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14. On the Morality of Biblical Polygyny


When Henry VIII sought the counsel of Martin Luther, the great German Reformer, on the morality of divorcing Catherine, he was told that it would be a lesser evil to simply marry Anne Boleyn as well! This is not considered the best advice given by the German reformer. In fact, it is not advisable for any theologian to write favorably of bigamy (two spouses), polygamy (multiple marriages), or polygyny (multiple wives). Against that advice, and with a certain feeling of personal uneasiness, I offer the following to those interested in what the Bible says on those subjects. I realized when I wrote the first edition of this book that any attempt to harmonize the polygyny mentioned in the Bible with other biblical passages on the morality of marriage/divorce relations would be difficult to accept, because it runs against the grain of much tradition, as well as modern thought. My fears were realized. Some reviewers acted as if this discussion was the only thing worth mentioning about the work—as if the book was some apology for the practice of polygamy written by a closet Mormon fundamentalist. And that, in spite of the fact that I denied it. Personally I don’t have any interest in the practice of plural wives. I feel very much like the sociologist who wrote a book on early Mormon marriage practices. It was titled “Isn’t One Wife Enough.” My own answer is a resounding, “YES”. But in the end, writing a book on marriage, divorce and remarriage in the Bible, I was motivated by the fact that God didn’t ask me my opinion about the issue. He expected me to represent His. I’ve tried. If you can prove I’m mistaken, I’ll be the first to thank you. But I’m not holding my breath in the meanwhile.

It never crossed my mind, when I started my research on the book, that the Old Testament law allowed polygyny. Of course I knew that some people in ancient times practiced it, but I thought it was a sin, perhaps one that God winked at. My first clue that I was mistaken came when I attempted to define “adultery” from a Biblical perspective. I had no doubt in my mind that “adultery” would be defined as “any sexual relationship between a married person and someone other than their spouse.” I could not even imagine another definition. So imagine my surprise when I sought, like a good little Evangelical fundamentalist, to find verses which “proved up” that (working) definition, and found instead that adultery was always defined by the woman’s marital status, never the man’s. My next definition was “Any physical relationship between a married or engaged woman and the man to whom she was pledged.” I would later alter that as well, but this is enough for the purposes of this appendix. Why was the sin of adultery defined by the woman’s marital status? To accommodate plural marriages for the man. I fought that conclusion … unsuccessfully. With these comments in mind, consider the arguments.

The Background

The background of any discussion of marriage, including plural marriage should be the institution of marriage in Genesis 2. When Eve was first given, there was no sin—and, with no sin, no need to make provision for situations that might result from sin. It was enough for the two to have each other, and no one else. But sin forever changed that. With the sin of unbelief and the disobedience of eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil came the punishment God had promised: a slow death with all the ills that accompanies that. All these evils (physical as well as moral) were disruptive to marriage made up of one man and one woman—forever together.

First off, death would end the marriage state and seldom with the partners dying at the same time. The common phrase used in modern marriages, “till death do us part” is the result. Such a phrase is entirely out of place in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Those who quote Genesis 2:24 to support the “ideal” of marriage and also think in terms of until death should recall that when marriage was instituted, marriage was not intended to end at all. Had Adam and Eve not sinned, they would be alive today, happily married. Which is not to say that it’s wrong to quote Genesis 2 beyond the fall or to imply that it isn’t relevant today. It just means that you need to be careful drawing conclusions from it.

To know what is and isn’t a good conclusion to draw from Genesis 2 you need to consider other passages which take the fall into account.544 Some people appeal to the so-called pre-fall “creation ordinances”. We shall have more to say about them when we look at texts mustered to deny a moral permission of polygamy. Let me just say here that the fall makes a difference. We’ve already noted one such point: death. Consider it further. God made Eve because God made Adam not to function well alone. He needed a companion suitable to him to help him superintend the Garden. I feel that this aspect of life in the Garden is, in principle, still valid today. Men still need partners to fully function in God’s world. But what happens if the partner you have dies? Does God say, “Well, you used your quota, your are on your own from here on out!” Or does He allow for such a man to take a second wife? St. Paul later says that if a young woman loses her husband, she should find another one to care for her. “Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach.” (1 Timothy 5:14). That reproach he had just said was that (1 Tim. 5:11): “[they might] feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ.” I suspect this is the same thing as saying: “it is better to marry than to burn (1 Cor. 7:9). What Paul says to Timothy about widows would work equally well for widowers … the concept of “burning” being not limited (or even primarily limited) to women. Therefore, we can say, with sin came death and with death came the possible need for a new marriage. In the Old Testament, the death of a husband created significant problems for the widow.

Laws That Imply the Moral Propriety of Polygyny:

The Law of the Levirate (Deut. 25:5-10)

The laws of inheritance were quite similar between ancient Greece and ancient Israel. The dowry was considered the wife’s property in ancient Athens, and if her husband died she took charge of it. Similarly, in ancient Israel, if a man died his wife would have recourse to the bride price that had been paid to her representative, usually her father or mother’s brother. It is not clear to me that the concept of the dowry is found in the O.T. text. If there was such, that too was considered the wife’s property. As for less movable property, the widow in Greece had some rights to it, but it generally stayed under the ultimate control of her husband’s family. She would inherit through her children if any. Often a man would adopt a son to inherit his property if he had no sons and anticipated dying. The widow might function as the mother of such sons, or she might return to her parents. There was a system of inheritance rights related to nearness of kinship within the husband’s family. So too, in Israel, where property was related to the tribal divisions, a widow inherited through her children. If she had none, she returned to her parents’ family.

God, in His infinite love and wisdom, devised a law that inhibited greed, and economic chaos on the one hand, and promoted the welfare of the widow on the other. It is known as the “kinsman redeemer” or the “law of the levirate.” Levirate comes from the Latin word levir which means “husband’s brother”. The basic idea is that, when a man died childless, his brother or another “near” kinsman was to take the widow to be his wife. This ensured that someone would be there to take care of her essential needs, one of which, we have seen (Exodus 21), was a chance to have children who would take care of her even beyond the lifetime of this second husband. This arrangement also protected the family of the husband from losing control of family property, perhaps to a distant, tribe. By this law, the property would remain the possession of the husband’s tribe. Still further, the custom protected the widow from being denied inheritance support by her new provider (when he died). The deceased’s brother was prohibited from considering the property of his brother his. Legally it belonged to the firstborn male child of the couple, a child who was legally considered the offspring of the widow and her first husband. The child had the rights to the property, not his birth father. Thus, the husband’s relatives kept the property in the family as a whole but not for themselves specifically. Any attempt to “short-circuit” the system by failing to marry the widow or by failing to make an honest effort to impregnate her was considered a grave social injustice and a sin in God’s eyes.

