Polygamy. This word often conjures up negative thoughts, images, and stories told throughout the years. The Western world most likely identifies polygamy with Mormonism and the tragedies therein. It seems as though these tragedies have defined what polygamy is all about, but is this generalization really fair? Before you misunderstand me, I am NOT (nor ever have been) a Mormon nor do I agree with the tenets of Mormonism. Rather, my interest in polygamy derives from my love of missions.
Because of the negativity surrounding polygamy in the Western world, people’s perceptions and feelings often get inserted into Scriptural depictions of polygamy. Growing up in the church, I was taught that God simply tolerated polygamy practiced by the biblical patriarchs. This “toleration” led me to believe that polygamy was indeed a sin, but for some reason God just let it go. The impression I got from this teaching was that these patriarchs were righteous men who happened to make mistakes along the way. But one question remained in my heart: Does God really tolerate sin to the point of not saying ANYTHING? It wasn’t until much later that I reevaluated this thought process.
I started participating in short-term mission trips around 11 years old. In the following years, my passion and heart grew for missions as I traveled to Hungary, Romania, Thailand, Peru, and South Africa. I met amazing people who had a heart and hunger for the truth. I pursued a degree in Intercultural Studies because it has been God’s desire for me to be a missionary. In learning how to approach another culture and teach the Gospel, the subject of polygamy would come up from time to time. I wrestled with the question, What would I do? Can I justify teaching people to split up their families because they’re in sin? On the flip side, can I live with teaching people how to live a Christian life while still living in sin? It seemed like there was no good outcome to either of these questions. As soon as I would ponder this dilemma, I pushed it off and moved onto something else. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a Cultural Anthropology class during my undergraduate studies that I was confronted with these same questions.
My professor must have been talking about different family structures one day (I don’t exactly remember), and he commented that he didn’t think Scripture teaches against polygamy. I had never heard anyone say this before. This went completely against what I had been taught, and I questioned him, What about this Scripture? What about that Scripture? He gave me some responses, but he didn’t have much to say. He mainly was just giving the class his opinion. Within this discussion he commented how polygamous families coming to America were often forced to divorce because of our laws, and my professor didn’t agree with that. He also shared one story in particular that caught my attention.
Years ago his parents were missionaries in Western Africa. His parents were planting a new church and needed funding for a new building. A polygamist offered to pay for the project (polygamists tend to have more wealth which they need to take care of their larger families), and apparently my professor’s parents agreed. However, when it came time for services to begin, the missionaries wouldn’t allow the polygamist to participate unless he was no longer a polygamist. As I listened, I could tell that my professor was not pleased with his parents’ decision, and I began to wonder a few things myself. Why did they offer to let the man pay the expenses if they didn’t agree with his lifestyle? Because they accepted his money, how could they justify excluding him from the body? What kind of message did this send to the rest of the village? How could they encourage divorce in order to participate in the body of Christ? At this point, I couldn’t let the polygamy dilemma go. There had to be a biblical course of action.
I decided to take a fresh look at Scripture again and found that there is, indeed, no prohibition of polygamy. There are regulations concerning polygamy in the Law, and there are a number of narratives involving polygamy, but there is no prohibition. On the contrary, there are a few passages that seem to indicate God’s involvement rather than a simple toleration. For example, in 2 Samuel 12 Nathan confronts David about his sins of adultery and murder. Pay attention to what the Lord says through Nathan in vv. 7-8, “Nathan then said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!’” (Bold words added for emphasis). God Himself tells David that it was He who gave him Saul’s wives. If the things God had given David were too little (this includes wives), He would have given him more. If polygamy was contrary to God’s divine plan for marriage, it does not make sense for Him to offer more wives to David. Also, if you read through the rest of that passage (vv. 9-23), you will find that God’s punishment of David and his household had nothing to do with polygamy, but rather it was because David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband.
Another example is Genesis 29:31-30:24. It would take too long to discuss this passage in length (I discuss it in my book), but I bring it up to make you aware of how much God is involved in the growth of Jacob’s family. He opens Leah’s womb (Gen. 29:31), and she initially bears four sons. When she names them she praises the Lord for hearing and seeing her in her affliction. God is perceived as the One blessing her. When Rachel remains barren she gives her handmaid to Jacob, and the children that Bilhah bears become Rachel’s children. Leah also does the same thing when she stops childbearing and gives her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob. The wives themselves make this choice. Jacob does not simply take for himself (This is similar to Abraham’s story when Sarah gives Hagar to him). When Leah bears again in v. 17, she exclaims in v. 18, “God has given me my wages because I gave my maid to my husband.” Again, God is constantly perceived as being involved in childbearing. Then it’s Rachel’s turn. Verse 22 says, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb.” Some scholars argue that the language used to describe God’s involvement is just simply how the people viewed their situation. It’s not really what was going on. However, if we follow this kind of logic then we would have to doubt all of Scripture. With this same logic, every Christian perceives that he/she is saved because of Jesus’ sacrifice, but this is not necessarily true. This is just what we want to believe. Now, we would argue that such a conclusion is false. So why is it that people assume that the OT is only a perception of truth but not a representation of truth itself? I hold to the belief that when Scripture indicates God’s involvement, He was truly involved. You can make your own conclusions.
