When God created man he commanded him to fill the earth and subdue it. In other words man was to labor and to procreate. He was to be fruitful and multiply and he was to exercise dominion over the Creation. God gave Adam a helpmeet (i.e. suitable helper) to help him fulfill this task. Man must take dominion in the way God ordained – through the help of a wife. Since there was no sin, there was no toil or weariness in this labor. Neither was there any pain or sorrow in conception.
But the fall brought a curse that changed this happy state of affairs. God cursed the ground for man’s sake and told Adam that he would have to toil with ground that was cursed. The labor of tending the garden to get food would not be the pure, toil-free joy that it had been. It would now involve back-breaking labor wrestling with weeds and thorns. He would eat through the sweat of his brow. The woman did not escape this judgment. God told Eve that he would multiply her sorrow and conception.
How does Christ’s work of redemption affect this judgment on men?
Christ came to reverse the curse – as far as it is found. He promised to undo and remove the curse. That promise is found even as he pronounced the curse when he told the serpent that the woman’s Seed would bruise the head of the serpent. While the removal of the spiritual aspects of the curse is preeminent in scripture, the physical ways in which the curse is mitigated are also taught in scripture and should not be ignored. Physical death is conquered in Christ’s resurrection.
There are a number of lesser benefits in this life as well. By his grace, as His Kingdom has progressed throughout the earth (i.e. Daniel 2:44-45; Rev 21-22:5) a number of labor saving devices that help to remove the toil from labor have been developed. I used tractors to plow fields as a young boy. It was much less wearisome than using a horse drawn plow and infinitely less wearisome than doing it by hand. Such tools are a blessing from God that serve to reverse the effect of the curse. As Christians, we welcome and use labor saving devices. We don't say that "God commanded us to labor; therefore any attempt to remove the toil of labor is wrong." We separate labor, which God has commanded, from the toil of labor, which is the result of the fall. We use labor saving devices so that the same labor produces much more fruit and is much less toilsome. It would be sin to use labor saving devices to avoid taking dominion or to enable us to spend more of the day in idleness. But it is most proper to use them to increase our ability to take dominion for the glory of God.
What about the judgment God pronounced on the woman?
After the fall, God multiplied conception. Genesis 3:16a reads: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children;” This is a significant point that few are discussing in dealing with conception control. God’s multiplication of conception wasn't a blessing, it was a judgment. Increased conception is the result of God's curse in the Garden of Eden. That's what the Bible says, not some planned barrenness zealot. But as the hymn Joy to the World says "Christ came to reverse the curse, Far as the curse is found." That includes removing the curse of multiplied conception for women. Thus conception control is actually a blessing from God in that it reduces conception. But in using conception control, we also have to remember that the command to be fruitful and multiply still stands. In other words, we must have a desire to obey God's command to be fruitful, a desire to have a quiver full, because children really are a blessing; but at the same time it is not wrong to limit conception when our quiver is full or to slow the pace of filling the quiver to lessen the sorrow associated with increased conception.
Even before the fall, Adam did not labor continuously. He labored and rested. That pattern continues after the fall. And, now that our labor has become wearisome, it isn't wrong to use labor saving devices that begin to roll back the curse in some small way. At the same time, we are commanded to labor. To use labor saving devices to enable us to spend more time lying in bed would be wrong. They are proper as long as they are not used to help us be lazy. The same caution applies to conception control. It is proper as long as it is not used to eliminate having children or escape the duty of married couples to render full obedience to being fruitful and multiplying, but only slow the pace or stop when our quiver is full.
Why Has Withdrawal Been Nearly Universally Considered Murder in Church History?
Now, what about all the spiritual giants of the past that have condemned conception control as tantamount to murder? Why was there such a universal prohibition of conception control among the reformers? For example, in his commentary on Gen 38:10, Calvin says “Deliberately to withdraw from coitus in order that semen may fall on the ground is doubly monstrous. For this is ... to kill before he is born the hoped for offspring.” Theodore Laetsch says that in coitus interuptus, a human being is being murdered in its incipiency. It is nearly impossible to find any support for contrary views on restricting conception.