Even before God gave the Law, He enforced its concept among the patriarchs. One only has to read the sad story of Tamar and Onan (and Judah) in Genesis 38 to see how seriously both human beings and God took this whole matter. Onan’s abuse of the system, because it turned Tamar into a mere sexual object, was punished more severely than the Law later would. Tamar was an ancestor of Christ, so we can see how important this matter was to God. Later, the issue returns in that same line when Ruth is redeemed by Boaz.

And as far as the Law of Moses is concerned, the arrangement was sanctioned in a severe and straightforward manner. In Deuteronomy 25:7-10 we read that any brother not wanting to do his duty was publicly humiliated, and a lasting stigma was placed upon him:

7“But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he is not willing to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8“Then the elders of his city shall summon him and speak to him. And if he persists and says, ‘I do not desire to take her,’ 9then his brother’s wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10“In Israel his name shall be called, ‘The house of him whose sandal is removed.’ (NASB)

But what would happen if the brother or near kinsman was already married? Could he not plead exemption from responsibility to the widow based upon Gen. 2:24? For the sake of primal monogamy, would he not be an exception to the kinsman redeemer rule? The answer seems to be, “NO”. If you read the law carefully, you will see that the curse that was placed upon him also rested upon his house.” As the word is used in Hebrew, this reference to his “house” does not speak of the building in which he lived, but to his family—his existing family, which would have most likely involved at least a wife. There is no provision in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for a marital exemption. Had God considered polygyny immoral and against His “Creation Ordinances”, He surely would have included such an exception in the text itself. Such exceptions are not lacking in the Law. In the laws regulating fornication, the man was to marry the woman he defiled, unless her father vetoed it (Ex. 22:16-17). Or, if a man had sex with an engaged woman they were both executed, unless it was rape (Deut. 22:25). Righteousness in a fallen world called for the provision of the widow, even if it entailed polygyny. Polygyny was not immoral per se; widow-neglect based on commitment to monogamy was.

It is easy to think of other reasons might have given rise to instances of polygyny. The law of the levirate presumes that the wife is able to bear children, but some wives might be barren—a physical evil. Should husbands of such wives adopt as we noted in above, or might they decide that they would take another wife to get offspring. In the case of Rachel, it was she who urged Jacob to take Bilhah, her servant girl, that he might have seed associated with her (Gen. 30:1 ff).

The fall also brought about lessening interest in sexual relations. The wife might no longer wanted sex, or maybe they could not. Would God deny such a husband a legitimate means of fulfillment? Or would God allow such a man to take a second wife? The seems to be an answer to this question in the case of David. David’s original marriage was to Saul’s daughter Michal. She appears to be the one pressing for the marriage (1 Sam. 18:20). But later their marriage was stormy. When she criticized him with regard to his worship of God, the honeymoon was definitely over (2 Sam. 6). She had no children by David, and it may have been a reciprocal agreement! David seems to have channeled his sex drive toward other women. The next was Bathsheba.

The David cycle also tells us of another problem in marriage. The meddling of the parents. Saul took back Michal when he was angry with David and gave her to another man, Paltiel (1 Sam. 25:44). Though David later reclaimed her. It was during their separation that David took Abigail to be his wife. This may well have been motivated by the separation and David’s need for sexual fulfillment.

I do not by this listing of post-fall marital problems to justify the actions of men which are elsewhere declared to be sinful. For example Saul’s meddling is clearly opposed to the Creation teaching that a marriage partner should leave the control of their parents. But my point has been that sin did create situations for which additional marriages might provide an outlet which is not condemned, and therefore presumptively moral. Condemnation of a marital practice bears the burden of proof.

In this regard, we should note that it was not the obligation of the Old Testament woman to have a physical relationship with her husband, as it is in the New (1 Cor. 7:2 ff.). The New Testament requirement of the wife not to withhold herself from her husband is given precisely because the Greeks technically practiced monogamy while allowing their men to engage in uncovenanted sex with mistresses and prostitutes. Since such behavior was never morally proper in either Testament, Paul requires wives not to defraud their husbands by withholding sex—which would tempt some beyond what they were able to withstand. In Old Testament times, the wife was well advised NOT to withhold herself from her husband or he would take another wife who would give herself to him—if he could afford it.

The Fornication Laws

The “fornication” laws are another instance of God’s care for social relations in a fallen world. When a man had a strong sex drive and did not control it, but seduced a virgin—something that couldn’t happen in the garden before the fall, the man was required by law to marry her except when her father refused (Exod. 22:17). The law does not add, “and the father must refuse if the seducer is already married,” nor does it say that the man should marry her unless he is already married. Nor does it say that if he is married both he and she should be executed. It does say (Deut. 22) that if she is already married, both should be executed (Lev. 20). When it makes such a point of the woman’s marital condition and makes none about the man’s, the silence speaks loudly. We may presume that to God polygyny was preferable to continued singleness on the part of the “used” woman. Even if he was already married, their non-marital sex required the cutting of a covenant.545

Laws That Regulate Polygyny

Another type of law suggests the moral propriety of polygyny. We refer here to a law that regulated the practice of polygyny itself. In the Exodus 21 passage referred to above, the taking of a second wife is not prohibited, but any ill-treatment of the first wife after the second marriage is. This implies acceptance of plural wives.

Walter Kaiser, depending heavily upon S. E. Dwight’s Hebrew Wife,546 seeks to counter this line of reasoning (implied acceptance) by suggesting that, if generalized, it would authorize forms of behavior clearly prohibited in Scripture. Their example is of the rules governing the hire of a harlot (Deut. 23:18). This is a very bad choice, because the text they cite specifically condemns prostitution before it rejects the hire of a prostitute. In fact it is because the hire comes from a prostitute that it is refused. Beyond that, Proverbs, 6:26 speaks of how her illicit acts destroy a man. Whereas, the lack of such condemnations of polygyny gives presumptive right to the propriety of that practice, Deut. 23 is prohibiting the institution of prostitution, because it is an evil. Exodus 21 is prohibiting an action in polygyny which would be evil to one of the parties. But the institution of polygyny is not condemned per se.

Kaiser believes that Exodus 21 does not refer to plural marriage at all.547 He believes that there are three mistakes in the traditional translation and interpretation of the text, which, if corrected show that the text is really talking about a woman who has been rejected for marriage, not one who is rejected in a marriage, and therefore only one marriage exists at any given time in re the law. Let us look at each “correction” in turn.