In 1 Samuel 1 God blesses Hannah, one of Elkanah’s wives, with a son (Samuel) whom she dedicates to the Lord. This man becomes an important prophet in Israel’s history. In 2 Chronicles 24:3, Jehoiada (a righteous priest) takes two wives for young king Joash. Again, if a person is deemed righteous, it does not make sense to say that their actions are sinful unless they are noted as such.
One of the most eye-opening passages of Scripture in my study of polygamy is Ezekiel 23. In this passage, the Lord (through Ezekiel) allegorizes the sins that Judah and Samaria have committed against Him. Let’s take a look at vv. 1-4, “The word of the Lord came to me again, saying, ‘Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother; and they played the harlot in Egypt. They played the harlot in their youth; there their breasts were pressed and there their virgin bosom was handled. Their names were Oholah the elder and Oholibah her sister. And they became Mine, and they bore sons and daughters. And as for their names, Samaria is Oholah and Jerusalem is Oholibah’” (Bold print added for emphasis). Now, I am fully aware that this is NOT saying that the Lord is literally married to Judah and Samaria. The text is obviously allegorical to convey their abhorrent acts (continue reading the rest of the chapter). However, I am proposing that the Lord would not use a sinful depiction to describe Himself. The text explains how Oholah and Oholibah have committed adultery against the Lord. The only way for a woman to commit adultery against a man is if she’s married to him. In this context, it seems that God has depicted Himself as a polygamous husband to two women (Judah and Samaria) who eventually commit adultery against Him. Therefore, I have asked myself, If polygamy is sinful, why would God describe Himself in this manner? If God describes Himself as a polygamous husband in the OT, it does not make sense to say that polygamy is a sin in the OT. As such, since God is both omniscient and immutable, it stands to reason that polygamy is not a sin in the NT. If I choose to believe otherwise, I fear that I would be questioning God’s nature.
I understand that polygamy is a taboo topic, but the main question I have had to ask myself is: Does the Bible prohibit polygamy, or is it my culture’s prohibition of polygamy that gets inserted into biblical interpretation and the text itself? This question is not only relevant for polygamy, but for any topic. I am accountable for what I hear, read, teach, and believe. If I don’t take the time to understand what Scripture has to say about polygamy (or not say), my decisions (particularly on the mission field) and interpretations can continue to have a negative impact on cultures that practice polygamy. In many cases over the last 100+ years, missionaries have either suggested or demanded that polygamous husbands divorce all but their first wife if they want to be baptized or participate at all in the church. This has led to devastating results. Some wives have had no other option than to become prostitutes to take care of themselves. In a number of these cultures most men do not want to marry a divorced woman (divorce is often viewed as dishonorable), which is quite a foreign concept for Western societies. Divorce also has a negative impact on children who are either torn from their father and live with their poor mother (and possibly her extended family) or are torn from their mothers and live with their father. I’m not writing this to be condemning, but rather to illustrate that if we interpret Scripture based on our cultural values rather than biblically-founded values, there may be serious consequences. People have already interpreted Scripture in this way about divorce, abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity, etc. In this present age, Scripture has become whatever we want it to say, and this mindset carries many dangers.
I’ve done more research besides what I’ve discussed here, but I wanted to give you an inside look into some of my thoughts and questions. I also hope that I’ve challenged you somehow. Please feel free to ask a question or give a comment.
I’ll keep you updated on book news once I receive it from my publisher.
Feel free to check out http://www.lulu.com/shop/lauren-heiligenthal/evaluating-western-christianitys-interpretation-of-biblical-polygamy/paperback/product-21877418.html. It appears that you have to be registered with lulu.com to buy my book if you’re interested.
My publisher’s website is http://www.patriarchpublishinghouse.com/. My book should appear on this website soon. Also, they have many other books on polygamy and patriarchy if these topics interest you.
 I am specifically referring to polygyny, which is one man having multiple wives. I focus on this form of polygamous marriage because it is demonstrated in Scripture and appears to be an acceptable form of marriage. Other forms of polygamy, such as polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands), polyamory (multiple relationships at the same time), and polygynandry (multiple husbands and wives in an intertwining of relationships), are not demonstrated in Scripture. I believe they are considered sinful because polyandry and polygynandry result in adultery. Polyamory could involve adultery, but it is also a demonstration of blatant sexual promiscuity.
© Lauren Heiligenthal