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Polygamy in the Bible: A sordid tale

From The Briefing:

I saw an excellent interview on Australia’s Channel 7 Sunrise program recently. Christian leaders were being asked about their opposition to proposals to redefine marriage, and were discussing the Bible’s view of marriage. At one point, the interviewer asked a question which is often brought up in these contexts: Doesn’t the Old Testament condone polygamy? There was, of course, a question behind the question: Since the Old Testament says polygamy is OK, why should we listen to it on any moral issue?

Why did this interviewer think the Old Testament condones polygamy? Clearly he’s expressing a common point of view. Where has it come from? I reckon it stems from the fact that a lot of people in our world don’t really know what the Bible is about. A large number of people (maybe as a result of ineffectual communication by Christian teachers) think the Bible–and especially the Old Testament–is just a list of moral commandments, along with some stories to give us examples of how to be good. So when they do get around to reading the Old Testament, they read it with this moralistic framework in mind. And they find quite a few stories where the lead character is a polygamist. Furthermore, they don’t find any explicit commands that say “Thou shalt not commit polygamy”. So, since they are assuming that the Old Testament is just a book of moral commandments and morality tales, they conclude that the Bible says polygamy is OK.

The problem, of course, is that the Bible–even the Old Testament–is not really a book of commandments and morality tales. The Bible does of course contain commandments, and lots of narratives. But hardly any of the narratives are about morally upright heroes who keep God’s commandments. Most of the narratives are about God’s actions and plans to save immoral human beings. Most of the human characters in Bible stories (even some of the most faithful ones) are morally dubious at best; in fact, many of their activities are downright sordid. You’re not supposed to read these stories as direct examples for your own life; you’re meant to read them to understand God’s actions in the midst of a tragic human history.

It is true that the stories will also teach us something about God’s moral order. But we don’t usually discover this moral order simply by reading the stories as if they were straightforward examples to emulate today. Like many good stories, the Bible’s stories can communicate deep moral truths without needing to resort to explicit commandments. Indeed, stories are often more morally powerful when there is no explicit moralising. Think of a movie like Schindler’s List, a powerful story telling us about one of the darkest moments in Western history. Now imagine, at the end of the movie, as you’ve been hit with the human horror of the holocaust, just before the credits, a commandment comes up on the screen: “The director would like to point out (in case you missed it) that you should not be racist.” Not only would this be unnecessary, it would destroy the power of the story.

Something similar happens when it comes to the Bible and polygamy. Sure, the narrators never pause to say, “Oh by the way, please, don’t be a polygamist.” But why should they? The stories make the point all by themselves. As Peter Jensen–one of the interviewees in the TV segment I linked to above–pointed out, stories about polygamy in the Bible, time after time, result in disaster. Off the top of my head, here are some of the stories about polygamy in the Bible:

  • The first polygamist, Lamech, calls a family conference so he can boast about his inordinate vengeful violence. He’s clearly not a nice man (Gen 4:19-24).
  • Jacob has two wives and two concubines, a situation which creates family heartbreak, envy and, ultimately, attempted murder (Gen 29-37).
  • Gideon has many wives and many sons (Judges 8:30). This results in civil war and wholesale slaughter in Israel (Judges 9).
  • David has a seemingly insatiable appetite for women. He has many wives (2 Sam 5:13), and in the end steals another man’s wife and murders him (2 Sam 11-12). The resulting, big family was not a happy one: they ended up committing incestuous rape (2 Sam 13) and rebellion which almost destroyed David’s kingdom (2 Sam 14ff).
  • Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. They led his heart away from the Lord, and led to the break-up of his kingdom (1 Kings 11:3-4).

The stories tell the story all by themselves, don’t they? Polygamy, according to the Bible, is a disaster.

Furthermore, there are other pretty clear indications in the Bible that polygamy is wrong. The Bible begins with an explicit affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman (Gen 1-2), an affirmation which is later confirmed by Jesus himself (Matt 19:4-6). There are, furthermore, laws limiting some of the worst effects of polygamy (Deut 21:15-17). And then, in the New Testament, Paul’s command to Timothy that church leaders must be, alongside exemplars of other moral virtues, “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2, 12; cf. 1 Tim 5:9) implies that polygamy is not a desirable thing.

And that’s why, in most modern Western societies (which still draw much of their moral understanding from biblical principles) polygamy is illegal. Christians might, with sadness, admit that polygamy exists in certain parts of the world. We might even, at times, seek to help those in polygamous relationships to make the best of a bad thing, to limit the suffering. But we don’t condone polygamy. In this, we’re following the Bible’s teaching. Sure, the Bible accepts that polygamy (like divorce) is one of the realities of a sinful world, and seeks to regulate it to some extent. But that all needs to be understood within the bigger picture of the Bible’s story: God’s salvation of a sinful humanity through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Within this story, polygamy isn’t an example to be emulated. Rather, it’s an example of the many bad things Jesus rescues us from.


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