Polygamous Saints?

Does God condone polygamy and when did one-man, one-woman marriages become the standard?

Genesis 2:24 sets the standard for marriage, which Jesus quotes in his teaching on divorce and marriage in Mt. 19:3-9. The TWO become one. Of course, the reason the question arises is that virtually all the patriarchs of the Old Testament had multiple wives. Did God condone this? I would say "no" but we also have to acknowledge that neither was it something that God or the prophets directly confronted. Solomon, one of the most prolific polygamists, was warned about it, and ultimately his wives of foreign nations and other religions led him into pagan worship. The author/father of Proverbs advises his son to "rejoice in the wife of your youth". As you read Genesis and beyond, you will read about some of the drama that polygamy causes in a family. So you have hints in the OT that polygamy is not God's design (ie Genesis) nor the wisest way to live.

Polygamy was banned from Jewish practice in the Middle ages, some say because of Christian influence.
But the question is still outstanding...why didn't God confront the patriarchs polygamy directly? I'm not exactly sure, but I have a reflection. Polygamy was part of the social, cultural, financial reality, not just a moral issue. Women had to be married to survive and a wealthy man would be thought stingy if all that wealth was not shared. We (or I at least) tend to think of polygamy as unacceptable because it appears to be an abuse of women by men, who want to have multiple sexual partners. In ancient cultures, the number of wives a man had was a status symbol, and for kings a tool of diplomacy, but it also was the way that women were provided for. So it wouldn't have necessarily been better for women to do away with polygamy in the financial and social realities of that culture.

I first grappled with the question in a class in college where we were discussing missiology, the theory and practice of mission work. Imagine yourself as a missionary bringing the gospel to a polygamous culture. What would you preach? Would you address polygamy head on, right away? If you did, and encouraged men to abandon all but their first wives, many women would be left destitute, something I believe God would see as a greater evil. This is the kind of challenge that God faced: he chose a person in a culture that practiced polygamy through which to "bless all nations" and while it took centuries, even millennia, he shaped the culture of his people toward his intent for marriage.
It makes me wonder if there aren't things God is putting up with in our culture and society that are less that His design, in order to achieve a higher good or avoid a greater evil, but which he is determined to guide his people away from.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome thoughts Chris. Newsweek, in addressing the gay marriage issue, used polygamy being tolerated in the Bible as a major underpinning of their argument. Why isn't anything clean-cut and easy?