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Sex and family in the Bible and the Middle East.
By: Raphael Patai
Publisher: Garden City, N. Y., Doubleday, 1959.

The Imperative of Fruitfulness

The first words spoken by God to Adam and Eve were "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1: 28). These words, although clearly a command, are characterized in the Biblical text as a blessing. Thus the ancient Hebrews projected the imperative of fruitfulness back into the very first day one which man was created. Later Jewish lore and learning, in assembling the positive and negative injunctions of the religion, listed "fruitfulness and multiplication" as the first of the 613 commandments.

The legendary and legal expressions of the idea reflect faithfully the actual feelings of the Middle Eastern peoples from pre-Biblical to modern times. The entire tmosphere in which individuals in the Middle East grew up throughout the ages was saturated with the imperative of fruitfulness. [For numerous reasons, including motivations of status, and of self-interest whether economic, political, strategic, or sentimental, "be fruitful and multiply" was indeed, and has remained to this day, the greatest of blessings.]

This blessing, first pronounced by God over the newly created animals (Genesis 1: 22) and the first human pair, was subsequently repeated by him and by his flesh-and-blood spokesmen whenever the promise of supreme bliss and boon was imparted to an individual. "Be fruitful and multiply" was the thrice repeated blessing given by God to Noah after the deluge (Genesis 8:17; 9:1, 7). The first time God spoke to Abraham he promised him a rich progeny: "I will make of thee a great nation" (Genesis 12:2). This blessing of Abraham is repeated in Genesis several times with an insistent and unrelenting monotony that could stem only from the conviction that numerous progeny is the highest of all human aspirations. After Abraham separated from Lot, God blessed him: "I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth ..." (Genesis 13: 16). When the childless, aging Abraham complained, God reassured him: "Count the stars, if thou be able to count them -- so shall thy seed be!" (Genesis 15: 5). In the dreadful night scene of the covenant between the sacrificial pieces it was again the promise of a rich seed which allayed Abrahamís fears and was held out to him by God as the supreme reward of man: "Unto thy seed have I given this land ..." (Genesis 15: 18). And again, when Abraham was ninety, he heard the divine promise:

Again, by the terebinths of Mamre, the Lord said: "Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation" (Genesis 18: 18). After the birth of Isaac, the divine promise was repeated: "In Isaac shall seed be called to thee, and also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation because he is thy seed" (Genesis 21: 12-13). After Abraham demonstrated his unquestioning obedience to God by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, the reward is again couched in the same terms: "In blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is upon the seashore ..." (Genesis 22:17).

Stars and sand -- these two great symbols of fruitfulness return again and again in the Biblical narrative which carries on the story of the Hebrew patriarchal family: the promise and the blessing of a seed as numerous as stars and sand is repeatedly given by God to Isaac (Genesis 26: 4, 24) and to Jacob (Genesis 28: 14; 32 : 12), and it is reiterated in later Mosaic and prophetic utterance (Exodus 32: 13; Deuteronomy 1:10; 10: 22; Hosea 2: 1; Isaiah 48: 19; Nehemiah 9: 23; I Chronicles 27: 23). Numerous seed is promised also to Ishmael (Genesis 17: 20; 21: 18), Abrahamís first-born by Hagar; to Sarah, the mother of all Hebrews (Genesis 16: 10; 17:16), and to Rebekah (Genesis 25:23). "Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands" (Genesis 24: 60) is the blessing given to Rebekah by her family.

It is a peculiar feature of the patriarchal story that in the midst of all this pressure for fecundity three out of the four traditional mothers of the Hebrew nation were barren for long periods before, by the special grace of God, they were able to conceive and thus ensure the future of the promised seed. Sarah, we are told, was an old woman, far beyond her menopause (Genesis 18: 11-12), when she miraculously conceived to her centenarian husband and bore Isaac, her only child (Genesis 21: 5). Rebekah, Isaacís wife, was barren, and conceived her twins only after Isaac entreated the Lord for her (Genesis 25: 21-22). In her case, too, this was her only pregnancy. Rachel, Jacobís beloved wife, was barren, and her desire to have children was so great that she burst out in a moment of despair and said unto Jacob: "Give me children, or I die" (Genesis 35: 18-19). The only truly fruitful one among the ancestral mothers of the Hebrews was Leah, who gave birth to six sons and a daughter (Genesis 35: 23). Even the handmaids enjoyed only a diminished fertility: Hagar had only one son, Bilhah two, and Zilpah two. This record compares rather unfavorably with the averages found to this day in those Middle Eastern societies where uncontrolled fertility is still practiced and where the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime ranges from six to eight. Barrenness remained the greatest single affliction that could befall a couple in later times as well. About a thousand years after Abraham, when Elisha wanted to repay the Shunammite woman her hospitality, the prophetís servant, Gehazi, knew what was uppermost in her mind: "verily, she hath no son, and her husband is old" (II King 4:14).

