Polygamy is biblical, is it therefore moral?

The Chick-fil-A Biblical Family of the Day series highlighted how common polygamy is in the Bible.

This isn’t a handful of obscure cases, but dozens of examples, including some of the most prominent and exalted figures in the Bible. Our series here didn’t come close to listing every polygamist in the Bible, but just consider those we looked at: Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Simeon, Moses, Gideon, Elkanah, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Caleb, Ashur, Shaharaim, Abijah, Joash.

That list leaves out plenty of others, including those reviled as wicked (like Ahab, Manasseh or Jehoiachin) and any of the foreigners who worshiped other gods.

Note that for the characters listed above, polygamy is not presented as a flaw or a failing. On the contrary, it is almost always presented as evidence of prosperity and divine blessing for the righteous. Even the most extreme case, Solomon, is not criticized for the excess of marrying 700 wives, but only for including in that army of a household some of the wrong kinds of women — those foreigners with their foreign gods.

This is not an obscure feature in the Bible. It starts early, with Lamech, and continues throughout most of what we Christians call the Old Testament, shaping the stories of the most prominent characters — Abraham, Moses, David.

So OK then, how do we reconcile this praise and permission for polygamy with the white evangelical insistence that nothing the Bible praises can be immoral? Consider again the words of gatekeeper/witchfinder Owen Strachan:

There are “hard parts” of Scripture, to be sure. But the Bible is wholly inspired of God, without error, and therefore totally trustworthy (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21; Numb. 23:19; Ps. 19:7). Whatever God does is right. All that God teaches us in Scripture is right. Christ and his apostles do not indicate at any point that the Old Testament is immoral, and in fact say the opposite. To say otherwise is to indicate that God is not absolutely right, and his word is not trustable.

Do the gatekeepers therefore believe that Christians today must embrace polygamy as a moral, acceptable and sacred form of “biblical family”?

That’s not a tough question for someone like me because I don’t approach the Bible the same way the gatekeepers pretend we must. My hermeneutic — the way I read and interpret the Bible –doesn’t insist that all of its rules and teachings are sacrosanct and authoritative for all of time. My hermeneutic says that the Christward trajectory of the Bible — the long arc bending toward justice and Jubilee — must guide us above and beyond any given single rule or clobber text. That’s why I’m not just able, but required to move past such clobber verses on a host of topics where the trajectory demands that we do so, such as the full equality of women inside and outside the church, the celebration of same-sex love and marriage, the abolition of slavery, and the potential goodness of investment, insurance, revolution, and peaceable pluralism, among other things.

That’s also why I find myself outside the gates of the evangelical tribe, banished there by the diktat of the gatekeepers who reject my hermeneutic and who condemn such talk of trajectories as an abandonment of biblical authority.

The Bible’s commendation and celebration of polygamy thus presents them with a thornier problem. (As does their embrace of investments and insurance, which they seem to get around by pretending the Bible has more to say about sex than it does about money. It doesn’t. Not even close.)

I haven’t heard the gatekeepers say much about polygamy except as part of a desperate slippery-slope argument against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Set aside the logical and factual flaws in that slippery-slope claim. What’s interesting here is that such an argument presumes that polygamy is self-evidently bad and immoral. That seems to contradict their insistence that everything in the Bible “is right.”

How do they make this leap — condemning a practice that the Bible teaches us God approved of for Abraham, Moses, David and Caleb?

I suspect they would begin by pointing out that those biblical figures lived a very, very long time ago. And that’s true, and pertinent, and an excellent point.

Just consider David. He’s a far more recent figure than Abraham or Moses or Caleb, but he still lived some 3,000 years ago. There are bits of Shakespeare that we find bewildering and indecipherable because his world, several centuries ago, is in some ways alien to our own. Chaucer even more so. The world of Beowulf even more. Augustine, Paul … keep going … Caesar, Alexander … keep going, further, centuries further. David was more distant to Alexander than Shakespeare is to us.

The world of 3,000 years ago is another world, a different world. David’s time and place and culture were, in numerous ways, radically different from our own.

