exceeds consumption (Meyers, “Family” 27). Research in the context of Bangladeshi farmers in 1977 found this crossover at age nine for boys (Sullivan 34): after that, a child was profitable. In the ancient Near East, children who survived infancy were economic assets for their parents,8 and for their clan.

  • 9 That Psalm “deals… exclusively with the sons” (Kraus 455). Though in some texts referring to infan (...)

12Daughters were typically as economically valuable as sons while they were children, but when they reached teenage years almost all daughters married and consequently moved to another man’s household where they worked. The bride-price (Exodus 22:16) was compensation for the father and would vary according to status. Laban’s daughter was exchanged for seven years’ labor from Jacob (Genesis 29:20). One legal text which requires a rapist to pay the father the bride-price specifies fifty shekels, which is around five years’ wages (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Sons were even more valuable. After marriage, they continued to be affiliated to the bêt ‘ab (literally “father’s house,” but materially a small cluster of dwellings around the patriarch’s house) and owed obedience. In the nearby Ugaritic culture, a list of an adult son’s duties to his father includes roof-patching and clothes-washing (Blenkinsopp 71). Adult sons could also support their father in disputes, which some commentators identify as the background of Psalm 127:4,9 discussed in detail below.

13Parents expected that when (and if) they reached old age, their children would help them (Proverbs 23:22). That is reflected in the textual link between filial duty and long life (as well as secure possession of the land) in one of the Ten Commandments: “honour your father and mother so that you may live long in the land” (Exodus 20:12). Edesio Sánchez claims that the fifth commandment was aimed at adult children and constitutes a “requirement to take care of elderly parents” (40). Given that most daughters would be married, perhaps living in another settlement and certainly with duties redirected toward a husband and his kin, it was usually the sons (and their wives) who would be responsible for elderly parents.

  • 10 In the case of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:2-12), who dies with no son and only daughters, there is an (...)
  • 11 This can be illustrated from the story of Judah who has three adult sons (and probably other sons (...)

14Perhaps even more important, sons provide continuity in the lineage of male descendants, important for the inheritance of family land and, through memory, for conferring proxy immortality on the father (Brichto 21). They perpetuate the father’s name (which might be recited in genealogies): “bless the boys and in them let my name be carried on” (Genesis 48:16).10 The importance of this is shown by the custom that if a man died without an heir, then his eldest brother had a duty to marry the widow and to count the first of any offspring as belonging to the dead brother, so resurrecting his name. Long-term preservation of a male lineage was not easy: to reach the third generation, given pre-modern rates of premature mortality, a man would need at least three sons born to secure a high probability of one surviving to produce a grandson.11

15Burial and the afterlife were additional reasons why ancient Israelites wanted offspring. Sons had a duty to bury their father (Petersen 14). When Isaac died, “his sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Genesis 35:29). These people wanted to be buried with their ancestors; for example, the dying “Jacob called to his sons” and his last words were “I am to be gathered to my people: bury me with my fathers in the cave ... There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah” (Genesis 49:1, 29, 31). Family had a duty to ensure burial at the ancestral site (Genesis 30), or at least a decent interment: to go unburied was a dreadful prospect (Jeremiah 16:4).

16In the ancient Near East, regular memorial rituals for dead ancestors were a duty performed by their descendants, ideally at the burial site on inherited family land: so it was important to have heirs to keep the ownership of that place in the family (Stavrakopoulou 4). This was done to honor the memory of the ancestors, but it was linked to beliefs about the afterlife and fellowship across the generations. Rituals might include food offerings to the ancestors. Occasional critiques of such customs (e.g. Deuteronomy 26:14), alongside archaeology, suggest that similar practices were common in ancient Israel. In that worldview, to be childless was to fail to maintain the line of descendants and cut off the forefathers.

Political context

17The political context of the writers varies depending on the dating, but in any case there are common features. Moses would look forward to the nation living in the land; while those writing after the exile look back to a golden age when they were not subject to any empire. Writers in exile looked forward to returning to the land, but also with an eye to their exiled community. Babylonia and other ancient empires dealt with conquered peoples by enslaving the survivors and deporting some or all of them to other locations in the empire. Consequently, exiles were scattered around the empire, and that exacerbated perceptions of their being few. They were often unable to own land, vulnerable to oppression, and lacked self-determination. One important concern of their leaders was to preserve a distinct national religious identity.

18Old Testament writers shared the concept of a distinct ‘am (people) named Israel, belonging in a particular land as one of the nations. It is unlikely that Old Testament writers worried about perpetuating the human species. Its survival had not been precarious since a time far beyond any collective memory. More importantly, humankind did not exist as one united community but rather as many rival peoples. The concern of each was national survival, often under threat from other nations and empires. There was a subsidiary interest in preserving the constituent parts of Israel. Communal efforts to rescue the tribe of Benjamin from near extinction are described in Judges 21. Whatever the later reality of the tribes, the continuity of each clan was valued. A basic concern was maintaining and increasing clan numbers. Elites with a wider perspective were concerned about the national scale of this phenomenon.

19The slow natural increase of population could periodically be reversed, usually due to plague or war. After the Assyrian war in 701 BC, part of Judea’s population increase of previous centuries had been lost (Borowski 8). Human fertility could therefore be a symbol of national hopes (Hosea 9:11). The exiles in Babylonia were exhorted to “increase in number there; do not decrease” (Jeremiah 29:6, NIV). During the earlier captivity in Egypt the Israelites are pictured as becoming “more and mightier” (Exodus 1:9-10, KJV), which set a good example for later exiles.

20Rearing sufficient offspring to offset normal mortality and replace the current generation demanded continuous effort, but political concerns were more pressing and demanded higher fertility. In the ancient Near East, rivalry between nations for political existence and dominance required fertility partly to offset deaths in war, but mainly to match or outnumber other peoples. The Canaanites as archetypal enemy are depicted as “a great horde, in number like the sand” (Joshua 11:4, ESV), and there was a perceived need for a large number of warriors to defeat them. Large sections of the Pentateuch consist of lists counting each clan’s contribution to the number of “all who were able to go to war” (Numbers 1:20, ESV).

21Surrounded by empires, Judea had good reason to fear the political extinction that later overtook it. Ryan Byrne argues that “social reproduction … represented a priority of state as well as family in Iron Age Judah” (145), and claims that central production of mould-made fertility statuettes in Judea should be understood in the context of the Assyrian aggression which had extinguished nearby city-states (Arpad, Hamath, and Damascus) and the northern kingdom (Samaria). Judean towns also fell, and even Jerusalem was besieged (2 Kings 18:9, 17). Archaeologists have retrieved from 8th-and 7th-century BC sites across Judea more than eight hundred statuettes of a lactating female, and Byrne judges that these “pillar figurines portray the fertile archetype, an ideal model of the dutiful Judean woman, wife, mother, the progenitress of Judeans” (143). Perhaps at times of defeat and loss there was a stronger emphasis on reproduction.

22The demands of war and rivalry that could generate a pro-fertility attitude are relevant whatever the dating of the Pentateuch. Moses was pictured leading a host of landless ex-slaves to conquer and occupy Canaan. During the kingdom period the emphasis was on holding land, and training sufficient sons to defend it militarily. Writers in exile would regret the kingdom’s defeat, and belonged to a minority that was sometimes competing with other minorities or dreaming of triumphs like that of Mordecai (Esther 9:16). So the uncertainty of dating is not a problem for this argument.

23Beyond national interest, parts of the Old Testament may voice the specific interests of rulers. Whether and how particular texts are polemical in supporting or critiquing ruling powers is hotly debated. For example, Philip Davies identifies many texts as the voice of a ruling class mediated by scribes (21), whereas others discern anti-monarchy voices. Attitudes to the institution of monarchy, the Davidic dynasty, the northern kingdom, and post-exilic Jerusalem governors authorised by Persia are certainly part of the background for the Old Testament.

  • 12 At a lower rank, similar issues of succession faced the heads of clans.
  • 13 Lower infant mortality rates for the upper class did not emerge until the 18th century in Europe.
  • 14 David passed over his eldest surviving and loyal son Adonias, and appointed the younger Solomon as (...)
  • 15 A grandson of King Saul named Mephibosheth was crippled and not regarded by David as a threatening (...)

24Kings had a dynastic interest in fathering many sons.12 To continue his dynasty a king needed at least one heir, surviving and suitable. Mortality rates among royal infants were probably little better than the pre-modern average.13 Beyond the normal attrition, princes faced other perils: some might be killed due to fraternal rivalry, like Amnon (2 Samuel 13:29), or disloyalty to the king, like Absalom (2 Samuel 15:6). Though primogeniture (the eldest son inheriting lordship) was common in the ancient Near East, it was not automatic: a king could choose from among his sons, so more sons offered more chance of a worthy successor.14 Often the reasons for setting aside older sons are not given: some might be deemed unfit to rule due to incompetence, insanity, or physical disability.15 Others might be politically unsuitable, if born of a wife from a broken foreign alliance or from a local family that had fallen from favor. The writers of some fruitful verses in Proverbs and Psalms (including 127) have a royal audience in mind. And their writings were not mere flattery: they hoped the king would have sons for the sake of continuity, stability, and good governance.

