Old Testament polygamy and the sanctity of marriage

[caption id="attachment_6052" align="alignnone" width="300" caption="Polygamy takes center stage on HBO's "Big Love.""]Polygamy takes center stage on HBO's [/caption]

I'd like to take an indirect approach to talking about the sanctity of marriage. Instead of looking at Bible verses that address this hot-button topic, I want to discuss Bible verses that don't talk about it. Because frankly, they get me a little confused.

For whoever cares, my own view is that God originally created marriage and sex to be between one man and one woman. But recently I was thinking about the Old Testament, especially some of our loftiest Old Testament heroes, and wondering why they weren't a little more committed to this view — particularly the one woman part. Because many of them had multiple wives. Polygamy was more or less taken for granted from Genesis to Malachi.

Sure, cultures in different times and places differ in practices, and you shouldn't always read too much into them or apply your own cultural standards across the board. But if, as I believe, God's intent was for marriage to be shared with a single partner, and if adultery in the Ten Commandments was a forbidden deviation from that intent, then how did all those polygamists get off the hook so easily?

Look at Jacob. Not an upstanding citizen to begin with, but hardly unusual in his marital adventures. He asked Laban for his daughter, lifted her veil and declared that she was too ugly for him and wanted another daughter. (How shallow is this guy? Ever heard of inner beauty?) Laban shuffles his daughters in and out of Jacob's honeymoon suite like they were playing cards. Jacob keeps them and collects them like coats in a closet.

But polygamy wasn't just not frowned upon, sometimes it was commanded: if your brother died, you had to marry his wife, in addition to your own, and try to get her pregnant. Onan refused and suffered divine wrath. ("Onanism" is often used as a word for solo sexual activity, but I prefer the biblical definition of the term: "failing to impregnate your dead brother's wife.") Granted, this was a compassionate concession to the culture — since a widow in that culture was powerless and socially useless without a husband, it was good to make sure she had one. But the fuzzy ethics of the whole arrangement still bother me.

David had multiple wives. He got in trouble when he tried to add Bathsheba to the collection, in part, it seems, because he already had multiple wives and Uriah only had one. There's at least one Old Testament monogamist for you: Uriah. He became a martyr for monogamy. There's also the prophet Hosea, who stayed resolutely faithful to the prostitute he married. For some reason, few pastors today choose to follow his exact example.

Solomon had so many wives and concubines he could go for years without a repeat sexual partner. (He eventually got in trouble for his taste in foreign women, but only because they worshiped idols. The problem was other gods, not other girlfriends.)

Esther's big break was joining the king's harem. Ruth's big break was seducing a probably married man. Had I been around I would have tried to stop them both from such immoral acts. But I wasn't, and God's redemptive plan proceeded without objection.

The reigning explanation for all this jarring behavior is that God didn't require human society to remove all unjust social structures before intervening in a broken world: he could come in the midst of those unjust structures and work within them for the redemption from the curse of sin. Thank goodness for that! And again, who are we to judge another culture?

But that's still a lot of tolerance for polygamy — tolerance that I myself can't summon.

The New Testament also sends mixed messages about marriage. There's no more polygamy, thank goodness. But Jesus says that if you ever have to choose between discipleship and family, it's a no brainer: leave your family behind without saying goodbye. He also says that at the coming of the kingdom there will be no more marriage or giving in marriage. Paul says that his marital status — single — is spiritually the best, and wishes that every Christian could be single, but regrets that not all are strong enough. Other than Priscilla and Aquilla, I can't name any married couple from the New Testament after the time of Christ.

I'm not saying that the Bible is soft on sin. I'm not saying that the Bible is too contradictory to be authoritative. It's not. What I'm saying is that sometimes the Bible sends as mixed signals — or more likely, signals that seem mixed to us, in our limited understanding — more often than we'd probably care to admit. The Bible is a beautiful but bizarre book, and we do no one any favors when we try to pretend it isn't. We have to let the Bible be a little strange and perplexing to us — and if we don't, we're being too presumptuous about the adequacy and completeness of our own interpretations.

(Image courtesy of HBO/"Big Love.")

