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How much is enough?

Considering the meaning of God's command to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.

Posted Thursday, April 19, 2007 by Sam Yeiter
Categories: Bible  
Genesis 1:28 says: God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

Have you ever wondered whether or not we have filled the earth?  I don't lay awake at night, worrying about this, but I have been preaching through Genesis again, and so I began to wonder, what constitutes filling the earth? 
Babel's confusion and the needs of ever-growing populations have caused us to spread to every inhabitable continent.  Does this mean we have reached our goal?  Can we check this off our list of things God expects of us?  Or does he expect us to inhabit the polar caps and the great deserts of the globe?  Perhaps we are supposed to be living on the floor of the oceans.

What about population density?  Does God have a number in mind?  Am I rebellious for wanting 5000 acres to myself (and my ranch-hands)?  What was God's intention in giving this decree? 

Finally, does this demand have any bearing (pun not intended) on our position on procreation?  The only way to fill the earth is through procreation.  Have we reached a point where this command does not need to be considered as one thinks about birth control?

Any thoughts?  I look forward to the greater lights illuminating my darkness.

Saturday, April 21, 2007 3:51 PM

Charlie wrote:  Good question Sam! I have also thought about this but I do not have any good answers. I do know that it at least partly depends upon whether one is a covenant theologian or a dispensationalist, as the covenant theologian will take this command much more seriously and directly than the dispensationalist will. I've heard recently that there is an excess of food in the world, which causes problems in places like Afghanistan where it is considerably more profitable to raise opium than wheat, so I would think that as far as land and food go we still have not filled the world. Therefore I would say that this text could be applied by saying that it is a good idea (but not required) to have kids. God likes kids. For the theoretical quetion (as least theoretical for me, as I do not think that the earth is filled), could the earth be filled one day in the future? I don't know. Maybe. But if technology continues, then I would be surprised if the earth did get filled eventually, I guess. The whole living on the floor of the ocean thing sounds cool. Maybe our grandkids!

Sunday, April 22, 2007 9:22 AM

Eric wrote: 

Sam, I love this question as it is frequently on my mind.  It is central to the questions that I am working on answering about environmentalism.  I don't have an answer either, but I do have some thoughts at this point.  First of all, did God intend this to indicate a percentage of the world?  Obviously He didn't mean to occupy every available foot.  But as percentage of available occupiable ground, where do we fall?  In looking at population densities around the world, and having spent a fair amount of time in the wilder spaces on earth, I can say with some confidence that we have a very long ways to go.

A related question is what do we do about shrinking populations (Japan is there, Europe is there, China is there and the US is close)?

What does God think about population density?  Obviously He expressed Himself fairly eloquently (no pun intended) at Babel on this subject. 

Monday, April 23, 2007 9:10 AM

Sam wrote: The Sin of Chicago?

Your last sentence brings me to a question I put to Dr. Chris Miller from Cedarville when we were standing at the top of the Sears Tower one evening.  Is Chicago a sin?  Is God angry that we have built such a metropolis?  I don't remember what Dr. Miller said, but I would tend to say that the sin at Bable was not the city or the tower necessarily, but the rebellion that led them to build the city and tower rather than obey the edict to multiply and fill the earth.  Can we say that as long as the earth is not "filled" that cities are sinful...I'm not sure.  God didn't seem to have a problem with Israelite citites...particularly Jerusalem...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 8:14 AM

Charlie wrote:  I don't think that the Babel account tells us much about what God thinks in regards to cities. The problem with Babel is that they wanted to make for themselves a name, while the contrast is set up in the next chapter that God would give Abraham a name. The problem is not with the city, the problem is with their attitutude about the city, just like you said, Sam.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 6:45 AM

Josh wrote: Let's go to the videotape...

In Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, the author notes one of the uses of the infinite is to express distinct assurance or promise (pg. 324, sec. 110 C.).  He cites Gen 1:28 (among others) as an instance of this usage.  The sense then would be not so much a command ("you, go fill the earth and then subdue it") as a promise ("you will fill the earth and you will subdue it").  Gesenius goes on to note that this use of the imperative is most often found in commands which are often beyond the power of the person being addressed.

I presume this sort of use of the imperative is in view in Waltke/O'Connor in their discussion of the imperative (pg. 572 C.) where they note that certain uses of the imperative "create a promise or prediction to be fulfilled in the future, made more emphatic and vivid [than using different conjugations]".

This approach doesn't require us to imagine some sort of definable goal or cut off point at which the earth becomes filled and subdued, and prior to which was unfilled and unsubdued.  If we do take Gen 1:28 as a normal imperitival command, wouldn't we be forced to conclude that failure to proactively carry out the commands of this verse is sinful (should we all have as many children as possible)?  Or, more alarmingly, that until the magic threshhold is reached, something is lacking or deficient?

