Issue #604 -------
January 17, 2014
Polygamy may well be held in dread,
Not only as a sin, but as a bore.
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), better known to us today as "Mark Twain," once quipped that it is clear the Lord does not approve of the practice of polygamy for Jesus declared in Matthew 6:24, "No man can serve two masters." Yet, as most who have studied the Bible know, it is filled with examples of polygamous relationships, even among some of the giants of faith. This has posed a problem, in the minds of many, of seemingly insurmountable proportions. How does one reconcile the Christian doctrine of monogamy with the clear biblical practice of polygamy? As one might imagine, this has led those critical of the Bible to condemn it as grossly inconsistent. Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), known for his adamant support of scientific and humanistic rationalism, and often quoted by atheists, wrote, "If the Pentateuch is inspired, the civilization of our day is a mistake and crime. ... Polygamy ought to be practiced; Men and women should be stoned to death for laboring on the seventh day. 'Mediums,' such as have familiar spirits, should be burned with fire. Every vestige of mental liberty should be destroyed, and reason's holy torch extinguished" [Some Mistakes of Moses]. All of this has left many disciples today confused as to what the "divine disposition" truly is with respect to this matter. Over the years a number of people have asked what I think about it, including this recent email from a reader in Arkansas: "Bro. Maxey, I am so thankful for you and all the study you have done, and we pray for you often. Through your Reflections, you have been a great source of knowledge and encouragement for my family and me. We have been looking at polygamy in the Bible recently, and I would greatly enjoy seeing your thoughts on this topic, as I regard you very highly."
Before we delve too deeply into this study, however, we should clarify some terms. The word "Polygamy" is a general term derived from the Greek, and is a combination of a couple of words signifying multiple spouses, a state which may be expressed in a number of varying forms. This general concept is rendered somewhat more gender specific by the terms: (1) "Polygyny" = one man and two or more wives, and (2) "Polyandry" = one woman and two or more husbands. We also, even in the media today, hear about "sister wives," which is a reference to what is known as "Sororal Polygyny" = one man marrying sisters. This practice was not uncommon among certain Native American tribes, and the concept was somewhat "spiritualized" among certain religious movements (some 19th century Mormons, for example) as the wives, though not physically related, were regarded as "sisters in the faith." Polygamy, in its various forms, is abhorrent to most within our society here in the USA, but globally it is not viewed similarly by about a third of the world's inhabitants, especially in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East (although in actual practice, the percentage of polygamist to monogamist marriages is still rather small). As one who has a deep interest in the study of the peoples and cultures of the world (majoring in Psychology & Theology, and minoring in Sociology at the university I attended, and then doing additional graduate work in both for my Master's Degree), it would be easy for me to spend the bulk of this article exploring this topic in light of these fields. However, we need to limit our examination to the Scriptures, seeking to know God's will in the matter as best we can.
It is my firm conviction that "the marital ideal was laid down in Genesis 2:24," and that "the Genesis dictum established monogamy as a working principle for mankind" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 901]. This passage reads: "A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Notice the use throughout of the singular form! It doesn't say he will be united to his wives, but to his wife. The willfulness of man would express itself negatively in a number of ways over the ensuing years (plural marriages, perverse unions between those of the same sex, unions with other species, and separation of unions, with all manner of attempts at rationalizing these departures). Yet, when questioned about some of these human departures from the divine intention, Jesus placed man's focus back where it belonged by quoting Gen. 2:24 (Matt. 19:4-6), and then declaring, with respect to these departures, "It was not this way from the beginning" (vs. 8). The longer mankind lives outside the parameters of God's original intent, the more these departures define him. Jesus calls us back to the beginning: to the original intent of our Creator, which was one man for one woman for life. That is the ideal. Yes, the Lord realizes that we, as frail, flawed beings, frequently fall short of the ideal, and throughout the Scriptures we find Him dealing with these departures (with varying degrees of severity, or lack thereof, depending on the circumstances), yet always calling us back to His original design.
