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What's Behind Polygamy?

In 2004 an article in USA Today raised a question about whether modern polygamy law exposes our hypocrisy. In that article Jonathan Turley writes, “For polygamists, it is simply a matter of unequal treatment under the law. Individuals have a recognized constitutional right to engage in any form of consensual sexual relationship with any number of partners. Thus, a person can live with multiple partners and even sire children from different partners so long as they do not marry. However, when that same person accepts a legal commitment for those partners “as a spouse,” we jail them.”

The USA Today article went on to point out that in 1878 the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Reynolds vs the United States, “…refused to recognize polygamy as a legitimate religious practice, dismissing it in racist and anti-Mormon terms as “almost exclusively a feature of the life of Asiatic and African people.” In later decisions, the court declared polygamy to be “a blot on our civilization” and compared it to human sacrifice and “a return to barbarism.” Most tellingly, the court found that the practice is “contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization which Christianity has produced in the Western World.” Contrary to the court’s statements, the practice of polygamy is actually one of the common threads between Christians, Jews and Muslims.”

Today polygamy is again on the front page of our papers as a major factor in the largest child custody battle in US history. This time hundreds of lawyers have descended on a Texas courthouse in a legal battle to determine the custody of 416 children seized from a compound that practices multiple wives. The courts will determine whether the state of Texas has a right to forcefully remove children from their parents and place them in foster homes because of allegations that these children are taught from an early age that it is the will of God for them to be “married” to older men in an manner that modern American culture regards as physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

As the fate of 416 children hangs in the balance, many of us are either laughing or expressing disgust for a practice that is outlawed in most states. Yet spokespersons of religious communities that practice multiple wives continue to remind us of what the 2004 USA Today article alluded to–that polygamy is the pattern of the Old Testament.

It’s true. Many Old Testament patriarchs had more than one wife. Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon are only a few of many men of the Bible who married and provided for more than one woman at a time.

But why? How could the God of the Bible allow and legally regulate a social problem that seems so uncivilized?

A common explanation is that because, statistically speaking, more girls are born than boys, and because wars could decimate the male populations of ancient communities, the allowance of multiple wives was a way of giving protection, provision, and family to women who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves, alone, and without children. Behind this explanation is that the world continues to groan under the weight of war and conflict that can be tracked back to our first parents’ decision to distrust their Creator.

But that history also raises a question about polygamy that I’d like to consider with you. According to the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve fell into sin, God said that male dominance of women would combine with death, weeds, and multiplied pain in childbirth to show that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. Here’s the way Moses records it. He quotes God as saying to Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16).

Here’s what I want to think about with you. Was what God said to Eve meant to be taken as an imperative? Were his words about husbands ruling over their wives prescriptive or descriptive?

Let’s talk about this together. Has it been your assumption that it is God’s will for men to rule over women? Or has it always been clear to you that Genesis 3:16 is merely a description of how husband-wife relationships will be inclined to go in a runaway world– rather than a prescription of how they should be? Is it possible that an ancient misreading of the Bible has contributed to the thought of some religious groups that men are entitled to dominate their wives and daughters?

I’m asking this in part because, as I indicated in an earlier post, until not too long ago I assumed that because of the entrance of sin, there would be a need for order in the home– and therefore that the words to Eve about her husband ruling over her were a command rather than a description of negative results that would need to be resisted.

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20 Responses to “What's Behind Polygamy?”

  1. hal.fshr says:

    To many people the story of polygamy in the news is a crazy cult phenomenon. But to me it cuts at the heart. My great, great grandfather was a Mormon pioneer who had four wives and twenty four children. (I have the genealogy charts to verify this). What these lines of descent do not indicate on paper is the terrible abuse which resulted for children in sharing a father with other wives in those days. My great grandmother, the offspring of polygamy, reported having no shoes when she went out in freezing conditions to milk the cow and how she and her immediate siblings used to throw rocks at the offspring of one of her father’s other wives. (This is not to say that the offspring of polygamy today are experiencing identical abuse. Bu we should still be concerned). In the providence of God, I trusted the Christ of the New Testament and became a born again believer. But my concerns over my heritage have kept with me.

