October 30, 2011

Hard Sayings XXII: Did God Allow Polygamy?

There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. 1 Samuel 1:1-2

In view of the original law for humanity-one husband and one wife…could polygamy ever be considered right? A quick glance at the Old Testament would lead many to believe so. Let's look at it closer, shall we?

We may deal first with the case of Elkanah. Monogamy was absolutely the divinely appointed rule. The Bible in Genesis 2:24 said that “man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The word is wife or 'ishshah or woman in singular form. It does not say wives (plural). Where the Bible speaks of quantity and gender in historical narrative it rarely ever does so metaphorically or figuratively unless noted. Historical narrative by its nature is reciting historical event(s) that actually took place therefore it most often speaks literally. Everywhere we see multiple wives or polygamy we see issue and problems arise. Of particular note we see Abraham with Sarah and Hagar and the serious headache that ensues from Abraham’s lack of faith and stupidity.

Of course we see most humans rarely obey God’s statutes and they end up paying the price. Inevitably circumstances arose in which a modification of the rule seemed advisable not due to God but because of the stubbornness of man and the grace of God. The land of Canaan had been allotted to families, and it was regarded as supremely important the land should never be alienated from the family. The keeping of the property depended on a man's having a son born to him as his heir. If a man married, and his wife bare no children, he was placed in a most fretful position, and relief was found for him in permission to take a second wife. Such a custom we find in Sarah's giving Hagar to Abraham, and in the procedure of the Levirate law. The family of Zelophehad was placed in great difficulty because the children were all daughters, and a special law had to be passed for their relief, permitting them to inherit. Hannah was the first wife of Elkanah, and only when it was made plain that she was to have no children did he take the second wife who evidently occupied quite clearly a secondary and subordinate position, and is a kind of Hagar in relation to Sarah.

We need to go back even farther to find polygamy’s origin though. If we go all the way back to Lamech we see a new floodgate of evil is opened as Lamech begins polygamy. One wife had been created for Adam and up to Lamech that had been the rule; but Lamech the "wildman" sees fit takes two, and so doing introduces a practice that more than any other taints society where it prevails.

"Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah" Genesis 4:19

It is not surprising that it would originate in the race of Cain. The Law permitted polygamy because the Israelites were a “stiff-necked” people. God nor the Law approved of it and even kings were forbidden to have many wives. In hindsight we see the horrendous damage polygamy and sexual immorality does to David and Solomon. Mosaic Law aimed at qualifying or lessoning rather than removing evils which in some cases were inseparable from the society they had become imbedded in. To remove some evils essentially meant eradicating the people. To totally eradicate an evil in society often required eradication of society because once sin is in the society it pervades and contaminates everything. Hence we see Joshua and the killing of entire tribes and commands from God to enter Canaan and destroy peoples. IF God would’ve eradicated His own people though His plan for the Messiah to come through the line of Judah through David would’ve ended. The laws therefore are in place to mitigate polygamy and are enacted to discourage polygamy; to avoid the injustice frequently resulting upon the exercise of the rights of a father or a master and to bring divorce under some restriction or to enforce purity of life during the marital bond.

Although a plurality of wives was not totally and completely forbidden by the Law, the possession of more than one was rather rare, except among kings and princes, as is still the case in those Eastern countries where the same permission exists. The popular feeling, even in the presence of such a permissive law is that people generally frowned upon it. We have reason to believe through some of the old Jewish commentators that if one of a man's wives was childless, it was more than likely a punishment on him for having taken more than one wife.

So…although we see it practiced in the Old Testament among God’s people, it is the exception not the rule. It is allowed but it was usually frowned upon by not only God but also the Jewish culture. As we see from history its practice eventually dies out only to resurface as anomalies of practice either by heretical sects or in other pagan cultures.

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