Comments (21)

Leave a Comment

Great post! In fact I was just reading in Leviticus about the prohibition of marrying two sisters! “While your wife is living, do not marry her sister and have sexual relations with her, for they would be rivals.” Lev 18:18. But I suppose that would have been years after Jacob’s experience with Rachael and Leah.  Yet it seems that polygamy was explicitly allowed by law “ “Suppose a man has two wives, but he loves one and not the other, and both have given him sons. And suppose the firstborn son is the son of the wife he does not love….” Deut. 21. Perhaps we can chalk it up in part to progressive revelation. Plus, it seems that “be fruitful and multiply” was a rather urgent priority to the early human race. I know in the Pauline epsitles Paul was explicit in saying that candidates for Bishops and Deacons could only have one wife.

I think marriage was still the norm in the 1st century church. In fact, bachelors Paul and Barnabas seemed to be in the minority;

“Don’t we have the right to bring a Christian wife with us as the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers do, and as Peter does? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have to work to support ourselves?” 1 Cor 9:5

Fortunately Paul distinguished very carefully in 1 Corinthians 7 between his opinion and God’s command. He enjoyed his singleness and recommended it to others as a valid option in a marriage culture by using language like; 

“I say this as a concession, not as a command. But I wish everyone were single, just as I am.”

“Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord.”

Yet Paul was realistic. “But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.” 1 Cor 5:9

I agree with the writer of Proverbs, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing And obtains favor from the LORD.” Prov 18:22

“We have to let the Bible be a little strange and perplexing to us — and if we don’t, we’re being too presumptuous about the adequacy and completeness of our own interpretations.” A big Amen.

GREAT piece!

For my current book project, I interviewed a woman in a polygamous marriage (evangelical, by the way, not Mormon). I’ve done many such interviews in an intense exploration of the hot-button phrase “biblical womanhood.” Seems everyone interprets that a little differently. :-)

I will be interested to see other people’s perspectives on this.  I Have often wondered, in a vague way, about this question myself.

Wow! I hadn’t ever really thought about polygamy in the Bible quite as thoroughly as you present it, Nathan. There seems to be a lot more than mere concession, which was my default stance. Truly a strange and complex book, our Bible.
At the very least I do think that we evangelicals make marriage, sex, family issues far more central to the Bible’s message than it really is. There’s more ambiguity than most of us assume, which means that the issues around sex and marriage we struggle with today deserve more careful and nuanced consideration than we tend to give them.

In preparing for my next Mens Mininstry meeting I came across this.  Great stuff.  I was looking for some direction in dealing with this question.  Thanks for the article.

I think you’re forgetting the key difference between marriage in the Bible and marriage today. You alluded to it when you talked about Jacob getting the wrong sister from Laban, but I think you left out the most important point: Neither Leah nor Rachel had any say in the matter. They (or rather, their virginity, their ability to have children, and their labor) were property, to be sold from their father to their husband.

When we’re talking about “traditional marriage,” we can’t dodge that point. “Traditional marriage” treats women as chattel, without rights of their own, to be sold by their fathers to their husband - never to be independent of men and never to have lives of their own. It’s a system that has as its foundation the subjugation and oppression of women by men.

That’s why I think we should reject any discourse that proclaims “traditional marriage” as an ideal; though I’ve seen few (if any) rhetors advocating that we return to the notion of women as chattel, the patriarchal underpinnings are still alive and well (in the tradition of the man asking his fiancé‘s father for her hand, or the bride’s father walking her down the aisle). Those proclaiming “traditional marriage” are also often the same people who advocate “complementarianism” to keep women away from the equality they deserve.

Put quite simply, “traditional marriage,” as found in the Bible, is a patriarchal and oppressive system - and we’ve thankfully moved away from that toward an understanding of marriage as an equal partnership between two people. I don’t see why two men or two women shouldn’t be able to share in that kind of equal partnership just the same as a man and a woman would be able to. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, there is absolutely no reasonable legal or moral argument for those who see marriage differently to advocate laws that prevent two consenting adults from marrying one another in a secular and pluralist legal system such as we have in the US.)

You have made some excellent points. I think that anyone who has really read the Bible instead of being fed the Bible would have to agree. I don’t think you are confused at all. I had never even considered the fact that both Leah and Rachel were both probably completely covered up and Jacob had not really seen them until they were married.