25Ambitious kings wanted their people to increase in number because “a large population is a king’s glory” (Proverbs 14:28, NIV). Also, prolific reproduction among the common people provides more young men for the king’s army, more tax income, and more forced labor for royal land and for the king’s building projects. The prophet Samuel had warned the people about how rulers behave:

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots ... others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. (1 Samuel 8:11-13; NIV)

26Solomon rejoiced that “you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust” (2 Chronicles 1:9), and the narrator says he then conscripted 153,600 people to build his palace and a temple (2:2). Another text records that 183,300 labored at Solomon’s projects in various ways (1 Kings 5:13-16). The commander Joab counted 1.3 million men owing military service to the king (2 Samuel 24:9). Archaeology suggests that these numbers are unrealistically high, but they show the aspirational ideals of kings seeking grandeur and glory.

Ideas about reproduction

27The fruitful verses should be interpreted in their immediate literary context, their canonical context, and the larger framework of Old Testament theology. The canonical and theological investigation cannot be confined to Genesis 1:28 and 9:1 (the only fruitful verses addressed to humankind universally) for two reasons. First, because the natalist sources do not confine their reception to Genesis 1-11; out of 264 references to the Old Testament, only 37 are to those early chapters. All the natalist writers refer to texts outside Genesis, even if these are just the Psalms for the least prolific quoters. Second, because the primeval history (Genesis 1-11) is part of the Pentateuch and the wider canon. In this respect, Old Testament theology suggests that some verses from the primeval history are thematic for the narrative from Genesis onward, from Joshua to Kings and beyond.

28The sinful and defective character of humankind is depicted in Genesis, and God’s response is to create a holy nation. The chosen instrument is the man Abraham and his seed (offspring) established in a particular land. The worship of God, embodied in religious practices, will endure through the matrix of this nation. The foundations of the nation are divine promises to Abraham, repeated to Isaac, Jacob, and the Israelites. Abraham’s heirs will be his genetic offspring (15:4), they will be very numerous (13:16), and will cohere as a “great nation” (12:2). They will receive a land (12:7), good pasture and fertile fields, and will spread out across it (28:13), to fill and subdue it. In all this God promises that “I will be with you” (26:3), to bless, to give prosperity, to keep secure, to deliver from oppressors, and to defeat enemies. Old Testament scholars synthesize those promises in various ways. David Clines identifies “three elements: posterity, divine-human relationship, and land” (30). Desmond Alexander identifies descendants and land as the two prerequisites of nationhood (84). The divine agenda of creating a holy nation requires a number of related elements: genetic offspring is one of them, and increase in numbers is one aspect of that. Israelite fecundity is necessary but not sufficient; it is part of a larger project.

Integrated and sequential

29Land is an integral feature of the promise, since in the pre-modern world any people reliant on herds and crops would need more land if they increased absolutely in population (Numbers 26:54; 33:54), because stocking density and crop yield rates did not rise steadily. Without access to more land they would suffer. Norman Whybray observes that for ancient peoples in the Near East the “search for living space was an essential condition of the good life” (5). When the God who provides for His chosen people promised numerous descendants, that was accompanied by a promise of land (Genesis 12:7; 15:5, 7). Similarly, when Abraham is promised that his seed will be as numerous as dust, he is also promised that they will be able to prtz (spread out) to the west, east, north, and south (28:14). A repeated theme is that Israel will be fruitful and become many “in the land” (Genesis 41.52; 47.27; 48.4; Deuteronomy 6:3). Though Jacob’s extended family grows to number seventy (Genesis 46:27), this was far short of the nation promised to Abraham. Only after they are given the land of Goshen (Genesis 47:6) do the three verbs prh, rbh, and ml’ (be fruitful, increase, and fill) occur together again (Exodus 1:7), expressing fulfilment of the blessing. And the label “nation” is first applied to the people when they are on their way to a larger land in Canaan (Exodus 13:13). In the wilderness the people are sustained by manna, but it is not an enduring solution. When the promise is remembered at Mount Sinai, the verb rbh (increase) and the noun ‘rtz (land) are linked together: “I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever” (Exodus 32:13, KJV). Land was a prerequisite enabling the sons of Israel to be fruitful and become a nation.

30A progression, a changing balance in the relative prominence of the elements of God’s nation project, can be observed across the Pentateuch. While in Genesis 12-50 the foremost element is offspring, in Exodus and Leviticus the covenant is dominant, and in Numbers and Deuteronomy the land is highlighted (Clines 30). God’s promise of offspring is rehearsed only once in Exodus (32:13), and in the books of Leviticus and Numbers it never appears. Deuteronomy revisits all the earlier themes, and the offspring element reappears there alongside the elements of land and covenant. I would not expect it to disappear permanently because the normal regular losses from mortality require a continuous state of being fruitful. Maintaining a numerous people demands the addition of replacement people in each generation. To keep the land filled with the living requires persistent reproduction, and if it ever slackens the land would quickly empty. Continued references after the origin narratives do imply endless fertility, but not necessarily absolute growth. Also, the birth of Israel and the subsequent stages of its national life are an historical process, and the relative importance of the elements varies according to the situation. Joshua has the whole land to fill so the situation is like that of Adam or Noah. When he is old there remains room for growth because much land has still not been occupied by Israelites (Joshua 13:1; Exodus 23:30).


31A large quantity of descendants is part of the plan. God promises offspring as numerous as the stars, sand, or dust. All these metaphors extravagantly picture a large number. Moses at Sinai encourages Israel that God “has multiplied you … as numerous as the stars of heaven,” but he looks to a future in which they will become “a thousand times as many” (Deuteronomy 1:10-11, ESV). Rhetorically, there seems to be no upper limit in view, but when Moses speaks the Israelites are still fewer in number than their enemies. Israel may already be a “great nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6), but it seeks to subdue or drive out stronger peoples described as “greater nations” (Deuteronomy 7:17; 11:23), and that is a reason why they keep hoping for greater numbers.

32Building a holy nation requires not merely a large quantity of offspring, but also qualities such as loyalty to God, unity, and corporate identity, which are all linked to divine covenant. Whenever there is a choice between quality and quantity, the former is prioritized. Abraham has many sons, and Isaac has two sons, but in each generation only one “child of promise” is needed (Bratton 84). Attempts to build a holy nation including the extra sons would not yield a greater result; rather, it would hinder the project. When at Sinai the Israelites turn to a golden idol, God’s first proposal is to eliminate them all and rebuild his nation from Moses alone (Exodus 32:10). As it turns out, God relents and instead commands that only three thousand unrepentant men be slain (Exodus 32:28). In the wilderness (Numbers 16:21) and in Israel’s later history, the strategy of pruning back to a few people continues to be a thinkable option. There are also incidents in which loss of numbers is portrayed as necessary to maintain national holiness. For example, two hundred and fifty dissident Israelite leaders are slain by fire, and the family encampments of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, together with “their wives, children and little ones,” are swallowed alive into Sheol (Numbers 16:31-33, NIV). It is better for the Israelites to be reduced in number than to compromise the covenant.

33Though quantity is not the most important feature of offspring, this does not suggest any virtue in limiting fertility, because the pruning is done after birth. It is amenable to a lottery natalism that gives birth to many in hope that some will turn out to be “godly offspring.” The case of Abraham is different, with a revelation before any child is born that the nation will be built only from the son promised to Sarah. Despite this Abraham, due to his unbelief, fathers Ishmael by Hagar (and later six sons by Keturah), but sends them all far away (Genesis 21:10; 25:6) because the holy nation must be built only through Isaac, the child of Sarah.

Birth or covenant?

34Ancient nations were not simply extended families. Though many small rural settlements might be purely kin groups, the people of a nation were not all closely related. Genesis emphasizes this as a feature even of Abraham’s household, the first bêt ‘ab (father’s house). Its members are numerous, but most are not his kin. Abraham’s heir for many years is a servant named Eliezer of Damascus (15:2). Abraham obeys God’s command for all: “Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised” (17:13, NIV). It is the sign of membership among God’s chosen people, an “everlasting covenant” for his non-kin household. Later in Israel, national identity was not strictly ethnic as many Israelites were not descendants of Jacob, and that is reflected in biblical narratives which mention some Israelites having names that indicate a different ancestry, including Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11:6, 11). Non-kin could be incorporated into Israel by marriage, but gerim (strangers and resident aliens) could also join Israel, and there was no requirement for a connection by marriage to a descendant of Jacob. “The LORD will have compassion on Jacob ... Foreigners will join them and unite with the descendants of Jacob” (Isaiah 14:1, NIV). A clan of gerim could join Israel. The requirement was loyalty to God and nation, not ancestry or kinship connection.

