199: Be Fruitful and Multiply: What Does It Mean? transcript

July 10, 2019 by Joshua
in Podcast

I’ve learned in leading that you can lead people best when you meet them where they are. That means speaking their language and understanding their perspective.

Many people I talk to take their cues from the Bible, including guidance on how to act regarding the environment. Among them, the term stewardship plays a key role.

A steward is one who manages another’s property, finances, or other affairs. Everyone views and means things uniquely, but I understand them to mean the world and everything living on it, if we steward them, they aren’t ours, but we steward them for both the true owner and future generations so they can enjoy and steward them for their future generations.

Again, everyone reaches his or her views in his or her unique way, but I understand many reach this view of stewardship from a few passages in the Bible. In particular, Genesis, in the King James version, says

Then 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 birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”


This passage uses the word dominion, which means control or the exercise of control; sovereignty.

For centuries people interpreted dominion to mean that they could act like rulers over nature, dominate, do what they wanted. After all, God told them they could. For that matter, no matter what they did, nature did what it wanted and it always returned to what it was like before.

No matter how many rhinoceroses, bald eagles, or whales they killed, or how much of their waste they threw out, the animals returned and the waste turned into compost.

After hundreds of thousands of human life, only in the past couple centuries have we seen otherwise. I don’t think people could have understood extinction. Life always bounced back. If something went extinct, it didn’t happen on a time scale humans observed.

I looked up extinction in Wikipedia. It said.

For much of history, the modern understanding of extinction as the end of a species was incompatible with the prevailing worldview. Prior to the 19th century, much of Western society adhered to the belief that the world was created by God and as such was complete and perfect. This concept reached its heyday in the 1700s with the peak popularity of a theological concept called the Great Chain of Being, in which all life on earth, from the tiniest microorganism to God, is linked in a continuous chain. The extinction of a species was impossible under this model, as it would create gaps or missing links in the chain and destroy the natural order. Thomas Jefferson was a firm supporter of the Great Chain of Being and an opponent of extinction, famously denying the extinction of the wooly mammoth on the grounds that nature never allows a race of animals to become extinct.

You could say the Bible led people to see nature as unchanging but I don’t think one book started that view. I figure people saw the world that way for a long time.

Today I think most of us think of extinction in terms of species today disappearing forever, but even after species went extinct before, like the wooly mammoth, people opposed the concept of extinction.

The concept of extinction took hold, at least in the west, on discovering past species, like dinosaurs, through fossils. They concluded something used to live that no longer does.

My point is that humans took a long time to realize we could permanently change nature. Even the concept of extinction at first, in the 1800s, meant something we had nothing to do with.

Only very recently, probably in the 20th century, did we realize would could permanently change nature — that is, to make part of it disappear.

If you view nature as given to humans then if you contribute to causing something to disappear forever, then you are depriving future generations from that gift. If you believe God gave Earth and everything on it to everyone, then causing an extinction means you are taking a gift to everyone for yourself.

I meantioned how people could throw things away and everything would turn to compost. Even metals would rust away. With dioxin, mercury, and other poisons and pollution, and plastic, that doesn’t happen. Same with CO2, methane, and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

On timescales relevant to humans and human culture, these things don’t break down or go away.

Again, pollution, poisons, plastic, and so on deprive future generations of what we enjoyed.

For centuries, even millennia, our intellectual forebears saw no contradiction between dominating nature and nature as a gift for all people. Today we can’t ignore that we enjoy less diversity of species, less nature untouched by humans, and less capacity to sustain life than past generations and the evidence that we are accelerating that trend, leaving future generations with yet less.

Hence the interpretation of stewardship. If we’re all supposed to enjoy nature, including future generations, we have to steward what we received so they can receive it too.

People now say things like, here I found some quotes from the internet:

Dominion does not mean destruction, but responsibility. It is important to avoid flawed convictions about the right and power of humankind in relation to the rest of the natural world.


Fallen man has dominion over nature, but he uses it wrongly. The Christian is called upon to exhibit this dominion, but exhibit it rightly: treating the thing as having value itself, exercising dominion without being destructive.

Changing history and nature forced people to reinterpret dominion from domination to stewardship.

As an aside, I notice that the concept of leadership also evolved from dominance based in authority to service based in understanding. In my experience, telling people what to do and expecting compliance based on authority motivates them to resist and undermine your authority, since it implies you can hurt them if they don’t.