The first correction actually comes in the prior context. In verse 8, he argues, instead of the translation being “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, it should read “If she does not please her master so that he does not choose her.” I presume that he means that the choice of her as a partner is “off” at the moment he sees her, not at some time after he consummates the relation with her. I wonder, given what Kaiser taught me in class, how this measures up to the fact that the covenant was considered a “done deal” when contracted with her father, not at some moment later and before the consummation. She was considered his (half) wife when the covenant was made. The text states that she was “sold” and that his was her “master”. She was, then, pledged.

There is an interesting passage in Leviticus 19:20 which uses similar language.

Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment; they shall not, however, be put to death, because she was not free.

Here was a woman in just such a stage of negotiations. The man in such cases was not executed but rather fined for injuring the “property” of her master. She was given no punishment per se, but doubtless the master would have returned her and she would have had a difficult time getting married after that, since she was no longer a virgin. The interesting thing about his passage is that the pair were not executed … not because it wasn’t the violation of a “marriage covenant”, but because the woman was only a concubine—not free. The text speaks of not redeemed nor given freedom. This is likely a reference back to the earlier Exodus 21 passage in question. Comparing the passages we realize that not being redeemed, she is still in relation to him … sort of engaged. This implies that until that point of redemption, the woman is considered his (half) wife. That is true in both passages, and that means that in Exodus, simple rejection alone is not an ending of the covenant made with her father. Kaiser’s point does not carry if she was considered a wife. The term treachery used there (Ex. 21:8) implies that he contracts her for a wife but then does not complete the deal. She is pledged, but not a wife. She hangs in “limbo.” Kaiser may be right that she is not married, but she is still pledged, which is tantamount to marriage, by rights. That’s why the man’s act is treacherous.

Verse nine discusses alternative marital designation. Whereas 7 had him designate the woman as his own concubine, verse nine shows how she is to be treated if the designation for her was to be his son’s concubine. In that case his treachery is dealt with by treating her as a daughter. That meant ongoing provision in his household. At least in the first case, the woman seems to retain rights as a wife, unless redeemed. It seems to me that Kaiser has not quite proven his point.

Kaiser’s second correction involves the clause “if he marries another wife” (v. 10). Kaiser thinks that insofar as the previous correction shows that the man rejected this woman as a partner, it
should be amended to read, “if he marry another woman instead of her,” this removes the idea of polygyny and prepares the way for a statement of how the man in question is to treat the rejected woman.

The problem with this correction is that it is redunant. If she were selected for himself, she is to be redeemed. If she was selected for his son, she is to be treated as a daughter. Daughters received all the benefits of the household. What need is there to specify further? Note also that in verse 10, it says that HE takes this other woman. While we could once again distribute the “taking” to both him or his son, this verse seems to return to the situation to that of verse eight. But this creates a problem, since redemption was the directive regarding her, we must suppose that she was not. What is the reason that she wasn’t? Theoretically I suppose, the money that should have been passed in the “selling” or bride price, was still available, since the transaction was recent … nearly immediate. Did her father refuse to give the money back—redeem her? That seems rather cold-hearted and unlikely. Was there no other relative to redeem her? Possibly, but unlikely.

What is more likely is that the background is found in verse 7. A man sells his daughter to be a concubine. Verses 8-9 deal with the new master’s decision not to complete this transaction either for himself or for his son, the resulting situation is regulated in those verses. The law then entertains a new circumstance, where the master completes the transaction with the servant girl in question, i.e., makes her his concubine, but subsequently takes another women, either as a concubine or as a full wife. This regulation provides protection for the first concubine under these circumstances. It protects her from the abuse of becoming an unloved and mistreated wife. Supportive of this is the statement that one of the rights he may not limit, is her right to “marital relations”, by which she would get children. Kaiser seeks to “correct” that too.

But before we turn to that, ask yourself this question. If Kaiser is correct about this being a woman in the place of rather than a woman in addition to, what is the sense of mentioning the addition anyway? If he has already rejected the first woman as a marriage partner (concubine), she would already deserve provisions fitting of her new position as a servant awaiting redemption or a daughter. In the second instance … treatment as a daughter … reduction is already prohibited (as noted above). In the first instance, she would be receiving a servant’s provisions. Why would he reduce the servant’s provisions just because he took another wife? By placing the provisions in the context of the second woman, it seems that a sort of rivalry is involved … a rivalry that would not be expected if the first girl was already put in her place. This is where the exact nature of the provisions listed becomes interesting.

The third “correction” suggested by Kaiser (see also chapter 2 above) involves a translation which will not imply sex or marital relations as a promise to the first woman. He suggests instead: “ointments”? Paul leans on Sumerian and Akkadian texts, which list food, clothing, and oil as the necessities of life.548 The word in question, (ownah‘) as noted in the text above, is difficult to translate since it is a “once used word.” It is not the normal word for oil (shemen), a word which is common (around 185 instances) in the Old Testament. That kind of oil was presented as a necessity at least in 2 Kings 7, where the prophet Elisha grants the widow a renewable pot of it. But if that is intended, why was that word not used? On the other hand, “ointments” is a term used elsewhere (26 instances) in the O.T. (‘mishchah). Why wasn’t that word used? As mentioned in the text above (Chapter 2), Kaiser admits a linguistic relationship of the word in question to a Hebrew word involving sex. He also mentions a conceptual relationship between what St. Paul says in his Corinthian letter to the traditionally supposed responsibility in this text. The LXX uses homilia, which means companionship, intercourse or communion. We also mentioned Kaiser’s strange rejection of the LXX at this point, when elsewhere he is favorable to using it to help solve such linguistic difficulties. Without denying that the word is difficult to translate, it seems to me that Kaiser and Paul jump too quickly to the ancient texts. And it seems to me that Kaiser does so only to sustain his ongoing argument against the implication of polygyny. Because if marital rights are required for the first woman in Ex. 21, then she must be a wife, and that would make two for the man being enjoined by this law.

While that doesn’t settle the matter, it does give direction, and taken in the context of other Biblical passages which speak to the crucial need for a woman to be given marital rights over and against those which speak of oil. Onan was executed by God for failing to provide full marital rights to Tamar (Gen. 38:10), and the law cursed the family of the man who would fail to redeem his sister-in-law (Deut. 25:9). In my opinion, marital rights are much more likely to be intended than ointments.

There is another issue as well. The translation note to the NET Bible, points out that the word for food, in the list, is that for “flesh”. He remarks that this does not imply essential nutrition, but family food. We might understand “family food” in the case of the second designation—for his son, which required that the rejected girl be treated like family, but, as we noted, verse 10 refers to the man himself taking another woman, implying that she is more under the regulation of verse 8. This could mean to rectify an omission of how she is to be treated, as was specified in the case of designation to the son, which would make her conditions parallel. But the problem is again, why mention this in the context of taking another woman? The statement about treating the girl designated for the son (but rejected) as a daughter, needs no additional statement about how to treat the first if there is an addition of another woman selected for the son. The implied provision for the girl selected for himself but awaiting redemption should not either. It is in instances of true rivalry that laws like that in verse 10 exist.