35On the other hand, some Old Testament writings express the idea that ancient Israel is essentially a kin group, built and maintained through birth. Abraham’s heir will come “out of your own loins” (Genesis 15:4, ESV). Often an ideal is presented in which a hierarchy of groups, bêt ‘ab (father’s house), mišpāhā (clan), and šēbēt (tribe), constitute the nation (Joshua 7:14; 1 Samuel 10:19). Though such groups include some who are not kin, they are essentially kin-based. In genealogies each clan is assigned genetic descent from Jacob/Israel, and the whole nation is sometimes portrayed as if it consisted solely of biological descendants of people who entered the land after the Exodus. The nation is called the “sons of Israel” (e. g. Genesis 50:25). Some texts indicate a policy of endogamy (rules against marriage to foreigners) forbidding, for example, marriages between Israelites and people from Canaanite nations (Deuteronomy 7:3). The question of whether the nation was and is to be built through biological reproduction, or by chosen adherence to God’s Covenant, is an unresolved tension in the Old Testament.

36The nation-building promises were essentially for Israel. A few texts extend the blessing to Abraham’s other descendants, notably Ishmael (Genesis 17:20). Apart from these, no particular promise of fecundity is directed toward goyim, the other nations. Even among the Israelites, the promise is only for keepers of the covenant. One of the prophets asked God to give the disloyal Israelites a “miscarrying womb and dry breasts” (Hosea 9:14, KJV), so their babies would not survive. The Israelites are warned through Moses that if they break the covenant their children will be killed: “if you walk contrary to me ... I will continue striking you ... I will let loose the wild beasts against you, which shall bereave you of your children ... and make you few in number, so that your roads shall be deserted” (Leviticus 26:22, ESV). Biological descent from Jacob did not guarantee loyalty to the national covenant and God is portrayed as intervening to limit the number of offspring.

Genesis 1:28

37The divine blessing on humankind in Genesis 1:28 includes five imperative verbs: prh (be fruitful), rbh (be many), ml’ (fill), kbs (subdue), and rdh (rule or have dominion). Since 1970, in response to claims that reception of the last two verbs provided a motive or an excuse for exploitation of nature, biblical scholars have devoted much attention to “subdue” and “have dominion,” and far less attention has been given to the ecological implications of the first three verbs: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth.” The verb prh is associated with the ability to give birth from a fruitful womb, the opposite of the closed womb that afflicted Sarah and Rachel. The verb rbh means to be “many” or “much” or “great,” and its usage later in the canon often refers broadly to prosperity. For example, when the “oppressors of the poor” (Proverbs 22:16) grow richer the verb rbh is used. Biological reproduction and large family size is part of its meaning, but the 16th-century choice to translate it as “multiply” here may wrongly convey to modern readers an impression of an exclusive interest in quantity of offspring rather than human flourishing.

38The verb ml’ (fill) in Genesis 1:28 and 9:1 denotes the spatial extension of population across the face of the land, and shares its object ‘rtz (earth or land) with the verb kbs (subdue). All other biblical texts combining the verb kbs with the object ‘rtz (Numbers 32:22, 29; Joshua 18:1; 1 Chronicles 22:18) are about Israelites defeating Canaanites and consolidating their control of the land (McKeown, “Christian Faith and the Environment” 72), and Genesis echoes that. Ml’ also refers here to occupying land: filling is not a once-only event because though a land may be filled, after a catastrophe such as war one or more settlements might empty out as happened to some Judean towns in the 7th century. So to “fill the land” was not only a past event but also a recurring imperative: “so will the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people” (Ezekiel 36:38, NIV).

39The verbs prh, rbh, and ml’ occur together as a triplet only four times (Genesis 1:22, 28; 9:1; Exodus 1:7). The first two are at creation addressed to nonhuman species and to humankind; the third revives the blessing for Noah and his sons as they make a new beginning in an empty world. The last is a report of the fulfillment of the original blessing in the land of Goshen in Egypt, indicating that God is still true to His covenant even though the people are temporarily distant from the promised land.

40The verb pair prh and rbh occurs in twelve other verses (Genesis 8:17; 9:7; 17:20; 28:3; 35:11; 47:27; 48:4; Leviticus 26:9; Jeremiah 3:16; 23:3; Ezekiel 36:11). This pattern, as with most occurrences in Genesis, indicates an emphasis on prh and rbh at the origins and formation of the nation, and its recollection as a promise of restoration after the depletion and dispossession of war and exile. It is spoken by God to the patriarchs at difficult points in their lives, as reassurance. The four instances outside Genesis offer hope of future success. The people will increase in the land if they obey God’s law (Leviticus 26:9); Jeremiah pictures revival if the people turn to God (3:16; 23:3); and Ezekiel links it with “waste places rebuilt” (36:11). Here, the offer of fertility and prosperity functions as a “carrot” to encourage the people to choose loyalty to God, and to seek religious and moral reformation.

41Presenting fertility as a blessing from the one creator may also be polemic against ancient Near Eastern fertility cults. Leading archaeologist William Dever emphasizes the “central role of sex and reproduction in Canaanite religion” (“Who” 199). John Hartley suggests that most people in the ancient Near East “believed that fertility rites practiced at local shrines enabled their lands, flocks and wives to produce abundantly” (49). Israelite popular folk religion was perhaps similar. Figurines of a pregnant or lactating woman have been found all over Judah from the time of the Davidic dynasty, perhaps linked to a cult of Asherah and probably connected to prayers for fertility. Victor Hamilton observes that fertility rituals were often associated with the retelling of creation stories (139). Westermann suggests that Genesis 1:28 is designed to warn its hearers that when they seek fertility (the words of the blessing may derive from a traditional marriage blessing), they should not seek help from other gods because fertility is a gift from the God of Israel, and since God gave all life the capacity to reproduce at its origin, no subsequent ritual is needed (Genesis 161). Genesis chapter 1 is thus “a deliberate rejection of the fertility cult” (Cohen 44).

Reproduction under God’s curse

42When human reproduction first appears in Genesis it is unambiguously part of God’s blessings on humankind. But then comes human sin and God’s curse under which all human endeavor, including reproduction, becomes ambivalent. In the second creation story (chapters 2 and 3) the first appearance of rbh is doubled but ironic: God says “unto the woman ... I will greatly multiply (rbh rbh) thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (3:16, KJV). Soon after, a recounting of successive generations (4:17-22), producing sons who themselves in turn are fecund, such as Jabal “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (4:20, ESV), might look like a fulfillment of the original blessing. For six generations which span hundreds of years, Cain’s lineage prospers genetically with the multi-generational fecundity that Vision Forum and other modern natalist would-be patriarchs dream of and plan. But their fecundity is not a sign of God’s favor: Cain is especially cursed (4:11), and his great lineage is doomed as generations later every one of its offspring is destroyed by God’s Flood, exposing all their mothers’ labors as futile.

43There are two lines of descent from Adam and Eve, the lineages of Cain and Seth (5:6-27). In each generation of the Sethite genealogy (5:6-31) the eldest son is named (Noah comes from this line), but for each of the nine generations it is also recorded that “after he became the father of [the named eldest son] … he had other sons and daughters” (5:7, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 26, 30). These other descendants are the great bulk of this branching Sethite population which looks like it will produce the godly people that God wants, for in the second generation some “began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26). However, in the ninth Sethite generation only one “righteous man” (6:9) survives, Noah and his household. All the other Sethites, half of humankind, are destroyed in the Flood. Most of their earlier reproductive effort that had looked so promising turned out to have been as futile as the births of the Cainites.

44The first verse of the Flood story, “when men began to multiply on the face of the earth” (Genesis 6:1), includes rbh and recalls the divine imperative at 1:28. At first this sounds like a success story: fulfilment of the blessing. Then in verse 5 we hear that adam (humankind) has become “great” (the noun form of rbh), but ironically it is “wickedness” that has multiplied. Similarly, the first use of the root ml’after chapter 1 appears when God sees that the Earth has become “filled with violence” (6:11, 13). This suggests that mere numbers are not the highest priority, and there will be divine discrimination between what is acceptable and unacceptable. This is based simultaneously on God’s election and on the quality of human behavior. After the Flood the sons of Noah are a hopeful fresh start for humankind and we read that:

Kana`an became the father of Tzidon (his firstborn) and Heth, the Yevusi, the Amori, the Girgashi, the Hivvi, the `Arki, the Sini, the Arvadi, the Tzemari, and the Hamati. Afterward the families of the Kana`anim were spread abroad. (Genesis 10:15-18, HNV)

45That report of human fecundity sounds like a fulfillment of the blessing, fruitful for generation upon generation, the root of many tribes. But the lineage of Kana`an (or Canaan) the son of Ham was cursed (Genesis 9:25). The story of the many progeny and tribes descending from Canaan illustrates what the reader already knows from the earlier story of Cain and his numerous descendants: being under a curse does not hinder reproduction, which continues because it is inbuilt in human nature and has not been uncreated. One implication is that the outward evidence of prolific reproduction is not a clear sign of God’s favor. This cursed reproduction looks like fruitfulness, but in due course the land will vomit them out (Leviticus 18:25) and its futility will become clear.

