Polygamy — A Biblical Review
Another Christian apologetic issue …
My Twitter exchange on this topic went like this:
Me — Adam and Eve were only two of the billions of diverse people that God has created. If they were married then any two people coming together are married. God never seems to have a problem with polygamy in the Bible! God’s current creation is God’s best.
Respondent — God never seems to have a problem with polygamy in the Bible? Can you name a polygamous situation in the Bible that was a blessing or led to a special blessing? Does God bless polygamy anywhere?
Me — Many key Bible figures had polygamous relationships 🙏 The Bible is like a polygamy textbook!
Respondent — No. The Bible shows man’s sin. The Bible reveals God’s holiness. Where is there a beneficial polygamous relationship in the Bible?
Me — Polygamy isn’t sin, according to the Hebrew Scriptures 🙏 The Bible shows lots of difficult and problematic things, very few people come out well, just Daniel and Job I think.
It’s time to explore this properly — What does the Scripture say? As they say.
In the first creation account (Genesis 1) God creates human beings, we are not told how many of them or anything about their relationship status, they are just a group of human beings (plenty of room for Adam and Steve!), not properly formed (literary) characters. Anything could have happened next and we don’t know what it was, this particular story comes to an end on ‘the sixth day’.
Someone decided to tell this last part of the story again, an early expression of reimagining/reinventing. In this alternative version God gets their hands dirty and makes a single human being. It becomes clear to God, or the author, that this is insufficient/incomplete (good storytelling) and creates another being ‘from man’ (woman, ‘ishah’ in Hebrew, of course in reality, biologically, man is created from a female template, hence nipples, etc). It is also a trans-story, solely male is transitioned into the sole female.
The author/editor gives a commentary (origin story) after the man’s celebration of trans-partnership/transitioning — ‘bone from my bones, flesh from my flesh! She shall be called female version of “man” (wo-man, ishah). This commentary is thousands of years later than the apparent setting of this story, it is obviously not a contemporaneous reflection, nor a Divine comment. It is rooted in particular societal observation. It is possibly to say that this has (implicitly) a monogamous message, but it is a stretch, especially as we are just about to read a book that is full of polygamous relationships …
A quick note about names — the man calls his wife ‘Eve’ at the end of chapter 3 and he himself is referred to as ‘Adam’, he is never given a name by his wife or God, at the end of chapter 4. Both are archetypal names — ‘life/living’ and ‘earth’.
‘God’ in this story, a literary character as much as any other, offers some relationship observations (origin stories of cursing, or ‘texts of terror’) in chapter 3, it is a tricky and mean narrative. Painful childbirth (painful does not cover it!) is a biological reality resulting from an evolved erect physical configuration. I wonder when people first began to see it all as an unfair set-up? Of course, this is in the best traditions of storytelling. And then people want to use it to develop theological doctrine, it’s no surprise how that often ends badly or that it has been at the hands of men, until liberated (saved or redeemed) by feminist and queer commentators. Thank God!
God’s origin story curses would be an opportunity to make or confirm a monagamous marital model for humanity, or the religious community within which these stories evolved, but it doesn’t happen. God could have condemned polygamy as the lifestyle of the surrounding cultures, which would then have been contradicted by the rest of the book. The curses are largely concerned with physical reality, yet the only part which deals with human relationships — ‘you will desire your husband, but he will be your master’ — leaves the door open to polygamy, he is the master, it is up to him.
It can easily be argued, by implication, that none of the writers/editors cared about polygamy in the slightest, as no wives are even mentioned in the genealogy of chapter 5. It’s a strange genealogy that has no mention of mothers in it …
Noah (chapter 6 onwards) has one wife, though she is not an actual character, as with many Biblical women, no name, no dialogue, no actions, though I suppose she does well to be mentioned by God, even if she receives no blessing (Genesis 9.1), or covenant (9.8, 9).
It is the key figure of Abram who has the first named wife, outside the outcast genealogy of Cain, since Adam (11.29). He is also the first positive (‘righteous’) character to get married or, in the violent expression, ‘take’ a wife, women did not have consent or agency. Abram is, however, the first polygamist (apart from Lamech in 4.19, one of Cain’s descendants), the inventor of polygamy within the faithful community. This is prompted by Sarai’s ‘barrenness’ (11.30, a man’s word if there ever was one). Abram reminds God very pointedly of this some time (15.2, 3) after God’s extravagant promise of descendants in Genesis 12 — ‘you have given me no children.’ God doesn’t help matters, in this tricky male-centred narrative, by saying, ‘your heir will be a child of your own body’ (15.4). Of course women didn’t even have agency in producing offspring …
Sarai is rightly fed up with all this (she does have agency after all) and with Abram’s disappointment, correctly diagnosing the problem — ‘The LORD has not let me have a child’ (16.2). She gives him, or he takes, Hagar and the polygamous journey begins. Unfortunately, he is a half-hearted polygamist and does not protect Hagar, Sarai mistreats her and she escapes to the wilderness, which actually guarantees meeting God, or the devil … Sadly, God, via the angel, is not that bothered, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to ill-treatment at her hands’ (16.9). More male narrative …
Does God blame Abram for being a polygamist? After Ishmael is born, at the end of chapter 16, we read what God says to Abram, ‘Live always in my presence and be blameless’ (17.1). God forgets about Hagar, Ishmael and any supposed ‘sin’ of polygamy until Abraham reminds God — ‘If only Ishmael might enjoy your special favour!’ (17.18). One of the great lines of the Bible. God perhaps reluctantly, and as an afterthought, after some distraction, does agree to bless Ishmael — ‘I have blessed him and I shall make him fruitful. I shall give him many descendants’ (17.20). For me, this is sufficient to show that polygamy is not condemned and that it resulted in blessings.
One of Leah’s sons was Judah, the ancestor of king David, another blessing of polygamy. There is truly no blessing without polygamy!
However, there is more — Jacob is tricked into marrying two wives, who were sisters (marrying sisters is actually condemned by the Mosaic law), see 29.23–28. Following the example of his grandfather Abraham’s domestic arrangements, both of his two wives give him their slave-girls as two additional wives. The text, or God, passes no comment on any of this and the blessing is in the twelve sons/twelve tribes of Israel. There is truly no blessing without polygamy! Jacob’s intended first wife — Rachel — initially had no children (29.31), because God favoured the wife, Leah, who Jacob actually married first through trickery. One of Leah’s sons was Judah, the ancestor of king David, another blessing of polygamy. In fact God favours all of the polygamous wives, Rachel has to wait years until she gives birth to Joseph.