It is also true that although God dealt rather harshly at times (at least from man's point of view) with these departures from His design, there are clearly times when He tended to overlook those departures, even allowing them in some circumstances. It is this supposed "inconsistency" in the divine interaction with mankind that has troubled some disciples. For example, Jesus said, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard, but it was not this way from the beginning" (Matt. 19:8). Simply because God "allowed" something, does not thereby mean God "approved" of it. Indeed, many of the laws given to/by Moses were designed to lessen the effects of godless behavior. The fact that such laws were given by God does not suggest an approval of the behaviors that necessitated them; indeed, just the opposite is implied. Some have argued, for example, that Deut. 21:15-17, in which God provides compassionate legislation protecting the less-loved wife of a man who has more than one spouse, and the offspring of this less-loved wife, implies God's approval of polygamous relationships. That assumes too much, just as laws designed to provide compensation to victims of crimes in no way suggests society condones the criminal behaviors that generate the need for such laws. Another example would be slavery. In the Law of Moses one can find legislation designed to protect slaves from heartless masters, but are we to assume from this that God approves of slavery? Such "reasoning" is not rational.
Although we discover early on in the OT writings, as noted above, that God's original intent was monogamy, it does not take long to find examples of those who departed from this divine design. The first named polygamist in the Bible is mentioned in Gen. 4:19 -- "Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah." Later, we read: "Lamech said to his wives, 'Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words'" (vs. 23), which just goes to show, one wit wrote, that if you're married to more than one woman you'll never get a word in edgewise! The Ryrie Study Bible, by the way, refers to this text as "the first recorded violation of God's pattern of monogamy." Dr. John T. Willis observes, "This stands in bold contrast to the description of the first marriage, according to which God created one woman for the man (Gen. 2:22-24), whereas theoretically God could have created any number that He thought it best for Adam to have" [The Living Word Commentary on the OT: Genesis, p. 156].
There are a number of notable men in the OT writings who had multiple wives. Abraham had Sarah, Hagar (Gen. 16:3), Keturah (Gen. 25:1), and a number of concubines by which he also had children (Gen. 25:6). Jacob had four wives: Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:28), Bilhah (Gen. 30:4) and Zilpah (Gen. 30:9). Moses had two wives: Zipporah (Ex. 2:21; 18:1f) and an unnamed Cushite woman (Num. 12:1). Gideon "had many wives" (Judges 8:30), and David had at least five named wives: Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah and Bathsheba, although we are informed he "took more wives and concubines" (2 Sam. 5:13). Then, of course, who could forget Solomon and his 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Perhaps one of the most interesting laws with respect to multiple spouses is the Law of Levirate Marriage, an apparent example of which Jesus was questioned about in Matt. 22:23f (cf. Mark 12:18f; Luke 20:27f). I did a study of this encounter with the Sadducees in Reflections #441, and the following excerpt from that study may prove helpful here:
The challenge they posed to Jesus was of a woman who had the unfortunate experience of outliving seven husbands, all of whom happened to be brothers. "Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him" (Matt. 22:24). This was known among the people of Israel as the Law of Levirate Marriage. This was not unique to the Israelites, but was truly "a cross-cultural phenomenon whereby the nearest kinsman of a man who dies without sons marries his widow" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 803]. This rather unusual law is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6 -- "If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband's brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel." The strange account of Judah, Tamar and Onan clearly demonstrates that this law predated the time of Moses (see: Genesis 38:6-11). Thus, Jesus, and the crowds surrounding Him that day, would have been quite familiar with the theology behind the question of the Sadducees. They would have understood that the primary purpose of this law was "to provide the deceased man with a son to inherit his property and thereby establish his 'name' (i.e., his lineage, his memory). A secondary purpose of the levirate law may have been to provide the deceased's wife with the economic security and social status of marriage and children" [ibid]. This word "levirate," by the way, is derived from the Latin word "levir," which means "brother-in-law" or "husband's brother." Also, "within the Mishnah the first tractate (Yabamot, 'sisters-in-law') of the third order (Nashim, 'women') covers the subject of levirate marriage with considerable detail" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 150].
