Be Fruitful and Multiply: A Canonical Reading

bill-williams-3302And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.
— Genesis 1:28 —

Few commands in Scripture are more important than the first one: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”

In Genesis 1 we learn God made mankind in his image and after his likeness. The purpose of this “imaging” is disputed and multi-faceted (as I’ve described here). However, it is clear that the first command is to be fruitful and multiply, a pregnant command if there ever was one.

In fact, from the placement of this command—the first chapter of the first book in the Bible—we see how programmatic this command is. It is fundamental to being human, and therefore it applies to every one of us. At the same time, from a canonical reading of Scripture we learn how this phrase repeats and develops, so that it bears significance for more than just having babies. In other words, though it never loses this meaning (child-bearing is an implicit part of humanity), the progress of revelation also shows how fruitfulness relates to the Word of God, regeneration, and the Great Commission.

So, in what follows, I will list out many places where this language (“be fruitful and multiply”) occurs, with a few comments along the way.  Then, I will list four ways that reading Genesis 1:28 canonically helps us understand this verse and the whole structure of the Bible.

Be Fruitful and Multiply: A Canonical Reading

In the Old Testament, be fruitful and multiply retains a primary reference to child-bearing. However, as the new covenant produces children born by the Spirit and not by the flesh (as in the covenants sealed with circumcision), the language picks up spiritual overtones. (I’ve highlighted the Scripture references in order to get a quick overview of biblical landmarks).

The Torah

After the original command in Genesis 1:28, the rest of the Old Testament applies this language to God’s covenant people. For instance, be fruitful and multiply is first repeated in Genesis 9:1. When Noah survives the flood he and his offspring are commanded to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.’ In this way, Moses connects Adam and Noah, so that Noah is seen as a second Adam. At the same time, these commands secure the cosmic proliferation of the human race. This command is a part of God’s common grace, so that God in saving grace might redeem his elect from every nation.

Such saving purposes come next, as “fruitful and multiply” is found in God’s covenantal promises to Abraham. Importantly, God promises if Abraham walks in obedience to God, he will bless him with many children: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” . . .  I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Genesis 17:1–2, 6).

So God’s design for fruitful multiplication is not just the proliferation of fallen humanity (as in God’s covenant with Noah). Now, it is the fruitful proliferation of a redeemed people, offspring of Abraham. Picking up this theme, Genesis 35:11 passes this promise on to Jacob, Abraham’s grandson: “And God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” Like the imperative in Genesis 1, this word commands Jacob to be fruitful.

But this leads to a question: Will he obey? Or will his wife (wives) conceive? We know that in a fallen world barrenness is a real threat. So how can we be sure this command will be fulfilled? The answer comes in Genesis 48:4, where Jacob reports God’s words to him: “Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.”

So in the book of Genesis there is a strong theme of fruitful multiplication. It moves from Adam to Noah to Abraham to the nation of Israel. It includes both promise and command. And it teaches the important role fruitfulness will play in the story of salvation.

Not surprisingly, Moses employs the same language in the opening words of Exodus. He writes, “The people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). This verse highlights the faithfulness of God to give his people children—lots of children. In four centuries the family of seventy became millions.

Next, after God proves his commitment to his firstborn son by redeeming them from Egypt, the legal stipulations of the Torah pick up the language of fruitfulness. First, Leviticus 26:9 says, “I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and will confirm my covenant with you.” Next, Deuteronomy 7:13 reads, “He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground.” Both of these promises are conditioned on Israel’s covenant obedience, and set the stage for the rest of the Old Testament.

The Prophets

If you are familiar with Israel’s history you know that obedience is a checkered affair. While there are seasons of covenant faithfulness, ultimately God is forced to divorce his people and send them into exile. In other words, their covenant unfaithfulness leads to barrenness, for God cannot fulfill his promise of blessing them with “godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15)  while they abide in idolatry and social injustice.

Amid Israel’s sin, God displays unparalleled grace and God promises his people a new covenant. This time the covenant will not be based on the flesh; rather, it will be a covenant empowered by the gift of the Spirit. Accordingly, it is a covenant founded on forgiveness and the law written on the heart.

In this way, the nature of the covenant changes, and so does so the nature of being fruitful and multiplying. Therefore, when we read in Jeremiah and Ezekiel that God will again bring fruit and multiply his people, we also find the inclusion of the Gentiles (Isaiah 49, 60, 66), the fruitfulness of the barren woman (Isaiah 54), and the offspring of the eunuch (Isaiah 56). In other words, God is going to do something completely new with the promises he’s made in the past.

This applies to all sorts of Old Testament structures, including “be fruitful and multiply.” Therefore, we find great promises of eschatological fruitfulness in the Prophets. For instance, in the context of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8), Jeremiah says a day is coming when Israel will no longer look back to the Old Covenant (the ark of the covenant); instead, they will look ahead to God’s very presence with them, coupled with the blessing of offspring: “And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the Lord, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the Lord” (Jeremiah 3:16).

