Full disclosure here: I’m Jewish, and I read the bible in a traditional Jewish way. Not the King James translation, to start with. With careful attention to the context and order of the juicy quotes. And from the presumption that God does not waste words.
Also, I’m a lawyer. So it really matters to me what the meaning of “is” is. (Even in Hebrew, which strictly speaking doesn’t have a word for “is.”)
As a regular reader/poster on another blog which shall remain nameless, I’m always running into discussions of same-sex marriage and how it will destroy the Family As We Know It. Fortunately nobody on that blog actually uses the sign about God creating “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But it’s around all over the place anyway. And when somebody presumes to tell me what God intended by creating things the way they are, I am compulsively drawn to read what the bible actually says about this stuff. After all, some huge proportion of what most people claim “the bible says” is actually drawn from Shakespeare or Ben Franklin.
Finally, the Jewish tradition uses midrash to illuminate the text. Midrash is how the curious reader figures out what the characters do between installments. A lot of what some people think “the bible says” is actually midrash. (So, by the way, is a lot of Cecil B. DeMille’s version of The Ten Commandments.)
So let’s start with Genesis I, 26-28, which is the first version of the creation of humanity. After the cosmos and the earth’s plants and animals are created, then come humans. It’s an equal-opportunity story: “male and female He created them,” apparently at the same moment. They’re always together. Then they are commanded, “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.”
But in the next chapter (Genesis II, 7), the story seems to backtrack, to before there was any vegetation on the earth, or any human to take care of it (the implication is, what’s the point in making a garden if there’s nobody to tend it? People are necessary to the proper running of the world.) God makes Adam from the earth, and then plants a garden for him to live in and care for. Lots of travelogue stuff follows, and then (Genesis II, 18-25) God finally figures out that “It is not good that Adam should be alone.” Which makes it clear that this version of the creation involved only a single person, at least to start with. Adam tries to interact with the various critters around him, but it doesn’t work for him.
Then God slips Adam a mickey, takes a rib out of his side, and makes it into Eve. Adam says, “Therefore shall a man leave father and mother and cleave only unto her, and they shall be one flesh.” All this, before there are fathers and mothers. Adam is clearly thinking ahead.
The Jewish tradition asks, reasonably enough, why two stories about the creation of humanity? And, okay, the Adam who shows up in both of them can reasonably be taken to be the same person, but what about the females? One of them is made simultaneously with Adam, inseparable from him. She is also never named, and never mentioned again. A chapter later, we have Eve, who is made after Adam, and from him, and to whom Adam gives her name. The last time we see her name is in Genesis IV, 1, but by that time she has become an essential component of the story. So whatever happened to The First Mrs. Adam?
The traditional midrash fills in the gaps with her name (Lilith) and her fate. The two of them have been commanded to increase and multiply. But she will not allow Adam to dominate her–why should she, she asks, when they were created at the same time and are made of the same substance? When he tries (traditionally by using the male-on-top position for sex), she flies away.
The midrash leaves us with the presumption that Adam, having had a partner and lost her, is now alone and not happy about it. God catches on, and makes another partner for him. This time, God sees the partnership as primarily about companionship, not just procreation. In fact, God doesn’t say anything else about increasing and multiplying until the Noah story (Genesis VIII, 17) after everybody except the inhabitants of the Ark has been wiped out.
In short, the second creation, the one that “takes,” sees people as partners with each other, with the earth, and with the Creator in managing the earth. Partnership is first about companionship, and only secondarily about procreation.
And, incidentally, there are limits placed on procreation. “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.” The commandment is issued again only after the earth has been forcibly emptied, by the Flood. Once the earth is filled, or re-filled, procreation loses its importance.
In fact, the version of the command given after the Flood says “be fruitful and multiply.” A traditional Jewish reading of that phrase might lead one to ask, “is there a way to multiply without being fruitful? or to be fruitful without multiplying?” God doesn’t waste words, remember. Is it possible that God is backtracking on the original command to “increase and multiply” because it didn’t turn out so well? The Flood, remember, was a cleanup job on a planet whose inhabitants had become a violent, nasty bunch. Maybe that’s what happens when creatures just increase for the sake of increasing, instead of being fruitful?
Maybe fruitfulness is an increase in the quality of life, rather than just the quantity of living things?
In fact, maybe it’s okay, and consistent with the commandments of the Creator, for people to be together for the sake of companionship, and to be fruitful in ways that don’t necessarily involve multiplying. Maybe, now that the earth is filled, that’s more than merely okay, it is praiseworthy.