Thursday, November 02, 2006

Neither shall he multiply wives to himself (Ex. 21:10ff, polygamy)

Okay, slavery out of the way, now I'll touch on the subject of polygamy. The first and foremost thing to say about polygamy is actually something that apparently needs to be said repeatedly about a number of moral issues in the Bible. To wit, just because the Bible tells a story about someone who did a thing, that does not imply endorsement of the thing that was done. Out of the twenty verses on the "Yes" side of the page linked to above, that eliminates fourteen of the verses right out. Yes, the Bible features many people who had more than one wife. I think I am allowed to say that Bill Clinton was overall a very good president without implying that I in any way condone either his affair with Monica Lewinsky or his subsequent lying to the American people about that affair, can't I?

Still, I'm left with six verses on the "Yes" side to deal with. Some of them I have already commented on briefly in the past, saying that they're really in the wrong column. The passages from Titus and 1Timothy that talk about a "bishop" being "husband of one wife" are making the point that the most spiritually mature people will avoid polygamy. (Many modern churches also interpret this to mean that divorced people should not be pastors.) The verse from Matthew is a cultural misunderstanding, as these "ten virgins" are not brides, but bridesmaids. They're waiting for him not to marry him, but to escort him back to where the wedding feast is being held.

That leaves me with three to explain on the "Yes" side, and at this point, I'll make a statement that may surprise some: I don't believe that polygamy is a sin. While the verses on the "No" side are applicable to polygamy, many of them are really talking more about the sanctity of marriage and the hurt that is caused by divorce. More pointedly, none of them come right out and say, "Thou shalt not have more than one wife." I think polygamy, like divorce, is an institution that the Bible allows, but never really gives approval for. In a perfect relationship, a man would find himself one and only one wife, and he would marry her and stay married to her until one of the two of them dies. However, we don't live in a perfect world, and men are slime. Boo.

Well, among those three remaining verses, I think there are two categories. The excerpt from 2Samuel is more of a statement of fact than an endorsement. David had multiple wives, some of which he had got from Saul, the previous king. I don't know for sure, but it may be possible that rather than David marrying the wives of Saul, this refers to him marrying the daughters of Saul, which he definitely did. The matter of polygamy still stands, though, and in this case, it's an important one. In Deuteronomy, God set up some rules for the future monarchy, and among those rules was the rule that the king shall not "multiply wives". While this may mean that he should not have an excessive amount of wives rather than an outright ban on polygamy, David had probably somewhere around a dozen wives, and of course his son Solomon was famous for having 700 wives and 300 concubines, so I think both of them--but certainly the latter--qualify as having excess here. (Actually, David and Solomon disobeyed a lot of those rules for kings, if you read through them; and it became their downfall, really.)

The remaining two verses come the closest to endorsing polygamy in the Bible, but I think they need to be looked at in full rather than in the part that are quoted on the polygamy page.

"If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." -Exodus 21:10

"If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated: Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn: But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his." -Deuteronomy 21:15-17

While these two verses allow for polygamy, the main point of both is a provocative one. God is saying to the men of Israel that they are only allowed to take another wife if they can keep themselves from playing favorites. Consider in particular the phrase "her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." I could be wrong, but I think God is saying that if you have sex with your wife four times a week, that doesn't mean getting a second wife means you can sleep with each one twice a week; you need to keep your first wife's, ahem, "duty of marriage" at the same level. 'Nuff said.

This presents an interesting challenge to the would-be polygamist. Can you not only treat all your wives the same, but keep treating your first wife just as good as you did when she was your only wife? That's a tall order! I'm going to take a tangent into the Quran for a moment, and call your attention to this page. Although I have done it on the SAB forums a couple times, this will be my first time here in the blog: I'm going to defend the Quran in this matter. Note that the first verse is a conditional! A friend of mine, who is not a Muslim (or a Christian, but apparently is as much interested in religion as I am if not more) tells me that some Muslims, and in particular the laws of the country of Morocco, take this apparent contradiction to be an implicit ban on polygamy!

Statement: You may have a second wife if you can treat both your wives fairly and equally.
Statement: It is not possible for a man to treat two wives fairly and equally.
Conclusion: You may not have a second wife.