I suspect the gatekeepers would also point out that polygamy becomes scarcer as we move forward in time through the stories of the Bible. By the time we get to the New Testament, monogamy has become the norm, if not the rule. The idea of wives as property that can be amassed and multiplied just like any other property, has by this point begun to recede into the background.

And again, that’s true. It’s another excellent point.

And now that we have two such points, we can draw a straight line between them — a line that travels from one point to the next. It’s a line, in other words, that has a direction. And we can follow that direction, that trajectory, beyond the second point to where it leads, to where those points point us.

“There is no such land,” the gatekeepers said. “The very idea of it is utterly inconceivable.”

And they did, in their voice of thunder, reiterate their command of silence, and threaten me with the direst penalties if I persisted.

 

  • Jay in Oregon

    The Bible’s commendation and celebration of polygamy thus presents them
    with a thornier problem. (As does their embrace of investments and
    insurance, which they seem to get around by pretending the Bible has
    more to say about sex than it does about money. It doesn’t. Not even
    close.)

    I immediately thought of this scene from Babylon 5:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oz1VNbQYiTw

  • esmerelda_ogg

    The Bible’s commendation and celebration of polygamy thus presents them with a thornier problem.

    Unfortunately, their way around it seems to be to pretend the Bible doesn’t say what it does say. That wouldn’t have worked so well back in my fundy childhood when it was a status symbol to have read the entire Bible over and over, but I guess today’s fundamentalists don’t read. It might make them think for themselves, and that would be Bad.

  • Daughter

    Some Christians will say that certain NT precepts override OT ones, such as Jesus talking about “for this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and be united to his wife” and pointing out that that’s singular wife, not plural wives. (Of course, Jesus is addressing divorce here, not polygamy). And then there’s the passage about overseers being the husband of “but one wife,” which is a little more relevant, because it indicates that the example of a church leader should be monagamous.

    But that raises questions, of course, about Jesus’ teaching about peace-making, which contradicts many OT passages about war and killing. Yet they ignore that.

  • Worthless Beast

    I can sort of see it serving a practical purpose – say, a low population with more women than men and a need to make babies… or as a political thing of the time – (if the number Solomon’s wives wasn’t exagerrated, I’d have to think of them as some kind of marriage-for-alliances or some such thing because how can a man even remember the *names* of 700 people, let alone be husbandly to them)?  A different world, indeed.

  • P J Evans

    At one point in the Prop8 trial, the  pro-8 guys were using an argument for ‘marriage is one man plus one woman’ that would result in polygamy being legal. (Serial marriages, but each one is between one man and one woman. Just not the same pair each time. Yes, it could be polyandry as well as polygyny.)

  • MikeJ

    Isn’t this where the nonsense about the different covenants comes in? I know they believe Jesus may have said “Love they neighbour”, but don’t do it yet!

  • Carstonio

    I strongly doubt that the women-as-property custom in any society has a purpose other than male power, no matter what era we’re talking about, and no matter how many wives a husband can have. As Worthless Beast suggested, population stress can (ahem) conceivably make multiple wives a necessity. But this need not be a gender hierarchy, either in the marriage or in society. It certainly wouldn’t require barring women from owning property, or from holding paid employment in fields other than child-raising.

    My impression of the societies that treat women as property is that marriage is simply a survival necessity for the women since they’re prevented from supporting themselves on their own – the system is gamed against them. All the examples I know about of polygamy as a social norm involve patriarchy. It would be fascinating to see poly  marriages operate as democracies with all spouses being equal, including the one that is the sole representative of hir gender.

  • ReverendRef

    And they did, in their voice of thunder, reiterate their command of
    silence, and threaten me with the direst penalties if I persisted.

    Yeah, well . . . the Gatekeepers of Christianity here in my town did the same to me awhile back.  I’ll be the first one to welcome you in when you get there.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    G’kar facepalming is wonderful in that scene.

    Also, before that:
    G’kar: When was that written in the book?
    Follower: In the beginning.
    G’kar: Exactly.  Over time I learned, as you will learn.

    -

    And, seriously, follower, if this guy could have his eye ripped out by them and learn to forgive them, why can’t you?