A possible explanation is found in the medieval understanding of the physiology of conception. The prevalent theory of that time is sometimes called the "Garden Theory of Conception." They thought that during sexual intercourse the man implanted what today we would call a zygote in the woman. In other words, they thought a living soul was transplanted from the man into the woman.
With this understanding it is easy to see why they thought conception control was murder. If a living person was being transplanted during intercourse, of course coitus interuptus would be murder. But this understanding is factually flawed. It is simply not true. What comes out of a man during intercourse is not a human life. It is only half of what is required. Conception happens inside the woman. If killing sperm was murder, then everyone that has intercourse of any kind would be committing murder because millions of sperm are killed with every union.
With this factual correction, it changes the decision one would arrive at. If I thought the Garden Theory of Conception was true, then I too would consider withdrawal murder. I think this answers the numerous Godly men of that age who said what they did.
Objections To Understanding Genesis 3:16 As Referring To An Increase In Conception
The phrase in Genesis 3:16 translated as “sorrow and conception” in the KJV is often understood as a hendiadys and translated “sorrow in conception” or “pain in childbearing.” One of the arguments commonly used against understanding “and conception” (והרנך) as referring to actual conception is that children were the fulfillment of the command to be fruitful and multiply, so therefore increased conception could not be part of the judgment. A variation of that argues that children were a blessing and therefore could not be part of the judgment for sin. This consideration seems to be the sole force moving people away from understanding this verse as referring to literal conception. I have included two samples of this line of thinking below, one from Keil & Delitzsch and the other from John Gill. Keil & Delitzsch, it should be noted, also do not buy into the hendiadys line of thinking.
Keil & Delitzsch write:
- The woman, who had broken the divine command for the sake of earthly enjoyment, was punished in consequence with the sorrows and pains of pregnancy and childbirth. "I will greatly multiply (הרבּה is the inf. abs. for הרבּה, which had become an adverb: vid., Ewald, 240c, as in Genesis 16:10 and Genesis 22:17) thy sorrow and thy pregnancy: in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." As the increase of conceptions, regarded as the fulfillment of the blessing to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28), could be no punishment, והרנך must be understood as in apposition to עצּבונך thy sorrow (i.e., the sorrows peculiar to a woman's life), and indeed (or more especially) thy pregnancy (i.e., the sorrows attendant upon that condition). The sentence is not rendered more lucid by the assumption of a hendiadys. "That the woman should bear children was the original will of God; but it was a punishment that henceforth she was to bear them in sorrow, i.e., with pains which threatened her own life as well as that of the child" (Delitzsch). The punishment consisted in an enfeebling of nature, in consequence of sin, which disturbed the normal relation between body and soul. (Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament).
John Gill writes:
- I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, or "thy sorrow of thy conception" (a), or rather "of thy pregnancy" (b); since not pain but pleasure is perceived in conception, and besides is a blessing; (John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible)
But I don’t find either of these lines of thinking to be logically or Biblically consistent. In fact it seems just the opposite. Why wouldn’t God use as judgment what was given as a blessing? This sort of thing is seen many times in Scripture where God gives people what they want and then turns that very blessing into judgment (e.g. the quail). Labor existed before the fall and must therefore be considered as something good and wholesome. Yet this becomes a part of God’s judgment on Adam.
Rain for example is spoken of as both a blessing granted for obedience and withheld in times of disobedience and as a judgment in and of itself.
Rain in the proper season is presented as the fruit of obedience in Leviticus 26:4. "Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit."
- That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. (Deuteronomy 11:14)
- The LORD shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow. (Deuteronomy 28:12)
The withholding of rain is promised as chastisement for disobedience.
