Polygamy and the Bible
The recent controversies over sexuality has caused a sharp division between those who hold to traditional views on sexuality and those who are sexually liberated. The sexual liberation has been becoming normalized for decades now. Long before Modern Family and Glee introduced homosexual personas on their hit TV shows, premarital sex had been totally normalized.
Before that, once-married premarital sex had been normalized. The divorce rate has been strikingly high, and those that were divorced didn’t feel the need to marry once more before being sexually active again. They had already tried the abstinence-until-marriage-thing and it didn’t work. Studies even show, it has been said, that you need to make sure you are sexually compatible with your partner before making the relationship somewhat more permanent in marriage.
These are just observations, though, and most heated debate in sexuality right now is that of homosexuality (I will get to polygamy. Promise). The language used is highly volatile (on both sides), and there is great tension. The term “Traditional Marriage” is in complete shambles because the liberal left has understood it to be vacuous for quite some time. “Traditional Marriage” has no historical referent. Let’s elaborate on this. At which point in history would one point to as the ideal traditional marriage?
I bet you have an answer, but in this diverse culture “Traditional Marriage” is understood differently based on when the tradition is located. For many conservative Americans, the tradition is not set by Adam and Eve. Rather, it is set somewhere in the 1950’s. Both referents (Adam/Eve & 1950’s) define marriage as one male and one female–but the 1950’s comes with other cultural baggage that is not found in the Christian Bible. Here is a serious problem of definition. Serious, thoughtful, conservative evangelicals will root the tradition in Adam and Eve, but unless this is clearly spelled out every time the phrase is used then “Traditional Marriage” will not translate that way. A liberal, liberal arts scholar will read “Traditional Marriage” and characterize it as a wife wearing a bonnet hoping to have the kitchen cleaned and dinner on the table before the husband comes home–you know, so the husband doesn’t have to pull out the switch. This is as opposed to what we should mean–Adam and Eve, male and female, working together under Yahweh to conquer the world.
Some Christians have caught on to the fact that the vague word “Traditional” does not translate correctly to the intended audience, and have sought to replace the term with “Biblical Marriage.” Hear! Hear! However, the response to this also shows a lack of clarity as to what Christians might mean by “Biblical Marriage.” The quick-witted rebuttal is as follows: “Biblical Marriage? Should I start pursuing multiple partners like Solomon? I’m allowed to have a harem like David? If my wife won’t do her job and reproduce, can I use my maid as a surrogate?”
After all, these are biblical characters who committed these actions. They are, only in the sense that they are in bible, partaking in biblical marriage. This retort renders the conservative Christian pretty powerless. The Christian believes the biblical marriage is a covenant union between male and female, but what is he to do with the Old Testament?
Old Testament and Polygamy
First, the sobering part. The reason Christians don’t normally have an answer for these charges (the charge that biblical marriage is not defined as one man and one woman) is because biblical narratives are not read often. Yes, yes. No one reads the Bible as much as they should. But I’m not talking about that. I’m saying that Christians generally don’t read their bible often enough to be able to interpret narratives and narratival sequences. Moreover, the Old Testament suffers more from this problem then the New Testament. Unfortunately for most, Old Testament books must be read several times (due to both its length and content). In order to see the trajectory of–let’s say, Genesis–correctly, the content of one section (say the Patriarch Abraham) must be remembered when we get to another section (Jacob’s life). The content of both must be understood when the Israelites leave Egypt and must travel around Edom. All of this seems obvious, but unless the text is read often the text won’t be understood.
Second, the majority of Americans (liberal and conservative) have a hard time understanding how narratives in literature work. This isn’t because moderns are stupid. As my friend Sean Richmond pointed out, we follow narratives very well on the television. Literature, being an active work, is harder than passively watching TV. Television is a powerful tool that can communicate a copious amount of story into our lives. The side effects have been devastating when it comes to literature, however. When we watch Breaking Bad, we come into contact with a TV series that tells us through narrative that (among other things) making and selling crystal meth has terrible consequences. The writers of Breaking Bad did not need to put a disclaimer saying “Meth is bad!” on the packaging of the early seasons where Walt & Jesse make it out alive, Walt’s cancer goes into remission, and the hospital bills are paid. The storyline as a whole tells us that dire consequences come as a result of Walt’s lifestyle.
But we have trouble reading literature. The most important, pertinent example of this is the fact that when an event is narrated in the bible (or elsewhere!), people start assuming the author signs off on what transpired. But this is clearly not the case. Romeo and Juliet’s deaths does not mean Shakespeare condones suicide. Similarly, just because Jacob marries both Rachel and Leah, it does not follow the author (Moses, and in that final sense the Holy Spirit) signs off on it being a good thing. What it means, first, is that the event recorded happened. Whatever else it tells us (whether this is good or bad, for example) must be considered by the rest of the story.
The key is recognizing that the fact Jacob was a polygamist does not necessitate that God is Okay with it. The bible’s view on polygamy is borne out by the story as a whole. Inherent to this is the fact that Yahweh does not give a moral verdict concerning every single action recorded, and sometimes Yahweh permits things due to hardness of heart (like divorce) that He doesn’t think is ideal. The bible can make arguments against things through narrative. There doesn’t have to be a verse saying “Polygamy is bad, ya know?” Presumably, you can catch the drift if you pay attention.
First, Deut. 17 actually forbids Kings from polygamous marriages. To my knowledge, there is no such law for common folk, but that’s not too crucial. Let’s take a look at the story of Genesis with a view to “Whether or not the bible represents Polygamy as good/beneficial to society or the family.”
First, God could have created mankind anyway He deemed fit. This is an important point. His charge to Adam and Eve was to have a lot of kids and subdue the earth. It might have actually been helpful to Adam and Eve to have a third, fourth, or fifth person to help bring the dominion down on all of those animals, fish, fowl, etc. However, God’s plan (at least at this point) was that one man and one woman would work together to start this project.
Second, the first polygamous marriage recorded takes place between Lamech and his two wives (Gen. 4). It is not accidental that this is the descendant of Cain who also commits murder (the second murder recorded which aligns him with Cain) and then boasts about it. Likewise, Esau–the rejected son–willingly seeks after multiple wives (Gen. 28:9), but Jacob was technically tricked into polygamy. Jacob didn’t go looking to marry both Rachel and Leah, and he doesn’t marry another afterwards. Only Esau goes forth searching for multiple wives. Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah. Jacob really wanted to marry Rachel to begin with, but now the only way to do so is to become a polygamist.
Third, every time a biblical character enters into a polygamous marriage the biblical author focuses on the dire effects and almost totally neglects to mention any good from it. Even more, the relationships tend to threaten the overall purpose of Yahweh. The son Hagar bore to Abraham, Ishmael, becomes a thorn in Israel’s side later on. Consider this part of Psalm 83
1 O God, do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
2 For behold, your enemies make an uproar;
those who hate you have raised their heads.
3 They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.
4 They say, “Come, let us wipe them out as a nation;
let the name of Israel be remembered no more!”
5 For they conspire with one accord;
against you they make a covenant—
6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites,
Moab and the Hagrites,
The action of bringing Hagar into the relationship caused considerable family strife. So much so that Sarah finally has Abraham banish Hagar into the middle of a desert (Gen 21:10).
The marital strife is painfully clear in the case of Jacob, Leah and Rachel. In order to outdo Leah in bearing children, Rachel resorts to having her servant Bilhah bear a child with Jacob on her behalf. What’s key here is that Rachel is so distressed about being outdone by the other wife she resorts to these types of practices.
Leah, because Jacob doesn’t love her as much as the other wife, vocalizes her despair through naming her children and saying things like:
Gen 29: 32 “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.”
Gen 29:33 “Because the LORD has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.”
Gen 29:34 “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.”
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. Rachel retaliates saying to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”(Gen 30:1).
Consider also this passage in Genesis 30:
14 In the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” 15 But she said to her, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” 16 When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. 17 And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18 Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar.