It should probably be noted at this juncture that this law was not rigidly enforced among the Israelites. In fact, even in God's Law there was a provision for its circumvention. This can be found in Deut. 25:7-10. If a deceased man's brother did not want to marry his sister-in-law, and have a child by her for his dead brother, he had the option of refusing. However, the widow was not without recourse. She could file a complaint against him at the city gate with the elders of the people. The man would be brought before the elders and encouraged to fulfill his duty. If he persisted in his refusal, however, the widow "shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, 'This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line.' That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled" (vs. 9-10). Therefore, this man and his family would be shamed, and even potentially shunned, because of his unwillingness to fulfill his obligation to his deceased brother. "The OT gives no actual case of levirate marriage, although levirate law stands behind the account in Ruth 1:11-13; 4:1-22." It's very probable that "in Jesus' day the law was little observed: the younger brother's right to decline taking precedence over his obligation" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 461]. There are additionally hints of the principle of this law perceived in Numbers 27:1-11.
The practice of polygamy began to be harshly criticized, and thus began to decline, among the people of Israel during the Intertestamental Period. As the NT era began, and as the Christian faith spread, polygamy was viewed with increasing disfavor, and practiced less and less. The people were called to recapture the original divine design for marriage: one man for one woman for life. Although God had permitted polygamy (and even regulated it with law) for various reasons, it was never His ideal. Like His relationship with Israel, and Christ's relationship with the church, a man was to be a "one woman man" (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) and a woman was to be a "one man woman" (1 Tim. 5:9). Although this was stated specifically with respect to church leaders (elders and deacons) in the first instance, and widows being considered for church assistance in the second instance, it nevertheless reflects the ideal of God for His people, which should be the goal of all. Again, the divine design is a loving, faithful, monogamous relationship. As Jesus states: this is the way it was meant to be from the very beginning, the many diversions and departures of man (some of which necessitated the giving of law to mitigate) notwithstanding.
In the 2000 years since the beginning of the Christian era, virtually all peoples who have embraced Christianity have promoted monogamy and prohibited polygamy. Yes, there have been some notable exceptions in a few sects, but most have perceived the original intent of our Creator to be one man for one woman for life. Tertullian (160-225 A.D.) observed, "We do not indeed forbid the union of man and woman, blest by God as the seminary of the human race, and devised for the replenishment of the earth and the furnishing of the world and therefore permitted, yet singly. For Adam was the one husband of Eve, and Eve his one wife, one woman, one rib." Basil of Caesarea (329-379 A.D.) refused to even call polygamous unions "marriage," referring to them instead as "a moderate fornication." Although the long course of human history, with its many digressions from the divine design, can be perturbing and disturbing, there is little doubt as to the nature of our God's original intent with respect to marriage, and no human evolution of or devolution from that ideal will ever prove as fulfilling as His provision of one woman for one man for life.
A GREAT NEW BOOK -- I would like to highly recommend a new book by two dear friends: Dr. Bill Van Dyke and Max Ray. I've known both men for some time, and both have been Reflections readers for years. This book is titled "Give Me Liberty: Restoring the Spirit of Jubilee" and is available at Amazon.Com and also on Kindle. You NEED to read it. They "examine the mission of Christ as viewed from the fulfillment of Jubilee and how legalism robs the church community of the joy Jubilee brings. These brethren speak plainly about the restoration plea and how the mission of being just Christians has morphed into a denomination that has splintered many times over. They deal with these issues from experience."
From a Reader in California:
Height and depth are obviously opposite directions in the same dimension. The reason Paul uses both is because (in English, anyway, and I'd guess probably also in Greek) we just don't have a single word for the up-and-down dimension. If we talk about the height of a building, we are measuring from the ground, not from the basement. If, in New Orleans, we talk about the depth of the Mississippi River, we are measuring from the surface, not from the elevation of Bemidji, Minnesota. I just can't think of any clever way to express height and depth in one word, whether common or erudite. That, I'm sure, was Paul's complete reason for using four words of extent. Nothing Einsteinian.