- And then the LORD'S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you. (Deuteronomy 11:17)
- Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil. (2 Samuel 1:21)
- When heaven is shut up, and there is no rain, because they have sinned against thee; if they pray toward this place, and confess thy name, and turn from their sin, when thou afflictest them. Then hear thou in heaven, and forgive the sin of thy servants, and of thy people Israel, that thou teach them the good way wherein they should walk, and give rain upon thy land, which thou hast given to thy people for an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:35-36)
- And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. (1 Kings 17:1)
- When the heaven is shut up, and there is no rain, because they have sinned against thee; yet if they pray toward this place, and confess thy name, and turn from their sin, when thou dost afflict them; Then hear thou from heaven, and forgive the sin of thy servants, and of thy people Israel, when thou hast taught them the good way, wherein they should walk; and send rain upon thy land, which thou hast given unto thy people for an inheritance. (2 Chronicles 6:26-27)
- If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locusts to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; (2 Chronicles 7:13)
- Thou, O God, didst send a plentiful rain, whereby thou didst confirm thine inheritance, when it was weary. (Psalms 68:9)
- Therefore the showers have been withholden, and there hath been no latter rain; and thou hadst a whore's forehead, thou refusedst to be ashamed.
But rain is also sent as a chastisement for disobedience by sending it out of season, such as during the harvest. (Jeremiah 3:3)
- Is it not wheat harvest to day? I will call unto the LORD, and he shall send thunder and rain; that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great, which ye have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking you a king. So Samuel called unto the LORD; and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day: and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. (1 Samuel 12:17-18)
Rain was both used as a judgment in the Noahic flood and it is held forth as a covenantal blessing of obedience. So to argue that hêrôn can’t be literal conception because this is also a blessing, just doesn’t pass Biblical muster.
Another argument for the hendiadys position is based on the fact that “’Conception,’ …, must be figurative here since there is no pain in conception”. But I find that line of argumentation somewhat circular. It’s only a valid conclusion if one first accepts (or assumes) the hendiadys position where the two terms are referring to the same thing. If the phrase is understood as two distinct entities (i.e. sorrow and conception) that will both be increased, then the fact that there is no pain in conception presents no logical bind of any sort. The judgment is not in the pain of conception but in the increase of conception. Rain is a blessing when it comes in season and in the right quantity. Rain becomes a judgment when it comes out of season or in overwhelming quantities.
This is also seen as a synecdoche representing the entire process of childrearing from conception onward, something which I do agree with. But that is a logically distinct question from the translation question of whether sorrow and conception are the compound objects of multiply or not.
Dr. Krabbendam (Professor at Covenant College) is an example of someone who rejects the NASB translation on this verse. He writes:
- After it has become evident that in the husband there is an irrepressible tendency to be irresponsible and in the wife there is an irrepressible tendency to dominate, the question may well arise why these tendencies are not contained but so often break out into the open.
Generally speaking, reference may be made to Paul's teaching on indwelling sin in Rom. 7:14-25. Paul states in this chapter that indwelling sin of the flesh is so strong that it always and by definition will prevent the regenerate heart, with its delight in the law of God, from acting obediently as long as the latter takes on indwelling sin in its own strength. More specifically, however, reference may be made to Gen. 3:16-19. God teaches in this passage that the lives of both wives and husbands are characterized by sorrow. To the woman God said, "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception." This should not be changed, as the New American Standard Version does, in "multiply your sorrow in your conception." God wishes to say that sorrow will pervade all of the life of the woman. The force of this may not be broken. Symbolic of this all-pervasive sorrow will be the sorrow of childbirth. But this latter sorrow is not the central issue.
It serves to underscore the pervasiveness of the sorrow. This is indeed apparent in the life of the woman, in the rearing of children, in doing the menial tasks, etc. To the man God said, "In sorrow you shall eat of it (the ground) all the days of your life." Symbolic of this sorrow is the sorrow of the daily labor. But again, this latter sorrow is not the central issue. It serves to accentuate the all-pervasive sorrow in the life of the man that finds its culmination point in death.
Sorrow upon sorrow in the life of both wife and husband. Who shall deny this? It is in this context that the irrepressible tendencies of both husband and wife come out into the open. The man wishes to escape his sorrow by his irresponsibility. He has had enough for the day. So he is going to read his paper. Never mind his wife, who seeks relief after having spent a long day with the children. The woman wishes to escape her sorrow by her domination. If she only had the final say, then her circumstances would change drastically. The man escapes his sorrow in his irresponsibility. At least he thinks he can. The woman escapes sorrow in her domination. At least she thinks she can.