    G’kar started off evil, and then moved toward more neutral, and finally ended up in a place of enlightenment.  Also, if I remember correctly, he was one of Arthur’s knights along with Marcus.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    overseers being the husband of “but one wife,” – Daughter

    Hmmm. I guess that could be read as “no polygamists” – I always thought it had to do with the very high divorce and remarriage level in the Roman world (the Romans being habitual serial monogamists) and read it as related to Jesus’ disapproval of divorce. (Of course, it would also bar remarried widowers, so who knows?)

  • Lunch Meat

    (Of course, it would also bar remarried widowers, so who knows?)

    This actually happens. I have heard of churches who take this to such an extreme that not only must the elders be monogamous and not divorced, they must also not be remarried widowers–in fact they must not be widowers at all (since if you’ve lost your wife you are no longer the husband of one wife). So an elder whose wife has died is required to resign. They also say that you cannot be an elder if you have no children or one child (since it says “children”). This makes me want to cry and/or bang my head against a wall.
    (Of
    course, it would also bar remarried widowers, so who knows?) – See more
    at:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2013/02/26/polygamy-is-biblical-is-it-therefore-moral/#sthash.wgOggwqg.dpuf
    (Of
    course, it would also bar remarried widowers, so who knows?) – See more
    at:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2013/02/26/polygamy-is-biblical-is-it-therefore-moral/#sthash.wgOggwqg.dpuf
    (Of
    course, it would also bar remarried widowers, so who knows?) – See more
    at:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2013/02/26/polygamy-is-biblical-is-it-therefore-moral/#sthash.wgOggwqg.dpuf

  • Lunch Meat

    …Disqus is broken, apparently.

  • esmerelda_ogg

     People can be very, very, very strange. Also unfair.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Yeah, it’s definitely on the blink today.

  • http://www.joshbarkey.com/2009/05/polygamy-revisited.html josh barkey

    Ha-ha. I wrote a superlong screed about this, four years ago (I’ll link it with my name). Now, I find this all hilarious. And terribly, terribly sad. It’s like mathematicians got ahold of the Bible. But not, like, REAL mathematicians. More like bitter, failed mathematicians who became the sort of cruel Jr. High Math teachers who made me hate numbers.

  • flat
  • Tricksterson

    I don’t see a problem with plygamy given two conditions

    The women in the marriage have rights equal to the husband and to each other.

    Polyandry is cool too.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I once had a student who argued (in an early draft of a public speaking assignment) that gay marriage would lead to polyphony.

  • arcseconds

     An easy way of ending up with more women than men is warfare :]

    Polygamy for kings as an alliance thing is, I think, pretty well attested to.

    I remember reading about a society in… Africa, maybe? which was ruled by a woman.  

    I can’t remember whether this was a one-off kind of event like european ruling queens or whether this society was always ruled by a woman.

    But anyway, the custom in the wider area was to cement political pacts with marriage.  As having a woman in charge doesn’t obviate the need for political pacts, this woman ended up with several wives.

    I’ve got a soft spot for these kinds of displays of pragmatism :]

  • PrickliestPear
  • Robyrt

    How do they make this leap — condemning a practice that the Bible teaches us God approved of for Abraham, Moses, David and Caleb?

    Easily. It’s explicitly discouraged for clergy (overseers should be “the husband of one wife”); it doesn’t fit with the broader move towards equality that Fred mentions; and the New Testament supersedes the Old anyway.

    Remember, Jesus himself sets the precedent for overruling the previous laws and customs on multiple occasions. He either loosens the rules (“Thus he declared all foods clean” or “What God has called clean, you must not call common”) or tightens them (“Moses told you to offer a certificate of divorce, but I say that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery”) according to the larger, deeper meaning of the rules. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” For us, polygamy is wrong; for Moses, it was fine, because at that point the rule had not yet been established.

  • stly92

     Exactly. There’s a whole universe of unwritten rules evangelicals go by in Bible reading. Even as they assume the whole thing is good and relevant and no one should ever question any of it, you are supposed to “know” and “pick up” on what verses are absolutely indispensable, and what verses to quietly pass over without comment.