From a Minister in New Mexico:
It seems to me that breadth and length and depth and height technically identify only three dimensions, since depth is down and height is up along the same axis, although such an expression might well have a different connotation in the 21st century than it did in the 1st century. Perhaps the apostle Paul was simply attempting to describe the incomprehensible extent of God's love.
From a Reader in Michigan:
As always, your article "Four Dimension Comprehension" was thought-provoking and challenging. I like that! I think Paul was speaking three-dimensionally, but trying to make sure you picture yourself immersed in it rather than on the edge. Thus, length and breadth (width) are easy enough to understand, while height and depth places you as the observer right in the middle of it, with just as much above as below you. The fourth dimension (time) becomes irrelevant in eternity.
Perhaps a much better title for my last article, and certainly more technically correct, would have been: "Four Direction Reflection." I appreciate the clarification and insights of these readers. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in West Virginia:
The discussion of "markers" and "points in time" along a Space-Time Continuum, and whether or not they are relevant to baptism as the moment we are saved, always draws a lot of comment. As I have begun again my yearly read through the Bible, I am now up to the plagues used by God in preparation for the departure of His people from Egypt. I have read of Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Pharaoh. What was the "marker," the "point in time," etc. that each of the patriarchs were considered righteous? Was Abram not considered righteous before he raised the knife over his son?! What was the defining moment in Isaac's or Jacob's life? In each case, God knew their hearts -- even before they did. Likewise, God knew the heart of Pharaoh. He also knew the heart of Nebuchadnezzar, and each of the other individuals enumerated in the OT. Why do we have trouble understanding this today?! God has always known men's hearts, and yet has always called upon them for a visible faith/repentance response. Kingdom life is eternal: i.e., not limited or defined by Space-Time (calendars or clocks, markers or points-in-time). Bless you, brother. I appreciate your ministry!
From a Reader in Georgia:
I surely hope that the dozen or so people who bother to read Olan Hick's emails will also read what you have actually written before making a judgment. Stir it up, brother! People are being set free from the legalism that has enchained them!
From a Reader in Canada:
I just read the comment from the University Professor in Tennessee in the readers' section of your last Reflections (where he talked about his concern with "a guy named Steven Rudd who lives in Canada," and who "has taken to teaching about the 'evils' of psychiatry, saying that mental illness is really just 'sin' or 'sinful behaviors'"). Bro. Al, this Steve Rudd is a nut, and should be barred from even owning a pencil, much less posting anything he writes on the Internet. He is more of a "fruit cake" than the stuff I had at Christmas. If you are ever lacking material for your Reflections, Al, I would encourage you to go to his web site (www.bible.ca). That will give you more ridiculous material than you could cover in two lifetimes. This man is a huge distraction to the growth of the church here, and a threat to the salvation of anyone who buys into his trash.
From a Reader in Canada:
When it comes to mental health issues, I wonder where ignorance ends and stupidity begins! It's really not a laughing matter when sincere believers suffer because they avoid available medical assistance from mental health professionals because they are deceived by the ignorant/stupid statements of church leaders like Steven Rudd and Given Blakely (in the Christian Church).
From a Reader in Tennessee:
It has been some time since I have written, however you are always in my prayers. I just read your article from August, 2013 titled "The Definitive Church Exam: Will Your Church Pass and be Saved?" (Reflections #583). Everything you wrote there is so true! Sad, but true! I had a discussion with a dear friend over the holidays about this very topic. I love her dearly, but she is so narrow-minded. She keeps talking about "unity," yet the misuse of this term within the Church of Christ is mind-boggling! I tried to explain to her the difference between "unity" and "uniformity," but to her there is no difference. She truly believes that if all the "Churches of Christ" in the world are not doing everything her little 40-member congregation is doing, and in exactly the same way, then they are going to Hell. I have another friend who believes almost exactly the same way. To her, if you use any other translation but the KJV, you are going to Hell. In fact, her congregation has been known to run people off if they bring to the building any translation other than the KJV. Bro. Al, I have been where they are, but studying with you for the past 12+ years has been such a blessing for my family and me. I thank God every day for you, and others like you! May God give you a long and healthy life, so that you may increase other's knowledge of His will.
If you would like to be added to or removed from this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: