Friday, August 12, 2011

The oddities of...

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It is common place for right-wing 'Christians' to talk about examining issues from a 'biblical perspective'.  That idea got me asking the question to myself 'what are the biblical perspectives on different social issues?’ 

One of the big issues for the 'Christian Right' (CR) are the issues of marriage, which they tend to define as existing between one man and one woman.  The CR tends to be quite passionate about that definition, but since we are going to use their own rhetoric, I wanted to try to determine the extent to which this 'one man, one woman' concept is actually supported by the Bible.  One would expect that given their passion about the subject, the Bible would be quite clear on this. 

The reality, though when one actually looks at the Bible, is quite the opposite. 

 There are numerous examples in the Old Testament where polygamy is tolerated, if not advocated.  One of the most notorious of these is Solomon.  To this, the Bible says:

"King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the Israelites, 'You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods'; Solomon clung to these in love.  Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.  For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David." (I Kings 11:1-4) 

The key to that passage is that God doesn't have a problem with Solomon having 700 wives.  The problem that God has with it is that they are foreign women and are thus nonbelievers.  God is not concerned with Solomon having multiple wives; God doesn't want Solomon to worship other gods.

Likewise, there are numerous other examples where prominent well-respected men in the Bible have multiple wives (and concubines), and they are likewise not condemned or chastised by God. 

While Abraham may have had only one wife, Sarah (it depends on how you count Hagar the mother of Ishmael, he may have had two), he did have multiple concubines:

"To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts." (Genesis 25:6) 

Esau has three wives (Genesis 28:8-9).  Jacob had at least two wives, Leah and Rachel, and they were sisters and his first cousin (Genesis 29: 10).  It should also be noted that Jacob had children with his wives' servants whom he also took as wives (Genesis 30:4-10).  Similarly we know that David, the father of Solomon, had multiple wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13).  Moses himself may have also had two wives.  Moses is known to have married Zipporah (Exodus 2:21), but he also married an Ethiopian (Cushite) woman (Numbers 12:1). 

The amusing aside to that story is that when his sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, came to speak against Moses because of the woman he'd married; God then proceeds to chastise them for questioning the authority of Moses! 

This list isn't even comprehensive; these are just some of the prominent figures of the Old Testament, yet on each of these occasions, God takes no issue with their having multiple wives and concubines.

There is little to no evidence coming from the Old Testament to indicate that a monogamous marriage is somehow inherently more divine or Godly than a polygamous one.  In fact, there is what one could call the social ethic of, or 'burden of responsibility,' for polygamy espoused in the Old Testament. 

We find this concept in Exodus 21:10 where it is said, "If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife.” 

In that sense, polygamy is not something that one engages in on a whim. 

In the patriarchal society that is Biblical life, the men have a financial obligation to take care of their wives.  Thus one should only take multiple wives if they can afford to provide for them without diminishing what is provided for the first wife.  In that sense, polygamy can be understood as a sign of status, as rich men are likely to have the means to afford multiple wives. 

It is not saying that polygamy is mandatory or even that one should have multiple wives.  Rather, it is conceivably saying that is wrong to take too many wives (aka more than you can afford). 

There is another important passage from the Old Testament that touches on this idea of not taking too many wives:

"And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself." (Deuteronomy 17:17) 

While this passage, at first glance, may appear to support monogamy, when one understands it in context, it is really about the King of Israel not taking an excess for himself of many things that may distract him (including wives, horses, silver, gold, etc).  In that sense, this passage again just echoes this social ethic and responsibility of polygamy where the man may not take more wives than he can afford, nor should he take too many wives so as to distract him from God (i.e. the case of Solomon).

Some CR people might try to ignore all of this by claiming that everyone in the Old Testament lived before the time of Jesus, therefore they wouldn't have knowledge of the complete divine message.
Given that God spoke directly to these people on multiple occasions and never criticized them for having multiple wives and concubines, let us for a second ignore the oddity (and perhaps absurdity) of that view and really examine what Jesus and the New Testament writers had to say about marriage.

Those who have read the Bible are likely familiar with its shortcomings in regards to quotations of Jesus to support different views on marriage (i.e. polygamy/monogamy, heterosexual/homosexual marriages).  

CR people, in particular, run into this problem, because Jesus himself doesn't say much about marriage, 
and what little he does say is about divorce. 