Also, though individuals are being addressed here, are they being addressed as individuals or as the totality of humankind?  That is, if this is a promise or prediction, it describes the relationship that humans will have with the earth (~God says this will be the nature of human interaction with the earth) and we express this primarily on a corporate level rather than an individual level.

I like the grammatical twist and this seems a mite more sleek than alternative explanations and I think it does alleviate some of the difficulties posed by the initial questions Sam raised. 


Wednesday, April 25, 2007 7:26 AM

Josh wrote: By the way...

I should have noted that I stumbled across the reference to Gesenius in Wenham's commentary on Genesis in Word.


Thursday, April 26, 2007 10:32 AM

Sam wrote: What about Babel?

Gen 11:4-9 They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.  Yahweh said, "Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech."

So Yahweh scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there Yahweh confused the language of the whole earth; and from there Yahweh scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

Josh, your grammatical explanation would really satisfy me if this passage didn't talk about the sin of Babel in such strong "scatter" terms.  Certainly a component of their sin was their desire to "make a name" for themselves...but it seems that the reason they wanted to make a name, and thus the city and tower, was to prevent themselves from being scattered over the earth.  This comes soon after the reitteration of the "multiply and fill" command given to Noah and his sons. 

I guess I feel like the grammatical solution doesn't solve this to my satisfaction.  What do you think?

Thursday, May 03, 2007 7:52 PM

Eric wrote: 

I agree with you on this Sam.  The problem in my mind, with Babel was not that it was a city.  The sin was that this would be the city.  They would not be separated and spread to the wind.  Their goal in their unification was specific, it was to prevent being separated and spread out.

 What is interesting to me about this question is the attempt in recent history to incease the level of densification, bringing people closer together.  I see a lot of parallels between now and then.

Saturday, May 12, 2007 4:25 PM

Charlie wrote: 

It seems to me that there are two separate issues here: what is going on in Genesis and how to apply this for today. So I propse that we begin with what is going on in Genesis and try to reach a consesus before we make any application for today.

There are several items of importance in the Babel story.

1. The one language and speech. This is noted in verse 1 as well as stated by God to be the explicit reason that they will be able to do whatever they want (verse 6). God then confuses their language (7, 9).

2. Build a city (verse 4). This was stated to be stopped in verse 8 after they were scattered.

3. Making a name for themselves. Only appears in verse 4 as a purpose statement for the city.

4. Scattering. This is the possible future event if they do not make a name for themselves (4) and this is what God does to them (8).  

There are a variety of intertextual links. As Sam noted, the scattering goes back to 1: 28 (fill the earth) and to 9:7 (command repeated to Noah). Therefore, they were trying to make a name for themselves so that they could avoid fulfilling God's command.

There are two mentions of city before this: Cain builds one (4:17) and there is a city which was built by Nimrod (10:8-12). Both of these are in negative contexts. After Genesis 11, the most frequent mention of a city is Sodom and Gomorrah. There are also a few references to Hittite cities as well as Nahor. It is not until Isaac that we get record that a good guy lives in a city.

The "name" is also an important idea. The word "name" is shem in Hebrew, so the good son of Noah is named name. The Shinarites in Genesis 10 want to usurp the name from the one named name. God does not like that and instead of them getting the name, Abraham is promised the name (12:2). 

Why the story is included is not immediatly obvious in my book. It could be told to explain why there are many languages or how people scattered over the earth. But I do not think that those are the primary motivations for inclusion. I think that this is the last example of humans trying to get to God on their own terms. They strive, along with the sons of God (6:2) and Lamech (10:9) to dictate their own life apart from God. I think that the first chunk of Genesis (1-11) primarily show the rapid decline of humans away from God and their inability to reach God. This sets up chapter 12, where God intervenes and gives Abraham the promise which sets the tone for the rest of history and the Bible. Men will not take the name, God will give it. As the whole world has decayed, God will focus on one people group, not to ignore the rest of the world, but to bring the world back to him.  

What do you think? Anyone want to add anything? Complain about something before we approach application?  

Wednesday, June 06, 2007 12:58 PM

Charlie wrote:  The latest issue of Christian History included the tidbit that Abraham Kuyper thought that filling the earth meant filling the earth with culture. That is certainly a different take on the command than we have been discussing.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007 2:50 PM

Eric wrote: 

I agree that this was man's attempt to be redeemed on his own terms.  The original sin was pride, which I define as "self definition".  This seems to be what was happenning here.  Mankind was attempting to redefine itself, on its own terms.  

The concept of filling is inclusive of the concept of culture in my mind.  But being fruitful and multiplying seems to be indicative of increased numbers.  The phrase is paired with a geographical element with the addition of subduing "the earth".

So, if you consider it in that light, this was a radical departure from God's most basic commands to humanity.  God said to fill the earth, but they desired to remain together.  God said to be fruitful, but they desired to homogenize.  God said to subdue, but they desired to control one small piece of the pie.  God desired to know the man, but they preferred that He deal with Humanity. 

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