It might be suggested that this verse is given to deal with the case of the first girl being as yet unredeemed where the man neglects her. Whereas the first law requires the right to redemption in the face of rejection, the second one requires adequate provision in the face of rejection. What stands against this is the mention of the second woman. Surely it would not do to suggest that he may limit the provision of the first girl’s provisions if there is no second woman. To this it could be responded that perhaps the mention of her speaks to motive. The man has limited funds and so is inclined to reduce the provisions of the first because he fancies that he needs them for the second. But it seems now that we are creating a somewhat complex scenario in order to avoid the simpler alternative: that this law deals with a man who took the girl, uses her as a concubine, and therefore is providing for her like a wife, but then finds another woman he likes better and then decides to reduce the provisions of the first.

I believe that the interpretation that makes this passage one dealing with plural wives is stronger than that suggested by Kaiser. The woman in question was under covenant and stands as an engaged woman, with all the rights of one. But even if Kaiser is right about all of this, I’m not sure polygyny is not “regulated” by the implications of this passage anyway. If a rejected concubine has the rights of an accepted concubine, then what do we make of a situation in which a man, like Abraham has two wives. Would not this passage imply that all wives or concubines had such rights? In the face of no prohibition of polygyny, this passage would after all speak to the propriety and rights of plural wives. Whether he takes a wife as a replacement of a pledged woman or in addition to her, Scripture protects her rights, and that implies acceptance. Nor would this be some simple concession or permission like Deut. 24:1-4. Nothing that the man has done in the initial taking of the girl or in the taking of a second girl is hard-hearted. What is hard-hearted is failing to give the first the rights of a wife when he takes a second.

But this supposes that there are no passages which prohibit plural wives. Are there such?

Passages That Appear To Prohibit Polygyny:
Creation Ordinances

Walter Kaiser, leaning on “creation ordinance” logic borrowed from John Murray’s Principles of Conduct, sets forth his case against the moral propriety of polygyny. Says he, “The first [procreation] and the seventh [marriage] ordinances in the usual list of creation mandates extending from Genesis 1:28 to Genesis 2:23 are closely related and bear directly on the subject of the family … The monogamous relationship was … set forth as the normal intention for marriage—the foundation and cornerstone of the family (Gen. 2:23-24).”549

All this good “theology”, but has little in the text to support it. The “first” ordinance, as John Walton has argued, is more like a blessing than a command, and the “seventh” is only to be construed as a command for those who wish to become physically intimate.550 It is a regulation about marriage, but does not for that reason deny plural marriages. Which is to say that it is not at all transparent that monogamy is implicit in the biblical statement in Genesis 2:24.

Some argue that the requirement in the “ordinance” to leave the father and mother before cleaving makes plural marriage impossible. Thus if you did that in the establishment of the first marriage it would not be possible to do so in the second. “Left has left.” This is a rather silly argument. If getting married requires leaving a parents, what happens if a man has lost a parent, previously left home (as Jacob had), or he did that with a first wife who died? On that line of reasoning, he could not get married in any of those instances! What Genesis means to require is that IF a man has not left his parents, he should do so to cleave to his wife. Other men need not concern themselves with the regulation.

Genesis 2:24 does not prohibit multiple marriages, even if they are out of sight and mind in Eden. Given that multiple marriages shortly took place, it would seem that moral rejection of them bears the burden of proof that monogamy is required throughout time. Of course, since Jesus quoted the same passages when he discussed marriage, one expects a quick appeal to him to fulfill this requirement. But such an appeal is in vain. Jesus’ quote of this passage is not attempting to affirm monogamy in Matthew 19:5 f. He is insisting that no covenanted person is free to walk away from the partner. The context makes this clear. It only compounds the confusion to appeal to the fact that the Essenes interpreted the “two shall become one flesh” clause as teaching monogamy. No one denies that the Essenes held that position, but that fact is of questionable relevance, for there is no reason aside from the quote of a common source to affirm that Jesus interpreted Genesis 2:24 as they did.

The Association of Polygyny with Other Evils:

The Polygyny of Corrupt Men

Doubtless there are instances where polygyny is associated with men who were morally corrupt. Lamech is the first (Gen. 4:19); Esau is another (Gen. 26:34). Lamech was in Cain’s line, and he probably was evil for his treatment of the fellow who wounded him (Gen. 4:23). But the evil of these men was not essentially related to polygyny. Esau’s wives were a concern to Isaac, but not because of their number, but because of their character. In the end, these guilt-by-association arguments are unhelpful, because such logic would condemn monogamy as well. For example, Cain killed his brother—and was evil. But the text does not mention more than one wife for him. Should his evil taint his monogamy? Clearly not.

But there are other undesirable implications of ad hominum argument as well. What about righteous men who had more than one wife-Jacob, Abraham, David, to name three. Would not their general righteousness thereby justify their polygyny? The rejoinder is anticipated that these “righteous” men were unrighteous when they married their second wives. Abraham should not have taken Hagar, because that was against God’s plan, which was to bless him through Sarah only. Jacob was a trickster trying to outsmart another trickster (Laban) and got tricked into plural wives. David sinned greatly in taking Bathsheba to himself.

But this over-reads the text. Abraham was never said to be wrong in taking Hagar as a concubine or even for having a child by her. What the Scripture condemns in him was his seeking to have the child of promise by her. Consider the allusion to this situation in Malachi 2:15. There it is said, … And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. In contrast to the men in Malachi’s day, who divorced their wives, the prophet tells them that Abraham (see Appendix D for argument concerning identification), even in the effort to gain a child promised to him, did not divorce his wife in the process. This implies that taking Hagar, and thereby becoming a polygamist, was not a problem. He was righteous insofar as he did not put Sarah away in the process.

Jacob may have been tricked by Laban, but nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that Jacob was wrong in having two wives. And since Rachel was second, Jacob should not have taken her—and there goes the line of Christ. For their part, Rachel and Leah certainly thought that God himself was blessing them by giving them babies (Gen. 29 f.)—even those that came through their servant girls. They could, of course, have been wrong in their analysis, but who are we to say?

