I read through the service of Morning Prayer for Friday at Mission Clare and found that the part of the reading that caught my eye from from the Old Testament.
And the Lord stood beside him and said, I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
There are multiple times in the Old Testament where God promises to spread the offspring of the person God is talking to across the face of the earth.
Back when the stories of the bible were told instead of written and even when the Old and New Testaments were compiled in written form, rewritten, and edited the human population on earth was much lower than it is today.
Today, would being told to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ really be a blessing?
In year one of the common era the entire human population is estimated to be between 150 million to 300 million depending on the source used.
For reference, in 2017 the entire population of Russia was estimated at 144 million (almost the low end of the year one range) and the population of the United States was estimated at 324 million (the high end of the range for year one). The world population was 7.6 billion or 25.3 times the size of the larger estimate of the human population in year one.
That means that for every one person in year one there are 25+ people today. So the place Issac stood when he dreamed of the ladder would have 25 of his descendants roaming around.
From the frequency with which the idea of one’s descendants covering the earth occurs in the Old Testament it is clear something that the men conventing with God desire greatly. None of them say to God, “perhaps covering the earth with humans is not such a great plan” or “what will we all eat if there are so many of us?” or “what happens when we do cover the earth, and the population keeps growing?”
More humans, and in particular more humans who are their direct descendants seems to be a good thing from their point of view.
I wonder why?
From my perspective the human impact on the earth and all of God’s other creatures has not been good overall. We have driven creatures like the woolly mammoth to extinction by over hunting. We have destroyed other creatures by eliminating their habitat, killing them for their fur or feathers, or introducing invasive species into their habitat who either eat them or out-compete them.
What benefit did Abraham, Issac, and Jacob see to an expanding world population of humans? Was it just their own posterity? Was it that they saw more humans as creating a better life for everyone (more hands to make work easier)?
These thoughts make me think of two songs that are in my music library. The first is by Sinead O’Conner and the second by U2. Both have similarities to psalms. Ms O’Conner’s song “I do not want what I have not got” reminds me of plain-sung psalms in church both in the plaintive melody and the repetition in the lyrics. The song by U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” starts with the idea of following an individual to find something and grows to thoughts of a more universal nature.
Ms O’Conner’s song has a sad feeling to it, almost a sense of loss and longing that contradict the words that say she has what she needs. However, she does focus on the idea that what she currently has is good and has value.
U2’s song has an upbeat melody, implying that even though they have not yet found what they are looking for, they might some day.
Both reference ideas from the bible in their lyrics.
It seems to me that wanting what we have not got is a part of the human condition. There is the old adage that “The grass is always greener on the other side…” However, once we get to the other side the way back might look better than it did when we left.
I wonder what Issac would think of the world if he could see it today. Would he still want his descendants to cover the earth like the dust does? Would he rejoice in our numbers? Or, would the world he grew up in seem like a treasure he had lost among the sea of humanity that live in modern times?
There is no way to know.
What we can do is acknowledge our human tenancy to want what we do not have and to not fully value what we do have. This can lead to greed and avarice as we see in the story of Exodus and throughout the bible. If we have God, why would we need idols of gold?
Instead of looking to the new and novel, and wishing we had that we can look at what we have now: our bread, our wine, each other, our faith and rejoice in them.
Song: I still haven’t found what I’m looking for by U2.
Image: By A. Sargent, illustrator for the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
All bible quotes are from either the NRSV text at Bible Gateway.
A pdf of the Book of Common Prayer which contains both the lessons for Sundays and the Daily Office can be found at: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/book_of_common_prayer.pdf
Mission Clare is a good resource for daily morning and evening prayer online.
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.