The statements of Jesus on marriage can be found in Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9, and Luke 16:18.  In each of these, Jesus states that divorce is a sin against God, while in the Matthew sections, there is also a provision where divorce is acceptable if infidelity has occurred. 

What is important here for CR people is the reasoning that Jesus provides in Mark.  He says:

"But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined with his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined let no one separate.” (Mark 10:6-9)

CR people tend to interpret this passage as Jesus advocating monogamy because of the idea that the two people become one. 

However, this joining of households, as symbolized in the joining of the flesh, is not explicitly limited to one occurrence.  He doesn't actually say that the household cannot incorporate more wives, only that once the household/flesh has been joined, it cannot be separated.  Thus this is not really about what can or cannot be joined (married); it is about what cannot be separated (divorced). 

Likewise, if Jesus were actually talking about monogamy here as the only acceptable form of marriage, it would seem reasonable to expect those around him to ask for clarification since that would be going against biblical precedent…as has been seen in the examples of prominent biblical figures, as well as the common Jewish practices of his own time period.  Since he is not questioned on this subject, it seems inappropriate to me to accept the CR's interpretation.

Another prominent figure of the New Testament is that of St. Paul.  Much of Paul's views on marriage and sexuality can be found throughout I Corinthians 7.  In that chapter, Paul says that people shouldn't get married and that they should be abstinent. 

For instance, he says, "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.  But if they are not practicing self-control, then they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (I Corinthians 7:7-9) 

He also says, "I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.  Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that.” (I Corinthians 7:26-28)

We can see from this that Paul doesn't seem to think too highly of marriage at all and would prefer that each person remain celibate and permanently unmarried.  Though the act itself of getting married is not a sin, it is better for believers if they were not to be married at all.  He says this quite succinctly in I Corinthians 7:38 when he says:

"So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage does better.” 

One can understand the reason for Paul's dislike of marriage and sexuality, because he thought the world was going to end (hence the 'impending crisis' mentioned earlier), and that sexuality distracts you and draws your focus away from God.  We can see this specifically when he says:

"I want you to be free from anxieties.  The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.  And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.  I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord." (I Corinthians 7:32-35)

The one thing that Paul does say that could be interpreted as supporting monogamy is:

"But because of cases of sexual immortality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband." (I Corinthians 7:2-3)

So in summation, while there are some consistencies across the Bible about marriage (i.e. infidelity is a sin, divorce is to be avoided, and the caution of marriage as potentially drawing one's attention away from God), there isn't consistency about the debate on polygamy vs. monogamy. 

In the Old Testament, God really doesn't have anything bad to say about polygamy, provided that the man can afford to have multiple wives.  In that sense, the number of wives that a man had was not considered to be a moral issue. 

Jesus is, at best, unclear about the issue.  And Paul doesn't want you to get married at all, but if you do, it seems that it should only be to fulfill one's sexual needs and should probably be monogamous.

Given the lack of clarity in the Bible itself about this component of marriage, one tends to wonder where the CR's obsession with the idea of 'one man, one woman' marriage comes from. 

In actuality, this likely comes from the cult of Adam and Eve, where the mythical original humans consisting of one man (Adam) and one woman (Eve) are held up as the ideal.  This idea can be seen in the writings of some of the Church Fathers and has developed in the succeeding centuries. 

For example, in his work "On the Good of Marriage", St. Augustine says, "That the good purpose of marriage, however, is better promoted by one husband and one wife, than by a husband with several wives, is shown plainly enough by the very first union of a married pair, which was made by the Divine Being himself.” 

Also, the institutionalization of monogamous marriage in the early Christian Church shouldn't be understood outside of the context of the Roman Empire.  Roman citizens themselves were legally allowed to only have one wife.  Thus this idea that St. Paul would only support/condone monogamous marriage, even though he himself was not married, makes sense in light of the fact that he was a Roman citizen. 

The acceptance of this view on monogamous marriage and the biblical 'justification' for it with the cult of Adam and Eve could be understood through the lens of the Romanization (or dare I say 'Westernization') of the early Christian Church.  The ideal of Adam and Eve thus conceivably provided the early Church Fathers with an 'original' scriptural precedent that could be used to justify their own contemporary trend towards Romanization.

To conclude, despite what those in the CR may claim, the Bible itself should be understood as being, at the least, unclear on the status of monogamy and polygamy.  Given their insistence on a biblical perspective to addressing all social issues, it seems problematic, in the least, for them to passionately claim the divine sanction of the 'one man, one woman' relationship.  Such a view is not clearly demonstrated in the Bible. 

