The Bible and the Practice of Polygamy

polygamyBy Eric Johnson

Nobody doubts that polygamy played a vital role for the second half of the nineteenth century in the religion of Mormonism. Because the practice sounds unnatural, many Latter-day Saints are very protective of this teaching. A common tactic that is used is to utilize the Bible to show how the biblical saints married multiple women.

In the September/October 2015 issue of the Christian Research Journal, Richard M. Davidson wrote an article titled “Condemnation and Grace: Polygamy and Concubinage in the Old Testament” (Vol. 38, No. 5, pp. 32-37). (Following this article is one I wrote titled “Plural Marriage and Joseph Smith: A PR Nightmare in Mormonism”, pp. 38-43.) I found Davidson’s article fascinating and even quoted from it in my piece. What I’d like to do is deal with two specific issues dealt with by Davidson to show how using the Bible in a support of plural marriage is just not as helpful as many Mormons might think.

Stereotype Number 1: God commanded His people to participate in plural marriages.

Response: According to Genesis 2:24, the original intention was one man and one woman. It reads, That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This idea is reemphasized in Ephesians 5:31, which states, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” God’s original intention is that a man and a woman would be united. Paul uses this same analogy in the preceding verses in Ephesians. It reads in verses 25-30:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.

How is it possible to link anyone (besides the spouse) to the groom? God is called a “jealous God” and does not want to be shared. He even had the prophet Hosea marry Gomer who was adulterous. Referring to Gomer, Hosea 2:5 says,

Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, “I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.”

As Davidson accurately points out,

Monogamy is ultimately rooted in monotheism and in the concept of imago Dei (image of God); just as the Lord God, who is “one” (Deut. 6:4), is not involved in promiscuous relationships within a polytheistic pantheon, so husbands and wives, created in God’s image, are to be monogamous in their marital relationship with each other. However, a distortion of the creation design for monogamy manifests itself during Old Testament times in the practice of polygamy and concubinage. (p. 34)

It is vital to understand that, while God did allow for plural marriages, it was never commanded by Him. Just like divorce—which Malachi 2:16 says God “hates”—so did he allow for plural marriage. It is an argument from silence, however, to say that this was a practice commanded by God.

Stereotype Number 2: The practice of polygamy by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—among others—legitimizes this biblical practice.

Joseph Smith erred when he wrote Doctrine and Covenants 132. According to a Gospel Topics essay on this passage: “The revelation, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, states that Joseph prayed to know why God justified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in having many wives. The Lord responded that He had commanded them to enter into the practice.” First things first: Isaac was not a polygamist.

In addition, just because people in the Bible practice a certain behavior does not necessarily mean that it is legitimized by God. If this is the case, then perhaps Lot’s incest with his daughters ought to be commended in Genesis 19:30-38 because the Bible never specifically says that what they did was wrong. Of course, we know it’s wrong, especially when we understand what the writings of Moses explain as well as the consequences of their actions. In the Genesis 19 passage, we see that Lot’s relationship with his daughters ended up creating Moab and Ben-Ammi, whose descendants (the Moabites and the Ammonites) became the terrible enemies of Israel. If someone is looking for a verse that says that “Lot and his daughters did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord,” he or she will never find that passage.

While plural marriage was a biblical practice for some—notably, Jacob, David and Solomon—it certainly was not the normative. After the time of Solomon in the 10th century BC, plural marriage doesn’t appear to be practiced, including by all of the prophets of God. In the New Testament times, polygamy doesn’t appear to be an option for the Christian believers. When Paul talks about the rules for marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, plural marriage is not even discussed. Verse 2 assumes monogamy when it says,

But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.

Grant Palmer makes a great point when he writes,

It seems highly improbable however, that God would bring back or “restore” an ancient cultural custom that was not a doctrine. There is no evidence in the Old or New Testament that God commanded or directed any prophet or king to practice polygamy. It was a cultural thing practiced as a preference by some. Personal relationships within polygamist families were difficult and not very successful in the Old Testament. More important, none of the Old or New Testament prophets, including Jesus, said that polygamy or monogamy was necessary for reaching celestial glory. Conversely, Joseph Smith taught, “No one can reject this covenant [polygamy] and be permitted to enter into my glory. For all .. must and shall abide the law, or he shall be damned, saith the Lord God.” (Sexual Allegations against Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Polygamy in Nauvoo.)

Smith was wrong! God never commanded anyone in the Bible to practice plural marriage! (If so, the Mormon is obligated to provide any supporting biblical passages to support such an nonbiblical notion.)

In a Gospel Topics essay on this topic, the only biblical passage mentioned to support the idea that God commanded biblical saints to practice plural marriage is Genesis 16. Here is what the first verses of this chapter say:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

The Mormon might like to point to verse 3 where it says Hagar was given to Sarai’s “husband to be his wife.” In the context, however, this is nothing more than a reference that Abram and Hagar joined together in a sexual union. As one commentary points out:

The phrase “to be his wife” in verse 3 is merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse. That is clear from the phrase that immediately follows it as well as from the original request (v.2). The context makes it clear that Hagar remained the slave not of Abraham, but of Sarai.

It also says,

Even after the agreement between Sarai and Abram (v.2), Hagar is still considered her maidservant (v.3). The language is important. It is not Abram who takes Hagar into his tent, but Sarai gives Hagar to Abram. Sarai is in charge. After Abram slept with Hagar and conceived, not only Sarai (v.5) but also Abram still talks about Hagar as Sarai’s servant (v.6), not as his (new) wife. Furthermore, the narrator continues to call Sarai “her mistress” (v.4).

Throughout Genesis we find Sarai addressed as Abraham’s wife many times (11:29,31; 12:5,17,18,20; 13:1; 16:1,3; 17:15,19; 18:9,10; 20:2,7,11,12,14,18; 23:3,19) by the narrator, by Abraham, or by God himself. Hagar is never called the wife of Abraham, whether by Abraham, or by Sarah, or by God and only once by the narrator in the above discussed verse 16:3.

Hagar herself speaks to the angel about “my mistress Sarai.” She does not question her status as a servant of Sarai. It is not the status but mistreatment by Sarai which is the issue.

More importantly, when the angel of the LORD appears to her he addresses her as “Hagar, servant of Sarai,”not as “Hagar, wife of Abram.” The messenger from God surely knows her proper title and position. And the angel gives her the command, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”

With that as a background, we see that:

1)      God does not tell Abram to take a second wife because it was Sarai’s idea.

2)      Hagar was not considered to be a second wife by Sarai, Abram, or the Angel of the Lord.

This is not a good reference that should be used to support the doctrine of polygamy, whether yesterday or today.

Conclusion

The issue of plural marriage remains a sensitive topic with most Mormons today. However, when the issue of 19th century polygamy is brought up, the reasons given by many Mormons do not coincide with the evidence. God never commanded polygamy in biblical times, so it cannot be said that 19th century Mormons who practiced polygamy were legitimized in their practice. And the fact that polygamy was practiced in biblical times by certain people does not give people in following generations a sanction to do the same. These reasons should no longer be used by thinking Latter-day Saints.


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