What does ‘replenish the earth’ mean?
Question: Genesis 1:28 in the King James Version (KJV) contains the expression ‘replenish the earth’. Some have used this translation to support the ‘gap theory’, also known as the ‘Ruin-Reconstruction theory’, which involves the necessity for God to re-fill the earth after a pre-Adamic race had perished as a result of a so-called ‘Lucifer’s flood’. Is this interpretation correct?
Answer: No. The word ‘replenish’ occurs seven times in the KJV: here in Genesis 1:28, again in Genesis 9:1 (both times in the imperative), and five times in three major prophets in the passive and causative forms. So does the Hebrew original in these cases really mean ‘re-fill’? But before getting into the Hebrew, we must ask why the KJV translators used the verb ‘replenish’.
- An examination of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
shows that the word was used to mean ‘fill’ from the thirteenth to the
seventeenth centuries. In no case quoted in these five centuries does it unambiguously
mean ‘re-fill’. The OED defines ‘replenish’ as having 10
meanings throughout its history:
- Replenished (adjective):
- fully stocked; provided, supplied;
- filled, pervaded;
- physically or materially filled;
- full, made full.
- To replenish:
- make full, fill, stock with, as in: ‘This man made the Newe Forest, and replenyshed it with wylde bestes’ (AD1494);
- inhabit, settle, occupy the whole of;
- fill with food, satiate;
- fill (space) with; fill (heart) with (a feeling);
- fill up again; fill up (a vacant office) (AD1632);
- become full, attain to fullness.
Note that only ‘i’ includes the idea ‘again’. This use first appears in a poem in 1612. It appears again in Pepys’ Diary, where he says: ‘buy ... to replenish the stores’. Only the year 1612 is anywhere near the date of the KJV (1611), and it’s a poetic use. The Hebrew original of Genesis 1:28 is not poetic. All other uses range from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, when it tends to die out in normal writing.
- Replenished (adjective):
The English word comes through a lot of changes from Latin pleo or repleo. There’s also the adjective plenus, ‘filled’. So we must now trace the prefix re- and see what it means.
In very old Latin it did mean ‘again’, but by the time the Bible went into Latin it had lost some of this meaning. We see this in the later French word remplir, which doesn’t mean ‘refill’, but ‘fill’. In late Latin it was re-in-plere, and re- had already lost its basic idea of ‘again’. In many other words it now meant ‘completely’ or ‘altogether’. Compare ‘research’, meaning to ‘search completely’.
We notice also that two of the meanings in history include ‘making full’. In similar English words we have this meaning: ‘refresh’ means to make fresh; ‘relax’ to make lax; ‘release’ to make loose or free. But when the KJV was translated, ‘replenish’ was just a scholarly word for ‘fill’. They almost certainly came to use it because an old word ‘plenish’ was dying out.
We have seen that Latin re- originally meant ‘again’ but then developed new overtones. Before the Bible was translated, repleo, the word that gave us ‘replenish’, normally meant just ‘fill’. Here are some examples from Latin authors:
- fill up the number of (Livy)
- what they lacked in votes they made up for in noise (Ovid)
- he filled the battlefield with men (before the battle) (Livy)
- fill veins with blood (Livy)
- filled the crowd with his speech (Virgil)
- civil law full of right knowledge (Cicero)
There’s another English word that comes from repleo. It is ‘replete’. We can say ‘I am replete’, using a politer word than ‘full up’ with food. It doesn’t mean ‘full again’.
So my understanding of the word in the KJV is that ‘replenish’ then just meant ‘fill up’, though some hundred years later it began to mean ‘refill’ when some scholars convinced people that re- should really mean ‘again’. So in 1611 it’s quite clear the translators didn’t necessarily convey anything about a second filling of the earth in Genesis 1:28.
Now as to the Hebrew word itself: it is male’, the simple verb ‘fill’. (Strong’s concordance No. 4390.) In its various forms it occurs 306 times in the Old Testament. Only seven times does the KJV translate it as ‘replenish’, but 195 times ‘fill’, ‘filled’ or ‘full’.
Other times it becomes ‘fulfil’ or has some idiomatic meaning. Quite clearly the idea of refilling is completely absent from the Hebrew. There’s no doubt on that score. So the English of the KJV is the only problem. We all know that languages change over the years. So that’s the real explanation of the misunderstanding about this verse that tells us that God commanded the first humans to fill up completely the earth He had prepared for them.
Finally, the proof is that the similar phrase in verse 22 has the translation ‘fill’ in the KJV. Here are the parallel cases
|Verse 22:||peru u - rbu u - mil’u eth hammayim|
|be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters|
|Verse 28:||peru u - rbu u - mil’u eth ha’arets|
|be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.|
Thus it appears that the change to ‘replenish’ was merely a stylish variation.
- The word translated ‘replenish’ (KJV) simply means ‘fill’ in the Hebrew.
- In the English of King James’ day, ‘replenish’ also usually meant ‘fill’, not ‘refill’.
- The word ‘replenish’ therefore cannot be used to support ideas about a previous creation, which was destroyed. In any case, such erroneous theories, invented in response to the ‘millions of years’ idea, must hold to the unbiblical notion that there was death and suffering before Adam’s sin.
- Replenish the earth: Were Adam and Eve supposed to fill the planet with their descendants—or to refill it?
- Gap theory revisited
- From the Beginning of Creation: Does Genesis have a Gap?
- Syntax and semantics in Genesis 1