Getting back to the Bible, by similar logic it is concluded by many that while the Bible does not explicitly state that polygamy is a sin, it is implied by the Bible that anything other than a lifelong monogamous commitment between one man and one woman is less than God's ideal, and will lead to heartache.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I don't believe that polygamy is a sin." The problem with the bible is that different people have different beliefs about what it says.

Brucker said...

Is that a problem with the Bible, or a problem with us? I don't ask that question rhetorically, either; I'm curious what you think about it. Isn't it a fact of life in the way language, intelligence, and communication work that the transfer of information between two beings is always limited? Sure, some people have insisted that a book written by God should transcend this tendancy (and maybe you yourself are trying to assert that position), but how do we know this is so?

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Solomon was famous for having 300 wives and 700 concubines...".

Really?

I thought it was the other way around - 700 wives / 300 concubines.

You know, like it sez in the Bibo.

Simple factual errors like this do seem to undermine one's credibility and authority, don't you think?

Brucker said...

You're correct, I got it backwards. I'm not sure how much one needs to worry about undermining one's credibility through small errors. They're easy enough to fix, aren't that vital (the point is that Solomon was a polygamist, the number doesn't matter so much), and I've personally never claimed to be a difinitive authority on anything of importance anyway.

almargheim said...

Hi. I think your analysis of the Bible's position on polygamy is very well done. Please consider these four points:

Point 1:
Deut 17:16 in the NASB says: "Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself," Note that the wording of version 16 is exactly the same wording in verse 17.
If Deut 17:17 means the King is not to have more than one wife, then does 17:16 mean the King is not to have more than one horse?

Point 2.
The meaning of Deut 17:17 is more clear in The New International Version, the English Standard Version, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. They all say
essentially the same thing: the King must not acquire many wifes for himself. Therefore Deut 17:17 does not prohibit the King from taking multiple wives.

Point 3.
You have stated elsewhere that the Bible does not approve of polygamy.
I refer you to 2 Samuel 12:8. The New International Version, the English Standard Version, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible all agree in their translation of what God says to David in this passage:
that God gave Saul's wives into David's arms. It appears that Because God gave Saul's wives to
David, God gave tacit approval to David's polygamy.

Point 4.
You have stated elsewhere:
"I was told by a pastor once that you will find no example of a polygamist in the Bible that didn't have trouble come about from his polygamy, and from what I have read, it's true."
I refer you to Judges 8:29, which says that Jerub-Baal (Gideon) had many wives. As far as I can tell, the Bible does not record that Gideon suffered any trouble from his polygamy.

Brucker said...

You make some good points. In general, let me reiterate what I said, that I don't believe polygamy is a sin. In specific, let me address your points one by one.

#1: I didn't claim that Deut. 17:17 is an outright ban on polygamy, but rather a matter of reasonable limitation. Even if you allow for polygamy to be legally and morally allowed, it seems to me that there is a point where you've gone beyond being a polygamist and you're in the realm of being a showoff. Where is that line? I don't know, but I feel pretty confident that Solomon was well beyond it.

And furthermore, the same thing goes for horses anyway. How many horses does a person really need? Unless you're a person whose profession requires the use of multiple horses, (which I don't think being king qualifies) more than one or two per member of your household is just ostentatiousness.

#2: Okay, so? I agree.

#3: I think that passage has a lot more to do with punishment for Saul than reward for David, but you may have something there.

#4: I'm talking more big picture. Gideon was not recorded to have been personally harmed by his polygamy, but did you read Judges chapter 9? Gideon's son Abimelech killed about 70 of his half-brothers. Not exactly a happy family. All throughout the Bible, you see a lot more strife between men who are half-brothers than full brothers.

Karla Elisa said...

I for one am disturbed by God's claim that he 'gave' Saul's wives to David. To make it worse, for me anyhow, is God saying 'if you'd wanted MORE all you had to do was say so'. This is GOD openly handing women over to somebody as if they were no more than livestock. I truly don't know what to do with this.

Brucker said...

I'm largely with you on that one in many ways. Culturally, David lived in a time when women had very few individual rights, and yes, women were treated with just slightly more respect than livestock by many people.

However, from the point of view of someone who views God as sovereign over all things, there is nothing that should worry one about the use of the verb "gave". I believe that even here in the modern time in which we live, God "gave" my wife to me. This is not at all sexist, as God also "gave" me to her. To a theist, everything is a gift from God, even the people in our lives.

Anonymous said...