Is disobedience of “be fruitful and increase” thematic?

46Some early Jewish rabbis, and a few modern exegetes, suggested that the central recurring sin of humankind in Genesis 1-11 is disobedience of the commands “be fruitful and increase and fill the earth.” In line with this idea, they interpreted all the sins of Adam and Eve (3:1-6), Cain (4:8), the obscure “sons of God” (6:4), other people before the Flood (6:5, 13), and Ham (9:21-25) as offences relating to sex and reproduction (Cohen 60). Kikawada makes a bizarre suggestion that the original sin in the Garden of Eden was that Adam and Eve refused to reproduce (3:10).

God tried the sedentary life for man and it did not work ... what happens when Adam and Eve try to become civilised? They become ashamed of their genitals. What does this shame signify? Perhaps they no longer wanted to fulfil God’s command to be fruitful and multiply ... Eve was trying to avoid reproduction. (Kikawada and Quinn 68)

47Other early sins were construed as sexual acts that were non-generating or wrongly generative. For example, rabbinic midrash regarded Cain as born from a union between Eve and the serpent, therefore producing a trans-human lineage. Cohen seems to be persuaded by some “rabbinic homilies” which argued that “Noah’s contemporaries incurred the punishment of the Flood because of … their refusal to fulfil the procreative mandate” (78).

  • 16 “Name” or “renown” also features before the Flood (6:4).

48However, this effort to identify primeval sins as offences against the command to “be fruitful” is unconvincing. Even if some of the sins featured in Genesis 1-11 are sexual, they are less about failure to reproduce than about transgressions of boundaries (between the sons of God and the daughters of men in Genesis 6:4), disrespect for parents (Ham making fun of Noah’s naked body), breaking of marriage, and incest. For those who seek a thematic sin in Genesis 1-11, hubris and violence are better candidates. Genesis 3 narrates a theft of godlike knowledge, and before the Fall of Babel men want to make a “name” for themselves.16 The sins of Cain include envy and murder (4:8), and similarly the widespread sin that provokes the Flood (6:11) is clearly identified as hamas (violence).

49Few biblical scholars agree with Kikawada that the thematic sin of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is voluntary infertility, a refusal to be fruitful and increase. However some identify a refusal to “fill the earth” as the sin of humankind on the plains of Shinar when the people say: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). Laurence Turner argues that “in the Babel story ... the human sin was a refusal to fill the earth” (41), and their scattering (11:8) is interpreted as forcing them to fill the earth (Wenham, Genesis 240), but Kaminski demolishes this interpretation (31). The verb used in the Babel narrative is not ml’ (fill) but instead pws (scatter), which has negative connotations and would remind readers of Jerusalem’s fall and the scattering of its people into exile. For example, pws features in these verses: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:7, ESV); and “May your enemies be scattered” (Numbers 10:35, NIV). Whereas ml’ connotes occupation in strength, a prospect that any ambitious ancient people (like those at Babel) would welcome, pws instead denotes a scattering in weakness, as used in this warning: “The LORD will scatter you ... and only a few of you will survive” (Deuteronomy 4:27, NIV). The text in Genesis 10 does not identify the provocation as being a failure to fill the land; instead, the focus is on their unified language and their project of building a tower, and the reason given for divine intervention is that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (11:6, NIV). To prevent that they are disunited by a confusion of languages and then scattered across the land.

Genesis as polemic against Atrahasis?

50Some commentators discern a sharp contrast in views on human fertility between biblical and ancient Near Eastern culture, and claim that Genesis includes a polemic against the 18th-century BC Babylonian epic Atrahasis.

51In that writing, the lesser gods complain about their work of farming and maintaining canals, so humans are created as laborers. Men, however, multiply and become too noisy, their “uproar” disturbing the peace of the gods. The gods try to reduce human exuberance with plague, drought, and a famine, but these fail and so they unleash a flood to wipe out humankind. The gods soon regret this because they need human service and are pleased to discover that the god Enki warned a man named Atrahasis to build a boat. Enki then proposes less drastic measures to restrain human population growth in future: “Let there be among the peoples women who bear and women who do not bear. Let there be among the peoples the Pasittu-demon to snatch the baby from the lap of her who bore it” (Cohen 42). Ronald Hendel identifies divine strategies limiting human population: removing immortality or preventing its acquisition, reducing human lifespan, the establishment of categories of women who are not child-bearing, incidence of barren infertility, and infant mortality (24). There would still be occasional disasters of famine, plague, and war to regulate population, but the gods will not again seek to annihilate humankind.

52William Moran identifies the words “be fruitful and multiply” after the Flood (Genesis 9:1) as a “conscious rejection” of Atrahasis ’ presentation of the “limitation of man’s growth” as a remedy for disorder (61). Anne Kilmer similarly argues that whereas Atrahasis calls for man to “limit his increase … the biblical text indicates the opposite command” (174). Isaac Kikawada argues that here “God, far from punishing man for population growth, is rather ordering him ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ … this command … was argumentative, almost polemical, in its original context” (38-39). This is speculative, assuming that Atrahasis was known to the biblical writer, but plausible given Israelite natalism.

53Kikawada goes further in venturing to construct a theological principle: “Population growth is from the very beginning of the Genesis primeval history presented as an unqualified blessing … Genesis 1-11 … argues in favour of … unlimited human reproduction” (51-52). Kikawada asserts that to become fully the image of God one must reproduce biologically, because:

the creative motion of God has as its highest product his reproduction of himself according to his own kind Mankind, to live fully, to be the image and likeness of God, must exercise his dual capacities reproduce and move If he is to reproduce to his fullest, he must be willing to give up his sedentary way of life … Atrahasis argues that mankind should curb its reproductive drive The Hebrew author responds that procreation is God’s greatest command to us, our greatest blessing What about overpopulation? To this civilized question the Hebrew gives a nomadic reply. (79-80)

54This is based on a contrast between nomadic and settled viewpoints, in which nomads solve overcrowding by migration and dispersion, whereas settled farming people respond either with fatalism (the gods will reduce us), by planting colonies, or by genocidal conquest. Kikawada claims that “Atrahasis offers population control as the solution to urban overcrowding; Genesis offers dispersion, the nomadic way of life.” Jacob Milgrom, reviewing Kikawada’s work, rejects his idea of a nomadic ideal in the Bible (373). And even if they had such an outlook, typically nomads also experience constraints on population. Nomads often live on marginal land because the fertile land has been occupied by settled peoples.

55Tikva Frymer-Kensky argues convincingly that Genesis’ main equivalent to the remedies proposed in Atrahasis are laws to stop violent shedding of blood polluting the land. With regard to “be fruitful and multiply” she makes two assertions: it is a “conscious rejection of the idea that the cause of the Flood was overpopulation and that overpopulation is a serious problem” (152). I agree with the first clause but not the second. Genesis certainly identifies the reason for the Flood as sin, rather than any other cause such as the gods wishing to reduce human noise and numbers. The text’s aim is not to advocate unlimited fertility, but to oppose amoral explanations of disaster and insist on a theodicy of justice. It is a central theological claim of the arc of narrative from Genesis to Kings that the fall of Jerusalem and other disasters were God’s judgment for sins against the covenant.

56Also, the contrast between Israelite and Babylonian approaches to some issues in the stories is not absolute. Atrahasis offers an aetiology of human mortality, and there are traces of parallel ideas in the Old Testament (Hendel 24). Genesis includes a decree of mortality (3:19, 22) and a limiting of lifespan to 120 years (6:3). Genesis also includes a malediction on childbearing (3:16) which can encompass not only labor pains but also maternal sorrow at premature deaths (e. g. 2 Samuel 21:19) and infant mortality (e. g. 1 Kings 3:19), and the risk of maternal death itself (Genesis 35:17-18). The divine right of closing wombs (Genesis 20:18) and killing infants (2 Samuel 12:14) also features in the Old Testament. What is distinctive in the Old Testament is that the implementation of these constraints on human life is vested solely in the one true God, whereas in Atrahasis they are implemented by sub-divine agents.

