The ancient practice of polygamy appears poised to make a cultural comeback in “postmodern” America. With the Supreme Court decision redefining legal “marriage” to include homosexual partnerships, the effort to normalize deviant expressions of the family seems to gain momentum with increasing speed.
Another high profile court case involving the Brown family of “Sister Wives” fame sought to overturn Utah’s Mormon-focused prohibition against “spiritual” polygyny, a case that initially received a favorable ruling at the federal court level in 2013. Though the merits of the case turned on the judge’s reading of the Browns’ right to religious expression, the effect of this decision essentially served to decriminalize the practice of polygamy. Had not the ruling been overturned in appeals court on a technicality in 2016 (essentially, the case had no legal standing because the Browns were not charged with a crime under Utah statutes), the pathway to increasingly bizarre expressions of legal “marriage” would stretch forward unhindered. For the concerned Christian, such developments as these warrant another look at how Scripture treats the issue of “plural marriage.”
As is well known, Genesis 2 recounts the creation of man and woman as the basis for the institution of marriage, a “one flesh” union (Genesis 2:24) intended to provide both for the proliferation of the “image of God” on earth (Genesis 1:28) and for the companionship necessary to overcome the “not good” state of aloneness (Genesis 2:18). That the Lord God intended for this union to reflect life-long heterosexual monogamy finds confirmation in Jesus’ teaching against divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:6-9), wherein he quoted Genesis 2 in commanding the two joined as one not to separate. Unfortunately, with the advent of the sinful fallen state of humanity in Genesis 3, this divinely intended expression of covenant fidelity became a casualty of human arrogance and manipulation. Thus, the first recorded incidence of marriage plurality occurs in Genesis 4 with Lamech, physical and moral descendant of Cain, who boasts to his two wives of his own murderous vengeance (Genesis 4:23-24). Henceforth, the Hebrew Scriptures render the practice of polygamy in a consistently negative light.
Although plural marriages find frequent expression in the biblical narrative, the practice is not encouraged, only tolerated and regulated, notwithstanding the patriarchal bent of ancient society. Even in the pagan cultures of the ancient Near East, as paralleled in the biblical record, polygamy occurred typically in highly schematized situations, such as for a recourse to barrenness among married women or for the political expediencies of royal power expressed in marriage treaties and large, status-enhancing harems. In Genesis 11, Abram’s wife, Sarai, first appears as barren, a scenario according to ancient marriage contracts that stipulated the giving of one’s servant girl as a surrogate wife. Yet, when Sarai offers Hagar to fulfill this obligation in Genesis 16, the text frames Abram’s response in rather ominous language: “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Genesis 16:2). The careful reader will detect an allusion to the Lord God’s pronouncement of judgment on Adam in Genesis 3: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree” (Genesis 3:17). Clearly, the practice of taking a surrogate wife fails to reflect the essential nature of the marriage union, as evidenced by Sarai’s reaction in the narrative that follows (Genesis 16:3-6).
Despite the uniformly destructive consequences for the family inherent to the practice of marriage plurality (on full display, for example, in the Joseph cycle of Genesis 37-50), one form of polygamy finds a positive reception in the covenant law of Israel, namely the so-called Levirate marriage that provided for the continuation of a deceased male relative’s lineage. Deuteronomy 25 elaborates the custom of what the text calls “the duty of a husband’s brother,” even prescribing a ritual for publicly shaming the man who refused to fulfill this role (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). In this case, the concern that the name of the deceased not “be blotted out from Israel” warranted an unusual affirmation of an otherwise destructive familial arrangement; however, one should not draw the conclusion from this positive treatment of polygamy that the practice in any way finds approval as a normative expression of God’s original intent for the marriage covenant. Rather, the nature of marriage finds its most compelling illustration in the Lord’s enduring love for his people (Hosea 2:19-20; Ephesians 5:25-33).
A final corollary to the fundamental expression of monogamous heterosexual marriage portrayed in the creation narratives of Genesis appears in the qualifications for church leadership in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. The familiar wording “husband of one wife” found in these letters (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6), whatever it intends ultimately, at the very least rules out the practice of polygamy as a valid expression of the marriage covenant in the body of Christ. As leaders of the church, these men were to model the exemplary life of devoted followers of the Lord Jesus and, thus, embody the expected characteristics of a Christian witness in the world. Therefore, in light of the biblical testimony to self-sacrificial love continually portrayed in the relationship between God and his people, the contemporary church must reject the cultural currents of personal autonomy and individual “freedom” and return to the historic and divinely revealed truth that marriage was, is, and forever shall be the indissoluble union of one man and one woman for the glory of the one, triune God.
— Jeff Rankin is a professor in the College of Christian Studies at North Greenville University.