Maybe we need to stop pretending that there is complete and perfect consistency from the beginning of the Old Testament to 21st century Christian thinking. I asked a rabbi a question about polygamy in the Old Testament. He replied “Whatever gave you the idea that the Torah (Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy) prohibits polygamy?” Well, I couldn’t find it when I looked again. He explained that the Jewish population in Europe accepted monogamy during the middle ages as a concession to their Christian neighbors. Where did their Christian neighbors get it from? The Romans, where many of the practices of the patriarchal church came from. Jews living in North Africa, the Emirate of Cordoba, the middle east, remained polygamous, and God apparently was just fine with that.

Do I therefore advocate polygamy as a good Christian practice? No, I think there are good practical and spiritual reasons for monogamy. But it isn’t on the list of “As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be.”

Great topic Nathan. This week I preach on Luke 20:27-40 which has Jesus’ response to the Sadducees regarding their test case/fable of a woman passed among 7 dead brother. I’ll try to be more brief than my sermon will be.

1. For being such a self-professed tolerant, pluralistic culture we seem to have little capacity to own our own expectations which fuel our abhorrence for this kind of thing we find in the Bible. We have difficulties respecting ancient people’s social customs enough to do some anthropological evaluation of their practices. We quickly jump to condemnation.

2. The relationship between the Bible and its cultural contexts (there are more than 2) is a nuanced and complicated one yet one that has to be discerned if we want to hear God within our own contexts. Robert Alter makes the terrific observation that within Genesis there is a subtle polemic against primogeniture and polygamy. This polemic seems to escape many readers. The subtle manner of this polemic is itself an important point. God so often gently whispers peace to us while the consequences of our choices in this world are whipping our proverbial asses. Polygamy bore some bitter fruit.

I’m not sure your NT perspective is accurate. Polygamy doesn’t get much of a mention but my understanding is that it was still both permitted and practiced.

3. I don’t believe Jesus’ point in Luke 20 was to give us insider information about the details of the life in the age to come but to rather focus on the radical departure from our assumptions of duty, obligation, and the ways we seek to overcome the age of decay.

Marriage and sex for most of human history were about survival in ways that our culture is no longer in touch with. Stephanie Coontz’ book on the history of marriage should be required reading for evaluating marital practices of past generations.

Our individualistic culture also makes their communal, familial “cheating death through procreation strategy” seem nonsense. Many cultures today that practice veneration or prayer of sorts to dead ancestors might be able to make better sense of it. The notion is that we live through our descendents. Our inability to access this idea reveals also our presuppositional definitions of what “life” is.

4. What Jesus offers here is an alternative to the cult of family, something that is difficult to hear in our “family values” soaked evangelicalism. Family is NOT our ultimate value. Being remembered by our creator is more foundational to our rescue from the age of decay than having our children remember us or even simply carry with them our genetic code.

Polygamy is simply another mechanism by which we attempt to live forever. Nature bears witness that multiplication is a key survival strategy and the biological fact that one man can multiply himself through many women helps polygamy make sense. (Shout out to Genghis Khan here! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G… ) It also helps us realize why sons were so important to mothers. Its an amazing realization for an age that had no scientific knowledge of genetics.  Our bigotry against the ancients is regularly proved unfounded.

Anyway, great post Nathan, and a great discussion too. pvk

Several things roll through. First, would be how we understand Hosea.  Is Y***** a polygamist?  After all, Hosea does seem to be the place where God as husband enters into the covenantal mix, and with it the semi-divinization of marriage per Paul.

Second, where and how do we culturally account for the turn to monogamy?  Classicists understand this as a relatively under-studied phenomenon (See Scheidel.)  The evident pattern seems to be monogamy plus polygyny (i.e. the male has concubines, but only one wife). 

And third, there is VanderKlay’s reference to Alter.  If polygamy is the generic form of the ANE, then where does this critique arise?  What time period?  I fin d this a rather interesting opening on the dating of the formation of the Hebrew canon (hint: non-Mosaic, much later than we thnk).

Put all this together and it’s enough to make me a dispensationalist.  Maybe.

Loading More Comments


Leave a comment, Guest

You are welcome to leave a comment, guest. Please note, all comments are moderated by our staff. Your name and email address are required fields.
You are encouraged to create an account for additional benefits.

Why create an account?
* denotes required field.
Image Type: jpg, gif, or png.
Max file size: 50kb. Max dimensions: 100px by 100px.

See the latest in: