What does it mean to claim the Bible is authoritative? We can turn this inside out with this: How do we frame the authority of the Bible? Is it as simple as “the Bible says it, do it”? Or … and this is why so many of us value the voice of Tom Wright in this discussion. His newest book, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, is both a revision and an expansion of his former book The Last Word, and it examines the authority of God in the Bible. Two examples are used, and we looked at one last Wednesda (Sabbath) and today we examine his second example: Monogamy.
It is not just that the OT has some “famous biblical polygamists,” people who are used by polygamists as support for their polygamy (because they think the Bible is authoritative), but there are laws that assume polygamy. It won’t do, then, just to say “those polygamists were wrong.” It’s one thing to have a bad example in a story; it’s another to have laws that seemingly underwrite or at least assume polygamy. So, we’ve got Deuteronomy 21:15-17:
15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.
As I argued inThe Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible , this is just the sort of “blue parakeet” passage that gets us to think more carefully about how we read the Bible. What does Wright say then?
First, we need to realize there are lots of polygamists in the Bible and they are not condemned always, and we need to realize that just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s authoritative (or normative, or prescriptive), but that doesn’t really solve the problem. Polygamy’s presence in the laws means it can’t be dismissed as easily.
Second, something is at work in the Pauline Pastoral epistles’ statements about leaders that states that monogamy is the norm: 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:6. Tom understands “one woman man” (NIV has “faithful to his wife”) to be “non polygamous.” This implies some are polygamous; it implies also that the Christians stand for something else: monogamy.
Third, the NT is stricter at times the OT — and this undercuts the argument that the OT was law and the NT grace and soft.
Why? That’s his fourth point, and it’s the critical one: the project of God in God’s mission for the world is to restore creation into new creation, and the original creation was the marriage of one man and one woman.
Fifth, and here some will disagree: both Jesus and Paul make the Mosaic laws temporary dispensations. I quote Tom on Jesus (and here Jesus is talking to Jews, not Gentiles): “Jesus is saying [in “Moses gave you that command … but from the beginning of creation…”] that the entire Mosaic code was, in principle, a temporary dispensation, designed to advance a larger project which has now arrived…” (188). And “with his arrival the temporary dispensation of the Mosaic Law… has done its God-given job.” Creation gives way to new creation and when it does, we are to “read the specific codes of the Old Testament as provisional and [a] temporary means to that larger end.”
God thus overlooked the times of ignorance. New creation establishes monogamy. We cannot read the Bible in the flat but as “a story with different movements” (194).