“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed.” (Luke 11:27)
Arguing for Christian morality in a secular society is difficult. A culture which accepts evolutionary dogma has no intellectual place — or inherent desire — for absolute morality, since it believes morality is only helpful because it was shaped by an instinct to survive.
However, although the Scriptures give us hard and fast principles, even they do not give us a “timeless” list of commandments. Christians are rightly accused of arbitrarily picking laws from Leviticus that apply today from those that do not. As Peter Leithart writes,
“…the common ordering of the Mosaic law into “moral, civil, ceremonial,” while valid in a broad sense, does not give much assistance in dealing with specific passages. In the law, moral, civil, and ceremonial features are all mixed up together.” (1)
But all the commandments are rooted in a single history, one which grows like a tree. The rules for children are not the same as the laws for grown men and women. The changes in the laws of God result from a growth in the maturity of the people of God.
Since the laws of God are always given as a means of progress, propositional truth is recorded for us as a process. Thus, to understand the commandments, we must study sacred history. The wisdom which results from such an understanding not only puts the critics of the Bible in their place, it enables us to proclaim with authority what the Lord demands of us today.
With that foundation, how is the Christian to answer the modern proponents of polygamy, since it is not condemned in the texts commonly used to support the case against other perversions of human sexuality?
The Old Testament often leaves the unrighteous acts of individuals to the reader to judge, based on the Law, that we might become wise. The practice of polygamy was clearly part of the culture of the patriarchs and many righteous men in later history, and it too must be judged in its Covenant context. Genesis is a book about fruit (seed, flesh, and skin), the promises given to Adam in Eden, and biblical polygamy must be understood in the light of the importance of offspring to dominion.
The First Wife
Adam’s sin was the “Sanctuary” equivalent of seizing Kingdom before God’s time. He was to submit as a servant that God might make him a “public” servant, a servant with authority, a shepherd-king. Moving from the Garden into the Land, his sin was repeated by Cain, but the stolen fruit was now that of the Land and the womb, those things which were cursed in Genesis 3. As firstborn, Cain was to be the heir, and thus required to demonstrate his servanthood. His submission to God was to be expressed not only in the firstfruits of his labors, but also in his willingness to accept the necessity for a blood sacrifice on his behalf, in his place, as the firstborn. Instead, Cain presented his “Land” offering before the “womb” offering, the blood of the unblemished animal. Servanthood was despised.
The stories of Cain and Lamech together form a “head” and “body,” representing Church and State. Cain’s sin is institutionalized in the first king (Lamech is possibly a play on melech, which means “king”) who happens to be history’s first polygamist. Cain’s city was his remedy for his loss of the Land, and Lamech’s polygamy is mentioned just before the birth of Seth.
The First World
Just as Adam seized Kingdom in the Garden that he might possess the Land, Cain seized Kingdom of the Land that he might possess the World. Cities and abundant offspring are features of the World, not the Land. The sins in Genesis 4 are “bridal,” that is, the promised “World” rewards for faithfulness were manufactured in the Land before God’s time.
Biblical polygamy resulted from the enmity between the offspring of the Woman and that of the serpent. It enabled the acceleration of the “generations” and made possible an instant dynasty. Through intermarriage with the priestly Sethites, the Cainites again seized control, and the Lord wiped them out. When the “sons of God” took the “daughters of men,” they compromised with idolatry and perhaps also with polygamy. The marriages of Noah and his sons stand in contrast.
After God wiped out the Cainite line, it seems that Ham’s sin of “seeing Noah’s nakedness” when he lay uncovered in his tent (Genesis 9:20-27) was an attempt to steal for his son Canaan the promises of fruitfuless given to Noah. The nature of the curses upon Ham’s heir certainly suggest this. In each instance, the older brother attempts to seize the inheritance before God’s time, and the inheritance is given to the younger. (2)
This corruption of priestly Noahic cultus was once again expressed in “bridal” (city) terms in the culture. Since Canaan’s inheritance rightly belonged to Shem, not only did the Canaanite kings, like Pharaoh, build their cities quickly through theft and slave labor, polygamy in the patriarchal era was a means of monopolizing a rule seized without submission to God.