    Without spending more words reacting to the subject of polygamy, let me quickly address the question of Genesis 3:16 being descriptive or prescriptive in husband-wife relationships. The passage seems to be a description of what would happen from the curse of the fall – not an imperative to be obeyed. However, taking male leadership in the home and replacing a self serving dominance with Christ like “servant-leadership” seems the best solution (John 13:14-17; Ephesians 5:25-33).

  2. Gale L. Jarvis says:

    Good Morning Everyone, Mart once again evey thing being a matter of opinion.
    I believe God never changes, nor God’s ways, i cannot say as an absolute God okayed for a man to have more than one wife, but i believe God did okay this to be a way of life, not the only way, but the reasons for this are varied, as was mentioned there have always been more females than males, and thereby if a woman was going to have children she must be married.
    One of God’s desires is for the continuation of more human beings given a chance to live with Him.
    The ability to be able to financially take care of more than one wife was the key to how many i believe was the reason God okayed Abraham, David and others to be able to be responsible for more than one wife.
    However the problem being created today is that polygamy is against the laws of the land, and as well as a man forcing a girl underage to marry them.
    What the harvest of this terrible event that has been sown will produce, i may not know in this life i can only pray that the Holy Spirit can draw many to Himself through this.
    I believe domination of any person over another was never in God’s plan.
    Love for another provides the way for no need of any law, especially domination of any kind.

  3. brownsfan1642 says:

    A couple of principles come to mind when dealing with controversial issues on the scriptures. One is that we must be committed to the whole counsel of God, and not allow one or two particular passages to override the overall message of the Bible on an issue. Secondly, we need to remember that, while the Bible records the events of biblical history with inspired accuracy, that historical record of the events is not necessarily an endorsement or recommendation of the things recorded. Whether discussing male-dominance or polygamy, or some other point of controversy, we must be wise and dependent upon the Holy Spirit in how we apply the scriptures to that issue.

  4. yvetterjh says:

    I have always read Gen 3″16 as being descriptive. To me God was explaining the new conditions of the world as a result of sin. Wives would now be under the direct authority of their husbands as the head of the household.

    God’s design for women and structure for family is identical to that of the church and Jesus Christ. It is unfortunate that sin destroyed the perfect union of God and man, but just like our loving Father, He immediately prepared us for the reunion back to Him.

    I am thankful for the explanation of my role in my marriage for it helps me see the spiritual expectations of the Father concerning His son-submission.

    As this relates to the polygamist situation I am unsure. But just like any religious group without Jesus Christ as their Savior, they are left to interpret Holy Scripture without holy guidance.

    My pray goes out to the women whose children have been taken away from them, and for the children’s benefit I hope it is soon resolved.

    To God be the glory

  5. rabbineil says:

    God’s best is “a man shall cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” God, Jesus, and Paul ALL affirmed God’s plan “from the beginning.” The fact that some of the most respected men in the Bible had multiple wives doesn’t change God’s best anymore than Cain murdering Able makes murder OK.

  6. Hephzibah610 says:

    I commend you for being a “thinking” Christian. It is good to challenge those things we have been fed, and swallowed for years. I have found after almost 30 years of seeking to follow the LORD that many of our “Christian-ese” sayings are not Bible based. Challenging those thoughts will grow us in God’s truth and our relationship with Him.

    I am in agreement with the viewpoint that these are descriptions of what the fall has done, not the prescription of what we should do. What the LORD desires of us to do about it is another question. I think some of the points listed in the other comments are very valid, we must depend on the Holy Spirit and we must use love as our guide. Also that if Jesus is the example of a leader, than every woman whose husband desires to lead, is safe when they use Christ as the example. (As Christ loves the Church).

    Thanks again, I am looking forward to further discussions on your blog.

  7. poohpity says:

    I think the original prescription in Gen 2:20 was a suitable helper or counterpart. An equal to accomplish the will of God; To have a personal relationship with the creator, to have dominion over the earth, to tend the garden , and to fill the earth with people.