Their insistence on this represents a selective reading of the Bible accompanied by some odd interpretations of passages to justify their seemingly preconceived notion of what a proper relationship should be.  Their own view is thus likely to be hypocritical, because it doesn't meet their own stringent demands for a biblical perspective.


  1. I've been referred to this post by our mutual friend who is fully aware of my "CR" views, so of course I will be dissenting...but not for the reasons you'd assume.

    First though, let me add that the Christian-right, Christian-left, Liberal-Christians, etc...are all misnomers! There are Christians, and there are Christians in name only.

    Sometime in the not too distant future, the "true" Christians will be much more easily identifiable.

    They will be the ones that -- who when the word Christian is so hated, reviled, and disdained -- will stand firm in their faith and even unto death instead of compromising or abandoning their faith altogether under persecution.

    To be fair, more of them will come from what is labeled the "right" than anywhere, but many of the "right" will fall away as well.

    Moving on.

    Well researched and well written article. I have a couple comments, and then I will answer the question on which you seem confused.

    First you say:

    "We can see from this that Paul doesn't seem to think too highly of marriage at all and would prefer that each person remain celibate and permanently unmarried."

    Paul's writings in this part of the Bible are in answer to an unwritten and unstated question, according to Ch 1 verse 1, that we can assume has to do with whether or not one should get married.

    It's not that Paul doesn't think highly of marriage, it's just that he, as an original disciple and bearer of great responsibility, would rather others focus devotion solely on God as he himself does.

    Then you state:

    "One can understand the reason for Paul's dislike of marriage and sexuality, because he thought the world was going to end (hence the 'impending crisis' mentioned earlier), and that sexuality distracts you and draws your focus away from God."

    Where are you getting your assumption that Paul dislikes marriage or sexuality?

    He does not state he dislikes either. He would simply rather focus on God, and yes, what they thought were the end most every generation since has.

    The second part of that is the exact reason for all of Paul's writings here...the drawing of the focus away from God.

    He more gives advice on remaining pure concerning the "marriage bed" and abstaining from immorality in the absence of ones self-control etc.

    You then go on to say:

    "Jesus is, at best, unclear about the issue. And Paul doesn't want you to get married at all, but if you do, it seems that it should only be to fulfill one's sexual needs and should probably be monogamous."

    So now Paul doesn't want us to get married at all?

    As for Jesus, in Matthew he states clearly that if one even looks at another woman with lust he has commited adultery in his heart, so apparently it should also "probably be monogamous."


  2. The Cult of Adam and Eve...


    I have to admit this is a new concept for me.

    Without going into a whole seperate debate about the THEORY of evolution, are you saying the Bible is all myth? And if so, why are you stating extensively from it? That would mean all your quotations are based on cultic mythology, and your article has no merit.

    Finishing up:

    "To conclude, despite what those in the CR may claim, the Bible itself should be understood as being, at the least, unclear on the status of monogamy and polygamy. Given their insistence on a biblical perspective to addressing all social issues, it seems problematic, in the least, for them to passionately claim the divine sanction of the 'one man, one woman' relationship. Such a view is not clearly demonstrated in the Bible."

    The Bible is clear that Adam and Eve were individually created as the first man and woman. They "knew" each other and began to populate the Earth.

    Moving to Abraham, who was originally part of the Sumerian culture until told by God to depart and do his own thing, all the way through the ending of the Old Testament, there is clearly Biblical, as well as vast amounts of secular cultural evidence for the existence, as well as acceptance of polygamy.

    There is also examples of incest in the bible as well as God giving rulings on beastiality (with the punishment of execution), so we can assume that that was also in existence. As the wise man-whore Solomon once said,"There is nothing new under the sun".

    There is a period of approximately 400 years between the ending of the Old Testament and beginning of the New. Cultures change, obviously, and while the Romans, for the most part, practiced monogomy, they also participated in orgies as well as homosexuality.

    Paul was a Jew first and Roman second by the way.

    Granted, there are no clear commands to be monogomous EXCEPT for Pauls comments on becoming "one flesh;" there are clearly no commands, or even examples in the New Testament, to condone polygamy...are there?

    Now, having said all that, when one combines the Bible as a whole, even without actual 'divine sanction,' one can come to the common sense conclusion that monogamy is the condoned lifestyle.

