I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Polygamy in the Bible and a Biblical View of Polygamy

I. Why did David take more wives and concubines from Jerusalem?

A. Endemic Practice: The practice of harems and concubinage was ubiquitous in the ancient Near East during the time of King David. One finds in the Pentateuch, a volume written to a people saturated in Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture, polygamy treated as what “is the case,” however, never maintained as what “ought to be the case.”

B. Political Expediency: For a king, gathering wives from domestic and/or foreign territories was often a means of ratifying international treaties and policy (see: 1 Kings 11:1 – in the political life of Solomon). It was customary for the Sovereign to demonstrate his position over his subjects by the volume of his harem; the vassals never being aloud to amass one of greater size.

2 Sam. 3:1—5, in this record of the war between the house of Saul with the house of David, the author uses David’s growing harem to emphasis the increasing strength of David’s house and the decrease of the house of Saul.

C. Political Default: The last point is likely to have been bolstered by David inheriting, from Saul, the King David was succeeding, his “master’s house” and his “master’s wives” (see: 2 Sam. 12:7—8)

D. Yahweh’s Law for the Kings of Israel: All of this points to the prophetic nature of the words of Deut. 17:14. Here it is said that Israel would demand a “king...like all the nations around them.” Much of the practical operations of even godly kings like David were directed by the cultural situated-ness of Israel within “all the nations about them.” The reciprocal problems of much of the entire Monarchial epoch were derived from Israel’s kings (including David, “a man after God’s own heart”) disregarding the law of Yahweh, which prohibited the king’s practice of polygamy. Deut. 17:17—“And he (the king) shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away (from Yahweh)...” Surely this is most evident in the life King Solomon, David’s son (see: 1 Kings 11:1).

II. Does this mean it is okay to practice polygamy?

A. Elementary Hermeneutics: This question can be easily answered by making two fundamental interpretive distinctions: 1. Narrative/Didactic, and 2. Descriptive/Prescriptive. In principle these may seem virtually identical, but there are subtle, yet important differences which need addressed.

A. 1. Narrative/Didactic: This distinction is simply one of literary genre. Gordon Fee defines narrative as “purposeful stories retelling the historical events of the past that are intended to give meaning and direction for a given people in the present.” All of the 19 cases that record polygamy in the lives of biblical characters are found in the genre of narrative. In the lives of men most significant in the biblical plot line, the records of their multiple wives demonstrate the grief and inter-familial strife caused by violating the monogamous order instituted by Yahweh (Gen. 2:24; Deut. 17:17; Mt. 19:4—5). Paul informs his readers that these historical (OT) records were written as pedagogical examples through which we may infer the often disastrous results of “desiring evil as they (OT kings, etc.) did” (I Cor. 10:6). Moreover, the historical OT narratives also include some of the kings of Israel causing their children “to pass through the fire;” as a burnt offering to the Pagan deity Molech. Therefore, it would be absurd to assume that the records of polygamy in the OT narratives were condoning the practice, just as it would be to assume that the practice of idolatrous child sacrifice was to teach religious piety!

Didactic is a term that comes from the Greek word meaning to teach or instruct. Didactic literature teaches and explains God’s desires and demands. It is from this genre of the Bible that we find several passages that clearly condemn the practice of polygamy (Deut. 17:17; Mal. 2:15ff; Mt. 19:4—6; 1 Cor. 7:2; 1 Tim. 3:2, 12; 5:9; Tit. 1:6). However helpful the genre distinction may be, the fact that some didactic material is found within narrative (i.e. the Gospels [narrative] contain nearly all of Jesus’ teaching [didactic]) is cause to make a more subtle distinction that should have employment within both genres. Is scripture simply describing the practice of polygamy as it occurred in history or is it prescribing the practice to the modern reader?

A. 2. Descriptive/Prescriptive: This distinction, at first glance, seems too obvious to warrant attention, yet many movements in church history testify that it is often ignored. The heretical cult of Mormonism, which in its more “fundamental” strains, holds that polygamy is a biblically supported principle of Christian life and practice. However, when asked to offer a defense for their claims they depend solely upon the Bible’s “descriptions,” while ignoring all of scripture’s “prescriptions” for the biblical/covenantal concept of marriage.

B. Conclusion: If these basic hermeneutical distinctions are made, a fair reading of the Bible will demonstrate that monogamy, not polygamy, is God’s ordained and prescribed marital practice for all people.

III. How do you explain such passages to un-believers?

I have decided to illustrate my apologetical approach to handling objections based on the records of polygamy in the Bible by way of diatribe, a fictitious dialogue with an imaginary opponent. The setting is a college mezzanine. The conversation takes place over two or three cups of coffee during a break between classes. The opponent’s name is Antagoneus Christou (i.e. Antagonist of Christ), he is a atheist philosophy major from Athens, Greece.

KS: “Hey Antagoneus! How are you doing...did you have a good weekend?” I said while pulling a chair from the table.

AC: Looking up from the book he was reading, “Hey...yea...it was good, how about yours?” He said with a curious grin growing on his face.

KS: With suspicion I answered, “Yea, it was great, thanks for asking...your all smiles, I have never seen anyone chuckle while they were studying the Stoics, what’s so funny?”

AC: “Oh, no, it’s not the book, it’s you fundy Christians.”

KS: In an attempt to keep things light I responded, “Well, joy is one of the fruit of the Spirit, but I have a feeling that is not at all what you are talking about.”

AC: “No, that’s not what I am talking about.” Not appreciating my humor. “You know that girl I’m dating?”

