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Point to Ponder
The Bible on several occasions thoroughly condemns to practice of "serial marriages" - i.e. the pattern of "divorce, re-marriage, repeat if desired."
For instance, Malichi 2:16: '"I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel'
And Matthew 5:32: 'But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.'
And 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: 'To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband.  But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.'
And yet, the Bible never explicitly condemns polygamy! While men are warned against having many wives, they are never explicitly commanded to have one and only one. While Paul does state that an Overseer (or Deacon) must be the husband of only one wife (1 Timothy 3:2), in context one could interpret this less as a condemnation of the practice of polygamy as it is a warning that those in positions of authority should be free from the distractions of too large a household.
So the point to ponder is this: Why is it that our society - and indeed most Christians - are OK with the former but can hardly abide the thought of the latter? :}
Thursday, 9-25-03 4:32 PM
This is part of our Greco/Roman heritage. I quote from a book I'm working on at the moment. The book is about Art and Christian ethics, the section I quote is on the nature of adultery and lust (footnotes are included inline in brackets):
Adultery in the old testament was a legal matter - more specifically, a property crime. The Hebraic law held that extramarital sex was only adultery when a married woman was involved - a married man sleeping with an unmarried woman did not commit adultery (although the married man incurred certain legal obligations to the woman and her family by doing so), however a married woman sleeping with an unmarried man did. The semetic societies of the ancient near-east were largely partilineal, meaning that the family name, fortune, property, and pride passed through the father's line rather than the mother's. Under these circumstances, a cuckolded husband stood to lose not only a great deal of respect in the community, but offspring then became suspect as far as property rights go. A man impregnating a married woman to whom he was not married was effectively stealing the family fortune from the husband of the woman who he carried on with. Thus, in adultery there was far more on the line than misplaced sexual dalliances and broken trusts.
Moreover, even in Jesus' time polygyny was not uncommon, nor was it considered immoral or unlawful. In point of fact, and contrary to current cultural assumption, there is no biblical basis for the assertion that marriage was ordained by God as a union between one man and one woman exclusively.[In fact, God both ordained and enforced plural marriage on several occasions in the Bible. Since God does not order men to sin, and since the practice of plural marriage was never condemned by the later prophets, apostles, or the Messiah, we must assume that the practice is a legitmate form of matrimony rather than adultery or perversion.] Therefore a man who looked at, flirted with, propositioned, or even slept with a single woman did not commit adultery. However, a man who consorted with a prostitute or a married woman most certainly did commit adultery.
It is worth noting here a few things about Christ's words on divorce later in the same sermon. Christ referred quite explicitly to the increasingly common practice among Hellenized Jews of serial marriage - putting away one wife to take another. To the Hellenized mind, plural marriage was a distasteful practice. To the Jew in the Roman world, abusing the law allowing divorce had an additional advantage. Under the guise of being sophistocated monogamists, a man could avail himself of the financial advantages of tossing a woman out into the street when she ceased to be emotionally or sexually interesting - a divorced woman had no right to the provisions for the financial and material care of wives laid down in the Mosaic law. Jesus said that a man who indulged in this practice committed adultery. Adultery can here been seen to be extended to the breaking of the contract or covenant in the marriage - still a crime of property and/or perjury rather than one of sex.[It is interesting to note that in today's church, the practice of serial marriage and divorce is nearly universally accepted, although it was explicitly condemned by Christ, while polygamy, which has at various times been endorsed and enforced by God, is nearly universally reviled as perverse and immoral.] Our reduction of adultery to sex serves primarily to muddy the waters and the fact that adultery involves far deeper and more profound ethical questions than misplaced affections and orgasms.
So, as a roundabout answer to your question, I would say that this is another example of the Church using cultural tradition to create false morality. Does this mean that I think everyone should be polygamous? Of course not. But, at the very least, in societies where it does exist we should not be (as so often happens in missionary activities) compelling converts to divorce their wives, thus destroying not only the marriages but the financial foundations of the society. We get very myopic in the west, moreso in America, and we forget that "our way" is not necessarily the "right way," and it is certainly not the "only way."
Monday, 11-3-03 7:01 PM
I'm not going to get bogged down in the whole "only a crime to sleep with a married woman" chain of reasoning here. I don't buy it, but I haven't the energy to untangle it just now.
