I have witnessed many, and sometimes heated, debates about the status of polygamy in God’s eyes. The variations in position cover the following range of beliefs:
- It is an abhorrent adulterous abomination to God, and always has been (this is the view held by the Community of Christ (RLDS Church) and its breakoffs, as well as several recent LDS beakoffs).
- It is an adulterous abomination, but only presently, and has been allowed or commanded in the past (this is the view currently held by the LDS Church).
- It is technically allowed (or tolerated) by God, but is not considered ideal (this view is held by some Christians, Martin Luther for example).
- It is not only allowed, but also considered equally favored by God in comparison with monogamy (this view is held by some in the Hebrew Roots movement).
- It is always a positive commandment of the Lord (altho it has been withheld from the wicked), it is favored above monogamy, and living it brings the highest possible blessings (this view is held by the various fundamentalist Mormons).
Of course, there are many variations and gradations of these positions, I am sure, and I apologize if I have missed anyone’s particularly favorite view point. There is at least one additional position not listed, which I will unfold in this post. But first, let’s look at some often misunderstood (and criticized) verses of Mormon scripture:
D&C 132:34-35 “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law…Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.”
Why is this particular passage so often misunderstood and criticized? On its surface it is really quite simple; anyone reading the account in Genesis about Hagar will see in a moment that Abram takes Hagar to be his wife at Sarai’s urging, while God seems to be silent in the moment.
Genesis 16:1-3 “Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.”
The Bible says it was Sarai’s idea; section 132 says it was to fulfill God’s command. Section 132 says it was to fulfill “the law”; the Bible makes no mention of any law being followed. Therefore: section 132 contradicts the Bible, therefore section 132 is false. QED. If only the world were so simple.
Of course there are many other objections to section 132, and I will get to some of them in future posts, but for now I will stick to this objection. Actually, this objection often goes further to say that God never commanded polygamy; not in Abraham’s case and not in any other case either.
The truth about polygamy in the Bible is neither as bleak as the detractors hope for, nor as rosy as the Fundamentalists would like.
While it is true that polygamy was never commanded in a general sense in the Bible, there are several instances where it is most certainly commanded in a limited sense. First we have the levirate marriage situation:
Deuteronomy 25:5-6 “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.”
This command is general in that the marital status of the next brother is not a factor at all. In other words, this command may result in polygamy if the next of kin is already married; he will still be required to add his deceased brother’s wife to his family, and to provide an heir for his brother’s house by having children with her. Certainly, this would not result in polygamy in every instance (for example, if the next of kin were single, widowed, or divorced), but it would amount to commanded polygamy otherwise.
Next we have the case of premarital sex between a man and an eligible woman.
Exodus 22:6 “And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife.”
Deuteronomy 22:28-29 “If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.”
As in the previous case, there is no mention made whatsoever of the marital status of the man (only of the woman). Like the previous example, this command would not always result in a polygamous union, but in cases where the man were already married it certainly could. Both of these laws are made to protect the woman, and to prevent her from being abused, either by tragic circumstances or by unscrupulous men. By the way, the verses in Deuteronomy above, are not referring to rape (as is sometimes foolishly repeated), but to consensual sexual relations.
So there we have two cases where polygamy may be commanded in certain situations. However, neither of these applies to Abraham and Hagar (altho you might argue that the second case applies). How then can section 132 claim that Abraham took Hagar as wife in order to fulfill the law and command of Yehovah? One solution is to simply believe that the command was given but was unrecorded. This is certainly a possibility, but I don’t think it is necessary to believe this in order to harmonize the verses.
A third case where polygamy might be commanded was in the case of infertility, and this certainly was the case for Abraham and Sarah. Among the first commandments given to man by God was the command to multiply and replenish the earth. As strange as this may sound at first, this commandment was for the men only. Some of the ancient rabbis taught that the command to have children wasn’t necessary for women, since they were seemingly hardwired to want that anyway. Of course the men need the women in order to fulfill this command; nevertheless, it was the men’s responsibility to fulfill, and this has always been the Jewish understanding of the matter. How can this be so?
Genesis 9:1, 7-9 “And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein. And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;”
Here God is speaking to Noah and his sons only (and to all the future sons of Noah). Here is another example in Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel:
Genesis 35:10-11 “And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob:… And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins;”
Here’s another interesting one:
Psalm 127:3-5 “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them…”
Polygamy can allow a man to have a larger family than he could with a single wife. Of course, there are some women that are capable of handling a large family on their own. I am in no way discrediting this; indeed I admire this, but not all women have the same threshold for children (whether biological or psychological), and this will vary widely from woman to woman. Some would be happy to have a dozen or more while others would rather have none, or want some but are unable. I personally came from a family of 7 children (I am the eldest), and while I certainly would not want to send myself or any of my siblings back, it ended up being too many for my mother (if you asked her, she would not have wanted to send any of us back either). She suffered multiple mental breakdowns and institutionalizations during the latter part of her life. As a result, she had relatively little to do with the raising of my youngest siblings. My father was happy with 7, and my mother was too (if you asked her), she just might have been happier with 4 or 5.