KS: “Beth, right? Yea, she was in my first year Greek class. What about her? Is she a Christian?”

AC: “Not really, but she decided she needs to try to get a grip on life, or something like that, and out of the blue thought going to church would do the trick, so I went with her to keep her of my back.”

KS: “Antagoneus, that is great to hear! What did you think?” I asked with hopeful anticipation.

AC: Springing at the chance to offer his critical analysis, “That is why I am laughing. It is all a joke!”

KS: “I’m sorry, what is a joke?”

AC: “Well the whole sermon, the preacher guy just stood up their throwing around empty authority claims about the ‘sanctity of marriage—one man, one woman—Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve;’ you know the rhetoric...this guy is probably one of those dudes you listen to on your MP3 all the time...” He said, as though he had been waiting for months to unload his grand discovery on the next unwitting Christian he saw.

KS: “Antagoneus, you haven’t told me what the ‘joke’ is. From the sounds of it, the pastor’s message was biblical. So apart from your general disdain for the Bible, what’s the ‘joke’?”

AC: “Good grief, I’m no Bible scholar but I can read, and one doesn’t have to read too far to find that the Bible teaches polygamy in several spots, and then to hear this guy talking about ‘one man—one woman’...dude, it’s a total contradiction.”

KS: “So let me see if I understand you. You think that polygamy is wrong, is that right?”

AC: “Yea! And...”

KS: “Sorry, but hang on a second. Your saying, Polygamy is wrong. The Bible records polygamy. Therefore, according to your reason, the Bible can’t be true. Is that a fair take on your analysis?”

AC: “See, it’s obvious! I’ve been trying to tell you that Christianity is illogical, here is more proof!”

KS: “Well as I remember, every time you try to make your case against the faith it back fires on you.”

AC: “Perhaps, but this is too clear cut, so you can’t evoke the Bible to get yourself out of this one. If you can’t explain this—I got you this time.”

KS: “Let me say this. For me this is not a game of intellectual tag, there is far more at stake than winning this argument. Second, even if I didn’t appeal to the Bible in our discussion, you already have.”

AC: “Oh really?!? How so?!?”

KS: “For starters, you are assuming the Bible’s truthfulness to argue for its falsity. Unless the Bible was trustworthy in its historiography, you have no case against it.”

AC: “Fine, I’ll give you the history, but what it records is immoral and shows it is not divinely inspired like you are always saying.”

KS: “Okay, now we are back to your first premise—‘polygamy is wrong, immoral’—right?”

AC: “Duh! Everyone knows that to be the case. You Christians don’t have morality cornered. This is something everyone knows!”

KS: “I agree completely! Since ‘EVERYONE knows it is wrong, you should have no problem telling me why, right. I mean it should be obvious. So, why is it wrong and universally so.”

AC: “Because everyone thinks so. That is how society works, convention.”

KS: “You’re just begging the question. ‘That is the way it is—because that is the way it is.’ AC, that is not an argument. Besides, if your atheism is case, why should I care what anyone thinks or feels about right and wrong? In an atheistic world there is no absolute, universally binding ethic to which I should conform; everyone can do what is right in his own eyes! So, given your worldview, who are you to impose your personal morality on me, the Bible, or anyone for that matter?”

AC: “Hey, that is what I say to Christians! Why do I feel like I’m being set up here?”

KS: “Because you are, but you are the one doing the setting-up. I’m arguing that unless the Bible is true, inspired by God, you could not say that polygamy is ‘wrong’ is any meaningful sense. On the atheistic worldview ‘wrong’ is nonsensical. However, if God created man and woman and design their union to be a covenant between the two and no more, then it makes perfect sense to say it is wrong to go beyond that universally binding decree of our Creator. You see, you want you’re cake—morality, and eat it too—maintain your personal moral freedom from God; you want autonomy. Your problem is that the idea of morality, in marriage or anything, is irrational apart from a holy God who determines what is right and wrong based upon his perfect nature and character. So the heart of the issue is that you’re trying to personally assume a position of moral judgment that belongs only to God.”

AC: “So you don’t think polygamy is wrong? That preacher sure did.”

KS: “Of course polygamy is wrong. I’m simply trying to show that unless you assume what scripture teaches concerning polygamy, i.e. that it is wrong, you have no grounds to say that it is morally wrong, thus you have to assume what the Bible teaches concerning marriage to argue against what the Bible records concerning polygamy, but then you want to take credit for the high morality you steal from it. My next question then is, why do you think you have a natural bend against the Bible? I mean you didn’t charge Dr. Jones with condoning genocide when he taught on the holocaust last semester, why don’t you want to give the Bible the same generosity; allowing it to record certain facts of history without charging it with condoning those facts?”

AC: “Well if it is the perfect, authoritative word of God like you always say, why is it full of so much ‘sinful’ stuff?”

KS: “That, I think is one of the best arguments for its inspiration. What other sacred writing is so honest about its own writers? All the competitors of the Bible either present its writer(s) as so godlike, or God so manlike that there is little distinction between man and God. That is not the case with scripture. If Yahweh, the True Living God of the Bible were not the One who is, no man would ever ‘project’ a deity like him.”

AC: “Good point. So what does the Bible ‘teach’ about the polygamy it records?”

KS: “Well there are a number of passages we can look at, but first I think we ought to talk about why it is you have this hostility towards the word of God and look at what the Bible teaches about that, then we can look at the polygamy issue. Does that sound reasonable?”

AC: “Fair enough...but I have a feeling we need to get a refill on the coffee...”

KS: “Great. I’ll buy!”

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