    And as someone who had trouble picking up on those unwritten rules but was inclined to take assumptions at face value and examine them, this was an issue. Bring up one of those thornier verses, the ones quietly passed over and discuss it’s implications, both in light of other parts of the Bible and what we assume about the Bible? the most common response is that you are being rude and difficult for it’s own sake. Push a little harder, and you might get something like “The verse you sight may seem like it depicts God as immoral, or inconsistent with other parts of the Bible, but if properly understood it doesn’t. I had a pastor speak on this years ago, and the argument was difficult and obscure and I don’t really remember it, but you can accept the conclusion as the God’s honest truth.” Push even farther with someone who actually does know a thing or two, and you get, “You have to interpret verse A in light of verse B,” Where Verses A and B seemed to be wholly contradictory. To which I’d respond, “Doesn’t that just blot out verse A entirely, as though it’s not even there? And why not do it the opposite way, and interpret B in light of A so A gets blotted out?”

    It’s really, really difficult. 

  • stardreamer42

    Maybe Solomon had the talisman of the prince who shared himself with the thousand virgins. :-)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Well, I don’t object to the notion of poly in any form, as long as all parties can consent to the relationship without economic or social pressure to do so.

  • stly92

     And that always got me. At my Christian school, bring up Solomon’s 700 wives, (not to mention the hundreds of concubines,) and most of my teachers would get a bemused smirk. I’d hate that because it would fly in the face of their preaching on sexual ethics, how that should be massively sinful.

    My takeaway eventually became that if your a “powerful ManawGod,” some of those pesky sex rules get brushed under the table. Then that helped explain why so many pastors get wrapped up in sex scandals…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    Actually, polyandry is a kind (subset) of polygamy. It’s polygyny when it’s specifically multiple wives. Same root as “gynecologist”, if that helps mnemonically.

  • http://twitter.com/mcclure111 mcc

    The problem is that when we talk about polygamy we’re usually talking about polygyny, and usually a very particular kind of patriarchal polygyny. For some reason it’s easier for our culture to take an extremist Mormon breakaway commune more seriously than a bunch of san francisco queers talking about open relationships, so when the plural marriage question comes up the Mormon breakaway commune is the model we think of.

    When people make the tossoff comment that same-sex marriage might lead to legal polygamy, my response is… well, I don’t use that particular word, but that’s sort of *my* goal next yes? I know a group of three people in a balanced three-person marriage (not a man with two wives– one man with two wives and two women who each have a wife and a husband) who are raising a child. The child only bears the genetic material of two of the three parents, but they are not raising the child as if it is “more” the child of any one of the parents than any other. Despite this being the way they look at it, one of the three parents has no legal rights whatsoever– no legal recognition she is involved with the other two, no legal relationship with the child, no maternity leave from her employer (who *does* offer same-sex maternity leave otherwise), no hospital rights, no nothing. She can probably get something like power of attorney for the hospital rights stuff, she might be able to bully her employer into granting parentage-related benefits, but in general for every tiny victory she’s going to be doing the same tooth-and-nail fighting a same-sex couple would have had to in 1995. Except in 1995 there was an organized (if embryonic) effort to start getting legal recognition of same-sex couples and there really isn’t any equivalent plan I’m aware of to bring any kind of legal recognition to situations like the one my three friends are in. My friends are three of the most organized, capable, loving people I know and I feel they’re going to do a better job raising their child (or children, if they have another) than most parents I’ve ever met, and I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to convince me they deserve fewer legal privileges than I do in my own completely normal lil’ two person lesbian marriage.

  • KNicoll

    I was struck, back when I was at the hearings for marriage rights for same-sex couples when they were had before a relevant committee here in Massachusetts, by the fact that I am apparently the monster in some people’s closets.  “This will lead to … polygamy!” one man said, as if his portentous proclamation would be followed up with a “dun dun dunnnnn”.

    Being the monster in the closet is exhausting, but I had to laugh.  Still do.  Because otherwise I’ll scream.  (Yeah, I’m so weird that the fear of me is used to motivate people to act against the legal security of my friends.  I may scream anyway.  Fucksake.)

