The Great Consummation – Genesis 1:28
And God said to them, â€œBe fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”
Our exploration of sex and marriage in the Bible begins with this simple verse towards the end of Genesis 1. Here, one verse after the poetry of Genesis 1:27 is the command to multiply and fill the earth – the first thing God instructs the man and the woman to do is to consummate their relationship and procreate the human race.
The man and woman are distinguished from the rest of creation in that they are made in the image of God. Other commands to be fruitful and multiply are given to the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea, a pattern of binary that is seen throughout the chapter. Critically though, the unique instruction to humanity is for them to subdue the earth through their procreation. It is a curious usage of the Hebrew – this notion of domination by force is used at the start of the conquest of Canaan (Numbers 32:22) and again at the end when the tribes of Israel divide the Promised Land (Joshua 18:1). It is used to describe the height of power of King David, the arch-type of Messianic monarchical authority (1 Chr 22:18) and it is also a sign of the protection of the Lord of Hosts (Zechariah 9:15) of those he saves. It is the same root word used of the footstool of Solomon’s throne (2 Chr 9:18).
Far from being a sinful act, this subjugation is the sign of the rightful power claiming rightful dominion for his rightful people. The procreative expansion of humanity proclaims the sovereignty of the binary that the man and woman signify – their own Creator.
God separates the light from the darkness, the waters above from the waters beneath, the earth from the sea, the evening from the morning, the sun from the moon, the day from the night. It is in the context of these binaries that humanity is created.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
All the binaries are in relationship with each other (earth and sea, day and night) and so the man and the woman are created as a binary themselves and then in their collective humanity as a binary to God (who uses plural self-reference through the chapter). In this way the eternal relationship that is the Holy Trinity is imaged in the relationship of the man and the woman (and their implied procreated family). This key distinction of humanity from the rest of creation is this very reflection of the nature of God. It sets them apart from everything else God has made and it provokes the question whether there is anything else about the commands God gives to humans that speak of who God is.
The first command given to the man and the woman is contingent on their binary nature as male and female. It would be physically impossible to obey God if they were two men or two women. The actions of love (the procreative activity of the human couple and the creative activity of God) a inter-weaved with this binary structure in humanity and creation that is present from the first words of Genesis 1:1 (“the heavens and the earth”). Interestingly, no other aspect of human love is explored here, but the clear understanding of the procreative necessity of conjugal union is recognised within the liturgical rites of marriage.
The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together
in the delight and tenderness of sexual union
and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.
It is given as the foundation of family life
in which children are [born and] nurtured
and in which each member of the family, in good times and in bad,
may find strength, companionship and comfort,
and grow to maturity in love.
This raises a question for us. Is the procreative instruction a particular command for a particular time, or is it a universal guiding principle for humanity? The answer to that might help us shape a wider theology around sex as we continue to read through the Scriptures.
One more thought. Are the as yet unnamed couple married? Why has there been no union declared beyond the clear understanding that they are a sexual unit? We’ll explore that in our next post.
Thank you Peter.
Typo: “Genesis 1”, not “Genesis” in first para :-)
Your exposition of the binary is very useful. But you slip in a reference to the imaging of the Trinity. I could probably interpolate, but would you put in your own words an elaboration on how binary (two-ness) images Trinity (three-ness)?
What I’m suggesting is that the family unit of Father. Mother, Child is the binary to the relationship of the Trinity. So the binaries are:
God – Humans
Humans – God
Male – Female
3 – 3
3 – 3
1 – 1
Thanks Peter. Food for thought for me. Analogues/Images of Trinitarian Persons/Relationships are both useful and fraught. The “family” as analogue is close to Lover-Beloved-Love, but more profound, and I shall cogitate some more. The correlation of begetting/procession to marriage/consummation needs some thinking. Of course there is much much much written about correlating Trinity to marital relationships (not all of it helpful)… but the family as analogy also dignifies the child in the imaging. Thoughts to think.
The evolution of sex, ie, meiosis and the male/female dichotomy is one of the great mysteries and stumbling blocks to Darwin’s theory. Although it’s not universal in nature, it is almost the default except in relatively simple organisms; its frankly impossible to see how it could have evolved by natural selection, yet it enables the mixing and recombining of DNA in the most creative and productive ways.
The re-uniting of male and female in marriage is a redemptive act, and by its nature fruitful. In coming together, new life is the most likely outcome, in the fullness of time. In human experience, this is a unique relationship, and incredibly precious.