Several centuries later, the story of the childless old couple to whom an angel announces the impending birth of a son is told about the parents of John the Baptist (Luke 1: 5-13).

The belief that it is God who "opens" or "closes" the wombs of women is well attested both in the Bible and in the modern Middle East. It was God who "restrained Sarah from bearing" (Genesis 16: 2). It was He who "shut up" Hannahís womb (I Samuel 1: 5-6). When the childless Rachel demanded sons of Jacob, he answered her in anger: "Am I in Godís stead who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?" (Genesis 30: 2) It was only when God "remembered" Sarah that she was able to conceive (Genesis 21: 1-2). Only when "the Lord let himself be entreated" (Genesis 25: 21) did Rebekah conceive. When God saw that Leah was hated by her husband, "he opened her womb" (Genesis 29: 31). After having given birth to four sons, Leah "left off bearing" (Genesis 29: 35), and thereafter God had to hearken unto her before she conceived again (Genesis 30: 17). After telling the story of the mandrakes -- the love-apples which were believed to make barren women fertile -- the Biblical narrator hastens to reassure us that it was Godís direct intervention which resulted in Rachelís conception: "God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened unto her, and opened her womb, and she conceived" (Genesis 30: 22-23). Hannah conceived only when "the Lord remembered her" (I Samuel 1: 19). Also according to the later Hebrew view, it is God who gives children (I Chronicles 28:5; Isaiah 8:18; Isaiah 66: 9; Hosea 9: 14; Psalms 127: 3).

The same belief persists in the Middle Eastern world to this day. It is God who gives children to a woman or withholds them from her. The expression used in this connection in Arabic is very significant: God "feeds" the woman with a child. That is to say, God puts the child into the womanís womb, as a person puts food into his mouth.

The idea that God gives children as a reward of piety is coupled with a paean to the fruitful wife and to the value of sons in two Psalms.

Lo, children [sons] are an heritage of the Lord
And the fruit of the womb is his reward.
As arrows are in the hands of a mighty man,
So are children [sons] of the youth.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them:
They shall not be ashamed,
But they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

Psalm 127: 3-5 (King James Version)

A Song of Ascents
Happy the God-fearing man
Who walketh in His ways.
When thou eatest the labor of thy hands
Happy art thou and it is well with thee.
Thy wife -- like a fruitful vine in thy house
Thy sons -- like olive plants around thy table.
Behold, thus is the man blessed
That feareth the Lord.
The Lord bless thee out of Zion,
And see thou the good of Jerusalem
All the days of thy life.
And see the sons of thy sons,
Peace be upon Israel.

Psalm 128 (Jewish Publication Society of America)

Procreation, bringing life into the world, is an awesome responsibility and privilege.

Rebbetzin Feige Twerski notes:
The Kabbalah teaches us that life as we know it will reach its destiny when the repository of the souls scheduled for duty on earth will all have fulfilled their purpose. With every child born we come closer to that day of eternity.

        explore    Aish HaTorah - Judaism for Today

        Jewish Children    Be Fruitful and Multiply - Pru URevu

        General Assembly     UN Resolution for the Elimination of Racism

        General Assembly     Jewish Birthrate : issues and challenges

        Debbie Friedman     Jewish Folk Music style

Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi says:
Of all the 613 mitzvahs in the Torah, the very first one is to be fruitful and multiply. It says, "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife, that they become one flesh." This mitzvah is primary to any other mitzvah.

Chaim Bermant writes:
There is a Hebrew expression tzar gidul banim, 'the pain of bringing up children,' and the pains took many forms -- sickness, death, insubordination. The Talmudic sage Rav Meir had thirteen sons ...
The Biblical Job had seven sons and three daughters ...

Herman Wouk. The Will To Live On: This is Our Heritage

"Our Jewish census has shrunken enough [in the 20th century] God knows, three-thousandths of one percent of world population."

Winston Churchill once said about World War II, speaking of the time before the United States became a belligerent, "The only thing that ever frightened me was the U-boat war." He had faith in the indomitability of the British people and in the promise of Lend-Lease, but the sheer arithmetic of the sinkings threatened doom for England.

Strong as is my Jewish faith, the only thing that frightens me is the sheer arithmetic of our world predicament. Since the Holocaust reduced our numbers by one-third, we have barely been maintaining our numerical presence on earth, while the planet's population has been exploding. Whether the globe can indefinitely support such crowding worries the futurists, but the Jewish arithmetic seems to me far more immediate and disquieting. The Mosaic Law, God-given or "man-made," kept us in identity down the millennia, but now we risk dwindling, within a century or two, below an ethnic critical mass. Every single one of us, observant or not, has become precious for our survival.

"The Breath of the Children" [Chapter 20]