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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

God and the biblical preoccupation with procreation

Any serious student of the Old Testament has noticed that a considerable portion of that literature is devoted to the subject of procreation. In the very first chapter of Genesis, we read: "Then God said, 'Let the land sprout with vegetation - every sort of seed-bearing plant, and trees that grow seed-bearing fruit. These seeds will then produce the kinds of plants and trees from which they came.' And that is what happened. The land produced vegetation - all sorts of seed-bearing plants, and trees with seed-bearing fruit. Their seeds produced plants and trees of the same kind. And God saw that it was good." (verses 11-12) Continuing: "So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that scurries and swarms in the water, and every sort of bird - each producing offspring of the same kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God blessed them, saying, 'Be fruitful and multiply. Let the fish fill the seas, and let the birds multiply on the earth.'" (verses 21-22) Likewise, we read: "Then God said, 'Let the earth produce every sort of animal, each producing offspring of the same kind - livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and wild animals.' And that is what happened. God made all sorts of wild animals, livestock, and small animals, each able to produce offspring of the same kind. And God saw that it was good." (verses 24-25) Finally, toward the end of that chapter we read: "So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, 'Be fruitful and multiply." (verses 27-28) All of that is in the first chapter of the first book of the Old Testament!

Nevertheless, it doesn't end there. Most of the remainder of the book of Genesis is preoccupied with telling the story of how mankind reproduced and spread out over the surface of the earth. There are genealogical tables informing us about who fathered who. The stories of the patriarchs of the Hebrews, along with their wives and children, are told. In fact, by the time the book has ended, there is a large family of Hebrews living in the land of Egypt. By the time that they leave Egypt, we are informed that they have grown into a great people. (Exodus)

In similar fashion, many of the laws of the Torah directly address the subject of procreation. There are laws regarding who is allowed to have sexual intercourse with whom. There are laws providing for the perpetuation of the names of people within the community who die childless. There are laws against sexual activities that do not lead to procreation. There are laws to ensure that males of military age will have an opportunity to produce offspring. There is also a provision for divorce, just in case the male is dissatisfied with the woman he marries. There are even stipulations within the law allowing for the appropriation of female prisoners of war for the purposes of Israelite procreation. Finally, although it is never overtly stated, it is implied throughout the Torah and subsequent historical books that polygamy was at the very least tolerated by God (a practice that would certainly seem to encourage procreation).

Dr. Jacob Wright (of Emory University) has proposed that this preoccupation of the biblical authors with procreation stems from their experiences of defeat and subjugation at the hands of the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. He argues that their instinct for survival as a people in the face of this overwhelming defeat led to this preoccupation with procreation. In short, the leaders of the Israelites realized that their small numbers and limited resources simply could not compete with the populations and resources of the great empires that surrounded them. Thus, they concluded that their survival lay in the perpetuation of the community through procreation and the glorification of survival as the heroic ideal of their culture.

Hence, In the light of Dr. Wright's observations, I think it is reasonable for us to wonder whether or not this preoccupation with procreation was Divine in origin. As one who believes in the God of the Hebrews, I believe that God is concerned with procreation; but I am very skeptical that the Lord would have seen the issue in precisely the same terms as the human authors of Scripture saw it. In fact, the evidence provided by the world around us is probably a more reliable indicator of the Lord's thinking on the subject.

First, when we look at the world around us, we have to acknowledge that every living thing on this planet is preoccupied with the perpetuation of itself. This seems to me one of those self-evident facts that we would be hard pressed to get around. Nevertheless, it is also evident that there are some systemic factors that limit and/or regulate the process of procreation. After all, theoretically an organism has the potential to reproduce unlimited copies of itself.

However, God (or nature itself - depending on your perspective) has clearly imposed limits on this theoretical ability. The reproductive capacity of all organisms (including mankind) is limited by things like the availability of sunlight, water and soil within the ecosystem to which it belongs. The organism is further limited by the competition of other organisms for those same resources. For animals, the availability of plants and/or other animals that depend on plants is essential. Predation by larger, stronger and smarter organisms is a factor that limits the population size of many species of animals. Likewise, things like infertility, disease and birth defects can limit the population of a species. Homosexual behavior can also limit the reproductive capacity of a species. Likewise, as history has clearly demonstrated, climatic changes and natural disasters can have a significant impact on a species. Finally, the physical strength and adaptability of the organism itself can have a very practical impact on its ability to survive and reproduce.

Although we tend to see most of these things in a negative light because they can kill, reduce or limit the expansion of the organism, we must ask ourselves why these limiting factors were put in place by God (or nature)? Don't these things that limit the reproductive capacity of the organism ultimately help to ensure the survival of the species? There is, after all, a finite amount of space and resources available on this planet. What would happen if an organism could go on ad infinitum living and reproducing itself? Wouldn't that lead in the end to a lot of overcrowded, starving, miserable and dying organisms? Who imposed these limits on our reproductive capacity? Was it Almighty God? If so, God must regard them as good and necessary to the perpetuation of human life on this planet. Perhaps, when we are better able to control our own impulses, some of these limiting factors will someday become unnecessary? What do you think?

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