Polygamy is biblical, is it therefore moral?

Polygamy is biblical, is it therefore moral? February 26, 2013

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.


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  • KNicoll

    Don’t forget “people who want to be able to understand literary references”!

  • AnonymousSam

    I was counting those as historians, although maybe they’d fall under literary historians to be specific…

    Or maybe we should just count pedants in general, if that makes the peanut gallery happy. *Mock-glare*

  • mcc

    Is pedantism a religion

  • AnonymousSam

    Yes, and its tenets are strict, inflexible, and when based on the English translations of their scripture, simultaneously arbitrary and derivative. :D

  • Leum

     My apologies, Dave. I should have said that’s what legal marriage is about. It’s obviously about more than that, but I thought we were just discussing the legal ramifications, since those are the only ones that are relevant in terms of extending marriage to groups currently denied the right to a legally recognized marriage.

    The distinction is important to me. After Lawrence v Texas I can, as far as I’m concerned, be married in any state I wish to be. That is, I would feel perfectly entitled to call myself “married” if I had a partner and we’d had a formal commitment ceremony, even if the government refused to recognize the marriage. I want same-sex marriage legally recognized not so that I can get married, but so I can gain access to the special privileges that the law would grant me wrt my partner and any children we adopt.

  • There was at least one case of a gay couple who used adoption to form a legal bond. I can’t remember any more than that.

    And of course any right can be abused occasionally, which isn’t generally an argument against it. So the bit about immunity from being compelled to give testemony is hardly a serious argument against polyamory (and I don’t think Ross was presenting it as such). I just found it amusing.

    I have seen (on Daylight Atheism), an argument that all poly marriages should legally be group marriages, for some of the reasons mentioned here (and also, they said, because long-chain marriages could be used to circumvent immigration law, whereas people were less likely to use group marriages to the same effect: I don’t know how serious that objection was).

    Meanwhile, multiple marriages remain both legally and logistically complicated. (That article is an investigation of how we embed our values in our technology.)


  • mcc

    Personally I do usually intentionally use the “privileges” language rather than the “rights” language when discussing marriage, because although I do believe marriage rights are rights, I also have another point I want to drive home: If people are receiving government privileges, *I deserve them too*.

    I do feel like the “privileges” language went to a kind of a weird place in this thread though. I’m not sure I look at things like, for example, FMLA as a “privilege” of marriage. Rather it seems like someone who is raising a child has a particular *need*, an obligation, which someone else would not have; FMLA is a government way of getting that need accommodated, and marriage is how the government happens to determine who appropriately needs that accommodation. This particular way of figuring out who needs the accommodation will fit many cases, because a child being raised by its married parents is a common case— but IMO this does not cover enough cases in the Modern World Of Today. Similarly, many of the other things about marriage we might describe as “privileges” are not really like special gifts or anything but simply mirrors to marriage’s obligations. You receive these things not because the government decides that your Marriage is so super special that you deserve extra perks, but because they are things that, as a person in a committed relationship, you need.

  • No apology required, but I still disagree with you.

    I was “married” in the sense you use in the second paragraph nearly twenty years ago. Getting married in Massachusetts nevertheless made a difference to me, and would have made the same difference even if all of the “special privileges” afforded to married couples were removed from the law.

    What difference? The difference between my family being treated like other people’s families, and my family not being treated like other people’s families.

    If that’s not a difference that matters to you, that’s fine, I’m not saying it has to.

  • Then why do you care about legal recognition of marriage? WHy not just call yourself married and leave the state out of it?

  • So for starters, I think that like with same-sex marriage, it should be
    the obligation of those taking the position that we should restrict
    privileges to show there’s a state interest to restrict– not the
    obligation of those saying, my relationship should work like those other
    relationships to show there’s a state interest in equal treatment.

    ANd I think that, unlike with same-sex marriage, if the state is to create a new legally priviliged class, the onus is on the state to show a compelling interest for making them privileged. .

    Under FMLA each individual gets 12 weeks of *unpaid* leave. This is a
    pretty crappy right. You’re suggesting there’s something selfish about
    all the parents of a child wanting to take unpaid work leave to spend
    time with a newborn without getting fired, which strikes me as a
    somewhat crass complaint

    It certainly does suck.  It is a crappy right. But it’s a right that exists, and after 24 weeks, my child needed to find someone who wasn’t his parents to care for him*. And you say that it’s “just” that if I had been inclined to get me an extra husband or an extra wife, my child could put that off for another 12 weeks?

    How am I suggesting that it is selfish for the parents of a child to want to take unpaid leave? How am I suggesting that what the parents want has anything to do with it?

    (*Actually, 12 weeks as per 825.120(3))

  • Because legal recognition is one of the ways that  my culture acknowledges a family as a family. If other people are entitled to it, and I’m not, then my family is not being treated like other people’s families.

  • Carstonio

    Good perspective. Instead of saying one has a right to get married, I say that one has a right to equal protection under the law. If government is going to accommodate the obligations of marriage, it has to do so for all marriages.

  • unlike with same-sex marriage, if the state is to create a new legally priviliged class, the onus is on the state to show a compelling interest for making them privileged

    Can you clarify why it’s different for same-sex marriage?

    I mean, in 2000, my husband couldn’t be covered by my health insurance. Now, he can be. It follows that same-sex couples now have privileges we didn’t have in 2000. Why isn’t the onus on the state to show a compelling interest for making us privileged in this way?

    Just to be clear, I agree that it isn’t, but my reason for believing that is that we should treat families the same. You don’t seem to believe we should treat families the same, so I’m curious about your reasons for supporting extending marriage privileges to previously unprivileged couples like mine?

  • Carstonio

    How does legal marriage for poly relationships create a legally privileged class? 

  • mcc

    “ANd I think that, unlike with same-sex marriage, if the state is to create a new legally priviliged class, the onus is on the state to show a compelling interest for making them privileged.”

    The position of same-sex marriage opponents is that same-sex marriage *does* create a new legally privileged class. You don’t have any clear sense in which you can distinguish your argument from theirs, and if we accept your arguments we probably must accept many of theirs.

    “But it’s a right that exists, and after 24 weeks, my child needed to find someone who wasn’t his parents to care for him”

    I would assume the rationale for something like FMLA is not just the need for a caretaker but also an acknowledgement that it is a good idea for a newborn child to spend time around those that will be raising it. At any rate however if there is some individual who has a need to take unpaid time off but who the FMLA does not currently cover, I would consider this a defect in the FMLA and thus an argument for expanding the FMLA rather than a justification to deny *other* government rights and privileges to a random societally scorned group which happens to be unusually impacted by this feature of the FMLA. Frankly, an abstracted FMLA which expanded FMLA rights to any designated “caretaker” of the child (thus providing the benefit to poly families without creating a situation where poly families receive any more benefit than other kinds of extended families) would be far more likely to pass than a law which in any way involved legal registration of a polyamorous relationship.

    One last thing. The reasoning you are using here is not reasoning we use when weighing the justness of other laws. You are suggesting that because a poly family would receive more benefit from the FMLA, that this would make poly benefits under the FMLA unjust. However, we have many laws in which some citizens “naturally” benefit more from the law than others simply because they have more occasion to make use of it, and this is not usually treated as a defect. The existing FMLA, for example, has this property. Someone who has more children will, over time, be able to use more FMLA off-weeks than someone who has few. A married couple will receive twice as much FMLA time as a single mother. We see similar patterns with other laws. A law giving government coverage for catastrophic illness will naturally benefit people who become sick more than people who do not. Many laws involving protection from theft or tax structuring of property, will naturally provide more benefit to those who have more property. If the circumstantially unequal benefits provided by these existing laws is not by itself treated as a violation of equal protection, this suggests that there would be something suspicious about singling out *only* those benefits that would give relatively more benefit to this one particular type (more romantic partners) of larger families. (We *do* see complaints that laws like affirmative action or the Voting Rights Act are unfair because they provide relatively more benefit to racial minorities; I find these complaints also suspicious.)