57In any case, it is unwise to characterize ancient or Mesopotamian thought on the basis of the one text, Atrahasis. Desire for fecundity is evident across the ancient Near East in artefacts and texts. These do not often specify human fertility, but that is partly due to genre. In mythologies full of gods and demigods, ideas about humanity are expressed through stories about divine beings. For example, the fecundity of Enlil and Enki is exalted, Asherah has seventy sons, and the Akkadian mother goddess bears seven sons and seven daughters (Yegerlehner 54). Near Eastern figurines of a pregnant woman represent goddesses, but they also express human goals. The Instruction of Anii, from Egypt, urges hearers “Take a wife while you’re young, That she make a son for you … Happy the man whose people are many, He is saluted on account of his progeny” (Hallo 1:111). Many rituals identify barrenness in women as a curse, and children as blessings. One Hittite prayer pleads with absent gods “come ye to … Hatti land. Bring with you life, good health, long years, power of procreation, sons, daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren” (ANET 352). Sons were wanted more than daughters. In the Ugaritic Legend of Kirta, the god El blesses “the woman you take into your house … [she] shall bear you seven sons” (Hallo 1:337). Ancient cultures usually valued human fecundity.

Psalm 127:3-5 as a Song of Ascent

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he contends with his enemies at the gate. (Psalm 127:3-5)

  • 17 Arrows shot by God can be punishments (Lamentations 3:13), embodied not just by war but also by si (...)

58Many scholars consider that this Psalm was developed from a pre-existing proverb, and identify the genre of its origins as proverbial wisdom for ordinary people about “everyday life” (Kraus 453) and “the farmhouse” (Hunter 237). It was “domestic” (Gerstenberger 346), and spoke to the “universal preoccupations” of work, security, and family (Kidner 440). The notion that “the larger the family, the less vulnerable” reflects ancient culture (Mays 401). However, most scholars believe that, whatever its origins, Psalm 127 was reshaped to convey theological messages. Using an imagined domestic origin as the interpretive key is therefore problematic: for example, the everyday ways that a farmer’s sons would have helped him (as detailed earlier) do not match the Psalm’s specification of how these sons help ‒ they contend with enemies at the gate (127:5). Some suggest the Psalm refers to a “law court” (Allen 181), where “perhaps having many sons present would sway judicial decisions in one’s favor” (Clifford 240). Perhaps, but that would contradict the Old Testament ideal of ensuring justice for those who lack strong male advocates (Deuteronomy 10:18; Goulder 67). Alternatively, if local conflict is imagined it would present a norm of settling disputes by intimidation, as whoever can call upon more muscle (of youths) prevails, which sits uneasily with a cultural ideal that wisdom (of elders) is the essential at the gate (Proverbs 24:7). The simile of arrows may connote ambush and wounding (Psalm 64:7),17 which at a domestic level would mean private feuding, but that would be frowned upon by any writer associated with the king or priesthood. It makes more sense to understand the imagery as depicting “national military rather than individual legal conflict,” so the noun ‘ōyebîm (enemies) refers not to private enemies but “armies of enemy peoples” (Fleming 436, 442). Against those who claim that the verb dbr (speak, contend) indicates a non-violent setting, it can be translated as “subdue,” as in “He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet” (Psalm 47:3, NIV; also 18:47). Here the translation to “repulse” or “drive back” enemies from the gate may be suggested by ancient Near Eastern usage (Dahood 225; Crow 67).

  • 18 Psalm 121 has a slightly different form: lama’aloth (121:1).

59The relation of the Psalm’s two strophes is important in exegesis. I think the first gives the key message, which is the futility of human plans and effort without God’s help (Davidson 418), while the second is an illustration (Clifford 241), and the wordplay between the verb bnh (build, verse 1) and the noun bn (sons) merely links the two parts. By contrast, some argue that a family theme rules the Psalm. Allen suggests that “house” (verse 1) “refers metaphorically to raising a family” (178). However, reading the Psalm in its canonical Old Testament setting raises it to national and messianic meanings. Psalm 127 is one of a set of fifteen (Psalms 120 to 134) which have the superscription shir (song) hama’aloth18 (steps, stairs or ascents). They are collectively labelled the Songs of Ascent, and are associated with the Jerusalem temple. Elie Assis links Psalm 127 to a time when attempts to rebuild the temple had failed (Ezra 4:1-5); it is a theological explanation that God’s timing for a new temple is future not present (263, 266), so “it will not be possible to construct it,” and the people should instead focus on domestic life until “a more auspicious time” (268, 271). Assis suggests that Haggai 1:9 rebukes these ideas. Alternatively, with more speculative precision, Michael Goulder associates the Ascent Psalms with Nehemiah. He links Psalms 127 and 128 to Nehemiah 7:5 and 11:1, where he finds “traces of a policy to repopulate the city” with settlers (30), for the “strength of Jerusalem” will be a larger population and “their number depends in the long run on children, not imported adults” (67). These two scholars’ different proposals both link the fecundity message with particular historical anxieties, making it specific to Israel’s past and less amenable to natalist appropriation.

  • 19 It is, however, more likely to signify the temple, as the parallels of house/city elsewhere (Jerem (...)

60Some key words in the Ascent Psalms are associated with kingship: “David, anointed, throne” (Hunter 229). Insofar as the “house” at 127:1 is familial,19 it may be dynastic; it echoes the story of 2 Samuel 7, in which David wishes to build a house (a temple) for the Lord, but instead God promises to build a house (a royal dynasty) for David (Clifford 239; Mitchell 123). A Psalm of Ascent recalls that God swore to David: “One of your fruit of the womb I will set on your throne” (132:11, ESV).

61A further contextual feature is that Psalm 127 is one of only two in the Psalter linked by superscription to Solomon. Regardless of provenance, this can legitimately shape a canonical interpretation. The “man” like a gibbōr (mighty hero) whose heirs (arrows) are destined to subdue enemies (127:4-5) may be a national leader. A ruler must ensure the “continuity of his dynasty through numerous sons” (Dahood 224), and the people want sons born in his youth (127:4), so he may not die while his heir is still a child, a time of weakness inviting opportunistic enemies. If the Ascent Psalms’ redaction is post-exilic, the royal motif may show an “interest in ideal kingship” (Hunter 236) and perhaps a messianic hope. The images of harvest and fertility in the Ascent Psalms may look to an eschatological Sukkoth (Mitchell 114), and if so, the quiver of sons is the fecund hyperbole that typically accompanies eschatological shalom, like the tree that bears “fruit every month” (Ezekiel 47:12). The varying scholarly interpretations of this Psalm depend on which features of context are emphasized. Any of the theological interpretations described above is preferable to the domestic interpretation.

Natalism compared with Old Testament ideas

Universal or sectarian?

  • 20 Some natalists occasionally extend their exhortation beyond the church, calling on their fellow Am (...)
  • 21 There are only two among the hundreds of verses cited by natalists that were, perhaps, originally (...)

62Chapter 2 observed that among Evangelical natalists most focus on calling godly Christians to increase their birth rate, but a few (notably Allan Carlson) call people of all religions to higher fecundity.20 Almost all the verses cited were addressed exclusively to Israel in their original context,21 so their use to support universal natalism is dubious. There is no warrant in Christian tradition for applying the Israel-oriented promises to all (unredeemed) people without distinction. By contrast, there is an established rationale and method for applying promises to Israel to the church by extension or supersessionist transfer. However, the same tradition changes the meaning of the fruitful verses in other ways, transforming the hope from sexual to spiritual fecundity. Natalists have pulled apart the Christian tradition’s approach to these verses, happily adopting its transference of addressee, but neglecting the transformation of meaning.

Blessing in the Old Testament

63To have many sons is a greater blessing than to have a few, and there seems to be no upper limit. After the seven sons of Meshelemiah are enumerated, the eight sons of Obed-Edom are also listed with the remark “for God blessed him” (1 Chronicles 26:5). A list of temple servants observes: “All these were sons of Heman the king’s seer. They were given to him through the promises of God to exalt him. God gave to Heman fourteen sons and three daughters” (1 Chronicles 25:5). This number comes close to the biological maximum for one wife, and the ratio of sons and daughters (14:3) may suggest a typical Israelite father’s ideal hope.

  • 22 Blessing in the Old Testament can also refer to a speech or act that conveys it: a gift or thanks (...)
  • 23 These moments of blessing are intimately linked to Old Testament religion in the timing of the mai (...)

64Genesis 1:28 is framed as a blessing. In the ancient Near East that meant, in a word, “prosperity” (Grüneberg 102) or “success” (Wenham, Genesis 24), which is a gift from God. Blessing can refer to particular good things, or to a general state. The word blessing is used with reference to rain (Ezekiel 34:26), springs of water (Joshua 15:19), food (Proverbs 11:25; Malachi 3:10), wealth (Proverbs 10:22), reproduction (Genesis 49:25), and life (Psalms 133:3).22 It is a long-term condition, and a typical picture of a blessed life might run as follows. A child matures healthily; he gains the use of land and livestock, which through his labor prosper. Each year the land yields a harvest and the livestock produce lambs and kids.23 The man acquires a house, marries a helpful wife, and has many offspring (preferably more sons than daughters) who are also helpers. He accumulates wealth, and is kept secure from thieves and enemies. He is given good health, and as an old man is surrounded by respectful descendants. At a ripe old age he dies and rests with his ancestors, but his heirs ensure that his name and memory endure. This is a picture of what blessing meant in the ancient world.

65Such blessing was desired by men (and women) across the ancient Near East because it offered obvious and objective benefits. In the modern world a similar generic idea of prosperity is easily recognizable: health, wealth, and long life. The most significant difference now is that numerous offspring do not materially benefit a man in so many ways as they once did. When modern natalists chastise those who do not want to produce additional offspring they neglect this characteristic of blessing as a real benefit. If potential recipients prefer to avoid those additional “blessings,” then they are not really blessings in the Old Testament sense. So the phrase “be fruitful and increase” is qualified and limited by being a blessing. Since the Old Testament meaning of blessing is prosperity and flourishing (Grüneberg 110), if population rises to a point at which it is detrimental to the flourishing of some human individuals or nations then it is certainly not a blessing.

Economic cornucopia?

66Calvin Beisner finds in the Old Testament a lesson that people of faith should not worry about ecological limits on population. He sees in the story of “Abram and Lot … the earliest instance recorded in the Bible of the impression that a local human population had outstripped the ability of the land to support it” (“Imago” 173).

Abram was very rich in cattle ... Lot also, which went with Abram, had flocks, and herds, and tents. And the land was not able to bear them that they might dwell together, for their substance was great. There was a strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle.” (Genesis 13:2, 5-7a, KJV)

  • 24 An ecological reading might imagine Abraham hearing quarrels at the well, noticing the signs of ov (...)

67In an interview for Christianity Today, Beisner argued that Lot “feared the land would not support both of their families, whereas Abraham trusted God to provide,” and he warns those worried about overpopulation that they “reflect Lot more than Abraham. They don’t trust in God’s ability to provide.” But the text contradicts Beisner. The biblical narrator reports that “the land could not support both of them dwelling together” (Genesis 13:6, NIV). The problem was not imaginary. Both had “flocks and herds” and there was “strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock” (13:7a, ESV), probably over water or grazing. Given the maximum feasible distance herders could go from the camp, they had to separate. And contra Beisner, it was Abraham (not Lot) who saw the problem and took the initiative in suggesting their separation.24

68“Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time” (13:7b, NIV). The potential for conflict with other tribes over resources is hinted at in the story of Abram and his nephew, and later becomes explicit. In that region the main constraint was water, scarcer than land which is useless without water. Isaac had controversies over wells with Philistines and had to move (26:15, 18). His herders dug new wells into the underground water-table, but then “the herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying ‘The water is ours’ ... Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that also” (26:20, ESV). When at last Isaac found an uncontested water supply at Rehoboth he exclaimed “now the LORD hath made room (rchb) for us, and we shall be fruitful (prh) in the land” (Genesis 26:22). Notice that finding water and space leads to the verb prh, which means here that Isaac will prosper but also echoes “be fruitful,” and immediately afterward God promises to “multiply (rbh) your offspring” (26:24, ESV) and completes the echo of 1:28. The need for space and resources is closely tied to reproduction.

69The “room” made for Isaac’s group is rchb, meaning breadth, which here is a similar concept to Lebensraum or living space. When the number of people or the size of their herds increase, conflict arises. Abraham’s God invites him to “walk through the length and the breadth (rchb) of the land, for I will give it to you” (Genesis 13:17, ESV), anticipating the future dispossession of the Canaanites to accommodate new Abrahamic seed numerous as dust. In the next generation, when Jacob and his sons move near “the city of Shechem” (33:18) and “Hamor the Hivite, the ruler of that area” (34:2, NIV) sends men to negotiate, the Hivites say “these men are at peace with us; let them dwell in the land and trade in it, for behold, the land is large enough (rchb) for them” (34:21, ESV). They are unaware of the land promise and naively think there is enough space (rchb) to accommodate Jacob’s clan. Seeking integration with the Jacobites, the Hivite men agree to be circumcised but while they are incapacitated the tricky sons of Jacob kill the city’s men and take the women captive (34:22-29).

70Natalist cornucopians fantasize that population growth can be sustained by ingenuity without causing conflict, but the Old Testament is more realistic: the growth of one people requires that other peoples be displaced. The Israelites are exhorted to “cast out nations, and enlarge your borders” (Exodus 34:24). When Dan, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, “was seeking a place of their own where they might settle” (Judges 18:1, NIV), they sent five men “to spy out the land” (18:2) and, after finding Laish inhabited by a “quiet and unsuspecting” people (18:7, ESV), they reported back. “Come on, let’s attack them! We have seen the land, and it is very good ... When you get there, you will find an unsuspecting people and a spacious (rchb) land that God has put into your hands” (18:9-10, NIV). The settlers need space and resources, so the former inhabitants must be displaced. It is “when YHWH enlarges your borders as he has promised [that] you may eat meat whenever you desire” (Deuteronomy 12:20). Similarly, the motive for Ammonite war crimes was a desire to enlarge their territory in Gilead (Amos 1:13). The cornucopian vision of conflict-free growth differs from the realpolitik of the ancient Israelites, who considered that an emergent nation had to struggle to take land away from other peoples.

High population density as God’s will?

71Some natalists read the number of Israelites in the Exodus from Egypt, and the divine superintendence of rapid population growth, as an indication that God aims for a high density of human habitation. Beisner claims that in calculating the number of Israelites who left Egypt, there is “one firm figure” (“Imago” 174): 603,550 men aged at least twenty and fit for war (Numbers 1:46). Other natalists use the same number as their starting point. However, biblical scholars find that in the Hebrew Bible “numbers have for various reasons been peculiarly susceptible to corruption” (Wenham, “Large Numbers” 3). For example, vocabulary translated as “thousand” can alternatively refer to military units that are less numerous (18), and an alternative translation of the Exodus census finds around 18,000 warriors (14). Others note hyperbolic numbers in ancient military narratives produced in Akkad, Sumer, and Assyria (Fouts 383), and regard them as grossly exaggerated.

  • 25 The context is Moses calling for judges to be appointed because with larger numbers, “How can I be (...)

72One implication of the huge numbers that feature in many Bible translations is a high rate of Israelite population growth during the years spent in Egypt. Heine observes that “history’s first population boom is recorded in the Bible, after Jacob and his clan migrated to Egypt” (190). Given his starting point of 600,000 fighting men, Heine’s estimate of the total population at two million is rather low. Even so, for the original seventy in Jacob’s family (Exodus 1:5) to reach that number during 430 years (Exodus 12:14) in Egypt implies an average annual growth rate of 2.4%. That would be remarkable: there is no pre-modern instance of that rate of population growth being sustained throughout a century, let alone for four centuries. Heine further claims that even after this boom, from “God’s perspective they had not multiplied enough” because two promises given in Exodus 23:26 would produce more growth: “God promised them long life and no miscarriages … conditions for a population explosion” (61). Further in Deuteronomy 1:11, Moses wishes the people were a thousand times more numerous (190).25 Heine claims this shows that rapid population growth is a divine purpose.

73Another implication is high population density. Beisner uses an estimate of family size partly based on Old Testament genealogies to suggest an “Exodus population of 3-5 million” (“Imago” 174). He calculates the “population density in Goshen” (the region of Egypt where the Israelites had been living) as between 1,200 and 3,125 per square mile, and correctly states that “very few modern countries have such high population densities” (175). It is similar to the density today in the most populous areas of the Nile delta. Beisner regards this as evidence of a general divine intention for high population density. The accounts of Israelite numbers after the settlement in Canaan are also used. Pride observes that Israel was a “very small area” but despite this, citing Deuteronomy 28:11, “God was promising them a population explosion in a limited area with limited resources” (58).

74Biblical accounts of Goshen and Palestine are read as models for the lesson that apparent limitations of land and resources should not constrain fecundity. However, most archaeologists consider the high numbers unrealistic. Oded Borowski suggests a population of 20,000 in the highlands in 1200 BC (8), which is less than 1% of the population size claimed by natalist writers.

Commanded to multiply?

75The most common argument used by critics of the anti-contraceptive subset among natalists is that “be fruitful” is not a command but a blessing. Beisner offers two counter-arguments: first that “the verbs are in the imperative,” and second that blessing and command are not mutually exclusive, for “God blessed mankind by giving us the command to be fruitful and multiply, and we in turn are blessed when we obey the command” (Garden 207).

76Possible functions of the imperatives in Genesis 1:28 include command, blessing, description of nature, and a theological attack on ancient Near Eastern fertility cults. Though many imperatives in Genesis are commands or requests (23:4, 8; 34:8), others are invitations (24:18, 31, 44, 46), offers (23:15; 24:51), promises (12:2), blessings (24:60; 33:11), negotiations (23:13), suggestions (34:10), reflections (19:34; 27:27), consolations (18:5), or exclamations (39:14; 41:41). Some invite the hearer to an unprejudiced choice, as in “settle wherever you please” (20:15, NASB), or “live wherever you like” (NIV), or “bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb” (23:6, NIV): in other words, choose whatever you like. The betrothal blessing spoken to Rebekah by her family (Genesis 24:60) is imperative in form but is not a command (Van Leeuwen 60). So grammatical imperatives are not necessarily commands; that must be decided by context.

77The idea that Genesis 1:28 was a command (as well as a blessing) should not be lightly dismissed as there is no scholarly consensus. Norbert Lohfink discerns that “fruitfulness … is a blessing and not a commandment” (7). Raymond van Leeuwen similarly judges that 1:28 “is not a commandment but a blessing” (59), and Gene Tucker agrees (6). John Sailhamer confirms that “the imperatives are not to be understood as commands” (96). On the other hand, some dissent: Laurence Turner asserts that 1:28 is “both blessing and command” (22), and so does David Clines (“Eve” 53). Others, while not discussing it, refer in passing to 1:28 as a command. For example, Gordon Wenham claims that reproduction is “the first command given to humankind” (“Family” 25). Though the majority of substantial treatments are against 1:28 being originally a command, the question is unresolved.

78There is further debate as to whether it makes sense to think of “be fruitful” as a command. Since a similar imperative to “be fruitful and increase and fill the waters” (Genesis 1:22) is addressed to all sea creatures, some argue that because nonhuman creatures do not hear God or respond (or at least that some kinds are too primitive to be able to do that), it cannot be an ethical command and must be something else: a description of the created order. For example, John Calvin commented on 1:22 that God “infuses into them fecundity” (24). Another argument is that fertility was not (in the ancient world) something over which human beings had control. For example, when Rachel asks Jacob to “give me children” he rebukes her and asks, “Am I in the place of God who has kept you from having children?” (Genesis 30:1-2, NIV).

79Since God alone can “open” the womb (Genesis 29:31; 30:22), reproduction cannot be a command.

Created nature

80Those forbidding contraception (whether from natalist or other motives) claim that Onan was punished by death for spilling his seed (Genesis 38), which is against nature. Most biblical scholars consider that Onan’s offense was his failure to donate a posthumous heir for his brother Er, but opponents of contraception argue that the penalty for refusing that obligation was shame, not death (Deuteronomy 25:5). However, the offense that would incur the penalty of ritual humiliation for Onan (assuming a culture similar to that in Deuteronomy) was a public refusal of the duty, something Onan never did. Instead he agreed to his father’s request which put him in a different legal (and moral) situation, since by marrying Tamar he agreed to try to provide an heir for Er. Onan secretly avoided consummation “so as not to give seed to his brother.” Deceiving one’s father was a more serious offence, perhaps meriting death (Deuteronomy 21:21). Further, if Onan had simply refused, then Judah could have turned to the third brother Shelah and asked him to marry the widow, but his deception forestalled that possibility and threatened to terminate his brother Er’s posterity. There is also a greater issue in the background: the narrator tells us that the Davidic royal line will come from this widow, so Onan is obstructing a central divine purpose, a unique feature of the story that is not transferable to modern Christians.

81Natalists advocate early marriage, for both women and men, claiming it is normal, natural, and biblical. In the ancient Near East most females were married soon after puberty (Meyers 28), but whereas girls usually married in their teens, “men waited until well into their twenties or even early thirties before marrying” (King and Stager 37). Given an average life expectancy of forty, this was rather late. Neither does early marriage for men find support in Old Testament narratives. The stories of Genesis do not portray men rushing to marry; for example (in the absence of information on marriage age), the age at which a man’s first son was born in the pre-Flood genealogies (in a narrative context of multi-century life spans) ranges from 65 to 187. After the Flood, among the shorter-lived descendants of Shem (11:10-26), a man’s age at the birth of his first son ranges from 29 for Nahor to 70 for Terah. Later there are some mentions of age at marriage: 40 years for Isaac (25:20) and Esau (26:34), while Jacob was even older when he married (29:20 and see 27:1).

Application of fruitful verses

  • 26 For example, in 1560s Geneva efforts by some Calvinists to follow biblical law led to the judicial (...)

82Biblical scholars who are Christians and believe that the Old Testament is a resource for Christians today make a distinction between a text’s original meaning, which is anchored in the ancient Near East, and its contemporary application for ethics. Further, many limit themselves to working at unearthing the original meaning and avoid venturing into the disciplines of theology and ethics. The dangers of trying to apply the Old Testament directly to the modern world are often obvious.26 Its use in Christian ethics is complicated by the distance in time, culture, and technology, but the main difficulty is the dispensational gap between old and new covenants.

83Commentaries that discuss the various fruitful verses note the distance between ancient and modern worlds, and warn that Old Testament ideas about fertility may not be appropriate for contemporary application. For example, Robert Davidson finds that Psalm 127 embodies “cultural and social assumptions that are far removed from those of the Western world … Large families are out of fashion today. Indeed, to many they are regarded as irresponsible in a world of population growth and finite resources” (420). Leslie Allen is more forthright: “The modern reader of Psalm 127 finds himself detached from its cultural setting … Living as he does in days of overpopulation” (181). Turning to Psalm 128, he warns against ideas that a literalist reader might derive from it: “Fertility … is the dream of any primitive society [but] … The simple philosophy of the Psalm receives qualification even in the Old Testament and certainly in the New Testament” (185).

84However, a few scholarly commentators present a literal reading of the fruitful verses as helpful wisdom for contemporary readers, or as God’s word for today. When dealing with other issues raised by Old Testament verses (for example, slavery or the status of women), the same scholars might be more cautious, but they seem not to regard natalism as ethically problematic. They sometimes attempt to move directly from Old Testament original meaning to modern application, without interposing the lens of Christian tradition.

85Daniel Estes is a Professor of Old Testament at Cedarville University, but also Director of the Center for Biblical Integration, and he teaches courses in Christian Worldview. So he is one of those wanting to bridge the gap between ancient text and modern ethics. Estes focuses on the arrow imagery in Psalm 127, which he thinks refers to all kinds of conflict: legal, social, and armed. He notes that others have construed the sons as “defensive protection” but points out that arrows, being missile weapons, are more apt for “offensive action,” as in Psalms 11:2 and 64:3 (306-07). Estes also extends the idea of “long-range effect” to the temporal dimension. “As arrows shot from the bow are propelled toward a remote target according to the desire of the archer, so children when properly nurtured extend the effect of their father into human society of the next generation.” This is a “future hope” of “social immortality,” because these children “can perpetuate his activity as they reflect his values” (310). Estes identifies this as the Psalm’s theme.

  • 27 Because one or more daughters may appear before any son. Demographers identify “son preference” as (...)

86Near the end of his article, when Estes offers contemporary “application of the psalm,” he transforms and reduces its message to this: “the individual can make a positive contribution to society by the careful, godly nurture of children” (311). Estes here elides most of the distinctive features that he identified earlier, for example the emphases on male offspring, on conflict, offensive action, and the importance of quantity of offspring. The reader may be left wondering whether his evaluation that the Psalm offers a “positive message” for today (311) includes those features or only his final summative application. Estes’ silence leaves the modern applicability of those features in doubt. They have consequences: if every man needs a son, then over twice as many offspring are needed.27 Further, having just one son is precarious for the immortal social effect, so any man following the original intent (as presented by Estes) will desire many sons. And his emphasis on gaining influence and immortality through offspring contradicts the message of early Christianity explored in my chapter on Augustine.

  • 28 Petersen’s first paragraph observes that some “organizations spend vast sums of money to promulgat (...)

87David Petersen is Professor of Old Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and also a church minister. In his Presidential Address to the Society of Biblical Studies he challenges the conservative Americans who suppose that their modern “family values” self-evidently derive from the Bible by looking at the married lives of key biblical characters in Genesis. He encourages his peers to see that “biblical scholars have a role to play in the current debates, since who better than one of us is in a position to talk about family values as they are depicted” in Scripture (5).28 His goal is to identify original meanings, and he finds three “family values” in Genesis. The first is “defining family in expansive terms” (22); the second is “the need for an heir, someone to whom the family’s property may be passed” to maintain the “lineage” (17) so that God’s promises might not fail; and the third is “conflict resolution without physical violence” (22) through strategies such as “distancing” (Genesis 13:8), a binding agreement to stay apart (Laban and Jacob 31:52), gift-giving, and clever words (Jacob and Esau 33:10).

