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Polygamy in the Bible

I’ve been watching this amazing HBO television show called “Big Love”.   The main theme is Mormonism, particularly those who still practice polygamy (technically polygyny).   Bill Paxton (Nehhh) plays a polygamist raised on a fundamentalist Mormon, who leaves to compound to live in Salt Lake City with his three wives.  They are well assimilated into the 1950s culture of SLC, yet they are still deeply committed to “the principle”.

 The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, claimed to simply be following the literal word of scripture.

These days I tend to go to the Jewish sources for insights into the Old Testament.  Their page on polygamy is very informative.  The Bible regulates polygamy, but never forbids it.  A man was free to marry multiple wives, as long as he could support them, did not divorce  them, favor children from the 2nd wife over those of the 1st, etc. etc.   This is actually similar to how the Bible treats slavery, as something to be regulated instead of outright banned.

Polygamy and slavery regulated, shellfish and intercourse during menstruation banned.  Check.

Fast forward to the New Testament, which is strangely silent on the matter.   Like the Old Testament, the NT naturally expects a marriage to be between a man and a women.  But even in Jesus’ time many devout Jews had multiple wives, and Jesus never speaks against it.  Divorce, yes…Jesus forbids divorce.  But not polygamy.  Which is odd, considering how often Jesus is recorded speaking against the rich and powerful, the men most likely to be polygamists (Herod the Great had ten wives, for example…)

Paul is also silent on the matter.  One gets the idea he thought marriage was a necessary evil, only useful if the urges of the flesh become too stronge.  Paul is a Roman, though; and the Romans and the Greeks weren’t big on polygamy.  So perhaps he simply expected Christian men to marry zero to one wives.  

So these Mormons do have a valid point; nowhere does polygamy violate the letter of the law.  It certainly doesn’t laud it the way modern day polygamists do, but it is never explicitely forbidden.  The good Christians in black face who murdered Joseph Smith certainly felt it violated the SPIRIT of the law, though one could question just how pure their own spirits were.

Mormons didn’t give up polygamy until it was made a requirement for Utah to join union as the 45th state.  But they had a very timely and convenient change of heart, and polygamy was banned.  A pragmatic and necessary decision, though humilating.  Today, Mormons stand firmly against states being able to decide whether a marriage is between one man and one women or not.   I can’t help but feel this is ironic, and wonder if it is lost on them.

When asked why they supported Proposition 8 in California, invariably they would cite the Holy Bible.  The very same Bible that allows polygamy.  Check.

I do love “Big Love”, it is a well done show about a fascinating religious subculture.  The script is typical high quality HBO ( Six Feet Under, Sopranos, Deadwood).  The cast is great, and Bill Paxton doesn’t screw it up too bad.  I’m sympathetic to the characters, but in the end their ideals are unworkable.  Mainly because women aren’t allowed multiple husbands, and that’s just sexist.  Without that to balance things out the numbers just don’t add up, there wouldn’t be enough women to go around.