01 November 2013
Why don't we follow the Old Testament polygamous ways?
Polygamy recently got a makeover in the HBO drama Big Love; about a fundamentalist Mormon and his three wives. Dr David Instone-Brewer tackles this edition's good question...
For first years from 2006, Americans watched a polygamist lifestyle portrayed in a non-judgmental way, while highlighting the many problems it involved.
Genesis also depicts the problems of polygamy. Many of the troubles of Abraham and Jacob were due to their complex families. Old Testament law allowed a man to marry more than one wife and it is amazing how many did, including great men like Judah, Gideon, David and Solomon. Men were even encouraged to take on a second wife if their married brother died without providing a child, and Onan was judged very harshly when he reneged on his agreement to do so (Genesis 38:8-10).
Jesus, by contrast, was totally against polygamy. During a digression in his debate with the Pharisees on divorce Jesus presents two arguments against polygamy (Matthew 19:4-7; Mark 10:6-8). It is as if Jesus is saying: 'By the way, here are some other things in the area of marriage which you get wrong.'
The Pharisees allowed polygamy, but many other Jews were opposed to it. The Dead Sea Scroll community argued from Genesis that God made "male and female" (Genesis 1:27) and pointed out that the same phrase occurs elsewhere alongside the words "two by two" (Genesis 7:3). From this they inferred that "from the foundation of creation", marriage was made for pairs. The gospels summarise this argument in one verse: Matthew 19:5.
Jews outside Palestine were also against polygamy, partly because the Romans had made it illegal. They did not allow any Jews outside Palestine to have more than one wife, though there's no indication that those Jews actually wanted to. In every ancient translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, into Greek, Aramaic or Syriac, a word was added into the text of Genesis 2:24:"And those two will become one flesh." No Hebrew manuscripts include the word "two" in this verse but whenever the text was quoted by non-Hebrew-speaking Jews, they added it. And so did Jesus. He too was against polygamy (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:8).
We are used to the idea that Jesus had the authority to change the Old Testament law, because we regard him as the Son of the author of that law. But perhaps this is too glib – after all, it suggests that God changed His mind about what kind of law He wanted humanity to follow. Why give one law one day and another law another day? Humans didn't change dramatically when Jesus came. Jesus's death brought forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome sin, but tragically Christians are far from perfect. Sins such as broken marriage vows are just as prevalent among Christians as non-Christians.
There is a divergence of opinion, but this is the way I see it: the purposes of God never change. But laws have to change with changing circumstances in order to achieve the same purpose. For example, one of God's purposes is to protect the innocent. In the law of Moses this was often done by a death penalty – even for young men who were persistently drunk (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). This is understandable when the nation lived in tents or mud-brick houses, so you couldn't lock up criminals. Also, a law encouraging you to marry your dead husband's brother made sense when there was no welfare system to take care of widows. But by New Testament times, secure prisons existed and most people were members of welfare groups called association groups who cared for members when they were sick or bereaved. These groups usually met in temples, so Christians had to form their own associations (or 'fellowship groups') to care for widows and others in need (eg 1 Timothy 5:9).
We think of the Romans as bringing war, but in the first century they knew differently. The Romans were celebrated for bringing peace – the Pax Romana. In almost every preceding century, a high proportion of men were killed in battle, and those men left widows. So taking a second wife helped the balance of society. But there was much less need for this in times of peace.
One of God's purposes is to help the vulnerable such as widows and orphans – and this purpose will not change. In Old Testament times this purpose was helped by allowing polygamy, because this enabled widows and their children to be supported within a family network. But by New Testament times there were fewer widows and they were better supported, so polygamy actually caused a new problem: rich men could afford several dowries, so this left too few women for poor men.
God and His purposes never change – it is only human circumstances that change. Laws have to change accordingly, in order for God's purposes to be worked out in the new circumstances. The Bible is not primarily a book of laws – it is a revelation of God's purposes. It is these unchanging purposes which should guide our actions in all circumstances, and we should in every possible way be constantly seeking to bring about the will of God as revealed in his Word - because God does not change His mind about what He wants.
Rev Dr David Instone-Brewer is a Baptist minister seconded to the academic world as senior research fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He is kept grounded by his wife and two daughters. He enjoys computer programming and low-brow movies.