Monday, October 19, 2009

Polygamy: The Bible as a Cautionary Tale

Polygamists have always been able to muster good biblical evidence for their lifestyle, much to the consternation of many Christian monogamists. In addition to the striking absence of any prohibition of polygamy or any positive command for monogamy, polygamists rally to their cause the great figures of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. One is left to wonder if Christians have any grounds for an ethical prohibition of polygamy, if monogamy really is ordained as the exclusive form of marriage. Nevertheless, a brief analysis of the relevant texts should prove more than adequate to demonstrate that even the Bible sees polygamy as an inferior marital system.

Abraham, the father of all patriarchs, is possibly the most notable example and consequently the one turned to most often. Yet, recalling the story, it is remembered that Sarah only gives Hagar to Abraham out of desperation and necessity for the procreation of children. (Note that the actor in this situation is the wife, thrusting the second wife on the husband.) As soon as this necessity passed, as soon as Sarah had a legitimate heir of her own womb, the bigamous marriage became the number one source for tension in the marriage. Sarah turns violently on Hagar and her son, demanding that Abraham exile them both – a command not so unreasonable in Sarah’s mind given her role as the instigator in the marriage. Abraham’s great precedent as a polygamist involves his wife compelling him to take a second wife and then later rescinding that order and driving the second wife away. His polygamy is little more than the capitulation to the frantic whims of his wife.

Two generations later, another of the greatest figures in Jewish history, the namesake for the nation will become a bigamist. How can this be held up as an example? Jacob’s intention all along is to marry only Rachel. He only marries Leah as a result of Laban’s trickery, and is forced to work an additionally seven years before he can marry the woman he truly desires. What’s more, the tumultuous tale of Jacob’s children is predicated on the dysfunctionality of his marriages. Just as Rachel had been favored (if such a weak word may be used to describe how one might feel if he was tricked into marrying the unattractive sister of the girl he loved) so too were her children. The marriage that should have been and the children that should have been receive the love that should be given to one’s children, prompting the disaffected children to perform the most despicable act contrary to fraternity since Cain killed Abel. This is the family dynamic the Bible depicts for polygamy.

Very little is said about the wives of David except the manner by which he acquires them. Michal, the king’s daughter, is the prize of a particularly gruesome attempt by Saul to trick David into his own death. Abigail comes to be David’s wife after her secret rendezvous with David gives her first husband a heart attack. In the meantime, David has been estranged from Michal who was married off to another man. Later, David will demand her back from her husband who loves her enough to follow her on the road weeping at his loss only so that he may condemn her to a life of conjugal exile.

The example of Solomon should never be used as a defense for polygamy, and for my part I have never seen it employed such. Just because it paints the practice in a bad light, however, is no reason to exclude it from the discussion. Chapter 11 of 1 Kings begins “Now King Solomon love many foreign women…” What sounds at first like a list of sexual conquests that would put to shame even the most imaginative boys in high school locker rooms is in fact the basis for Solomon’s personal apostasy, the division of the nation, and ultimately the exile of God’s people. Solomon is reported to have more than outdone Joseph Smith having married 700 wives and 300 concubines (which, if you think about it, is more than enough women to have a different ménage á trios every night for well over a year). The text very bluntly states “his wives turned his heart away.” Certainly it was not the multiplicity alone that did it but the diversity. Nevertheless, the divided loyalties so prominent in the Jacob cycle have been extrapolated to their extreme level here: Solomon’s most important loyalties are ultimately divided as a product of his polygamous relationship.

There are others of course. The story of Elkanah leaps to mind, with one of his wives (described in the text as the other’s “rival”) brutalizing the other on account of her barrenness. What’s more, there are certainly positive supports for monogamy, such as the exclusivity of the archetypal marriage. After all, just as God didn’t make Adam and Steve, God didn’t make Adam and Eve and Lucinda. Thus, while the lack of direct prescriptive statements in the text about polygamy might prevent some (myself included) from classifying the practice as totally impermissible, the biblical exemplars for polygamy are less exemplary. It can be safely asserted that the ideal biblical view of marriage at all times (yes even in the times of the Patriarchs) is a monogamous one.

No comments:

Post a Comment