    (Meanwhile, I’m reminded I need to bounce the draft wills to the other members of the family to try to keep the kids with surviving parents if something dreadful happens.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/angelia.sparrow Angelia Sparrow

    The way my churches always approached it was to say “Yes. look at the problems that arose from all those women. Monogamous marriages in the Bible don’t have nearly the same amount of strife. So clearly, we are being shown by negative example that polygamy is bad.”

    God himself is depicted as a polygamist in Ezekiel. 

  • ReverendRef

     I once had a student who argued (in an early draft of a public speaking assignment) that gay marriage would lead to polyphony.

    Well from what I’ve seen, most high churches (the smells and bells type) tend to attract more gay people, that student was probably right.  Do you think they had this in mind?:

    http://youtu.be/YiD6yuH-eLs

  • ReverendRef

     I once had a student who argued (in an early draft of a public speaking assignment) that gay marriage would lead to polyphony.

    Well from what I’ve seen, most high churches (the smells and bells type) tend to attract more gay people, that student was probably right.  Do you think they had this in mind?:

    http://youtu.be/YiD6yuH-eLs

  • Lunch Meat

    Easily. It’s explicitly discouraged for clergy (overseers should be “the husband of one wife”); it doesn’t fit with the broader move towards equality that Fred mentions; and the New Testament supersedes the Old anyway.

    Remember, Jesus himself sets the precedent for overruling the previous laws and customs on multiple occasions. He either loosens the rules (“Thus he declared all foods clean” or “What God has called clean, you must not call common”) or tightens them (“Moses told you to offer a certificate of divorce, but I say that whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery”) according to the larger, deeper meaning of the rules. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” For us, polygamy is wrong; for Moses, it was fine, because at that point the rule had not yet been established.

    Hang on a second. First of all, the rules for clergy don’t apply to everyone else; they’re higher standards for a reason. It may be better to be in a monogamous relationship; that doesn’t mean polygamy is wrong. Second, it’s possible for a >2 person relationship to be equal. Third, the NT may supersede the OT but that doesn’t mean we can just discount something the OT condones and invent a rule against it. Jesus sets the precedent, but he never mentioned polygamy. “the rule had not yet been established”–what rule?

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.mcirvin Matt McIrvin

    That article’s explaining the problems with polygynous societies. I don’t see extending legal recognition to poly relationships as necessarily meaning we become a polygynous society.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.mcirvin Matt McIrvin

    …that Slate article is frustrating: it seems to claim that poly households aside from patriarchal Mormon splinter group polygamy don’t exist.

  • KNicoll

    Welcome to my reality.  I’ve had arguments with other poly people about whether or not I – with my two husbands – am really polygamous.

  • Isabel C.

     Yep, I had that happen in my high school public speaking class. Resident Douchebag was all “…and then what’s to stop *three* people from getting married?” and, during the critique section, I said something about how if he was going to use it as a threat, he needed to explain why it was a problem.
    At which point the teacher told me that everyone would find that obvious. Sigh.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    And why should clergy be held to higher standards of anything that has nothing to do with how they relate to their congregation? A preacher can be the world’s most upstanding monogamous teetotaller and be a total bore in the church.

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    “I haven’t heard the gatekeepers say much about polygamy except as part of a desperate slippery-slope argument against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. ”

    Wow. Good point.

  • Daughter

     But that does raise the original question of Fred’s post. Jesus also says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And he says blessed are the peacemakers, and talks about resolving things before it goes to court, and forgiving seventy times seven, and that those who live by the sword die by the sword. Yet here is a man, making the argument that these Scriptures override the war and violence of the OT, and the evangelical tribe is ready to drum him out.

  • Parisienne

    On Solomon’s 700-strong harem. I think the fact is that he quite possibly *couldn’t* remember what half of them were called. I can’t imagine he saw most of them all that often.

    Compare the harem of Asaheurus in the book of Esther. Basically the way it works is that the women go through a year of beauty treatments before being packed off for one night in the king’s bed. If he likes them, he calls them back. If he doesn’t, they get shut up in the harem and forgotten about for the rest of their lives. At the time of the dramatic crisis in the book of Esther, she hasn’t been called into his presence for several weeks, and she’s supposedly his favourite. Others of them would never have been called back again.