Then, after the failure of Pharaoh to steal Sarai from Abram, polygamy became a means of hijacking the promised seed from within the Abrahamic people.
Abraham’s impatience in taking Hagar the Egyptian as a concubine was his attempt to “manufacture” a Covenant Succession which God had promised, but which had not yet materialized. He eventually learned to trust God to the point where he was even willing to offer his miraculous “priestly firstborn” as an ascension. The Lord provided a substitute for Isaac as he did for Cain.
Hagar was cast out, and with her, the polygamy of Abraham. His dominion would come from God’s hand, in God’s time. Although not an explicit prohibition of polygamy, this might explain the Mosaic condemnation of taking a “rival” wife. Like the sin against “uncovered” Noah, Edenic “covering” enables Covenant Succession.
“And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”
Later polygamous rivalries were not so much about the affections of the shared husband as they were for the place of their sons in Covenant history.
There was rivalry enough between the sons of the same mother. Esau, the firstborn, was himself an entire world of sin. He despised his birthright (Garden), desired to murder his brother (Land), and took two Canaanite wives who embittered the lives of his godly parents (World). The Lord’s answer to this was to give two wives to Jacob. Polygamy made Jacob like Esau, the kingly firstborn who acted like Cain. Yet Jacob’s response was not theft or murder but submission. Laban acted like a Canaanite king, relying on Jacob’s debt slavery to enlarge his own household. But Jacob outcrafted the serpent and left with great plunder.
What was the purpose of giving Jacob two wives? He had fled from Esau all alone but he returned as a household, a “dynasty.” Moreover, just as God loved Jacob over Esau, so Jacob loved Rachel over Leah. Not only were there abundant sons, but the antagonism between Esau and Jacob was now “bridal.”
The twelve tribes of Israel were eventually arranged as “social architecture” around the Tent of God, the Tabernacle measured out in human flesh. In this way, the people of God formed a “stepped” holy mountain, Jacob’s ziggurat, a bridal city – but there are earlier hints of this in the language of Genesis. These literary clues (such as Eve being “constructed” as a city) are often overlooked, and thus do not make it through translation. In Genesis 30:1-5, barren Rachel suggests that Jacob sleep with her handmaid Bilhah, “that she may give birth on my knees and I too shall be built up through her.” Verse 5 in the Hebrew contains a pun. “I shall be built up” (’ibbaneh) plays on banim, sons, and so has the sense of “I shall be sonned.” (3)
The continual failure of the firstborn to be a priestly king was now played out in the murderous intentions of the sons of Leah and the handmaids towards Joseph, the true priest-king who submitted to his father and was given authority over all of his brothers.
This gives us the context of, and requirement for, the Passover of Israel, where every firstborn belonged to either Hagar or Sarah, and every one of Sarah’s sons was an Isaac spared through sacrifice of an “Abel.”
The practice of polygamous surrogacy was reversed in the “firstborn” birth of Obed (whose name means “servant”) to Ruth on the knees of Naomi. This surrogacy was not only generational, it was the product of a marriage between a faithful Jewish ruler and a single, faithful Gentile, a “daughter” of Lot’s son, Moab.
Polygamy was a strategy for seizing the future. The target of the only explicit prohibition of polygamy (in Deuteronomy 17) is Israel’s future kings. This is why God slew Bathsheba’s “firstborn” to David and gave the kingdom to Solomon. It was why Absalom slept with his father’s concubines. And it explains the fixation of John the Baptist with the adultery of King Herod.
Despite these “carnal” strategies, the Davidic dynasty survived through the mercy of God, a history of barren wombs culminating in a virgin birth (Garden), vengeance for the blood of Abel (Land) and the judgment of the harlot (World).
Jesus’ response to the woman who called out in Luke 11 highlights the end of the significance of biblical polygamy: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Inquiétude.
- Peter J. Leithart, The Death Penalty in the Mosaic Law, www.theopolisinstitute.com, July 3, 2015.
- Of course, in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), it is the younger son who squanders his inheritance, and the priestly character of the rightful heir is put to the test in this ironic way.
- See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 186.