In both the Old Testament and the New, it is clear that God's ideal plan for man is one husband, one wife - both say that the man and woman should cleave together and the two become one flesh. Polygamy doesn't fit that.

Brucker said...

Why not? If two can become one, why not three or four or whatever? I'm certainly not going to endorse polygamy, but I honestly don't see the Bible ever explicitly saying "no".

Anonymous said...

I agree with you on almost all accounts. I don't think the Bible explicitly says that polygamy is a sin. In Jacob's case it was, because he married two sisters (Gen. 29:21-26, Lev. 18:18). Same with Solomon, for marrying an excessive number of women (Deut. 17:17).

I like to think of it the following way:
Most people would probably not be able to follow this lifestyle, just as most people would not be able to remain single without lusting (although Paul says that if one is able, it's better to remain single. 1 Cor. 7:8-9). Both choosing to remain single and choosing to marry are acceptable in God's eyes (1 Cor. 7:36-38). Likewise, I think it's reasonable to infer that having multiple wives is better than having one and committing adultery.

Brucker said...

Thanks for your comment. Rereading this old post, I'm wondering why I didn't take time within it to point out some specifics pertaining to troubles that Biblical polygamists had.

While it was Sarah's idea that Abraham take Hagar as a concubine, she ends up hating Hagar, Hagar's son Ishmael, and even Abraham for the whole thing.

In the case of Jacob, the most prominent thing to note is the baby wars that his two wives had, dragging in their maids to be used as concubines and further complicate things. Rachel, who was Jacob's favorite wife, ended up dying in childbirth, and after she died, Reuben, firstborn of Leah, slept with Bilhah, the concubine who was having children on Rachel's behalf, most likely as a final attack in the baby wars to establish a final win for his mother.

But getting back to your comment, the second part in particular, you may have a point there, although I think most people would disagree with such an interpretation, and indeed, I doubt that that was what Paul was suggesting, but, yeah. It might be better to be a polygamist (assuming all parties involved are approving) than to be tempted into an affair. In our culture today, however, I doubt there are many people who would condone such a thing, especially the first wife.

I probably mentioned it somewhere in one of my blogs, but years ago I had a friend who was an Egyptian Muslim, and he told me and a number of other people that he was considering getting a second wife. The thing that was particularly interesting to me was that he told us that he was going to have his first wife choose a second wife for him; he figured that way there was greater chance of them all getting along. Culture is a fascinating thing, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Well the more I read the better I feel to whom ever wrote
This article well done I grew up with a christian mother and a catholic father and have seen bad on both sides the fence ..since marrying my husband 5 years ago ive gone through many changes (coming into my own ) trying to figure out what is right for myself and my family while considering my husbands feeling (which are he needs /wants no one but me ...But I keep coming back to God made man to multiply have children I have given my husband 4 children (2 sets if twins ) which 3 are sons ....he works away from home about 4 months out the year and im always left to think about whats our place in this world and as much as I love my marriage and my family the more I read on polygamy the more I believe this is right I know I look at my husband and think he should have an army of sons hes such a strong man and I respect him soo much ..his views arent quiet the same his only fear (I just dont want a divorce I love you too much ) I have been talking to him about another wife and he made it clear I would choose her and that if I had any issues it would end it ...I do love him soo much he is the best husband I could ever ask for I just kno we have an awesome marriage our communication is amazing and I believe a second wife would allow him to have the children that I think he deserves as god intended ......

Anonymous said...

To the last comment n June 2013. Wow! Uummm why don't u just keep having kids like the duggards.
On topic though. I have wrestled with this issue for years. Evidently ppl really never married for LOVE until just recently. Say the last 50-60 years. And apparently kings married to increase or make alliances with other kingdoms so it wasn't a relationship thing. So I'm wondering if Abba allowed this Sin so to speak because it wasn't a relationship thing. My conscience tells me thou shalt have NO other wife/wives before me!! Sharing is NOT an option. Think I will pray about this one more. And Christians want to rip on LDS ppl haha! Book of Mormon does not approve multiple wives. But D&C does. More confusion added to the pot..lol

Brucker said...

To Anon from June: Not sure why I didn't get back to your comment, perhaps it confused me, as I've never heard of a wife wanting her husband to get a second wife. I don't know what the legal status may be wherever you live, but it sounds like your husband isn't interested in such an arrangement anyway, so I'm not sure why you'd push it.

