Throughout the Bible, the Lord gives commands to humanity. One of the first commands, He gave twice. In the Book of Genesis, God tells Adam and Eve:
“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’” (Genesis 1:28).
He repeated this command to Noah. After flooding the earth, the Lord repeated to Noah, his sons, and his sons’ sons: “and you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). In both these instances, the Lord gave the injunction for mankind to increase their population by having and raising children.
What Does It Mean to "Be Fruitful and Multiply"?
The mandate to have and raise children to populate the earth was a part of God’s plan. It is a remarkable invitation to join Him in the process of creation. But the responsibility does not end there. Parents should raise their children to love the Lord, and follow His wisdom and guidance. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Being a parent is a chance to participate in God’s plan for humanity in a special way that can leave an impact for generations.
Author and Context of Genesis 1:28
The origins of Genesis as a text can be hard to trace in part because of its age, as well as the immense length of time it covers. The Pentateuch – a term for the first five books of the Bible – is traditionally credited to Moses among Christian scholars. There is some debate as to the author, primarily amongst secular thinkers. Some of the Genesis narrative was part of the oral tradition of the Hebrew people, such as the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is believed much of the Creation and Flood accounts were preserved in this way until someone wrote them down as well.
The section of Genesis where the command to be fruitful and multiply occurs is from the latter, sometimes called primeval history. It reinforces one of the central messages of this book, elleh toledot. This phrase means “these are the generations,” and it is found several times in Genesis after an accounting is given of a family line through the years. These generations would not exist had their forefathers ignored the command to multiply. This notion also ties into other important ideas in the book including family, fatherhood, and the question of how these sinful families will be healed.
The directive to reproduce, also called the cultural mandate, actually appears ten times in the Book of Genesis – the same number of times the phrase “these are the generations” appears, though not necessarily together. In this first book of the Bible alone, it can be seen in the following verses:
Genesis 1:22 - to the animals
Genesis 1:28 - to Adam and Eve
Genesis 8:17 - to the animals post-Flood
Genesis 9:1 - to Noah and his sons
Genesis 9:7 - to Noah and his sons
Genesis 17:20 - to Abraham as a promise about his son Ishmael
Genesis 28:3 - a blessing from Isaac to Jacob
Genesis 35:11 - to Jacob
Genesis 48:4 - from God to Jacob; Jacob recounting the event
In each circumstance where this phrase is found in Genesis, it is a blessing as well as a command. It grants the person or group a line of descendants and generations - the gift of legacy.
How Is the Verse Translated in Other Versions?
Some verses can look drastically different among various translations, but the command to be fruitful and multiply is consistent. The only word that translators approach differently in a somewhat significant way is “be fruitful.” The Hebrew word parah (פָרָה) does mean to be fruitful or to bear fruit, but a few translators chose to use less figurative language. Some other translations of parah include:
Good News Translation: “Have many children”
Brenton Septuigant Translation: “Increase”
GOD’S WORD Translation: “Be fertile”
International Standard Version: “Increase”
Though these options exist, most versions of both verses chose to stick with the literal translation to “be fruitful” to give the directive to have children.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/evgenya
Can I Only Follow This Command if I Have Kids?
Not everyone is called to be a biological parent. Sometimes it is because of the call to singlehood and celibacy. Sometimes it is because of tragedy, illness, or circumstance because mankind lives in a fallen world. These people can still be part of the process of being fruitful and multiplying.
Adoption is very Biblical. In fact, the New Testament refers to the Gentiles as grafted into the family of God, “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17). Grafting is the process of incorporating a branch from one tree onto another, similar to the process of adoption. Though the gentile people rejected the one true God for centuries, He still made a way for them to find a place in His family.
In Ephesians, it refers to humanity as being adopted, “he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). The Lord also used adoption to fulfill his purpose; Pharaoh's daughter took Moses into her family for a time, ordained by the will of God that he would lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Adoption is a way of expanding one’s own family, giving a child a loving home, and raising that child up to love the Lord.
Discipleship is another way of fulfilling this mandate. In the New Testament, the command to be fruitful and multiply does not appear directly. While it is still a part of God’s order and it should be done, the focus shifts to multiplying the family of God through conversion and discipleship. When a sinner repents and accepts Jesus Christ as their Savior, that person is a new man, with a new name in glory. “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it’” (Revelation 2:17).
Mentoring that person in their new faith will bring them closer to their Savior, and is a key part of the Great Commission - Jesus’ final directive before His ascension to Heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). Being an active part of another person’s walk and growth with the Lord is as much a part of the Lord’s plan for humanity as the creation of children. Obeying the Lord in how He calls each individual, which can involve having children, adopting, or discipling others in the faith, is what matters most to God.
From the beginning, the Lord wanted to see His creation increase and worship Him, and invited all His living creatures to create with Him. Humanity, made in God’s image, is the special part of creation who also cultivates the land, and builds civilizations. Through the centuries, people have married and had families, sharing the Gospel, and sharing the love of God with their fellow man. Being fruitful and multiplying God’s kingdom is part of man’s purpose on earth, and allows us to share in His creation, His plan, and His glory.
Prager, Dennis. The Rational Bible Genesis. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2019.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2007.
Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Old Testament and New Testament. United States of America: Victor Books, 1987.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Jack Hollingsworth
Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.