    Then the description of what it would be like after the fall was that the woman would be consumed with desire for the husband. THE CURSE. We as Christians no longer live under the curse but under GRACE. We can allow ourselves to remain in bondage to the curse or relish the fact we live with grace.

    What bothers me is that we have so much divorce in the church is it any different than having multiple wifes/husbands. We just do not have them at the same time. I also wonder who is actually the provider in polygamy, the state, the women themselves, the children with forced labor or who? The men just seem to be a stud like on ranches where they have all the mares in a holding then the stallion comes for breeding.

    The women seem to have no individuality they all look alike and act alike. It seems like they have the alpha females and then the beta group. To me it is sad for them and especially for the children. It seems like a collective rather than individuals working together to achieve a common goal.

    In the Old Testament in almost every instance with multiple wifes it always caused problems. It seems if it were God’s plan or prescription then there would be a sense of peace and joy. With all those family members around how does one have time to do devotions and spend time with the Lord.

    Well we need to really pray for those children for the Lord to guard their little hearts and protect them while going through this crisis.

  8. PookaParks says:

    It is an unfortunate reality that the Word of God has been used to enslave, condemn and abuse many people. That is the primary plan of the enemy, to take that which God said and pervert it, as he did with Eve in the garden, “You shall not surely die”. I think the scripture is descriptive because when they sinned the ideal relationship between man and woman was damaged.

    I know that God allowed polygamy in the OT, perhaps for the reasons you outlined above, but I don’t belive that was or is His preference. We can see in scripture over and over again where this caused tension, trauma, deceit in family relationships.

    I have a question, do Mormons read the New Testament? because 1 Tim 3 says in order to be in church leadership they must be “the husband of one wife”. Which then makes me wonder if some of the early church were engaged in polygamy that Paul specifically had to tell them that….

  9. daisymarygoldr says:

    “It’s true. Many Old Testament patriarchs had more than one wife. Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon”… but look at what the consequences are.
    Abraham- we are still struggling with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
    Jacob- Joseph’s suffering at the hands of his brothers who did not belong to Rachel
    David- His personal and family life was spotted with lies, adultery, murder, incest
    Solomon- The father of them all (as far as the # of wives they had) sums up his entire life enriched with God’s best blessings, in just one hollow statement “Everything is meaningless, completely meaningless.” (Eccl 12:8) (At least he got it right in the end (verse 13) after getting sick and tired of all the 3000 women)
    God never Okayed this for these men or any other man to have more than one wife. He would have created Emma, Erin and Ellen along with Eve from Adam, if that was His intention:):):) In fact, we ought to be forever grateful to God for His goodness and grace because of which ‘He is able to make all these human faults and failures, work together for the ultimate good’.
    Gen 3:16 is not a commandment. God is merely stating the consequences of sin. Christ overcame sin and set the perfect example of being a HEAD for all Christian husbands to follow and obey. Meanwhile, the Christian wife learns to be silently submissive…it is hard but we are trying and will someday reach perfection! The children affected and the whole community needs to be prayed for…it is really sad.

  10. paustin says:

    Hi Mart,
    I used to think that the passage in Genesis was prescriptive until I had been married for a while. Then I gradually realized that it was more descriptive. That is, in the sense that most women, the ones I know anyway, wish that they had all of their husband’s time and attention. We crave it, when we don’t get it, we long for it. I think the emotional need that women have for affirmation from their husbands is much like the need that men have to be sexually affirmed by their wives.
    Regarding the practice of polygamy; I do not think it was God’s original intent – I think if he had intended that be the model he would have created more than ONE woman for Adam. If you notice the shift in scripture away from one wife to multiple wives, it’s interesting that it was almost always the woman’s idea in the first place & she used it as a “tool” to get her husband to comply with something she wanted (going back again to the curse?)
    Sarai/Sarah is a good example of that – she wanted the baby God had promised but wasn’t patient enough for God bring about the promise from her own womb. She decided to intervene by having her servant girl Hagar sleep with Abraham to bear a child & now, as we like to say “the rest is history”.
    Another prime example – Jacob originally wanted only 1 wife, his father-in-law tricked him into marrying the wrong daughter & then later gave him the promised daughter. Then the sisters in rivalry for their husband’s attention/time/approval/love had a battle to see who could have the most babies, & when they weren’t able to out-do the other they dragged their servants into the mess with them.
    Almost every instance you see of polygamy in the Old Testament created a huge mess & had long-term consequences, some of which we still live with today (Middle Eastern political problems.)
    I tend to think that later men in their desire to pursue their own pleasures used the history recorded in the Old Testament as a way to “justify” their behavior.