To Anon from January: You've touched on a topic I'd recently been considering writing on for my other blog, namely that societal and moral standards change over time, and we can have a tendency to assume that modern standards are just the way things have always been. People talk about defending "traditional" marriage and miss the fact that until very recently it was common for marriage to be something like owning a female slave, and you did it for practical reasons rather than romance. Life is strange.

Yes, marriage for royalty was often about international relations, and even can be so today. Your suggestion that it may have been allowed for such reason in the royalty (if that's what you're suggesting) seems lacking as God seemed to frown on marrying foreigners in general, as your wife might encourage you to turn to a foreign god.

In matters where the Bible seems to have a grey area, depending on your conscience is usually your best bet. My conscience also tells me sharing is not an option, so I'm with you on that, I've just chosen not to judge people whose conscience may tell them otherwise.

BTW, what's "D&C"?

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion.

There are two bible concepts that apply here – add-to (ya-saph) and multiply-to (ra-bah). Rachel bore Joseph and said “the LORD shall add to me another son” (Gen 30:24). Having children is adding, one at a time. God told Adam to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22). If a couple has two children, they are only replacing themselves and the population does not grow. If there is war, disease or accidents, it takes three or four children per couple just to maintain the population. God said to multiply, not just add-to. The limitation on the number of children is for women, not men. War, accident and childhood disease take more boys than girls, leaving a constant surplus of women in the world. The only way mankind can multiply is for men to take more wives. Some cite God’s rule for a king not to “multiply wives to himself” (Deut 17:17), but this rule doesn’t mean monogamy at all. Kings could add-to, but not multiply-to, their wives. When does add-to become multiply-to? The bible does not say, but Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines surely qualify as multiply-to.

David said...

Monogamy changes the dynamic of the marriage. Marriage is a power struggle, as the curse on Eve predicted “… your desire shall be to [rule over] your husband but he shall rule over you.” Monogamy allows the woman to control sex in the marriage, and thus control her husband. In a polygamous society, most men still have only one wife but the man can always take another and this option limits the power of the woman. The wife must strive to satisfy her man, to discourage additional wives. When monogamy is enforced, men are forbidden from seeking sex except from the single wife and power shifts to the woman. This shift is limited as long as the wife is required to obey her husband, but monogamy plus abolition equals feminism. Today, the wife has virtually all the power in a marriage.

David said...

The word polygamy refers to a marriage which has many of one sex but only one of the other. A marriage with many men and one woman is called polyandry while a marriage with many women and one man is called polygyny. Biblically, polyandry is adultery while polygyny is not.

Why the difference? A simple example will show the natural preference.

Take a hypothetical deserted island. Imagine, on the island, ten women and one man. At the end of a year there will most likely be ten babies. The population has almost doubled, from eleven to twenty-one, and every child knows its father and its mother. Alternatively, if there are ten men and one woman on the island, at the end of a year there will be only one baby. The population has only increased from eleven to twelve, if the men have not killed each other fighting over the woman, and the child knows not its father. Polygyny is clearly natural and desirable while polyandry is not.

David said...

What about the Bible? Paul teaches that church leaders should be “husband of one wife” indicating the rule was for clergy, not the laity. If monogamy were the rule, everyone would have no wife or one wife and Paul would instead just say church leaders should be married. Saying “one wife” indicates multiple wives were common.

God created Adam and Eve, one man and one woman. Jewish tradition holds that Adam had 33 sons and 23 daughters (Josephus – although it is unclear how they know). By necessity, Adam’s sons took Adam’s daughters, their sisters, to wife, just as Abram took Sarai. Adam’s sons may also have taken nieces or their even their own daughters. It is almost inconceivable for Eve to bear 56 children, probably a low number since Adam lived 930 years. Women stop child-bearing after a few years, men do not. It is more likely Adam took his own (grand)daughters just as his sons did.

Brucker said...

"If there is war, disease or accidents, it takes three or four children per couple just to maintain the population."

I think such problems are only truly pronounced in small societies or when wars are particularly devastating. I think you'll find that the world is doing a very good job of maintaining its population.

"This shift is limited as long as the wife is required to obey her husband, but monogamy plus abolition equals feminism."

As a feminist myself, I'm not sure I like the implications you're making. I believe that power within a marriage should be balanced, and what you seem to be suggesting is that it's preferable for the man to have all the power, period.