The story of David’s wives actually provides a strong argument in favor of polygyny. Bathsheba was not his second wife. He had several before her. But it is in regards to her case that one of the stronger arguments for the propriety of polygyny can be formed. When Nathan the prophet condemned David for taking Bathsheba, Nathan remarked, “[God] gave your master’s wives into your care … and if that had been too little, [he] would have added to you many more things [women] like these!” (2 Sam. 12:8). It was not that David had plural wives, but the prior marital status of Bathsheba, that constituted his sin.

In Kaiser’s treatment of 2 Samuel 12:7-8 he goes to great lengths to show that “Saul’s wives” should be translated “Saul’s women,” and that “lap” should be translated “care.” So far so good. But then Kaiser leaves us with the distinct impression that all that God is telling David is that there were lots of women around to dust the palace furniture. Never once does Kaiser let on that it is the Bathsheba incident that is the context of the divine remark. I cannot understand how the reminder of the presence of women in his care is meant to speak to David’s problem of wayward sexual desire. It is as if God says, “David, why did you have an affair with a married woman, when you had all Saul’s women to help you keep the palace tidy?” Rather, I see God saying, “David, why did you commit adultery to slake your desire for sex, when you had Saul’s surviving women to choose from?”

Obviously, the women that God has given David are considered in this statement from Nathan to be potential mates. We are talking about taking a wife here. Since mating without covenant is the sin of fornication, and since David was already married to several women, we must assume that God is suggesting that polygyny was the proper way to handle David’s sexual desire. But not a marriage to a married woman! That required the breakup of an existing marriage in order to take her—a sin Herod later committed with Herodias and against his brother Philip. Jesus condemned such in Matthew 5:32b. Unlike David, Herod did not repent.

As a footnote let me say that it will not work either to appeal to Nathan’s words:

2 Sam. 12:8 ‘I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!

As if to imply that what he already had by way of wives was enough … as if to say that one wife was enough. David already had plural wives and the reference to Saul’s women proves that he already had more from which to make a legitimate choice.

Polygyny and Familial Problems

Responses like these are unlikely to convince traditionalists. They will simply open new lines of defense. For instance, they will point out that, in Scripture, polygamists are recorded as having problems with their children or that the text says their children fought among themselves. Though it is not to be denied that polygyny contributes to such problems, it must be added that peace among the children of monogamy is never ensured either, as the children of Adam and Eve, Rebekah and Isaac, etc. well illustrate.

Polygyny as a Minority Practice

Kaiser offers us another argument in a quite different direction. He tries to show that there are only a small number (19) of polygamists mentioned specifically in Scripture.551 But is it credible to argue that the number of polygamists specifically mentioned in the text represents anywhere near the actual number that existed through the centuries? Certainly not. Beyond that, morality should be a matter of nose count. There were times when righteous men were few in number.

Adding worse logic to bad, Kaiser then attempts to give reasons why even this small number were not punished by the government. The reason he finds in the fact that at least nine of the polygamists were absolute monarchs, and three were judges. Who then, he asks, could have called them to account? And as to divine evaluation, he contends that God sent the Flood to punish just such (marital) transgressions. It certainly seems that if God were so concerned with polygyny as to drown it in the Flood, He would have seen fit to include, in no uncertain language, a specific condemnation of polygyny—for the common man as well as for kings—in the Mosaic legislation. Violence is prohibited in this way, and it, one should recall, was specifically mentioned as a reason for the Flood. Such cannot be said for polygyny. The most significant polygamists: Abraham, Moses, and David, lived after the flood. Further, God was keen on prohibiting priests from marrying certain kinds of woman (divorcees and prostitutes), but did not exclude plural wives. One would think that a crime that precipitated the flood would have merited exclusion.

Alleged Prohibitions of Polygyny:

Kaiser believes that a couple of laws do condemn polygamy.

Leviticus 18:18

This verse is interpreted by some as saying that a man should not take “a woman and another” to be his wife at the same time. Such interpretation is supported neither by the majority of scholars nor by the context. The passage is in a section prohibiting sexual relations involving “near kin,” that is, “incest.” The proper translation is “a woman in addition to her sister as a rival when she is alive.”552 (Note here that rivalry is admitted, but not prohibited except where the rivals are sisters. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, for example is said to be a rival of the other wife 1 Sam. 1:6)

Kaiser’s comments on the Leviticus text are confusing and self-contradictory. He argues in one place that the crucial phrase should be literally translated as “one woman to her sister,” even though it is a fact that everywhere else it is translated idiomatically as “one woman to another.” He points out that the context of the phrase in Leviticus 18:18 is what gives a “definite ‘no’” to the idiomatic translation, since the section is referring to “a relationship by blood.” All this is in agreement with previous comments made nearly seventy pages earlier in the same book, where he said: “What the text [of Lev. 18:18] forbids then is not polygyny … , but it forbids marriage simultaneously to two sisters.”553 But the apparent clarity on this point disappears when he finally concludes that “Leviticus 18:18, then, is a single prohibition against polygyny and abides by the law of incest stated in the same context.”554

It is anybody’s guess how a passage that is not teaching a prohibition of polygyny becomes a “single prohibition against polygyny.” We agree with Kaiser’s earlier statement that the verse is irrelevant and prohibits incest.

Deuteronomy 17:17

This verse is cited by Kaiser. It prohibits some kind of plural marriage by kings. But what kind? The law reads: “neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart be turned away.”555 Given the complete statement, the prohibition is because of the religious influence of the wives. But what about plurality implies that? Our understanding of why kings married helps explain this. Strong kings took (foreign) wives as a means of insuring treaties with foreign nations. Such wives would doubtless be idolaters and bring in the kinds of false religion seen in the life and times of Solomon. The law (Deut. 7:3) condemns marriage with women of the land for this reason. This verse simply applies the broader law to kings. They are to avoid the multiplication of wives simply in order to strengthen their control. Such a king as David, whose wives did not fit the prohibited category would be exempt. The best example of a king who was condemned by this law is Solomon.

If any doubt the above interpretation, they need to consider the following: In the context kings are also prohibited from multiplying their horses and money. If we were to apply the anti-polygyny logic regarding multiplying wives consistently, we would have to imagine that kings were also restricted to one horse and one shekel. On the other hand, if kings could have been true to their inspired limitations by having more than a horse or shekel, then they could have been just as moral by having more than one wife.