88Petersen claims that “these three values have not been part of the contemporary conversations; and they should be” (22), but some natalists do stress the continuing importance of patriarchal lineage, the second value. Petersen admits the difficulty of applying “Genesis family values” directly, and characterizes them as “a resource for thinking about family values” (15). However, he elsewhere claims that “these values are … important today” and are “of immediate relevance” (22). Petersen finds the third value most helpful for ethics, and applies it to spousal abuse, urging readers to “deploy this biblical family value” (23). Readers might expect the second value, a need for male heirs, to have some application to marriage, but Petersen is silent. Instead he transforms the first value into a message that humankind is one family, and uses that to briefly present a globalized version of the second value, the virtue of avoiding human extinction by (swiftly returning to his third value) non-violent international relations. These results illustrate the incompleteness of a contemporary ethics derived from the Old Testament (and humane reason) alone, without input from Christian tradition which regards the church as one family and sees the purpose of Abraham’s biological lineage fulfilled in Christ’s birth.

  • 29 The first claim is not completely accurate since birth control, and even technologies (such as her (...)

89Just before completing this book, I discovered Jamie Viands’2014 publication An Old Testament Theology of the Blessing of Progeny, though I am unable to do justice to it now. The book is strictly confined to original meaning, but the final page hints at contemporary application. With regard to contraception, he suggests that “Birth control and reproductive and fertility technologies are not treated in the OT since these possibilities have only arisen with modern science29 ... but a firm conviction that children are blessings will inevitably shape attitudes toward these issues” (288). This seems to assume that Old Testament theology can have direct application to contemporary ethics, though it is unclear how beliefs about blessing would shape a couple’s decisions about the number of offspring they choose to have. Viands also comments on ecological concerns:

An OT theology of the progeny blessing does not directly address the modern overpopulation debate either. Nevertheless we have seen that the prophets occasionally depict overcrowding in cities (Isa 49:19-21; Zech 2:8[4]; 8:4-5) or territories (Zech 10:8-10), but always portray this as a positive development. Moreover, proliferation and the filling of the land is always a blessing from Yahweh, never a curse, possibly calling into question the very concept of “overpopulation.” However since an overflowing population is accompanied by ideal societal conditions in these descriptions, it is unclear how much they have to say to modern societies where proliferation is accompanied by broken and corrupt leadership, poverty, and a scarcity of resources. (Viands 288)

  • 30 It may also refer to geographical expansion of the land area used by humankind and the correspondi (...)

90Cautious enough, but I would add a reminder of the great difference between then and now: population numbers in the ancient world were much lower than today and their ecological impact then did not approach anywhere near planetary boundaries (such as the nitrogen cycle, greenhouse gas concentration, and biodiversity loss) which are now transgressed by the total impact of seven billion humans. Perhaps appropriately in a technical work of Old Testament scholarship, Viands’ own view is difficult to detect, but his perspective emerges in the final paragraph, which rejoices that “the God of Israel, continues to bless humanity even today ... expanding the human race across the face of the earth” (288). The word “expanding” here must refer to the increase of the world population,30 suggesting that Viands regards continuing global population growth as beneficial.

91In conclusion, the cultural, economic, political, and theological context of the Old Testament fruitful verses limits their plausible appropriation by modern natalism. Pro-fertility ideas in the ancient Near East are unsurprising given the demands of immortality through patriarchal lineage, agricultural subsistence in the Judean highlands, and a small people struggling to retain thier national identity against hostile empires. None of these are relevant motives for modern Christians in the U. S.

92Even for Israel in the Old Testament, fecundity was just one aspect of a divine agenda for creating a holy nation in the promised land. It was most important in the earliest stages, before the sons of Israel were numerous enough to become a people, a nation. But once it was substantially fulfilled (in Exodus 1), other dimensions of the agenda (land and holiness) became more important. Though a notion that Israel is exclusively formed by the biological descendants of Jacob persists in some writers, it is often challenged in Old Testament theology by visions of a holy people constituted by covenant and spiritual renewal.

93Old Testament specialists who treat the fruitful verses present insights into “what it meant” for the ancient Israelites. Most do not venture to say “what it means” for Christians today. Those who have attempted direct ethical application either discard most of the distinctive features of the fruitful verses, or produce lessons that conflict with traditional Christian interpretation. Their results lend support to my view that the search for original meaning should be only a first step for those wanting to use the Old Testament as a guide to modern life. The next chapter is the second step, looking at a classic Christian reception of the fruitful verses.


1 The only Old Testament books never cited in my catalogued sources are Esther, Song of Songs, Daniel, and nine of the minor prophets. Nine other books attract only one citation each: Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Lamentations.

2 The five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) written by Moses, according to tradition, are collectively called the “Pentateuch” and have in Judaism a higher status than the other books of the Old Testament.

3 “Old Testament” is the Christian name for a canonical collection of books that roughly corresponds to the Jewish Tanakh. Academics often call it the Hebrew Bible.

4 “Near East” is the term used in archaeology and biblical studies to label the region that outside those disciplines is usually called the Middle East (

5 In the centuries before the foundation of the monarchy and the states of Israel and Judah (in the 10th century BC), proto-Israelites can be identified archaeologically by their house design and the absence of pig bones (Dever, “What” 105, 113).

6 Some neighboring cultures followed a similar pattern: a surviving contract formula for Assyrian wet-nurses specified a three-year term (Gruber 76).

7 Though mothers only benefited if they survived childbirth. For each birth, the maternal mortality rate was around 2.5%.

8 Meyers suggests this may be reflected in Leviticus 27, where a lower compensation value is assigned to people aged under five (“Procreation” 585).

9 That Psalm “deals… exclusively with the sons” (Kraus 455). Though in some texts referring to infants as bānîm can be gender-neutral, in Psalm 127 the common male referent is appropriate (Davidson 419; Fleming 441; Dahood 224). Among translations, the RSV and NIV agree on “sons,” but others including the ASV and ESV put “children,” guided perhaps by a desire to make the text palatable to modern readers.

10 In the case of Zelophehad (Numbers 36:2-12), who dies with no son and only daughters, there is an emergency provision that the daughters may inherit his land on condition that they marry within their father’s clan.

11 This can be illustrated from the story of Judah who has three adult sons (and probably other sons who died in infancy), two of whom die without progeny (Genesis 38). Only the third son lives to produce grandsons for Judah (1 Chronicles 4:21).

12 At a lower rank, similar issues of succession faced the heads of clans.

13 Lower infant mortality rates for the upper class did not emerge until the 18th century in Europe.

14 David passed over his eldest surviving and loyal son Adonias, and appointed the younger Solomon as his heir (1 Kings 1:32). Rehoboam made Abijah the heir and set aside his older brothers (2 Chronicles 11:18-22). Josiah was succeeded by a younger son named Jaochaz.

15 A grandson of King Saul named Mephibosheth was crippled and not regarded by David as a threatening rival for the crown (2 Samuel 4:4; 9:13).

16 “Name” or “renown” also features before the Flood (6:4).

17 Arrows shot by God can be punishments (Lamentations 3:13), embodied not just by war but also by sickness (Psalm 38:2), plague, and famine (Ezekiel 5:16). But these arrows are a man’s.

18 Psalm 121 has a slightly different form: lama’aloth (121:1).

19 It is, however, more likely to signify the temple, as the parallels of house/city elsewhere (Jeremiah 26; 1 Kings 8:44; 23:27) refer to Jerusalem and the temple (Fleming 436).

20 Some natalists occasionally extend their exhortation beyond the church, calling on their fellow Americans to have bigger families.

21 There are only two among the hundreds of verses cited by natalists that were, perhaps, originally intended to have universal scope: Genesis 1:28 and 9:1, 7.

22 Blessing in the Old Testament can also refer to a speech or act that conveys it: a gift or thanks to God.

23 These moments of blessing are intimately linked to Old Testament religion in the timing of the main religious festivals in autumn and spring.

24 An ecological reading might imagine Abraham hearing quarrels at the well, noticing the signs of overgrazing, and acting decisively to solve the environmental problem. But the Old Testament writer’s main interest is the departure of Lot as Abraham’s heir apparent, for the chosen people will not stem from Lot’s descendants, from Moab or Ammon (Genesis 19:37), but from the descendants of Isaac.

25 The context is Moses calling for judges to be appointed because with larger numbers, “How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife?”

26 For example, in 1560s Geneva efforts by some Calvinists to follow biblical law led to the judicial punishment, including one execution, of children for the offense of insulting their parents (Kingdon 361).

27 Because one or more daughters may appear before any son. Demographers identify “son preference” as a major cause of high birth rates, even today: in Pakistan, for example, where men often desire at least two sons (Hussain 384).

28 Petersen’s first paragraph observes that some “organizations spend vast sums of money to promulgate their views on issues such as pro-natalism and gay marriage,” but he does not revisit the issue of contemporary American pro-natalism.

29 The first claim is not completely accurate since birth control, and even technologies (such as herbal pessaries), were known and used in the ancient Near East (Juttë).

30 It may also refer to geographical expansion of the land area used by humankind and the corresponding contraction of wild areas.


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