Likewise, Jeremiah 23:3 looks ahead to the future, when God says,Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.” And Ezekiel 36:11 echoes, “And I will multiply on you man and beast, and they shall multiply and be fruitful. And I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

So even though the number of passages in the Prophets recycling “be fruitful and multiply” is relatively small, the point is clear. In the latter days, when God inaugurates the new covenant, he will make a new family who bears his image. Just as God promised Abraham fruitfulness, so now God promises to circumcise hearts by his Spirit and create a new people by his Word. Accordingly, in the New Testament when these promises come to fruition, this is exactly what we find.

The New Testament

In John 3, Jesus informs Nicodemus that the kingdom of God will be populated by children born again. Though John does not employ the language of “fruitfulness” and “multiplication” here, the birth imagery is instructive. Later, John 15 does pick up the words of Genesis 1:28. As Jesus speaks of himself as the true vine, John 15:7–8 read, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

In Jesus, fruitfulness has come to mean life in the vine—another image which conspicuously relates to God’s covenant people (cf. Exodus 15:16–17; Ps. 44:2; 80:8; Jer. 32:41; Ezekiel 17). Importantly, this vine-life depends on the Word and prayer and brings glory to God. Just as God created mankind in his image for his glory, now again John 15 teaches that the disciples who abide in the word will glorify God because they are his beloved children (John 1:12–13).

Likewise, this passage also begins to show how the word of God will bear fruit. Whereas the seed of Abraham was created through procreation in the Old Covenant—hence, the circumcision of the foreskin. Now, the word of the Spirit is the seed of life (see 1 John 3:9). This, of course, comes from and through Christ, as John 12:24 says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” But now this spiritual birth comes from the Word, as Acts will repeatedly show us.

The most fruitful place to see the transformation of “be fruitful and multiply” is in the book of Acts, where the language of increasing and growing picks up the commands of Genesis 1:28 and applies them to the Word of God and its fruit—believers in Christ.

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. (Acts 6:1)

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

But the word of God increased and multiplied. (Acts 12:24)

So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 16:5)

So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:20)

Acts shows how the Word of God multiplied and increased in order to make disciples of Christ, children of God. In all these ways, we learn an important point—the Great Commission (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) is the new covenant application of the original creation command (“be fruitful and multiply”).

Indeed, because the creation covenant is still at play (after all, we still see the sign of God’s covenant with Noah in the rainbow), the original command to bear children is still requisite in marriage. However, in the new covenant we find incredible grace, that God’s ultimate goal is not well-groomed families on earth. As Jesus’ teaches, his goal is to create an eternal, Spirit-filled family from all nations. When we have eyes to see open to this reality, it becomes visible throughout the Gospels and Acts. And it is also visible in letters like Colossians.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he reports how the gospel is extending to the ends of the earth. In Colossians 1:5–6, he says, “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.”

In concert with John’s Gospel and the book of Acts, Paul’s use of be fruitful and increasing reaches back to Genesis 1 and shows how the new covenant promise of the new birth relates to the original command in creation. Even more, this gospel fruit shows how the new covenant extends and fulfills the promises to Abraham and Jacob. The goal was never purely ethnic; it was Spirit-created people from all nations who would be the children of God (cf. John 1:12–13).

Four Points of Application

This canonical reading helps us in at least four ways.

  1. It teaches us more completely what Spiritual fruit is. Fruit is not just something like human character improved by the Spirit. Rather, it is the produce of God. With the gospel, God creates children of the Spirit that abound with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Even more, these ‘fruit’ are meant to confirm the presence of the Spirit and feed others, so that they might be nourished on the Lord.
  2. It teaches us how to read the Bible, where physical promises under the old covenants with Abraham and Israel are developed through the new covenant mediation of Christ. To be sure, some of the original commands remain because God’s covenant with creation remains. However, all those stipulations that arose in Israel, not creation, are transmuted by the work of Christ.
  3. It reminds us that the goal of creation is the glory of God, seen in men and women made in his image. To be sure, those who reject Christ are wholly made in God’s image. But at the same time, salvation is a process where by Christ is formed in the people whom God is redeeming. How all this works out is helped by looking at the development of the first command. As we follow this command through Abraham’s family, the Law, and the Prophets, we get a sense of how God’s Bible is put together, and how it all works to bring glory to him.
  4. The Great Commission is not a separate command that comes out of nowhere. As others have observed, it is the natural entailment of the first commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Thus, by tracing this reading of Genesis 1:28, we see God’s ancient plan to make disciples of all nations, and in turn we can read the Old Testament with an eye for God’s eternal design.

In the end, Genesis 1:28 is an instructive verse in its own right. But read in context of the canon, we learn even more the fundamental importance of its instruction. Therefore, let us continue to see how God’s purposes of fruit-bearing develop in Scripture, so that by abiding in his word and through prayer, we might see fruit born through our lives.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Bill Williams on Unsplash


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