Proverbs 5:15-21

A final Old Testament passage we should examine, one that Kaiser calls “the best statement on the monogamous marriage,” is Proverbs 5:15-21. It admonishes the reader to “drink water from his own cistern,” to “rejoice in the wife of [his] youth,” to be “captivated” and “satisfied” “always” by her love. Kaiser asks with rhetorical force, “Could these instructions possibly be obeyed by a man who had many additional wives?”556

Our feelings tell us no. But two things caution us to avoid interpreting the passage in line with Kaiser. First, it is my own belief that the text was penned by Solomon, one of the most celebrated polygamists in all history. I presume that Kaiser himself agrees with this identification. If Solomon is the author, it would certainly seem that he, at least, thought that the answer was yes. Second, a study of the context reveals that the words are not at all aimed at discussing the issue of one wife versus plural wives, but rather covenanted sexual relations as opposed to uncovenanted relations. Kaiser is resorting to eisegesis (reading the meaning into the text rather than out of it). His reading of the text has only rhetorical weight when one brings to the text the romantic definition of “love,” not a biblical idea of responsible ‘love. And even at that it is not clear that a man cannot be romantically involved with two women. Kaiser is also predjucing the case by speaking of “many” additional wives. Most were like Elkanah, Samuel’s father, who had only two. Though we know that he preferred Hannah, should we suppose that the words of Proverbs could not be true of his relationship with Peninnah as well? Do you suppose that David no longer could make such romantic comments about Abigail after he took Bathsheba? Kaiser’s view is much too modern and Western.

We turn now to New Testament passages mustered to prohibit plural marriages.

Matthew 19:5/Mark 10:8

Turning to the New Testament, we might hear reference to Matthew 19:5 and its Marcan parallel. Jesus quotes the LXX of Genesis 2:24, which adds (to the Masoretic text) the word “two” to the phrase: “they shall become one flesh.” It is pointed out that the Essene community interpreted this addition as an attack upon the (fading?) practice of polygyny. There is no doubt that the Essene community in their Temple Scroll so interpreted the LXX, but it is not at all clear that the LXX, which was written long before the founding of the Essenes, should be interpreted as the Essenes did. Jesus simply quoted the predominate translation known to his hearers, and that translation included the extra word “two.” It is certainly acceptable in a context of polygyny to use the extra word, especially in the historical context of the Gospel verse. For there, Jesus is underscoring that though the two partners in marriage once were independent, by their vows they have become one team, in which the privilege of one of them unilaterally breaking or walking away from the covenant with the result that they would be two again, is denied. For the woman, to be sure, that did mean not contracting another marriage, though that is not known from the words per se, but from other Scripture, such as Ex. 22 and Deut. 22. But for the man, it did not mean anything of the kind—see the same passages. For the man it simply meant that he could not do as the School of Hillel suggested, i.e., end the union simply because he wanted to, for any reason at all. To jump on the Essene interpretation because it is available is poor reasoning. It is a hasty conclusion, not supported by internal evidence or proven historical connection. The fact that Jesus’ cousin John came from the desert and the Essenes were in the desert is admitted, but the assertion that John learned from them and then taught this to Jesus, is utter speculation based on the desert alone.

1 Timothy 3:2, 13; Titus 1:6

            “The Husband of One Wife”

In the Pastorals Epistles, Paul admonishes Timothy to make sure that “overseers” and “deacons” are “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 13 and parallel wording in Titus 1:6). At first blush, this would seem to be a prohibition against polygyny so stark that only the intellectually maimed and blind could miss the point! But that is only because several important contextual elements have been forgotten. First, we must remember that the phrase comes in a qualifications list. Such a list, like a vice list, is not the place to expect to find new moral teaching per se. Lists are summaries of previous teaching. Thus if we cannot find a prohibition of polygyny up to this point in the teachings of the inspired text, we are in trouble (hermeneutically speaking) finding it here. Second, we should remember that polygyny was considered barbaric by the Greeks and had not been practiced in Ephesus or Crete (where Timothy and Titus lived) for several hundred years. This raises the question of why the number one (substantive) qualification mentioned would be the elimination of a nonexistent practice.557

Perhaps the best reason for denying an interpretation of the phrase as a direct condemnation of polygyny is the confusion which that would cause in understanding a later passage in the same letter (1 Timothy 5:9). The second passage relates to widows, using the same form or type of phrase used. Kent notes that if the earlier passage condemns more than one wife at a time, the latter passage must condemn having more than one husband at a time. But polyandry (more than one husband) was probably nearly nonexistent in the Empire at the time. Thus polygyny (and polyandry) would be condemned only if “husband of one wife” proscribes the plurality of spouses in divorce and remarriage, and that in turn depends on the idea that the divorce did not really end the first marriage. I deny that there is sufficient biblical support for those ideas.

The text in question, written as it was to a non-polygynous society, would doubtless have been understood as “a one-woman man,” or a man who is not a womanizer—not a man with a “woman in every port,” or a man as in 2 Peter 2:14, who had “eyes full of adultery,” not a man who frequented the temple prostitutes. In other words, it would be read as a prohibition of fornication and promiscuity-known and prevalent problems in the locations reached by the letters. This interpretation of the passage makes far greater sense of the qualifications list than if general promiscuity and fornication are not the point of the passage. For, if these problems were as rampant in Greek society as we know they were, it only stands to reason that this would be a number one concern for the churches in those areas. If the qualifications section is only condemning one kind of marriage (i.e., polygyny), a problem that did not exist in their times, then Paul missed the real issues facing Timothy and Titus. The failure of the list adequately to emphasize purity would be a great omission indeed.558

If Paul on the other hand is indeed prohibiting fornicators from holding office in the Church, we can easily find passages in his previous moral teachings which become the basis for its inclusion in the qualifications list. That Paul condemns fornication will come as no news to the reader. But I would like the reader to consider one of those passages: 1 Corinthians 7:1-2. Note carefully that in that passage, directed as it was to a monogamous society, Paul places the admonition to “have your own spouse” in the context of fornication. To have your own is contrasted to the many prostitutes on the Acro-Corinth. The recipient of the letter to Corinth should be a “one-woman kind of man.” I take this as virtually synonymous with the qualifications requirement.”559

The importance of prior teaching is not to be underrated in matters of qualifications lists. But I should add that the prior context of moral teaching in this important area goes far back beyond the teachings of Paul. Jesus and the Old Testament confirm this same teaching. We are not simply seeking some vague condemnation of fornication, but some teaching akin to the points we have been making above, i.e., some reference to a covenant partner as an alternative to common women or prostitutes. And along this line, I offer Proverbs 5, mentioned above. The point of the passage is that one’s own wife is the proper recipient of one’s sexual energy vis-à-vis a common woman—a prostitute. The common woman is everybody’s woman. She and her ilk are to be avoided in favor of the woman who is covenanted to you. Again, as we have noted above, the man is encouraged to avoid fornication by turning to the woman of one’s devotion. Sex is for covenant, not for indiscriminate pleasure. It would seem that biblical writers seek to inhibit fornication by an appeal to the wife, or woman of one’s covenant. It is not the number of covenanted ones that is the contrast, but the difference between the many harlots and the covenant partner that is in view. As for Jesus, I cite Matthew 5:28, the passage on lusting.