IMO, feminism, divorce law, contraception and abortion have muted and distorted this reality, we now have the hook-up culture, serial monogamy and family courts, and male-female relations are at a very low ebb. The West and Japan (also China for different reasons) are experiencing a birthrate crisis, which has huge demographic ramifications. Many under 35’s are giving up on marriage altogether.
I love your image of the trinitarian family. We urgently need to rediscover these visions of human potential in our culture.
If it was a command in the beginning it must still be a command. For it no longer to be a command, something would have had to have changed. God doesn’t change; marriage has not changed; nor has the need to replenish human ‘stock’.
God cannot possibly see ‘overpopulation’ as a problem. He didn’t say “multiply until I say ‘whoa!'” or “multiply until you have had enough/start again whenever”. Also the Command cannot be an imperative at the level of the individual – no one person in particular is obliged to marry and to have children, but, with marriage itself, the couple need be open to the gift of life.
“This raises a question for us. Is the procreative instruction a particular command for a particular time, or is it a universal guiding principle for humanity? The answer to that might help us shape a wider theology around sex as we continue to read through the Scriptures.”
What struck me during my parish’s celebration of the Feast of St. John the Baptist a few weeks ago, was that this procreative instruction really _does_ apply to _every_ Christian marriage, whether or not a couple can conceive and bear fruit, or not. Sarah and Abraham could not conceive without God’s action and were advanced in age– a miracle takes place and Sara bears a son, Isaac. Elizabeth and Zechariah, too, were advanced in age and Elizabeth couldn’t conceive, and God shows up again. Both children are signs of the covenants that God is in the process of fulfilling, Isaiah the Old, John the Baptist the Herald of the New.
Now, not every married couple can conceive naturally, and not every couple will be approved to adopt or foster children, or may have the financial resources (considerable) to do so, and God being God, may or may not work a miracle (and yes, it’s hard to believe) …but I believe the potential is still there!
Are there other ways to be procreative in marriage that don’t involve raising physical children? Can a couple be called together in the vocation of marriage for other creative purposes that support the family and the church? I’m thinking about these possibilities.
that might have seemed reasonable to people living in the bronze age, but it certainly doesn’t hold up to scrutiny now. In recent years we’ve overwhelmed the planet and all its systems to the point of exterminating many species on a daily basis, we are depleting the earth’s resources in our search for food, and we are choking the planet to death with our reliance on fossil fuels. Multiplying has to stop and be replaced with a vast plan for slowing down human reproduction. The planet cannot support all the humans that are on it now. It will not be able to support the huge increase to come over the next 90 years.
Real glad to see you once again saddle up the Christian blogosphere, Peter! :-)
And a great start to this series. Agree with all your exegesis here. Genesis undoubtedly establishes a male/female union, rooted in mutual support and procreation, as God’s desired pattern for humanity. (Declaration of position: I’m a theological liberal who tends to agree with conservative interpretations of scripture.)
Looking forward to your analysis of the fall, the Mosaic law, and Paul’s theology of marriage, and the extent to which Genesis is a thread that binds all that came after.
Missed seeing this post for some reason. I’m wondering why you see the trinity expressed in the male, female, children relationship vs the male, female, God relationship. Perhaps they are both there, I think that they are as the pattern of life to come both before and after the fall. I’m just thinking out loud here as I type. I’m thinking that the male + female + God trinity is primary and the male + female + children is secondary but closely related to the primary, just like the two most important commandments.
You might well be right, but the obvious binary is in the context of the text talking about procreative family units. I like Will’s point above about “Lover – Beloved – Love” – that has a mirror in the Father and the Son and the Spirit who proceeds from them both..
These are incredibly rich texts, but the danger is imposing upon them a meaning that isn’t present. The binary between God and humans is clear, and the procreative command is clear. Beyond that the “male – female – God” binary pair for “Father – Son – Spirit” is less clear and I think an imposition on the text (at this point – perhaps it is valid to read it back in retrospectively in the light of the New Testament).
I’m thinking one other thing regarding how profound the command is to humanity to be fruitful and multiply. It is so profound that even in the coming together of two binary opposites that the possibility of procreation is always there and happens often (as verified by the number of abortions today). I believe that this is also a part of God’s redemptive expression, before there was ever a need for redemption. If procreation by itself is redemptive, then every time a child results from the “act of sex” itself, even in the least desirable circumstances, God is at work to redeem that specific set of circumstances through that life creating moment. This perspective addresses the heart questions of why does God allow children in very terrible circumstances (rape, incest, one night stands, etc.)
I think you’ll really like my next post!