"Polygyny is clearly natural and desirable while polyandry is not."

Once again, as a feminist I'm going to have to disagree. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, as is said.

"Saying 'one wife' indicates multiple wives were common."

I think you're right about that.

"It is almost inconceivable for Eve to bear 56 children, probably a low number since Adam lived 930 years."

Think about what you just said. Isn't it almost inconceivable that Adam should live 930 years? If lives in antediluvian times were so expanded, why not windows of fertility for women? If Adam lived 930 years--about ten times what people today can expect-- then why might not Eve have had childbearing years well into her 500s? While Adam's sons would have had to often marry their own sisters, I find myself imagining that if no sister was available, then marrying a niece would be preferable to marrying a daughter, but maybe that's just me.

David said...

If you want to be a feminist, be by guest, but feminism and Christianity are not compatible. God set up the rules that men are supposed to be in charge in a marriage. Go argue with God.

Rules for marrying nieces or daughters did not come for another 2500 years after Creation. Eve was essentially Adam's identical twin sister (same DNA from the rib). No doubt Adam's DNA was perfect thus marrying a sister or daughter did not pose a problem with reinforcing a DNA flaw. No so after the Flood.

We must judge ancients by the ethics of their time, not by ours.

I grew up hearing "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" from my mother. The problem is, that saying is against Biblical teaching. Sort this out for yourself, feminism or God. You can't have both. Mankind is the bride of God. Is man equal to God?

David said...

"If there is war, disease or accidents, it takes three or four children per couple just to maintain the population."

I think such problems are only truly pronounced in small societies or when wars are particularly devastating. I think you'll find that the world is doing a very good job of maintaining its population.

"This shift is limited as long as the wife is required to obey her husband, but monogamy plus abolition equals feminism."


We will have to disagree here. Western society is starting to implode due to lack of progeny. Poorer peoples, such as Mexicans, are literally out-breeding Americans, or Muslims outbreeding Europeans. There may be over-population problems in India or China, but in Western society, we have under-population problems. Westerners are literally dying out for lack of children. Add to that, we kill millions of babies each year, hastening our demise.

This is nothing new. Poorer societies have always out-produced richer societies leading to collapse and the rise of new societies. This was an enormous problem in Rome.

David said...

Consider in particular the phrase "her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish." I could be wrong, but I think God is saying that if you have sex with your wife four times a week, that doesn't mean getting a second wife means you can sleep with each one twice a week; you need to keep your first wife's, ahem, "duty of marriage" at the same level. 'Nuff said.

What planet do you live on - four times each and every week? No way! Besides, the bible says don't touch your wife for two weeks after she starts her period. (Lev 15) Besides, the rule is not to be equal in everything, just in food, covering and sex.

Me personally... I can't keep up with one wife, why would I want more? But, that's just me. It shouldn't be a rule.

Brucker said...

"Sort this out for yourself, feminism or God. You can't have both. Mankind is the bride of God. Is man equal to God?"

You make a good point, but I guess I just feel that the extreme that you're suggesting seems heartless. The church is the bride of Christ, but if the church is not 100% pleasing to Christ, does he correct it, or go off and get a new bride?

"We will have to disagree here. Western society is starting to implode due to lack of progeny."

We will have to disagree as to how much of a problem that is. I don't see societies as being in a breeding competition. I live in California, and there are a lot of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, and the only concern I have about their birth rate is whether they are taking good care of their children, which I believe they are.

"Add to that, we kill millions of babies each year, hastening our demise."

Abortion is an important issue, but the effect it's having on population growth is, in my opinion, the least important aspect of it by far.

As you said, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree; you're more than welcome to your opinions, but I don't think you're going to convince me of them.

David said...

Yew we will agree to disagree.

You make a good point, but I guess I just feel that the extreme that you're suggesting seems heartless. The church is the bride of Christ, but if the church is not 100% pleasing to Christ, does he correct it, or go off and get a new bride?

Christ tries to correct His bride, just as a husband should try to correct, gently, firmly and in love. Notice the bible tells wives to obey their husbands, but never tells husbands to force the issue. Does Christ leave His bride and go find another? Isn't that exactly what Christ did? He left the Jews and took on new brides, the Gentile Churches.

Brucker said...

Somehow I knew you were going to say that. I don't think you've convinced me, but you've pretty well won the debate, because I can't think of anything further to say.