Thus it is most probable that the qualifications list sees the “husband of one wife” as a condemnation of porneia—sex with an unmarried woman, though doubtless the clause also prohibited adultery—sex with someone else’s wife, polygyny was out of sight and mind. The issue is not the number of covenant relations the man had—he would only have had one at a time, since the empire was monogamous—but his womanizing. This of course does not eliminate the grievous sin of marrying and divorcing in order to have sexual relations with a number of women. But that too is not the issue in polygyny. Such divorcing and remarrying are after the order of legal womanizing. It is unsubstantiated that all polygyny falls into such a category.560

            “Above Reproach”

Somewhere about this point in the discussion of the qualifications lists, one anticipates that the summary term “above reproach” will be invoked to show that polygyny is prohibited. But these words are defined by the terms that follow, none of which undeniably teaches against polygyny. Of course, it could be argued that “reproach” is a term that should be defined by the reader’s culture. But we cannot so baptize culture. And it is the inspired text that is using the term. Therefore I would insist that some other Scripture must be brought into the discussion. What then is that Scripture? We have considered the major proof-texts and found them wanting. What then?

In defining the term “reproach,” one other matter must be brought to bear. It should be remembered that God speaks of Himself in relation to his people Judah as having been married at the same time to their sister the Northern Kingdom (Jer. 3:8). If reproach means to condemn polygyny, then Paul should have suggested to God that He choose his metaphors a bit more carefully! The critics of polygyny imply that God has spoken of Himself like a man who would call himself a murderer or a rapist. One sin is like another in being a sin. If it is a sin to be a polygamist, then God has referred to himself as a Being with a character flaw. We are speaking as fools.

Better simply to say that Paul’s admonition to Timothy requires him to avoid people who are not “one-woman men” or “devoted husbands” or men who do not have “eyes full of adultery.”561 Such a man might have been single. He was to have been a “one-woman type of man.”

Further, does one really think that God would make such a radical clarification so late in his Word and in a personal letter? The great issues of marriage are dealt with early in Scripture, not in its last revealed pages. Or, again, does it stand to reason that Abraham or Moses would be prohibited from serving in the Church that shares in their blessings because they had more than one wife? How about David? Will he reign in the Millennial Kingdom, but be unworthy to be a deacon in the Church of Christ? We speak as men.562

The Implications of “Adultery” in the “Vice Lists”

It has been suggested that polygyny should be understood as condemned in the New Testament in the vice lists where adultery is mentioned—that it is implied as a form of adultery. The point is that since the readers of such passages as 1 Corinthians 6:9 would have understood moichos as including the infidelity of both the woman and the man, it is only proper for the exegete to do the same.

Two responses are in order. First, I again note that such lists are not the place for new teaching. Of course, someone might respond that this is exactly the point, that such a list presupposes that the Apostle understands the term in exactly the same Sense as the Greeks. But to say so does not resolve the problem. For it is certainly possible that Paul might have instructed these persons already in the more Hebraic concept of moichos. Also, it is worth adding that Paul had no short way of condemning polyandry and adultery without writing a paragraph. And since the same list already condemned fornication, which is what extramarital sex would be for him in their society, there would be no need to make the clarification except to protect the reputation of a true polygamist—of which there were none in that society that needed to be protected! Thus were he to know that his meaning did differ from them on this point, he would also know that it would not be worth the effort to clear up the issue at that time.

An even more telling response to people who argue thus is that the term moichos did not imply reciprocal fidelity to the Greek or even the Roman mind. In both cultures, the term adultery spoke only to the marital status of the woman.563 In fact, the only evidence Kittel offers is that moichos entails a reciprocal element in the Gospel passages, in which it is said that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.564 Yet we contend that neither Jesus nor his hearers understood those words as implying the moral impropriety of polygyny. We offer instead that Jesus means only to reaffirm the older Testament’s condemnation of a man who would divorce his wife in order to marry another woman (Mal. 2).

Without the Gospel passages to support prior moral instruction on the point, the contention that the vice lists would have been understood to teach reciprocal monogamy fails. The ancients understood the act of sex between any man and anon-married woman to be porneia, not moichos. Thus it is vital that the vice lists include porneia as well as moichos.

Questions Concerning the Possibility of Moral Polygyny:

The following are offered, not as defenses of polygyny today, but as responses to those who contest that it didn’t make any sense in Biblical times. The question of the relevancy of a morally permissible polygamy in biblical times to today is not the concern or interest of this book.

Covenantal Issues

Questions yet remain. For example, how is it possible for a man to have more than a single one-flesh relationship at the same time? The answer to this is very complex. I must remind the reader that marriage is not essentially a one-flesh relationship.565 Marriage is essentially a covenant, involving conditions or agreements that are stated in the contractual side of the covenant. Thus the most proper question would be, “How is it morally possible for the husband to have more than one wife?” To this the answer is far easier: his covenant with a given wife did not include a monogamous vow. Having made no monogamous promise, he has broken no covenant by taking a subsequent wife.

Social-Order Issues

It is rather easy to understand how it is socially and economically possible for a husband to have more than one wife, while the reverse is unworkable. Remember that Jesus said that no one can serve two masters. The term for “master” is kurios (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13). In 1 Peter 3:6, Sarah is cited as an example for all wives in their relation to their husbands. Her submissiveness is exemplified by her identification of Abraham as “kurios. In other words, the wife’s relation to her husband is one of follower to leader. Putting both ideas together,

We should say that no wife can have more than two husbands. But, remembering that Abraham had both a wife and a concubine, the text does not say, that a kurios cannot have more than one who serves (doulos).566 That is why a husband (kurios) may have more than one wife (doulos), but the wife may not have more than one husband. The issue is social and economic-relating to the authority structure as represented in marriage. Because of who the husband is, i.e., the “lord”, there may not be two of him, but because of who the wife is, i.e., the subordinate one, there might be more than one of her. However unhappily this may strike the modern ear, it is, I believe, scriptural.

“Organic” Issues

Given the above answer, another question arises; namely, “How is it possible for the husband to have more than a single one-flesh relationship at the same time, while the same is not proper for the wife?” If we consider this relation to be organic, an analogy may help. The husband functions as the head, while the woman functions as, let us say, the arm. The head may control more than one arm at a time. But to have two heads attempting to control the same arm would be monstrous. What we are suggesting is that there is nothing logically improper about multiplicity of subordinate elements in an organic union. Nor is there anything improper in the thought that a covenant partner may have more than one covenant at the same time.


