Posted by: mattcolvin | July 12, 2011

David Daube on the Alleged Duty of Procreation


In light of the recent NY Times article on Sam and Bethany Torode (Open Embrace, 2002) and their volte-face on contraception, I thought it might be helpful to share a few quotation from an article by David Daube, The Duty of Procreation. In it, he points out that it was not the Bible but Plato who insisted that all sex be procreative; and that Aristotle and many Roman writers and legislators (e.g. Augustus) grounded the same command on the duty of a citizen to furnish productive workers and soldiers for the State. I think the political leanings of most “Quiverfull” advocates would cause them to bridle at that rationale.

Most importantly, with his legal mind Daube lays out in brief a proper way of looking at what the Bible says about procreation:

Scripture contains no trace of the duty; nor, it may be observed, is it evidenced anywhere in the ancient Near East. To be sure, both in the Old Testament and in the New, children are a boon, childlessness is a misfortune: the Lucan Elisabeth, pregnant after many years of barrenness, expresses her relief in the same words as Rachel in Genesis. But this implies no obligation. Biblical writers find it great to have an ample supply of wine, sound hearing and regular teeth (well, a woman at least would be admired for them) and rough to reside in an area struck by famine. It does not follow that you ought to keep a cellar, visit the ear specialist and dentist or move to where there is enough to eat. Normally, you will in fact do your best toward those desirable ends, including procreation — which, however, is very different from having to act. If you do not, that is your choice; you are committing no wrong whatsoever.

The exponents of the orthodox doctrine could not, of course, admit this: they need a Scriptural basis, so they do invoke a number of passages. However, these are not only pitifully few, considering the enormous importance of the matter, but also, if looked at with detachment, far from providing the requisite support.

The story of Onan — just like the Deuteronomic law dealing with the refusal to enter into a levitate union — does bring out an exceptional situation where you must do your best to produce offspring: where it is not for yourself but in your deceased brother’s behalf. It is a blessing to have one’s name carried on by subsequent generations and, given certain conditions, a surviving brother is to help the dead one to enjoy it. To infer from this a basic obligation to procreate is fallacious. Had Onan begotten a child for the deceased and then practiced coitus interruptus, with the widow and ten more women, forgoing the perpetuation of his own name, he would have incurred no reproach. There is nothing strange in this. It is in the very nature of a boon that, while as far as your own person is concerned, you are free to take it or leave it, you must not withhold it from others. (Emphasis mine. -MC) A sufficiency of food or a donkey in good shape is a pleasant thing to have. Yet there is no injunction in the Bible against starving myself should I be so minded or against saying good riddance if my own ass break down; indeed I may shoot it even when it is in perfect condition and sell its hide or make a bonfire with it. But — note the analogy to Onan’s case — Biblical law does call on me to allow a corner of my field to be harvested by the poor and to help up another man’s ass that has fallen.

Thus Daube. How to apply this principle is another question, especially between a husband and wife. (What if one spouse wants more children and the other doesn’t?) It is not my place to make that application for anyone else.

Some readers will probably be surprised at Daube’s statement that “there is no injunction in the Bible against starving myself should I be so minded.” Isn’t suicide wrong? Daube has written other articles on that topic, but in brief, his answer is that the prohibition is not found in Scripture but is, like the duty to procreate, a creation of later tradition.


Responses

  1. Hi Matt,

    Have you changed your position on this or am I just misremembering? I remember you being firmly in the anti-contraception “quiverfull” camp several years ago.

    John

    • Yes, I changed my opinion.


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