Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Is polygamy acceptable or not?

The question of whether a man may take a second (or third...) wife is arising more frequently in our culture. Islam teaches a man may have up to 4 wives at a time. The Bible has multiple examples of polygamous relationships. Yet throughout Christendom since early in its inception the propriety of monogamy has been taught.

The question is actually quite a complex one. So I will first make the case for monogamy followed by the case for polygamy.

When asked about divorce Jesus points to creation (Mat 19). His reference to God making man and woman is foundational to all questions of marriage and relationship.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)
and
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” ...So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen 2:18,21-25)
Jesus specifically quotes that God made male and female, that the man is to leave his parents and that they are to be one flesh. There is much that can be taken from these passages in Genesis.
  1. Marriage is instituted by God
  2. Marriage is to be between a male and a female
  3. Marriage is to be between 2 people
  4. Marriage addresses the problem of being alone
  5. God made the man before the woman (leadership, 1Ti 2:13)
  6. God made the woman from the man's side (joint dominion, Gen 1)
  7. The nuclear family is primary, and the marriage covenant supersedes filial bonds
  8. Marriage is permanent
  9. Becoming one flesh through coitus is part of marriage
  10. Becoming united in relationship is fundamental to marriage
Jesus emphasises 1, 2, 7, 8, and 10.

For our purposes here we see that marriage is between 2 people which argues that monogamy is the antelapsarian situation. Polygamy is only potentially permissible for fallen man.

The first mention of polygamy is that of Lamech. It is incidental to the narrative. Lamech kills a man and pronounces vengeance for himself. He does so in the pattern of God protecting Cain. Cain rightly feared for his life as he had murdered his brother. God put a mark or sign on Cain to let men know that God would take vengeance seven-fold if they killed Cain. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, in his pride claimed vengeance 77-fold were any man to kill him for murdering another. It is mentioned that Lamech had 2 wives. It is difficult to make much of this other than noting that Lamech was otherwise a wicked man.

There are several examples of multiple wives throughout Scripture. It is often claimed that these are universally negative examples which point to polygamy being a bad institution. Some of the examples are indeed negative but it is not clear that they all are. Moreover, negative examples may be more likely to be identified because of strife. Nevertheless, the stories of Sarah and Hagar, of Rachel and Leah, of Peninnah and Hannah, warrant careful consideration.

Polygamists mentioned in Scripture include: Abijah, Abraham, Ahab, Ahasuerus, Ashur, Belshazzar, Benhadad, Caleb, David, Eliphaz, Elkanah, Esau, Ezra, Gideon, Jacob, Jehoiachin, Jehoram, Jerahmeel, Joash, Lamech, Machir, Manasseh, Mered, Moses, Nahor, Rehoboam, Saul, Shaharaim, Simeon, Solomon, Zedekiah.

Additional to the implications of the creation narrative, we have God warning kings against multiplying wives excessively (Deu 17:17). Solomon being the paragon who both disregarded this command to an extreme measure, and who was drawn away after several foreign gods just as was warned.

Polygamy therefore was never intended to exist before the Fall and has had negative implications on many occasions. Even so, the Bible does not treat it universally as wrong. It is not necessarily immoral.

God commands the Levirate marriage which may entail taking a second wife (his brother's widow). The Mosaic Law has provision for second wives. And God told David that he would have given him more (2Sa 12:8); this may have included more wives. However God still said that David's adultery with Bathsheba was obscene. David's situation should give our own culture pause: we who would condemn a polygamist more than an adulterer.

The Levirate marriage is mentioned in the Mosiac Law although it antedates the Law: note the case of Tamar. The Law states,
If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband's brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. (Deu 25:)
Here the levirate marriage is commanded of a brother if his sister-in-law becomes a childless widow. That is, a man is told that the right thing to do in such a situation is to take a second wife. The reason being to provide children to his brother's widow and they will be counted as his brother's offspring. So the principle one can derive from this passage is that taking a second wife can, in at least one situation, be an act of mercy. It is the right thing to do. It is important to note that this situation may arise in a fallen world, but was not relevant in the antelapsian world.

Monogamy was God's design when he created the world. It fallen world, polygamous relationships may be  merciful.

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