As a result of these studies, I consider biblical polygyny to have been a moral practice in Biblical times: I do not find sufficient biblical argument to deny it and find several passages that seem undeniably to affirm it. I am certainly willing to consider any biblical argument my readers might offer, but I am unwilling to accept a poor argument simply because it fits my or their fancy or modern culture. To date, I find the arguments “pro” quite superior to those “con.” And since this is so, the concept of polygyny must be considered in any interpretation of Biblical passages which refer to remarriage. If polygyny was morally permissible when Jesus spoke, no passage spoken by Him referring to remarriage should be interpreted to exclude or condemn remarriage that would also exclude polygyny.

Finally, let me reiterate unequivocally that this subject is only of academic interest to me. I seek to discern the moral propriety of the practice as it impinges upon the divorce passages in the biblical text. Insofar as that practice informs the divorce verses, it is important to this work. I have no interest in seeing polygyny established as a present social policy, nor do I have any personal interest in the practice.

544   For example, heterosexuality is presented in Gen. 1 and 2 as the only moral sexual behavior, because the concept of the heterosexual Image is revealed as constituting what it means to be human. Post-Edenic Scripture confirms that homosexuality is not only not ideal, it is also immoral. The conditions of the Fall do not change the normativeness of heterosexuality as the “way it is meant to be” in marriage. On the other hand, monogamy is simply stated as a fact of Adam’s heterosexual relationship. Monogamy is not stated as trans-dispensationally and trans-culturally normative and subsequent Post-Edenic Scripture confirms that it is moral. The text must decide.

545   However you interpret the text of Deuteronomy 22, it cannot be denied that it agrees with that of Exodus 22 in not making potential polygyny an issue, and that is totally unexpected if polygyny is immoral.

546   S. E. Dwight, Hebrew Wife (New York: Leavitt, 1836), p. 20.

547   Kaiser, Toward, pp 184-85.

548   See also S. Paul, “Exodus 21:10, A Threefold Maintenance Clause,” JNES 28 (1969): 48-53.

549   Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academic Books/Zondervan, 1953), p. 153.

550   John Walton, in private conversations while we both taught at Moody Bible Institute. Walton is now at Wheaton College.

551   Kaiser, Toward, p. 183.

552   Note that this verse would not even have hampered Jacob from marrying Rachel subsequently to Leah, because he did not take Rachel as a “rival,” that is, to make Leah jealous and to humiliate her.

553   Kaiser, p. 116.

554   Ibid., p. 168.

555   E.g., Kaiser, Toward, p. 188.

556   Ibid., pp. 189-90. Laney is also concerned about “possibility” in his contribution (“No divorce. No Remarriage”) to Divorce and Remarriage; Four Christian Perspectives. Returning to the glue pot, Laney says, “Being ‘glued’ to one’s wife and at the same time engaging in sexual intercourse with another woman are mutually exclusive concepts” (p. 19.). I find this strangely untrue of multiple blocks of wood which I have glued together. Why is a second “glued” relationship logically excluded? Laney simply expects us to believe it so. He offers no logical or physical analysis. The issue isn’t logic, it is morality. Since the man did not pledge exclusivity, it is not morally inconsistent for him to have more than one wife, any more than for one stem to have two flowers. One-flesh only tells how the nature of the entity with all its parts, are connected. The term does not indicate how many appendages the organism has. [I regret speaking of the wife as an “appendage.” But the language is forced upon us by the arguments presented.]

Of course, had Laney mentioned this issue in the context of polyandry (2 husbands), he would have been right. But then, not because of the ontology, but because of the impracticality of two heads or leaders, and because a woman’s vow was one of exclusivity. There is a moral/social problem with trying to harmonize a vow to have one husband and then taking another.

557   Perhaps an analogy can help us understand the peculiarity of the traditional interpretation of this phrase: A Chicago bishop writes a priest in Oklahoma requiring him to make sure that his altar boys do not “eat at each other.” Would it be likely that the priest would reflect upon the fact that certain Indian tribes in that area were reputed to have practiced cannibalism hundreds of years ago? Would he think of tribes of people in the contemporary world that still practice cannibalism? Highly unlikely. The priest would understand that the phrase was idiomatic for division and strife. It is my suggestion that the same is implied in the case at hand.

558   See also Chap. 10.

559   Homer Kent gives the peculiar argument that a condemnation of polygyny is unlikely because polygyny could not have been a major problem in the Church, since it was prohibited in the Roman Empire. Fine, but then he goes on to say that 1 Cor. 7:2 is a proscription of polygyny. Why would not his same arguments stand against such an interpretation of 7:2? (Pastoral Epistles p. 127).

560   It is also interesting to note some of the statements of the early Church Fathers on this matter, though I hasten to remind the reader that our concern is almost exclusively with the biblical teaching. In the Canons of Basil, Canon 21, we read: “A married man committing lewdness with a single woman is severely punished as guilty of fornication, but we have no canon to treat such a man as an adulterer, but the wife must co-habit with such a one: But if the wife be lewd, she is divorced, and he that retains her is [thought] impious; such is the custom, but the reason of it does not appear.” Canon 80 is even more to the pint: “The Fathers say nothing of polygyny as being beastly, and a thing unagreeable to human nature. To us it appears a greater sin than fornication. Ewes it not appear, then, that it was simply the Creek prejudice against polygyny wherein arose the moral stigma against the institution? With those who hedge the biblical laws—Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria for instance—and with Basil, the married man’s non-divorceable fornication with another, non-married woman becomes adultery, and covenantal polygyny becomes a sin greater than fornication.

561   See the helpful article on these texts by Robert Saucy, “Husband” (see chap. 10, n. 30). He does not go as far as he should, but he does much in overturning the traditional misinterpretations.

562   I speak to those who accept such eschatology. Others must still consider the language from which “premillennialists” derive such conclusions.

563   Cf. Bernard I. Murstein, Love, Sex, and Marriage through the Ages (New York: Springer, 1974), pp. 54-56, 59 f., 76 f., 78-82.

564 Hauck, moikuo, etc., in Kittel, vol. 4, pp. 729-35, esp. 733 f.

565   If this is not understood, the reader needs to return to chap. 1.

566   Though it is true that doulos is used indirectly of both the husband and the wife (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:15), in those contexts the spouse is not identified as a kurios. Additionally, in 1 Cor. 7:15, the “sister” is the primary referent In all likelihood, the implied kurios is the very law that binds them. It is their husband, and they cannot have more than one law to govern them. This seems to be precisely the pint of Rom 7:1 ff.

Related Topics: Marriage, Polygamy

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