Examples multiply. Now ask yourself these questions: Does the bible represent this relationship as a healthy one? Does the bible insinuate that this type of relationship is desirable? Compare the information the biblical narratives relate and compare it with the modern TV series Sister Wives. If these events transpired in front of you, would you walk away feeling that Polygamous marriage is the ideal?
Flash forward to David and Solomon. David’s desire for multiple wives results in
- Having an affair with a married woman, Bathsheba, and then covering it up by killing her husband Uriah. (II Sam. 11-12:24)
- Absalom, David’s son through a political marriage/alliance, commits fratricide by killing Amnon, David’s other son (II Sam. 13:30).
- Amnon raped his half-sister. (II Sam. 13)
- Absalom performed a coup. (II Sam. 15)
- Solomon and Adonijah (different mothers) both attempt to take the throne. (I Kings 2:13ff)
- Solomon finally has Benaiah kill Adonijah. (I Kings 2:25)
Speaking of Solomon. He also had many wives. Solomon actually had more than that–he had many wives, horses, and gold. He broke all three commands found in Deut. 17. Incidentally, the multiple wives were also idolaters, but the accusation in 1 Kings 11 is that, “you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you.” The moral disapproval in Solomon’s life certainly does emphasize idolatry (not the mere fact of polygamy). That being said, the destructive results fall directly in line with all of the other evidence we have seen.
Let us take a break from all of this. Where is polygamy, and the relationships therein, shown in a good light by the biblical authors? If we take time while reading the story and consider how these polygamous relationships are worked out then it is clear Old Testament authors do not hold polygamy as the ideal.
But What About…?
Sure, questions still remain. For example, why is polygamy never specifically prohibited, but homosexuality is? We can only speculate, here. Not everything is clearly revealed. The Old Testament tends to be somewhat lax on some social institutions that are not beneficial for humanity (i.e., slavery or polygamy). But the trajectory is always towards abolition. One possible reason that polygamy was not specifically outlawed is that the creation mandate was still possible in a polygamous relationship; but not possible a priori in a homosexual one. So while polygamy was not ideal and has a great tendency to cause harm, it doesn’t have the side effect of denying God’s created order and purpose.
Ultimately, it must be seen that polygamy was not typically considered a harmonious relationship, and probably explains the lack of these kinds of relationships in the Jewish community. Ultimately, Jesus teaches that “Traditional Marriage” must be found in Genesis 1-2
Matt. 9:19 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The keywords are male, female, and two shall become one. Divorce was a grave thing and was only permitted by Moses because of hard-heartedness. Reading between the lines, we could see how polygamy might fit in, here. It isn’t the ideal, and never was. But due to hardness of heart, it was not prohibited (except in the case of the Monarchy).
One might wonder where, pragmatically, Jesus (and Paul 1 Cor. 7:2; Eph. 5:31; Leaders 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) would base his bent away from Polygamy? Clearly, it is from the Old Testament. Specifically, Genesis 1, but the rest of the Old Testament storyline had to have made an impact. Polygamy was still a thing in ancient Rome, and for Jesus and Paul to deny its primacy shows that Judaism recognized polygamy’s inadequacies.
Last, the theme of Yahweh and His bride, Israel, may have had an impact. Yahweh names national Israel as His bride, and proclaims that there isn’t another. Only Israel. Even Ezekiel’s narrative about the relationship of Yahweh and Israel in chapter 16 reflects a marriage based on Genesis chapter 1 in which Israel was unfaithful to her true husband. Israel’s uniqueness was rooted in the fact that they alone entered into a covenant union with Yahweh.
Deut. 7:6 “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Ultimately, I have tried to make a case for the Old Testament’s stance on marriage to be ideally between one man and one woman despite the patriarchal and monarchical narratives that have saints participating in polygamy. Hopefully the attempt proves successful. And if in a conversation polygamy and bible comes up, Christians need not look like child who just walked into more trouble than he expected. Many people argue that if we Christians are to follow the bible’s view on marriage then we would all be polygamists or marry for political alliances. I do not think that is the case, and I believe that there are very reasonable responses to it.