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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).

  • 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.