In a later, greatly expanded edition, he writes along a similar line:
- Scripture indicates that the judicial effects of sin profoundly impact the man and the woman as well, and therefore, also the marriage relationship. These judicial effects consist of a pervasive sorrow that enters the fabric of the total existence of both the man and the woman.
God begins by addressing the woman, "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your childbirth" (Gen. 3:16). The meaning of this statement appears puzzling to many, including translators of the Bible. This is evident from the NASV and the NIV. Both change the coordinating conjunction "and" into the preposition "in," "I will . . . multiply your sorrow in your conception." This supposedly removes the seeming awkwardness of having "sorrow" and "childbirth" as a compound object of "multiply," and gives the sentence an unambiguous, straightforward and understandable meaning.
However, neither the original Hebrew, admitted by the NASV in the margin, nor any rule of grammar, syntax or semantics, when properly applied, supports such a change. On the contrary, it totally obscures a much needed, vitally important, and incisive truth from view. God informs the woman bluntly and in no uncertain terms that sorrow will be part of the warp and woof of her life. It will be her ever-present companion that cannot be dismissed or ignored. The pain of childbirth, subsequently, functions as a persuasive symbol, and a constant reminder, that the sorrow will be pervasive, inescapable and at times seemingly unbearable. This interpretation appears preferable on three counts.
First, it cannot lead to the unacceptable conclusion that a woman without children thereby would escape the judicial effect of sin.
Second, it does not allow for the implication that the judicial effect is merely a slap on the wrist in view of the relative infrequency of childbirth in the individual woman.
Third, it paves the way for the much more natural explanation of the next sentence, “In sorrow you shall bring forth children,” as not merely a repetition of what has just been said, but as a further elaboration of the reality of the sorrow symbolized in childbirth. While after all each woman experiences the symbol of sorrow as a relatively infrequent occurrence, the substance of sorrow has a prevailing presence!
The judicial effect of sorrow, in short, is not a peripheral, intermittent, problem. It has a place in the very center of a woman's life. It colors the totality of her existence. And it persists throughout her life span.
Another example of someone who does not accept the hendiadys position is John MacArther. I grant that just because experts believe something doesn’t make it right and neither am I arguing that I believe it because they do. However it does indicate that other teachers are thinking along similar lines.
In saying that increased conception is part of the curse, I am not saying that having a large number of children is a curse. Rather it is the process of conceiving and raising children which constitutes the judgment. It is a process that is attended with travail as any nursing mother who has been up all night knows. The mother who has had 5 children in 5 years, or 5 children at once (quintuplets) knows how trying the first few years are. But it passes. God works even these trials out for our good. He blesses those women who are faithful in that toil. (2 Tim 2:15). Those same mothers reap a great reward for their labor.
The blessing of a godly man according to Psalm 128 is that not only would his children be as olive plants around his table, but he would see his children’s children. An increase in conception does not necessarily translate into seeing more of your children’s children; it could simply produce a greater number of untimely deaths. Such deaths are not a blessing, although God works through such tragedies to bring good for those who love him.
Clearly, children are a blessing; a large number of children is a great blessing. But just as clearly, children, be they many or few, can also be a great sorrow if they are not raised in the fear of the Lord. For example, children who kill their parents are ultimately not a blessing to those parents. There is nothing in this world that the Lord is not able to turn to dust in the hands of those who disobey. Likewise for those who repent, he can also redeem the years the locust have eaten and bring joy from the ashes.
Lastly, I do not speak often on this point. Not only do I highly respect the opposite view and believe the Lord is graciously bringing a period of increased fertility to replenish several generations of planned barrenness, but also we usually need to be encouraged to have more children, not fewer. Our tendency in this area is to laziness and avoidance of procreation. Just like people usually don’t need to be encouraged not to work too hard, neither do they need to be encouraged not to have so many children. Those families who are temporarily overwhelmed with young children, need to be encouraged, supported, and loved. I reserve the discussion presented here for those who specifically ask or to defend those who are being rebuked for sinning in not having as many children as they could possibly have.