My model of leadership is to help them do what they already wanted but couldn’t figure out how. If they knew how, they wouldn’t need leadership. I think people, if given the chance to reflect, free from distraction and advertising and the lure of existing systems and informed of the consequences of their actions, would choose behavior leading to clean air, land, and water over behavior that pollutes it, even up to including flying much less, as most of the world does, having fewer children, and paying more for things that extract and pollute, especially fossil fuels, plastic, and other greenhouse emitters.

My goal in leading is to help people find the joy, meaning, and purpose in it. In this regard, I think I’m doing what people are doing in interpreting dominion to mean stewardship. They aren’t telling people what to do. They’re helping them achieve what they already wanted to but couldn’t see how, given the old interpretation.

And why should the old interpretation be right? Maybe they misinterpreted.

As you might expect, I like this stewardship model. Whatever its source, it fits with my interest in maintaining Earth’s ability to sustain life and human society.

Actually, given all the extinctions and disappearing wild life, I’d like to go farther. I’d like to restore nature to what I knew of it when I grew up. I remember bluebirds and apple trees in the city, farms that took our food scraps also within the city. We could catch salamanders, shrews, and newts in the stream behind school. Now I see almost exclusively pigeons, sparrows, rats, and cockroaches.

But even my view is shortsighted. I’ve read that in the days before steamships, that sailboats crossing the Atlantic would find schools of fish so numerous that the ships would stop moving in the water. That sailors would see whales as far as the eye could see. There were walruses on the Thames River in London. Maybe you’ve heard, as I did, of the passenger pigeon, now extinct, that it would take days for a flock to pass. It turns out they weren’t unique. Many species of birds took days to pass.

The nature I grew up with is a pathetic remnant of what used to exist. The nature babies today experience is a pathetic remnant of my pathetic remnant. I think we can do more than just halt the decline and restore what our ancestors experienced.

For some reason people misinterpret and think I mean to return to the stone age or hunting and gathering. I’m preparing an episode on false dichotomies. For now I’ll clarify that I do mean a smaller population. I don’t mean killing people, nor returning to the stone age. I’ve done episodes on how whatever problems you imagine in reversing growth, sustaining growth creates far more and serious problems.

Anyway, all this talk about interpreting the Bible was all context for what I wanted to get to, which is the next passage in the Bible, which I see as ripe for a new interpretation.

The next passage is, in the King James translation,

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And 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.”

It says dominion again, but I want to look at “be fruitful and multiply.” Everyone interprets it to mean to have lots of children.

For a long time people have reinterpreted it for people who couldn’t have children, so interpreting it is nothing new.

Nonstop growth on a finite planet can’t continue forever. An increasing number of people find the signs that we’ve overshot what the planet can sustain overwhelming.

Even if you consider other planets, look at Tom Murphy’s Do The Math blog, which shows from basic physics and math that we overwhelm the galaxy even at modest growth rates in less time than from when the Giza pyramids were built until today.

I propose we interpret being fruitful to having children, yes, but a sustainable number. As for multiplying, how about multiplying happiness, joy, and other intangible things but that give life meaning and purpose.

If you believe the Bible is the word of God or even just good guidance and you see that the Earth has finite resources — that we’re depleting, if only just that we’re causing lots of extinctions and wild spaces that deprive future generations of enjoying what we enjoy — if we overshoot the population that those resources can sustain, our population will decrease and not by our choice.

That means disease, starvation, wars over resources, and, in a word, suffering.

How can we square the Bible saying to multiply with causing future generations suffering based on a multiplying population?

The logic that led to interpret dominion to mean stewardship suggests to me interpreting multiplying to mean multiplying happiness. Did God want people to suffer or be happy? If the latter, let’s multiply happiness. We’ll still have kids, just a sustainable number.

If you believe the Bible is the word of God, could God have instructed people to cause their children to suffer? Or could God have meant to multiply joy and responsibility?

Incidentally, I said future generations, but the science I’m aware of suggests that children and adults today will suffer on the scale of hundreds of millions to billions — as climate refugees, victims of wars over resources, and so on.

So in the tradition of understanding dominion to mean responsible stewardship as the Bible’s intent, I propose understand being fruitful to mean having responsible numbers of children — that is 1 or 2 — and multiplying to mean multiplying happiness, joy, responsibility, meaning, and purpose.

Imagine a world of happy, responsible people, not overwhelming nature’s ability to sustain life but harmonious with it, working to help others become happier and responsible to each other. Isn’t that what being fruitful and multiplying means? In a finite world (or galaxy), what else can it mean?

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