In Genesis 1, God commands Adam and Eve to “fruitful and multiply.”* This is the justification in more traditional Catholic, Christian and Jewish circles for the impulse to have many children, and, in Catholicism, for the prohibition on birth control. One carries out God’s mandate by having children, increasing the human population, and forbidding birth control.
One has to wonder, however, if God really intended for us to overpopulate the planet. Wouldn’t God looking down on earth conclude that we have fulfilled God’s command? Haven’t we humans sufficiently multiplied that God might say “Enough already, you’ve more than fulfilled my expectations; you can step down.”
I ask this question because it seems to me that overpopulation is really one of our most severe problems and many of our challenges today come from or are exacerbated by overpopulation. Climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution, species extinction, overharvesting of the ocean, and arguably, even our growing inequality, are caused by or exacerbated by overpopulation. Overpopulation is not the only issue we have to confront, of course, but it is a significant one. The more population we have, the more we compete for limited resources, and the more we deplete the natural resources available. The more we deplete resources, the more difficult it is for everyone to have enough, and the more the pain will fall unevenly on those who are less privileged. Is the depletion of resources what the God who created the world really envisioned?
I ask this question as someone who was trained originally as a rabbi, who has a PhD in Religious Studies, and taught for ten years at institutions of higher learning. I know that Catholicism, Christianity and Judaism are not alone responsible for overpopulation. There are many causes including views that emanate from the Greek philosophical tradition, the modern enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Still, we do know that ideas emanating from the Jewish, Christian (and Greek traditions) did form a stream of ideas in the West that continue to shape how we think about and respond to challenges before us. One way of changing how we deal with population growth is for religious leaders (priests, ministers, rabbis and even the Pope) to get on board with the message: God did not intend for us to overpopulate the planet.
It is not for me to say how to interpret Genesis 1 within religious communities. That is best done by religious leaders in their own communities. But it is clear that the meaning of Genesis 1 and the creation story itself has been understood in varying ways throughout history. Even traditional religious leaders understand that they come to understand God’s word differently given the context in which we live. This, it seems to me, would seem to be one of those moments.
Not everyone takes Genesis literally as the word of God, of course. For those who do, however, it seems reasonable to understand God’s command in context. In Genesis 1, God was arguably speaking to the first couple, Adam and Eve, the parents of humanity. The instruction to go forth and multiply would be a very rational instruction for that first couple at that time and place, when there was no one else on the planet. One could reasonably conclude that instruction was time-bound and limited, or at least not unlimited. God’s intent was for the original humans to thrive and multiply. If they did not the species would have died out then and there.
But arguably God did not intend for humans to overpopulate the planet and destroy its resources. God did not put “be fruitful and multiply” as one of the ten commandments on par with the prohibition with murder and adultery, for example. It is true that in the same breath God said “subdue” the earth and have “dominion” over it, giving a foundation, perhaps, for the domination of the planet that we humans have achieved, though the translation of those Hebrew words is debatable. But that is a blog for another time.
Here the point is that religious leaders can remove one additional impediment to dealing with overpopulation. They can reinterpret Genesis 1 in light of our current circumstances. They can understand that God intended humans to be fruitful and multiply when there was no one else on the planet. What kind of God would still want us to be fruitful and multiply in our current conditions? Wouldn’t the God who gave humans the earth also want humans to protect its resources?
* Here is the passage from Genses 1.26-28, as translated by the King James Bible.
1.26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
1.27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
1.28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [italics added]