Old Testament polygamy and the sanctity of marriage

Nathan Bierma

January 7, 2011

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.

Rachel Held Evans
January 7, 2011

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. :-)

January 7, 2011

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

January 8, 2011

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.

January 8, 2011

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.

January 8, 2011

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.)

Richard Vasquez
January 8, 2011

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.

January 8, 2011

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."

January 8, 2011

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

January 8, 2011

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.

January 8, 2011

To me, the Bible is contradictory but I'm not as smart as you all.

Offhand, I can't think of any of the patriarchs whom I would want for a father. Joseph and Mary would be good parents.

Brooklyn Cravens
January 9, 2011

Epic post, Nathan.

I think often-times we try to figure out every detail of logic behind the Bible, and if we don't we feel mislead and doubtful of truth. But the real truth is that we will never truly fathom God here on Earth (Isaiah 55:8), and it is kinda dumb for us to think we can 100% figure out His Word to a tea. Of course, the best things we can do is ask questions. Asking them like places here, and most importantly, asking them to our Heavenly Dad in prayer is what we should do in times of confusion.

I'm glad that you don't submit yourself to the idea of tolerance in our culture. So many Americans and Christians alike view tolerance and love in the same category, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Personally, I think the best brief viewpoint on polygamy in the OT goes back to the subjugation of women had they not found a husband. As you referenced, most ended up as prostitutes or homeless, and I think God allowed multiple wives, as Jesus said, "because of the hardness of your hearts," (Matthew 19:8). He knew the sinfulness of men would treat women this way given the popular practice in the ancient Middle East, so as God usually does He used it for His good (Genesis 50:20).

Oh, and I think you forgot to mention the NT couple Ananias and Sapphira. We all know what happened to them, though...

Thanks again, Nathan!

Brooklyn Cravens
January 9, 2011

The reason men still ask the fiance's father, etc., is because, "traditional" in your sense or not, God still views men as the leader of the household with an extra burden of responsibility (Did not God ask for Adam first when he and Eve sinned? Also see 1 Timothy 3:4-5). Does that mean husband and wife are not equal? Of course not. 1 Corinthians 7 negates that hierarchical view altogether.

Also, I think people (like myself) still have a hard time consenting these plural marriages because, even though our culture is becoming quite secular with each generation, you still can't avoid the fact that our country was founded on Biblical principles. Also, Christians still want to dedicate America to God. Is that such a bad thing? Of course this results in conflicts as other peoples want to dedicate it to themselves or whatever they believe, but I think that's the logic behind it.

January 9, 2011

These two statements are incompatible.

God still views men as the leader of the household with an extra burden of responsibility

Does that mean husband and wife are not equal? Of course not.

If one gender is granted leadership over the other by God, as you interpret the Bible to say, then the two genders cannot be equal. That is the lie of complementarianism - that the genders are equal except in any situation where that equality might actually have any concrete effects. "The genders are equal," except that men get to "lead" and women are relegated to non-leadership support roles. That's not equality in any real sense, and to call it equality is to insult all of our intelligence by expecting us to take a lie seriously.

No. The genders are equal, period. Marriage is a partnership of equals, period. The church should be led by people of both genders, period. The man is not "viewed by God" as the leader over the woman, nor the woman as leader over the man; they are completely equal and both equally entitled to leadership in the home, in the church, and in the world. Any other viewpoint is oppressive.

January 10, 2011

Great Paul. Sums up many feelings I have had about marriage culture. Thanks.

January 10, 2011

"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. "

Interesting religion you've concocted here. Is there another book rather than the Bible that we should be reading as well?

January 10, 2011

It's more that I'm recommending that we read the Bible's statements about marriage in the same context as we'd read the Bible's statements about slavery - as "marriage" in the contexts in which the Bible was written is more akin to slavery (one man selling a woman's life, body, and labor to another man) than it is to the freely-chosen partnership between two adults that we understand marriage to be today.

Brooklyn Cravens
January 10, 2011

I provided some Scripture as evidence to what I was saying. I can post plenty more, but before I do, I would like to see your Scriptural evidence for your side.

Considering the two sentences you claim to be "incompatible" were derived from Scripture, I am eager to await your reply.

January 10, 2011

So in other words the only "rule" is free adult consent. Do you see this as a universal rule, something we should use to evaluate previous epochs?

John Allan
January 10, 2011

Interesting point - obviously the way that Judaism has historically interpreted the OT guidelines for marriage should help us understand what OT expectations actually were. The story seems a bit more complicated, though, than your rabbi suggested - judging by these accounts:


January 11, 2011

Great post Nathan. One consistent message I see in the levitical laws and old testament stories about gender and marriage is this: God seems very interested in looking out for people who are vulnerable, like widows and unmarried women. As a woman, I'm glad to live in a culture where a husband is not necessary for me to meet my physical needs, but it leads me to wonder who are the vulnerable now that we should care for.

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