Polygamy in America?: A Warning From Jacob and His Children

Polygamy in America?: A Warning From Jacob and His Children March 6, 2023

Read Time: 15 minutes

As moral thought and action continue to corrode in America, the pressure to accept polyamorous relationships is mounting. Already 8 years ago, immediately after the passing of Obergefell vs. Hodges, law professors were entertaining the possibility of legalized polygamy. William Baude’s July 21, 2015 New York Times article is just one example of what many conservatives were warning about prior to the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage. Once marriage is unmoored from any pre-political foundation, as scholars like Robert P. George, Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis had argued, one deviation from the historical standard simply flows into the next. In fact, with the acceptance of the utterly nonsensical deviation from biological normativity that is Transgenderism, polygamy almost seems passé.

It is worth noting, however, that none of these new manifestations of human ingenuity are really new or ingenious. The desire of some men to be women, or vice-versa, as well as the desire of most men (and maybe some women) to have or possess many women (or men) is not novel. The desire to deviate from the norm has always existed, even if current technology and economic prosperity can facilitate the realization of those desires in novel ways. Today men can have moderately safe, anatomy-altering surgeries. The transvestites of yesteryear had to suffice with dressing up and applying rouge to fulfill their fantasies. Nevertheless, as society once again regresses to more barbaric, uncivilized and unhealthy ways of living (see Judges 19), it is important to analyze the nature of such shifts. We must have clarity on the problems associated with something like polygamy for at least two reasons.

First, as a theologically ignorant people, it is important to know why some things offend God. Second, we live in a society incapable of knowing what is good or bad for itself. Thus, is is urgent to demonstrate how obliterating sexual norms affects our humanity and each individual human. However, to understand some problems with polygamous relationships, we need go no further than the Bible itself. After all, the Bible is chock full of narratives of men and their many wives. The most illustrious of these are the patriarchs themselves, with the exception of Isaac. This includes later Israelite leaders: Moses, David and, most notorious of all, Solomon.

Were we living in biblical times, polygamy would not be some shocking anomaly. It would be relatively common, even if not the ideal standard. Given the reality of polygamy in ancient Israel, the community of God’s chosen people, why should we consider polygamy wrong today?

First, What Does the Bible Say About Polygamy

The first point to make is that the Bible only describes polygamous relationships to us. It never endorses or prescribes them. There is an allowance of polygamy on account of the Fall of man into a state of sin. Polygamy was not part of God’s original plan, something discernible both with and without the biblical revelation. Polygamous marriage was a contingency that emerged once Adam and Eve had already chosen their own will over the will and plan of their Creator.

However, in its description of polygamy, the Hebrew Bible does not explicitly proscribe it either. If we were still living under the Mosaic law, and within the Israelite community, it might be appropriate to have a polygamous marriage. This would be especially the case if one’s first wife were unable to bear children. In ancient times, children were much more than a means to satisfy one’s psychological longings and personal, emotional desires. Children were life: the lifeline of one’s corporate identity as a distinct people, as well as the helpers one would need to survive into old age. In ancient times, children were social security, not the SSA.

Still, even if we were living in ancient Israel, the allowance of a polygamous marriage would be less than ideal. It would still be a deviation from the standard. That standard is still found today in Genesis 1:26-28 and Genesis 2:18-24, and obviously it would have been known to ancient Israel. Of course, even an Israelite unfamiliar with the biblical revelation would have possessed enough evidence, like his pagan neighbors, to know that polygamy was not right. And that regardless of whether it was being actively practiced. For the moral law of God that exists within the created order, and which is accessible to all people, is never contradicted by any revealed command of God. Indeed, it was the Romans who discerned that monogamous marriage was at least better for the economy of a nation (which is not to say that Romans practiced sexual monogamy).