    I find it ironic that Esther is often presented by churches as a romantic Disneyfied little fairytale story, to women especially. It really, really isn’t. It’s deeply horrible. (In a way, I kind of prefer this. Disney didn’t write the script to my life, and I’d rather see the book of Esther as a tale of extreme courage in the face of a frankly appalling situation.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to convince me they deserve
    fewer legal privileges than I do in my own completely normal lil’ two
    person lesbian marriage.

    Yeah, but how are you going to get there from here? In a two-person marriage, if one spouse dies, the other gets a given percentage of the estate unless the will says the surviving spouse gets more. In at least some places, that’s one third. In a three-person marriage where one dies (no will), does each surviving spouse get one third or do they split one third between them? If it’s ‘each’, what’s left for other beneficiaries of the decedent in a four-person marriage? What happens if it’s a five-person marriage? In a three-person marriage, is it Anne and Bob are both married to Cathy but not to each other, or Anne and Bob and Cathy are all married to each other? If the first, what’s the legal relation between Anne and Bob? What happens in either scenario if Anne then wants to marry Debbie too?

  • christopher_y

    As I understand it (open to correction here), back in the day it was common practice for kings to confirm treaties and alliances by exchanging royal women (think of it as the bronze age equivalent of confirmation by the Senate). So if you were a diplomatically successful king, you’d quite quickly find yourself with a couple of dozen foreign princesses hanging around your palace; and since they were princesses, they each had a substantial retinue of handmaidens etc., and the more senior handmaidens would have had attendants of their own, and so it wouldn’t take long for the population of your women’s quarters to get into the hundreds.

    Of course your royal propagandists would credit all these to you as your concubines, just as they would round up the numbers of your army and your treasury and anything else that would make you look more powerful. 

    I think we’ve made progress since then. Probably.

  • Stentor

    @EllieMurasaki: Those are questions that don’t have immediately obvious consensus answers, but they’re hardly questions that are fundamentally unanswerable. Any push for poly marriage that became strong enough to start getting legislative proposals on the table would, by that point, have answers worked out for such things.

  • Cathy W

    It’s certainly the case that the details need to be worked out – and it may be that the simplest way is “A poly marriage must come to the table with a prenuptial agreement that spells all this stuff out, including mechanisms for adding and subtracting partners” – but that doesn’t mean that it can never be made to work.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    If I were talking to someone who came from a culture where only the eldest child was understood to have any rights or external obligations with respect to their parents (e.g., only the eldest inherited when their parents died, only the eldest was held accountable for parental debts, only the eldest could make medical proxy decisions for the parents, etc. etc. etc.) and I explained to them that in the U.S., the standard model was that all children had these sorts of rights and obligations, I would expect similar sorts of incredulous questions.

    And my answer to all of them would be “Well, it depends. Generally, parents spell out inheritance in a will, and the courts enforce the terms of the will… though children can contest a will in court, and sometimes do so successfully. When someone dies intestate, there are some default ways things work, and again children can contest the will in court. For proxy decisions, any child generally is capable of making these decisions independently, so it’s first-one-past-the-gate, and if the children disagree they have to work it out amongst themselves somehow; if it gets too contentious again the courts step in and made a determination of how to proceed. For debts, the creditor generally hands the debt to whichever child seems the best bet for recovery, and again, if they can’t work it out the courts get involved. Etc.”

    And they might well shake their heads and say “Pfah, that’s too complicated and confusing. Our system is much simpler, there are only three people involved: the parents and the eldest child! Your system has any number of people involved, no wonder they can’t all agree and you need all these courts and judges and things!”

    And I would agree, their system would be simpler. It would merely be less just.

    And if they were explaining their system to someone from a culture where only the husband was understood to have any rights or external obligations with respect to the family, that third person might well say “Pfah, that’s too complicated and confusing. Our system is much simpler,
    there are only two people involved: the father and the eldest child!
    Your system has three people involved!”

    And I would agree, their system would be simpler. It would merely be less just.