I would, however, like to raise a couple of key points about Hebraic law (i.e. the Law of Moses as recorded in the Exodus, Leviticus, and etc.) Yes, reading this law as a liberated modern woman can - to use a popular phrase - "give one pause." :} Women really weren't particularly "enfranchised." They were entirely subject to their fathers while at home, and their husbands once married, and to a brother if the other men were lacking. One certainly can gather the impression that they were barely more than property with little power or influence over society. (Of course, there are plenty of examples in the Old Testament that belie this - Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, Esther - but that's going off on a bit of a tangent.)
But does that mean this is God's actual view of women? Inferior, properly lacking in political power, basically the property of whichever male is closest to them in family ties?
Just for starters, Paul assures us that There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Remember that We, as Christians, are not under the law. We've been called to a much higher standard.
Despite how it looks from our modern viewpoint, the Mosaic law was positively progressive in its time, providing for a fairly just, peaceful, healthy, God-fearing society - or at least it would have if the Israelites had ever managed to honor it in large part for more than a generation or two.
And yet, Jesus admits that it makes allowance for our human weakness. (See his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19.) Thankfully, the Mosaic Law was not God's final word on how to run a just society. Indeed, it was more like the bare minimum! Jesus makes this quite clear in The Sermon on the Mount (See Matthew 5:21 and on, for starters.)
But with the exception of Jesus, no-one has *ever* managed to do live up even to the standard of Moses law. In fact, this seems to be the point. I really appreciate what Paul has to say on the subject in Romans 7:7-8: "Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet." But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire." (Of course, you can't stop there - you've got to read Chapter 8, one of my favorite in the Bible, which among other things assures us that "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.")
In other words, the Law identifies sin for us and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we cant save ourselves, cause we know we cant live up.
I appreciate your forbearance with my little discourse here. Im a little passionate here, and I know its not precisely on target of this discussion. I just didnt want to make it look like I thought that there mere acceptance of any given behavior in Mosaic law (for instance polygamy!) makes it kosher" for Christians today. Or that because that law punished many forms of adultery as property crimes that *God* considers them purely property crimes. Or that God means for women to be chattel.
Monday, 11-3-03 9:52 PM
Point-by-point reply :-)
> I'm not going to get bogged down in the whole "only a
> crime to sleep with a married woman" chain of reasoning
> here. I don't buy it, but I haven't the energy to untangle
> it just now.
You're more than welcome to search the Mosaic law on the subject. The point of the discourse above was that our concept of what adultery is is a mishmash of cultural prejudice and a bad understanding of Mosaic law mixed with bad sexual politics.
My point with all of the above was that adultery is a matter of covenant-breaking, not a matter of sex.
> I would, however, like to raise a couple of key points
> about Hebraic law (i.e. the Law of Moses as recorded in
> the Exodus, Leviticus, and etc.) Yes, reading this law as
> a liberated modern woman can - to use a popular phrase -
> "give one pause." :} Women really weren't particularly
You are far more diplomatic on that subject that I would be. I find reading the Hebraic laws to be at once fascinating and repugnant (being more than a bit of a feminist myself).
> They were entirely subject to their fathers while at home,
> and their husbands once married, and to a brother if the
> other men were lacking. One certainly can gather the
> impression that they were barely more than property with
> little power or influence over society.
Thank you for making my point for me :-) You will notice, for example, that a wife is listed among a man's posessions in many instances (notably in the command not to covet), and never once is there a commandment of God addressed to a woman in the laws.
> (Of course, there are plenty of examples in the Old
> Testament that belie this - Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, Esther -
> but that's going off on a bit of a tangent.)
Exceptions that prove the rule, perhaps? :-) It is interesting to note that, with the exception of Esther, all of the women you list are death-worth under the law, and yet ALL of them are part of the geneology of David.
> But does that mean this is God's actual view of women?
> Inferior, properly lacking in political power, basically
> the property of whichever male is closest to them in
> family ties?
> Um, No.
I agree entirely.
> Remember that We, as Christians, are not under the law.
I agree, and I wish people would remember that when they start selectively invoking the law to fit their own prejudices or when they want the decalogue posted in courtrooms and classrooms.
> We've been called to a much higher standard.