Thus, while there may be accommodations in the Mosaic law for a culture that practices polygamy (Exodus 21:10), there is no revealed law that commends it. In fact, given how God has designed nature, there is no revealed law that could commend it. It is possible God could have designed some other world in which polygamy was moral, healthy and good for His creatures. But, that is not the actual world that God created. Because of the way we are made, our true self will always suffer if we pursue any polyamorous sexual relationships.

Later, Jesus will remind the Jews of the original, divinely-constructed design for marriage, namely one man and one woman in lifelong monogamy (Mk 10:2-8, Matt 19:5). Of course, Jesus was able to take his audience back to that original design plan, and do so with authority, because He is the One who created the plan (Jn 1:1-4; Col 1:15-17)! Any Christian today who suggests that Jesus would have been okay with same-sex marriage, or polygamy, or any other deviation from the norm is, in effect, either denying that Jesus is God, the Creator, or that God is a God of order. For if Jesus were to condone same-sex or polygamous marriage, He would be contradicting His own creation.

Nevertheless, as far as the Old Testament is concerned, the problems with polygamy are mentioned only indirectly. However, the careful reader will find that polygamy, while an accommodation, is not an ideal to be upheld or societal structure to be promoted. Any culture that practices polygamy, will have to suffer the consequences of that practice.

Jacob, His Wives And Their Children: A Case Study in Polygamy

Jacob, of course, is one of the patriarchs whose many marriages we are quite familiar with. As such, Jacob’s story is illuminating as to some of the problems that emerge within a polygamous context. From the start of his exile in the land of his father, Abram, at his uncle Laban’s household, Jacob is enamored with one woman and one woman only: Rachel.

Now Laban had two daughter; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel….So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.

Genesis 29:16-20

Unfortunately, for various reasons, Jacob winds up not only marrying Rachel, his true love, but three others. In one of the most memorable instances of poetic justice, Jacob, the trickster, is duped by his uncle into marrying the older Leah (Gen 29:21-30). Then, upon discovering that Rachel cannot bear children, Rachel gives Jacob her maid Bilhah as a concubine. Finally, when Leah stops bearing children, she gives Jacob her servant, Zilpah, as a fourth wife.

That Leah is unloved is made explicit in the text (Gen 29:31). It is the Lord God who, seeing Leah in her distress, just as He saw Hagar in hers (Gen 16), compensates her for Jacob’s lack of affection by granting her Jacob’s first son, Reuben. One further assumes from later, narratival details, especially Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph and Benjamin, Rachel’s children, that Jacob similarly had little time or affection for Bilhah or Zilpah. The rest is, as they say, history.

But, it is a painful history. Jacob’s capacity for love as a husband was only meant for one woman, for Rachel. His parental love was also only meant for one set of children, those from the woman he loved. It is his love for Rachel which causes him to not only favor Rachel, but also Rachel’s children, Joseph especially. His favoritism reaches to the point of neglecting his other children. The coat of many colors, or “ornamented tunic,” was an intentional sign of Jacob’s preference:

At seventeen year of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the son of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.

Genesis 37:2-4

Once Joseph starts having dreams of what seems to be a special calling from God, any hope for a healthy relationship between Joseph and his brothers is effectively over. The enmity of Joseph’s brothers toward their father’s favorite son culminates in one of the most significant crimes in history. It is a crime that nearly recreates the first murder in history, Cain’s killing of his brother Abel.

God may be the ultimate cause of Jacob and Joseph’s story, and Israel’s subsequent history. However, the proximate cause of the tragic ingress into Egypt is Jacob’s emotional neglect of his other wives and their sons. This inability to love his other wives and their offspring acts as the catalyst for 400 years of oppression in Egypt. In the end, God uses these human weaknesses and deficiencies to accomplish His overarching plans. Joseph himself points this out in the final reconciliation with his brothers (Gen 50:19-21). Nevertheless, as with everything biblical, the reader is left to wonder if its characters had only acted more wisely, could it not have been easier on everyone?

Ultimately every instance of polygamy in the Old Testament is described as ending badly. Not one instance of a polygamous marriage in the Bible can be considered exemplary. In fact, if they are examples, they are only examples of what not to do. Jacob’s polygamy leads to slavery. David’s leads to his son trying to usurp him, and Solomon’s many wives lead to the apostasy of an entire nation. The writing about polygamy in the Bible is clearly on the wall.

A Brief Theology of “One Man-One Woman For Life”

From the particular case of Jacob and his wives and their children, we detect one fundamental feature of human beings which makes polygamy a very bad idea. Human beings are designed to give themselves wholly to one person and one person only. As soon as multiple people are introduced into an intimate, relational space, this giving of one’s entire self cannot happen. For one cannot divide and distribute one’s physical and psychical energies over two, let alone three or more, persons. At some point, the second, third and fourth wife (or husband) receives only a portion of one’s self. Moreover, the history of men having children from multiple women is a history of neglect, abandonment and abuse.

In Jacob’s case, not even his beloved Rachel received all of him. For even if that were his deepest desire, he could not practically fulfill it given the demands of his other wives. In turn, because the other wives did not possess Jacob’s most genuine affections, they, and their children, suffered. The only reason for their pain: none of them were Rachel. Finally, there are the men who might have been able to marry Jacob’s other wives and give them, and their children, what they needed. However, these proleptic husbands were prevented from doing so due to Laban’s trickery, Rachel and Leah’s competitiveness (Gen 30:1-24), and Jacob’s allowance of it all.

Thus, while God permitted polygamy within the context of ancient Israel, we can see from Jacob’s story, as well as from the stories of Lamech, Abraham, David, Solomon and others, that polygamy is not worth pursuing. There are deep, ontological reasons for this. In one of his most profound writings, Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II explains the theology of the biblical design for marriage. First, with regard to the physical aspects of marriage, Wojtyla writes:

Consequently, sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is by no means something purely biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present: if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally.

Sex is far more than a biological exchange. Everyone knows this, no matter how hard our culture tries to separate body from soul. There has never been casual sex. Every sexual encounter is riddled with ontological profundity. To give one’s body to another is to share one’s soul with the other. Can this been done without genuine commitment and authentic love? Hardly.

And yet we think we can share our souls with many people. But it isn’t possible. It fractures us to do so, and, as Wojtyla points out, we wind up withholding something of ourselves in the sexual act, usually so as not to be hurt or become vulnerable. We commit a kind of lie when we sleep with someone, yet withhold our full self from them. Usually it is the man who commits this lie, but these days it is just as likely the woman- a truly pitiable fact of our culture.

Thus, the one man-one woman for life paradigm provides the only “safe space” where we can actually engage in the enterprise of sharing our souls fully with another:

The only “place” in which this self-giving in its whole truth is made possible is marriage, the covenant of conjugal love freely and consciously chosen, whereby man and woman accept the intimate community of life and love willed by God Himself which only in this light manifests its true meaning. The institution of marriage is not an undue interference by society or authority, nor the extrinsic imposition of a form. Rather it is an interior requirement of the covenant of conjugal love which is publicly affirmed as unique and exclusive, in order to live in complete fidelity to the plan of God, the Creator. A person’s freedom, far from being restricted by this fidelity, is secured against every form of subjectivism or relativism and is made a sharer in creative Wisdom.

No person has the capacity to fully and completely love another human being, or to be fully and completely loved by another. We simply do not have the knowledge, the energy, or the will to do so. Not even within heterosexual, life-long marriage does this happen. Nevertheless, monogamous marriage is the only place where it even has a chance of succeeding.

As our culture plummets further into sexual chaos, and the push for polygamy increases, we must step back and realize that not only does polygamy break with God’s plan, an offense to our Creator, but it will break us. It will break us economically as a nation, psychologically as families, and spiritually as individuals. Polygamy is a bad idea, and if it is normalized in American society, it will end America as we know it. Jacob’s polygamy lead to 400 years of slavery in a foreign land. We should take a lesson from that, lest we fall back into bondage.

Is This Really A Good Idea?
About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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