  •  Are you deliberately misreading me, or do you really not see that I am claiming that it would not be treating families the same? Because I’ve given examples. With numbers.

    Legal recognition of plural marriage would of necessity entail giving those families not “the same” privileges as all other families, but a new set of privileges which are greater than those we give to all other families.  In my family, if I am put on trial, I get one person who can’t be compelled to testify against me. Someone in a three-party-marriage family gets two.  In my family, the pitiful scraps of unpaid medical leave we get to take for the birth of a child is 24 weeks; in the three-party-married family, it’s 36. In my family, I’m exempted from certain taxes and fees on transfers of wealth to and from one other person; someone in a three-party marriage gets that with two people.

    And if you try to resolve this by modifying the various rights and privileges granted by marriage, you’re either taking away what existing married couples have, or you’re creating some new kind of marriage-like situation for the plurally married rather than giving them “the same” marriage as everyone else — and why isn’t that just like “Why aren’t you same-sex couples happy with civil unions?”

  • Tricksterson

    Unless you’re me as a teenager.

  • Tricksterson

    I woudn’t marry a taoster but I might marry a skinjob provided it was a Six or Eight.

  • Tricksterson

    And at least one worshiper of Celestia and Luna.  Not going to use the term Brony because not all bronies are religious.  Although I suppose Reynard could be squezzed into the pagan file, I don’t want to do so without hir permission.

  • Tricksterson

    Actually I have to wonder why  a spouse shouldn’t be compelled to testify.

  • There are in fact several valid reasons to remove spousal privilege: one would be to take away a tool abusive husbands can use to collapse a case against them, since their wife would not perjure herself or otherwise incur contempt charges by failing to testify upon invoking spousal privilege.

  • AnonymousSam

    While I’m not going to dismiss pony worshipers or Jedi or the Church of Kopimism, I’ve yet to meet any whose faith seemed more sincere than tongue-in-cheek — or for whom it could actually be called “faith” and not “philosophy loosely based upon.”

    Those who do no harm can believe whatever they feel called to believe, though. There are many things I don’t believe that I am content to let others enjoy.

  • I understand that a three-adult family (call that F3a for convenience) ends up with a different set of numbers associated with their benefits (e.g., two protected witnesses, 36 weeks, etc.) than a two-adult family (F2a), as you describe.

    And I understand that you consider those different numbers to be “a new set of privileges” that F3a gets, and that this means we wouldn’t be treating F3a and F2a the same even if we applied the same laws to them both.

    So, if those understandings are correct, then I’m not misreading you. But I’m not sure I agree with you about what treating families the same looks like, either.

    For example: today, a two-adult-and-one-child family (F2a1c) ends up with a different set of
    numbers than a two-adult-and-five-child family (F2a5c). F2a5c gets 5 child dependents on their taxes, for example, while F2a1c only gets one.

    If I apply the same reasoning you seem to use here, it seems to follow that we don’t treat F2a1c and F2a5c the same; F2a5c receives a
    “new set of privileges” that F2a1c doesn’t.

    Would you agree with that? Or would you say that we treat F2a1c and F2a5c the same today, despite each of them getting different numbers?

    If you would say we treat F2a1c and F2a5c the same, but we’d be treating F3a and F2a differently, can you say more about how those cases differ?

    Conversely, if you would agree that today we treat F2a1c and F2a5c differently, how do you recommend we deal with that? Is that a problem we need to fix somehow? Or is it OK that different families get different numbers?

  • Plus, you could effectively make it illegal to be the spouse of a criminal, since they’d have to choose between perjuring themselves or ratting out their spouses.

    Wait, no, that’s actually not a good thing.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Actually I have to wonder why a spouse shouldn’t be compelled to testify.

    Historically it’s because a husband-wife pair were legally the same person, I believe. But that’s no longer true.

  • Excuse me, how do you get from removing spousal privilege in a trial to being illegal to be a spouse? This chain of logic, I do not brain it.

  • @Invisible_Neutrino:disqus : “Your honor, clearly the defendant’s wife knew or should have known about his illegal activities. Since she did not testify against him, she is therefore an accessory.”

  • If it bothers you that much, the law can carve out specific exemptions to spousal privilege that negate it when charges of assault, battery, rape, or attempted murder are laid which involve the husband against his wife.

    Addendum: The terminology I use above encompasses the statistical majority of gender distributions in spousal harm cases. None of this is to be taken as negating the possibility of same-sex partners, or with the genders reversed in terms of harmer and the one being harmed.

  • Ursula L

    “Your honor, clearly the defendant’s wife knew or should have known about his illegal activities. Since she did not testify against him, she is therefore an accessory.”

    That might not be such a bad thing. 

    At least for certain categories of crime, such as abuse of children within the household.  If spouse A is beating the children, spouse B is in the best position both to directly witness the beatings, to see evidence of the beatings such as bruises, when doing child care activities like helping the child bathe, and to see changes in the children’s behavior.  Both spouses also have a specific obligation to protect and care for the children within their household.

    Otherwise, it comes out much like the Catholic hierarchy using the privacy of the confessional as an excuse to cover up when priests abuse children.  The intimacy of the relationship between adults trumping the duty of adults to protect children within their care. 

    There are actually two types of spousal privilege – the right of one spouse not to be forced to testify against the other, and the right of a spouse to have communications between spouses kept confidential, even if the other wants to testify. 

    I can see the sense of the first, in some situations, although I’d toss it when it comes to crimes committed within the household against members of the household. 

    I’d toss the latter completely.  If spouse A tells spouse B in private that spouse A murdered someone, with lots of corroborating details, and spouse B goes to the police and wants to testify, spouse A should not be able to stop it. 

  • mcc

    “Are you deliberately misreading me, or do you really not see that I am claiming that it would not be treating families the same … Legal recognition of plural marriage would of necessity entail giving those families not ‘the same’ privileges as all other families, but a new set of privileges which are greater than those we give to all other families.”

    You’re claiming this, but it is not credible. The privileges are the same per individual; they’re larger across the group, but they’re the same per individual. (If not the same per individual, in your examples they’re at least the same per any two pairs of married individuals.) If the group collectively receives more benefits between them, this happens at the same time that the obligations per individual also increase (i.e. financial or other responsibility for your other spouses’ deeds; spousal support for 3 people rather than 1 person, etc); in some cases, the privilege can be said to be specifically needed in order to meet one of those obligations. For example, the situation you yourself identify where a spouse needs spousal testimonial immunity in order to protect their *own* fifth amendment rights (given the necessary entangling of an individual’s affairs with their spouse, community property laws etc). Here the increased “privilege” (more people you receive immunity from) is balanced by an increased obligation (more people you receive liability from).

    Overall, you’re acting as if we should in all cases judge fairness based on how raw numbers line up comparing benefits received per whole marriage collective– as opposed to comparing benefits received per individual, or benefits received per dyad, or benefits received per obligation. This is arbitrary, and in some cases leads to absurdities. You’re then claiming that a single privilege, which applies to one of these collectives with greater strength than the other, should in fact be thought of as a completely different privilege, which is not convincing. As Dave points out, this kind of thinking would lead us to conclude all kinds of strange things if we applied it to existing, non-poly-related laws.

    In any case, these things you raise are at *worst* not blockages on the abstract idea of poly marriage, just things to be addressed by a poly marriage implementation. Let’s say that the electorate, or a court, decide it would be unfair for a 3-person marriage to collectively receive 36 weeks of FMLA unpaid-leave time, but a 2-person marriage to only collectively receive 24. Okay, fine. Rewrite the law so that any married collective receives 24 weeks total per child, to be split between the members as deemed appropriate. This would surely be no more work to toss in than any of the other dozens of patches to various points of the law that would be needed to make the law no longer gibberish in the context that spousal relationships are no longer exclusive. *I* might consider this particular 24-weeks-total patch unfair to the *poly* couple, but certainly if we make the patch then your objection no longer exists (and we have made the patch without at all reducing the rights of a married couple).