    As far as where this craziness that is the CR's insistence on one man/woman comes from? Prepare to be shocked!

    It actually has NOTHING to do with polygamy or monogamy. If you're speaking to someone, a Christian perhaps, who claims that the one woman/man debate has to do with it, they are ignorant and uninformed.

    Here it comes.

    The one man/woman argument has nothing to do with monogamy and EVERYTHING to do with homosexuality.

    Gay marriage to be exact.

    Hence the One man. One woman.

    I know you stated, "Those who have read the Bible are likely familiar with its shortcomings in regards to quotations of Jesus to support different views on marriage (i.e. polygamy/monogamy, heterosexual/homosexual marriages)," and I can tell you exactly why there is nothing that says anything cocerning gay marriage.

    Throughout both Old and New Testaments, there are a plethora of examples and statements concerning homosexuality, most having to do with the fact that it is considered an abomination and punishable by death, which,in most Islamic countries, remains the law to this day.

    "Luckily" for us, our society has "evolved."

    This is where the man/woman argument derives from. Polygamy/concubines are a well known fact of the Bible for those who have bothered to read it...which aren't many.

    Let us not forget also, that God also, in those days of minimal population, gave the command to "Be fruitful and multiply."

    Questions, comments, concerns?

    I'll be waiting.

  3. BJB,

    I guess to your first issue on terminology of the Christian Right, to be clear I mean the words 'right' and 'left' to refer to their political beliefs, not to their status as legitimate Christians. I myself am not a Christian, but at the same time, I don't consider most CR people to be actual Christians (meaning that they follow the example of Jesus the Christ). But that may just be a personal view.

    I don't think I understand your criticism of my description and explanation of Paul in I Corinthians 7. At several points in that chapter alone, to say nothing of his other letters, Paul states quite clearly that he would prefer that people stay celibate like he is ("I wish that all were as I myself am"). Likewise, because of his belief in the impending doom of the world, Paul is quite clear in the idea that people need not get married or divorced, rather it is better for them to remain how they are. I tried to be clear on these points. Perhaps it would be best to re-read chapter 7, not from the perspective of Paul writing to Christians for all time, but rather him writing in the context of the coming end of the world. While there aren't any passages in the New Testament that explicitly condone polygamy, the reality that Jews continued to practice polygamy for many centuries afterwards stands in support of polygamy as a traditional form of biblical marriage. That would also be consistent with my view that the move to monogamy coincides with the Romanization/Westernization of Judaism. This is also something that we are starting to see with Muslims in our contemporary times.

    The statement by Jesus about lusting after a woman being a sin isn't necessarily promoting monogamy; rather it is an example of Jesus referencing the 10th commandment about not coveting other people's wives. Similarly, if polygamy was not a violation of the commandment in the Old Testament, why would anyone think that it should be now?

  4. What I meant with the idea of the 'cult of Adam and Eve' is quite similar with how many Catholics and other Christians have historically used the 'cult of the Virgin Mary'. Both of these cults are modern or later projections of meaning back onto earlier figures to give them a meaning that was not originally there. This whole concept of the virgin is a misunderstanding based on the mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14. The Greek distorts the original meaning of a 'young woman' to give the connotation of virginity. This distortion and misunderstanding was then perpetuated in the cult of the Virgin that the ideal woman is herself a perpetual virgin. This view also ignores the references in the Gospels to the siblings of Jesus (Matthew 13:55-56). Similarly, I believe that the story of Adam and Eve is greatly distorted in its meaning by CRs. In this mythological story (as in the mythological stories of many other ancient peoples) there is only one original man and one original woman because that is all that is necessary to have society reproduce, and to show the gendered division of society. That understanding is quite consistent with the idea that there is not an inherently moral component to the amount of wives that one man can have.

    I'm well aware of the prohibition on homosexuality throughout the Bible as well as in the Qur'an. I was not intending to make that argument. My issue was that CR people often lump polygamy, homosexual marriage, and bestial marriage into a slippery slope argument that if we allow one then we must inevitably allow the others, as though there is no difference between them. They repeatedly state that the Bible is clear on these matters when it is not, and imply that all three of these are equally abhorrent. Polygamy is very much allowed in many sections of the Bible. Also, homosexual marriage is not mentioned at all in the Bible. The practice of homosexuality is what is prohibited, not necessarily "marriage" in the modern/secular sense of the term. Hopefully that helped to clear things up.