    The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
    It does not bend towards simplicity.

  • Ursula L

    It’s certainly the case that the details need to be worked out – and it may be that the simplest way is “A poly marriage must come to the table with a prenuptial agreement that spells all this stuff out, including mechanisms for adding and subtracting partners” – but that doesn’t mean that it can never be made to work.

    I don’t think we want, as a society, to let the legal rights and obligations in a poly marriage be completely defined by the members of the marriage, any more than we let the rights and obligations of a two person marriage be completely defined by the people involved.

    Yes, a couple can make premarital agreements and wills that partially define their marriage.  But there are also laws that set the default rules, such as estate law creating a default will for everyone, in the absence of them making their own will.  And there are laws that override the will you might write, such as the “elective share” in New York’s estate law, which lets a surviving spouse claim a legally defined share of the estate, instead of whatever they were or were not granted in the will. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elective_share  (So one can’t completely disinherit a spouse, leaving them destitute.)  

    For example, as a society, we might decide that, even if some of the poly/Mormon type groups want to define their marriages as each wife being married to the husband, but not each other, all property held by the husband, etc. as a larger society we may insist that the law treats all of the people related by common marriage as equal to each other and equally related to each other.  

    I’m particularly hesitant to let laws about plural marriage be politically defined by looking to people currently in plural marriage, simply because the poly/Mormon groups are by far the most effectively organized block, and their religious customs should not be allowed to color the laws about plural marriage at the expense of principles such as equality.

  • KNicoll

    Certainly, if a law allowing group marriage were passed it would not help me, as I am not willing to perjure myself in order to get access to legal protections.

    I am not married to my husbands’ other wife, and if I were required to claim to be so I would say “fuck it” and continue to hack together what level protections I can manage that do not carry with them a lie about my relationship to that other person.

    (The fact that group marriage is seen as much more acceptable to some people than multiple marriage does not make it less shuddersomely horrifying to me, personally.)

  • Carstonio

    I haven’t heard the gatekeepers say much about polygamy except as part of a desperate slippery-slope argument against the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

    The gatekeepers describe same-sex marriage as inherently hedonistic, a sexual free-for-all, and they probably think of poly marriage the same way. I encounter quite a few people who treat opposite-sex monogamous marriage as a social obligation, partly to establish paternity.

  • Carstonio

    If we did create a workable legal instrument for poly and group marriages, I doubt that it would work much differently for one than for the other. It might not matter to the government whether the wives or husbands on one side of a poly marriage are married to each other or not. The government’s concern would be in safeguarding the rights and responsibilities of everyone in the marriage. Ursula is right that the legal goal is equal treatment.

  • Ursula L

    I am not married to my husbands’ other wife, and if I were required to claim to be so I would say “fuck it” and continue to hack together what level protections I can manage that do not carry with them a lie about my relationship to that other person.

    I’m not saying that the law should define the emotional nature of the relationship.

    I am saying that the law would need to treat people in such situations in an equal way.  If a person is added – whether married to one or married to all – then all must agree, if a person leaves – whether married to one or married to all – then the law must account for an equitable outcome for all, if one dies, then the law must address all survivors within the group equitably.  

    If one person has two spouses, who are not married to each other, those two still have economic and social links, via the shared spouse.  Both have a claim on the shared spouse’s resources, both have obligations towards the shared spouse, and both will have their personal social and economic condition affected by any change in the shared spouse’s relationship with the other, such as if one person divorces, and is owed child support, which would come out of the resources of the couple remaining married.  If the shared spouse wanted to take on a third spouse, who would not be married to the other two, the other two would still be effected, socially and economically, as the shared spouse’s attention and resources would now be divided among three spouses rather than two.  

    And if one spouse left, for the leaving spouse and the shared spouse are treated, in the divorce, as if the remaining spouse didn’t exist, and didn’t have a very real interest in the outcome, the outcome will almost certainly be unjust.  

    A lot of people kicked and screamed when marriage laws were rewritten and/or reinterpreted to create more equality between a husband and wife.  But equality before the law was correctly treated as more important than some people’s comfort with the old, unequal, situation.  


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