What Scripture can tell us about demographics, ethics and population control
By Rebecca Linfield
It may well seem strange that a religion whose first divine command is to “be fertile and increase” (Genesis 1:28) needs a fresh look at whether it is ethical to have a large family.
But today it seems that most hold the necessary and sufficient number of children per family to be no more than two. This assumption is the product of the availability of contraceptives, as well as increasing societal expectations of parents. Couple this with the Talmudic interpretation that the commandment to “be fertile and increase” is fulfilled by having at least one boy and one girl (Yevamot 61b), and it is unsurprising that American Jewish women have on average 1.9 children. Anything larger, and that’s a mishpacha [family]!
The quintessential story in the Bible about large families – that of Jacob and his twelve sons – offers a compelling counterexample to this conception. Following the archetypes found in other parts of Genesis, there is rivalry, jealousy, dysfunction, and conflict between Jacob and his wives, between Jacob and his sons, and among the brothers themselves. But while highlighting some of the problems implicit in having large families, the text also offers a promising picture that can be translated into contemporary language.
Theologically, Genesis lauds large families. God commands his creatures on the fifth day of Creation to “be fertile and increase,” and he reiterates that same commandment to Noah (Genesis 1:22; 9:1, 7). The Joseph story is one of the only other narratives in the Bible to use this phraseology (Genesis 47:27; Exodus 1:6) – a fact which seems to give God’s approval to Jacob’s choice to have a large family. This Divine sanction is bolstered when viewed along with Pharaoh’s fear that the then-numerous Israelites would align themselves with his enemies. The dichotomy between Pharaoh as God of Egypt trying to limit the size of the Israelite families and the God of Israel commanding them to multiply underscores the narrative’s explicit support of large families.
This is not to say that all is well on an economic level. Many children constitute many mouths to feed, as Jacob and his family discover when famine hits the Ancient Near East. If not for Joseph’s sage advice to Pharaoh to store food before the famine, Jacob, his family, and all of Egypt would have died during the seven years of scarcity.
Moreover, the need for food puts Jacob and his family at the mercy of Egyptian officials. Simeon is detained in Egypt during the family’s first descent, and Benjamin is later almost incarcerated. Had Jacob had fewer children, perhaps Jacob could have waited out the famine with the resources he had. Certainly, Joseph, second-in-command to Pharaoh, goes out of his way to torment his brothers, possibly to avenge his sale into slavery, but the fact remains that even had Joseph not been in charge, Jacob would have had no choice but to bow to the whims of whatever Egyptian officials he met. Applied to family planning today, the argument can be made that there are simply not enough natural resources for people to have large families – and that having large families creates too much reliance on others’ goodwill in order to obtain those resources.
But while Jacob’s family does consume more resources than do smaller families, the clan ultimately provides those resources for itself. The brothers specifically ask Pharaoh for the land of Goshen as pasture for their sheep, a resource unavailable in Canaan due to the famine. Pharaoh grants their request, and the episode concludes with the note that Israel was “fertile and increased a lot” (Genesis 47:27), reminding the reader of God’s approval for large families at the beginning of the book. Perhaps the narrator, by subtly referencing the divine generative commandment here, argues that God will always provide for large families – and that He make sure that there are enough resources to go around.
Certainly, concerns about the environment and the allocation of scarce resources must be taken into account when considering family size. But economic concerns should not be the be-all and end-all of the conversation. And in today’s world, most people consume more than they produce – perhaps the more relevant question is whether to have children at all! But once we accept that people will have children (and we must), perhaps it is disingenuous to distinguish between the amounts of resources that one child consumes versus five.
The Jacob narrative does not offer a uniformly positive picture when it focuses on the amount of parental attention that each child receives, not to mention the results that follow. The brothers hate Joseph and ultimately sell him into slavery precisely because Jacob “loved Joseph more than all of his sons,” giving him a coat of many colors (Genesis 37:4). Jacob’s favoring of Joseph may be what leads his favorite son to share his grandiose dreams with his brothers, or gossip about them to his father, actions which certainly do not further endear Joseph to his siblings. The brothers even contemplate fratricide before Judah convinces them to compromise by selling Joseph into slavery.
However, Jacob’s favoritism and its consequences seem to be a moral note of caution in the story and not an inevitable byproduct of having too many children. Jacob partially changes his ways by the end of Genesis. While he still favors Benjamin and gives separate blessings to Joseph’s two sons, he departs from the biblical tradition of passing down his favored relationship with God to only one child, rather giving all of his sons unique blessings. Parental attention seems to be a product of the parent’s personality rather than the number of his or her children. Granted, Jacob does not bless all of his sons equally – in fact, he curses Reuben, Simeon, and Levi. But, then again, he may have a right to do so: Reuben has slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, and Simeon and Levi spearheaded the campaign to wipe out the city of Shechem, putting Jacob in a politically precarious position.
The Joseph story highlights another benefit of large families – the capacity of siblings to support each other through thick and thin. This skill might be learned only as a result of insufficient parental attention (as was the case with Joseph and his brothers), but this phenomenon can also be attributed to the closeness that comes from growing up with many other people, with older siblings assuming responsibility for the younger ones. By the end of Genesis, the brothers have learned to rely on each other. Judah, who previously sold Joseph into slavery, now fiercely protects his brother Benjamin, taking responsibility for him when Jacob hesitates to send them both on a second trip to Egypt. When Joseph threatens to imprison Benjamin, Judah volunteers to go in his stead. And ultimately, Joseph saves his family from starvation. So strong is Jacob’s family model that the twelve brothers go on to found the twelve tribes of Israel. By the time the whole family finally moves to Egypt permanently, the brothers have started their own families: “all the persons in the house of Jacob coming to Egypt were seventy” (Genesis 46:27).
What of the act of parenting itself? On one level, a parent can derive pleasure from one child, much as he can from fifteen. On a deeper level, however, having a large family may subsume all other identities of the parent. Once Jacob has a family, the narrative mentions him only in association with it. Jacob works fourteen years for Laban only in order to marry Rachel and Leah; he wrestles with an angel for the sake of protecting his family’s property; and, finally, he sends his sons down to Egypt with the objective of obtaining sustenance for his family.
But the focus on Jacob’s familial duties may reflect a narrative desire to emphasize his role as one of the Patriarchs. In contrast, the narrative is keenly interested in Joseph’s adventures in Egypt. The narrative devotes verses upon verses to Joseph’s enslavement in the house of Potiphar, his interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams, his ascension in Pharaoh’s court, and his plans to save Egypt and the Ancient Near East from famine. The narrator only mentions Joseph’s family as a side note in the middle of these events (Genesis 41:50-52). The contrast between the narrative descriptions of Jacob and Joseph reveals that the role of parenthood in one’s life can seem more or less obscure to third parties. In the modern family, each set of parents might work out to mutual satisfaction what role each parent will take in the family – but those roles could appear as arbitrary or unfair to the outsider.
The Joseph narrative can be seen as giving theological, economic, and emotional approval of the choice to have a large family. The possibility remains, however, that Jacob would have been a better father and provider, and his children more loving of each other, had he had fewer children. The choice to have a large family remains contingent upon parental personalities and economic circumstances.
Ultimately, what the Jacob story emphasizes are the values we cherish about family life in general, values that perhaps come to the forefront in a large family. For me, as the oldest of seven, being in a large family has taught me the value of sharing, the interplay between personal boundaries and shared commitments, and resilience. May the thoughts in this essay help advance discussion around the Shabbat table, where all points of view are encouraged, in families of any size.
 National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01 Report.