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Unread 03-14-2018, 10:32 AM   #1
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Disapproval of Polygamy in the OT

Hi all,

I was thinking about the course of dialogues I've had with some of my Muslim friends. One of my primary critiques of Islam (though this is by far not its most serious problem) is that it allows for polygamy, whereas the Old Testament, from the beginning, shows that marriage is intended to be between one man and one woman, for life, to the exclusion of all others.

The primary line I've heard about polygamy in the Old Testament is that it was descriptive - describing what the people of God did without actually ascribing divine sanction to it. What I'm not really sure about, though, is whether this holds up - none of the men in the Old Testament who had more than one wife ever saw any amount of divine disapproval recorded for it.

And then, when we get to the NT, it's very clear that the original teaching of Genesis is reaffirmed: by Jesus (Matthew 19:5) and St. Paul (Ephesians 5).

But the absence of punishment or consequences for polygamous marriages in the Old Testament give me pause about ascribing the 'this is simply what was and it's being described, not prescribed' approach.

Anyone have any thoughts?

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Unread 03-14-2018, 02:48 PM   #2
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Why would you want to have more than one? That’s crazy
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Unread 03-14-2018, 03:19 PM   #3
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There do seem to be varying degrees of consequences in terms of domestic unrest, such as with Jacob/Rachael/Leah and Abraham/Sarah/Hagar.

I'm not a theologian or a historian, but it still seems like it was uncommon for most of the major figures in the Bible to have more than one wife, and when they did it seemed more like it was when they were getting themselves into trouble.

I would say - at its best - it was for the purposes of procreating to build a nation. Since that's not really necessary anymore, I don't think it's applicable or helpful.
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Unread 03-14-2018, 05:12 PM   #4
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I would say - at its best - it was for the purposes of procreating to build a nation. Since that's not really necessary anymore, I don't think it's applicable or helpful.
Exactly. And this gets into one of the major thematic differences between the Bible (or at least the New Testament) and the Qur'an. The Qur'an has some literature on the cultivation of the inner life, but much of it is instructions for how to build a functioning state based on the dictates of religion, including on how to wage war both offensively and defensively.

In contrast, the New Testament does not envision Christian nation-building at all, nor warfare. Christians are to be people of peace. Which means the Christian people, once the Faith became officially tolerated and then endorsed by the Empire, had to figure out "What do you do when the Emperor becomes a Christian!?". What do you do when you all of a sudden have a society that is at least officially Christian?

The Church has attempted to answer that question in particular ways throughout history. Some of you might agree or disagree with those answers to varying degrees. But never once has the Tradition countenanced polygamy as a matter of nation population-building.
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Unread 03-17-2018, 08:45 AM   #5
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I couldn't give you a theology of polygamy, but I can give you a few observations from having taught through Genesis in Sunday school a couple of times. I have never taught on polygamy though.

1. Genesis is very interested in marriage and children. We start with a married couple, are told that the woman's descendant will save the world, and see a string of her descendants who carry on the line of this covenantal charge.

2. Legitimate marriage matters a lot in Genesis. The last straw before the Flood is not Cain's murderous descendant Lamech but the intermarriage between Cainites and Sethites, and we see this theme throughout. Abram is made the covenant promise but Isaac must come through his wife, and we see this theme throughout. Joseph's marriage is part of a broader implication of the conversion of the Egyptians.

3. Genesis is realistic rather than idealistic. Ishmael and his mother are treated positively even though he is an illegitimate child and the product of Abram's and Sarai's faithlessness. Ishmael goes to bury his father. Jacob always treats Leah well even though he really wanted Rachel, and while Rachel's sons Joseph and Benjamin are most special in Genesis, his other ten sons are still heads of tribes of Israel. Two of Leah's sons hold special places.

4. No hero in Genesis seeks to collect wives, or even to have two. Abraham is blessed with many children by his second wife... AFTER the death of Sarah, not before. And he was incredibly rich. Jacob is the only positive example of polygamy, but a) he only sought out one marriage, and b) this is used as yet another example of the ill character of Laban.

Conclusion: Genesis depicts polygamy more than descriptively -- people are treated realistically rather than idealistically -- however, it does not depict polygamy prescriptively, as it also holds out monogamy as the model.
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Unread 03-20-2018, 05:54 PM   #6
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What about David's wives?

Solomon's wives are a fairly easy case to deal with, as they got the Kingdom taken from him.
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Unread 03-20-2018, 06:32 PM   #7
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Glad to hear from you friend. I can only speak intelligently about Genesis, having taught through the book twice, and would feel I am speaking out of complete ignorance (even moreso than usual!) to say much about 1 & 2 Samuel / Kingdoms.
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Unread 03-22-2018, 09:29 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by IsaactheSyrian View Post
What about David's wives?
David's marriages are weird no matter how you slice it. Michal was taken from him. There's some discussion that his second wife may have been Saul's and it was an inherited harem situation, though timeline wise that suggestion is kind of weird. At least one of them was a political marriage. Bathsheba is famous, of course.

One could argue that all of the fallout with his sons by all the different wives shows, if not divine displeasure, that his model shouldn't be considered prescriptive.
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