> Despite how it looks from our modern viewpoint, the Mosaic > law was positively progressive in its time,
Eh, yes and no. The Code of Hammurabi and Egyptian law, on which much of it was based, are both far more progressive at least as pertains to the rights of women. However, compared to some of the Phillisinte/Caananite civilizations or other wandering nomads, it was very progressive.
By pointing this out I am not meaning to undercut the progressive elements that did exist (such as a far rarer incidence of human sacrifice), but I believe in being intellectually honest on the topic.
> And yet, Jesus admits that it makes allowance for our
> human weakness. (See his discussion of divorce in Matthew > 19.) Thankfully, the Mosaic Law was not God's final word
> on how to run a just society. Indeed, it was more like the
> bare minimum! Jesus makes this quite clear in The Sermon
> on the Mount (See Matthew 5:21 and on, for starters.)
Hmm...bare minimum? You're treading on very dangerous ground with this one. Under the "bare minimum" law, Jesus was a death-worthy criminal many times over (breaking the Sabbath numerous times, consorting with gentiles, touching gentile women, etc.). It's a very deep mistake to look at the Bible as a rulebook, since using it anything can be permitted, and anything can be prohibited. Jacques Ellul argued that the Bible is purposefully this way, in order to force us to rely on our own God-given ethical sense rather than referring to a rule book.
And ancient Israel is hardly what you or I (or indeed, many of their neighbors) would call a "just society."
> But with the exception of Jesus, no-one has *ever* managed > to do live up even to the standard of Moses law.
If the Gospels are accurate, Jesus didn't even do it. In fact, despite protesting that he did not come to remove one jot or tiddle from the law, he frequently put the law in radical submission to human need, and clearly put man above the law in at least a situational sense ("the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" etc.).
The Gospels record Jesus as a man worthy of the death penalty, many times over, by the standards of the Mosaic law.
> In other words, the Law identifies sin for us and proves
> beyond a shadow of a doubt that we cant save ourselves,
> cause we know we cant live up.
That is indeed the point Paul is making. :-)
> I appreciate your forbearance with my little discourse
> here. Im a little passionate here, and I know its not
> precisely on target of this discussion.
Hey, no problem. This is fun!
> I just didnt want
> to make it look like I thought that there mere acceptance
> of any given behavior in Mosaic law (for instance
> polygamy!) makes it kosher" for Christians today.
I understand :-)
> Or that
> because that law punished many forms of adultery as
> property crimes that *God* considers them purely property
> crimes. Or that God means for women to be chattel.
Again, I completely agree.
If you'll permit me a hypothetical digression, it seems the next obvious question on "Is Polygamy acceptable?" would be "Is there any grounds sufficient for prohibiting polygamy?". This is an important question, as we should not be making moral laws or proclaimations when we do not have a specific divine mandate to do so - interfering with other people's freedom in the Spirit unnecessarily.
The possible negative items that come to my mind (since we both agree that the "women-as-property" paradigm is insidiously evil) are "when it treats women as property", "when it demeans the value of women", and "when it treats women as sex objects", and "it can foster jealousy between women and lead to familial ugliness", and in any of these cases it would clearly be a bad thing.
I would then ask "Is there anything about polygamy that recommends itself, beyond the obvious sexual variations?" Most cultures that practice polygamy do so for economic reasons - it's a matter of demographic record that there are always more women than men (general human ratio of 46%male to 54%fem), additionally, in agrarian cultures or large families, the presence of multiple adults in a household would be a great boon to the family economy and relieve the strain that the same workload would put on two adults.
There are other reasons as well - relational stability is often enhanced by a third spouse (as long as all are mature), or a third roomate that is not sexually involved in the relationship.
It would seem to me then that a poly relationship can be God-honoring and good for some people, as long as the relationship is characterized by strong egalitarian friendships in all directions, and the participants are mature (which, by the way, are the very things it takes to make a successful monogamous marriage). On the other hand, it is something that should be entered into cautiously and with great deliberation, if at all. In a polygamist culture, then, it would clearly be evil to demand monogamy as a matter of course. In a monogamous culture, it will be very rare that you find a poly relationship that lasts very long, but the fact that such relationships can and do thrive even in an archly monogamous culture such as our own (I know three such triples myself, all of whom have been together over 10 years) points that there are some (rare) circumstances in whch poly is a good thing even in a mono culture.
Tuesday, 11-4-03 9:30 AM