  11. david8a says:

    Polygamy is esencially discrimination, because doesn’t give the same rights for men and for women. If we could possibly think of allowing polygamy, we should also lift the ban on poly-adnry (or whatever we call “a woman having many husbands).

    If my readings are correct, Old Testament doesn’t show an explicit command from God in favor of polygamy, he just allowed: basically, isn’t part of the law (which, we must remember, was surpassed by the grace of Christ). so we can think it was a policy allowed because of the times they were living. Another behavior permitted in Old Testament’s times: EYE BY EYE, but that behavior nowadays is also unbearable!

  12. dep7547 says:

    Good morning everyone! I always seem to be a day behind in posting because I am still not sure what time the new posting starts, but this is such an interesting topic that I would like to reply to. I seem to be of the same opinion as most–in that I believe that this was a description of what would happen. I once had a pastor (who was studying the Greek language for his own enrichment) tell me that the Greek word for helpmeet as God had originally ordained was equivalent to the English word door-jamb–meaning that husbands and wives were of equal importance and often served as a means of preventing one another from wandering too far from God’s ideals.

    I have no reason to believe that God (who never changes) intended for this ideal to evolve into what it has become. Certainly he foresaw man’s misinterpretation just as surely as he has already seen the end of my life! Abraham more than once requested that Sarah would proclaim herself as his sister in order to protect his own life. I do not think that it was God that Abraham did not trust–he just knew how evil mankind can be. Maybe there are instances where a man has to take control as in a situation where the family unit is threatened he might order her to stay in the house in order to prevent harm from coming to her while he deals with a violent neighbor or something like that. Likewise, a woman may have to order her husband to cease from certain activities before irreparable harm befalls their family.

    That is why I believe that Jesus came at the precise time that he was supposed to. God had to allow mankind to misinterpret his word long enough in order for adequate correction to be made. Honestly, as nearly as I can recall, when God gave his commandments to Moses, the penalty of stoning was applied to adulterer and adulteress alike, yet, it was only the adulteress that was brought before Jesus–a grievously serious and hypocritical error in interpreting doctrine that still goes on today. In fact, if it were not for women, feminists, if you will, I seriously doubt that Christian forgiveness or tolerance would exist today!

  13. beagleman says:

    I believe the Scriptures teach one man, one wife, for life. In all the instances where there were polygamous marriages there were “polygamous” problems both for the husband,wives and descendants.

  14. Mart De Haan says:

    Abigail, good thoughts. Just one additional. Seems to me that if a disagreement is over a significant issue that servant leadership would not just take the occasion to break the tie, but more appropriately would take the initiative to get additional information and advice so that the two can move ahead on shared information rather than “authority”.

  15. Mart De Haan says:

    Abigail, you make a lot of sense.

    My concern is that we understand that Jesus turned “leadership” upside down and inside out when he said in Luke 22, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ “But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. “For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves.”

    Then there is Peter’s instruction to church elders when he says in 1 Peter 5:1 “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

    While both statements are about something other than husband-wife relationships, I think we need to be careful not to over emphasize the authority issue.

    For the sake of discussion, at least, it seems to me that a husband’s “headship” is more a matter of responsibility and accountability to use whatever strength and influence he’s been given for the good of his wife and family.

    As I’m sure you’d agree, a Christ-like head is “sacrificial” not self-serving, and a “sacrificial” head will act with humility and reason rather than asserting “authority”.

    In 1Cor 7 “authority” is even applied to husbands and wives in a mutual way.

  16. maharvey says:

    (I know this is an old thread – found it via Google.)
    But I had to say: wow Abigail, that is one of the best explanations of husband/wife roles I have ever read!

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