Despite all that, the obvious objection to this view of the commandment is to point to the case of Adam and Eve:
Genesis 1:27-28 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
The Jewish understanding of these verses looks at the entire injunction, rather than isolating the multiplying and replenishing part only. God also says to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it, and over everything on it. These are largely male activities; which gives us a clue as to who was being addressed. Of course Eve was to be Adam’s help in fulfilling all these things, but the ultimate responsibility was on Adam’s shoulders. Here is a verse that illustrates the Hebrew view of the dominion that was enjoined upon man:
Psalm 8:4-6 “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:”
Here then is a third situation in which polygamy was commanded in the Bible. If a man had an infertile wife (and the large majority of infertility problems stem from the female), then he ought to seek another wife in addition to his first in order to keep the law and responsibility placed upon him to multiply and replenish the earth. The commonly understood length of time is 10 years of infertility (this is the rabbinical tradition), but might be any reasonable length of time. After this time the couple ought to be looking for another wife if they are serious about keeping the injunction to multiply. This is not to say that another wife could not be added before this time, or for another reason, but that after this time has elapsed the responsibility becomes more serious.
For many modern Jews, the option of polygamy has been made unavailable to them by the decree of Rabbi Gershom in the year 1000 A.D. (or thereabout). This rabbinical decree made polygamy unlawful in the Diaspora (and also made it illegal to snoop by opening other people’s mail). There is some controversy about this ban and when it may have expired etc.; however, the general practice among Jews is to continue this ban out of tradition. Unfortunately, this means that a modern Jewish man in this situation may have to think about divorce in order to fulfill his duty to procreate, and among Jews this is seen as a justifiable reason to seek a divorce. Not that divorce is required by the rabbis, only that it is justified. Still, I think it is a very sad state of things for those in this unfortunate situation. it would be much better if they would just embrace the law that was already given them, rather than encumbering it with traditions of the elders.
Abraham was promised by Yehovah that his seed would be both numerous, and also a blessing to the whole world.
Genesis 22:17-18 “That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;”
This is the law and commandment which God had given to Abraham, and to all other men as well. Even if God did not single out Hagar by name as Abraham’s next wife, it would still be perfectly correct to say that Abraham and Sarah were keeping the law and God’s command by adding Hagar to their family.
Let me put it another way: If the verses in section 132 were talking about marriage in general (and not about polygamy specifically), and had said something like this instead:
“God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave herself to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law…Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it.”
No one would probably complain (because monogamy isn’t controversial), even tho the Bible doesn’t explicitly say this anywhere – God did not directly command Abraham to marry Sarah by name. Hopefully it would be easy to see that Abram married Sarai because it is God’s law to marry and reproduce (it is not good for man to be alone and all that jazz). Who knows, Abraham’s first marriage may have also been Sarah’s idea. Regardless, it is the command of God for men to find a willing and eligible woman, get married to her, and attempt to reproduce. In other words, a similar argument can be made in support of Abraham’s monogamy as in support of his polygamy. In both cases he was seeking to fulfill God’s law and command. In so doing Abraham was blessed, and the promises were fulfilled.
D&C 132:30,34 “Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins…and as touching Abraham and his seed…both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them…God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.”
This then illustrates an additional view on plural marriage which was not among those listed at the beginning of this post:
It is a form of marriage which is always honored by God if it is lived in a righteous manner (the same can be said of monogamy), and is sometimes commanded, but not necessarily for everyone in every situation.
I do believe there is freedom in these things; most people are not required to live polygamy, but anyone may if they choose. However, there are times when it positively must be lived, and, like every other law of God, it is a law which ought to be kept when God’s word requires it of us.
2 thoughts on “Polygamy and the Command to Multiply (Commentary on D&C 132:34-35)”
Having earned a Master’s degree in Christian Studies, I have some real disagreement with your viewpoint. Abraham and Sarah were promised a son, and it was through lack of faith in that promise that led to their taking matters into their own hands and having Abraham have a son with Hagar. God never approved it, and the results are an example of why polygamy is not commanded by God. The same goes for Jacob, Leah and Rachel, the family dynamics of polygamy are unhealthy, the reason Joseph was hated by his brothers was he was the favored son of the favored wife, Rachel. Under normal circumstances, slightly more men are born that women, unfortunately the men die sooner, even in the first year. By their twenties, the number of men is roughly equal to that of women, so for one man to take more than one wife means that other men must go without. This is why Colorado City kicked out most of the younger men, because they were competitors for the young girls their age. The scripture says that they shall become one flesh, and there is research that show sexual relations results in bonding, and when sex is had outside of that bond, it breaks the bond and forms with the new partner. Repeated breaking of this bond can lead to the inability to bond at all. If you read the horrific stories of the families of polygamy, this horrible situation can be seen, and the man is indifferent to the welfare of his wives and children. There is much more I could say, but this is sufficient.
Hello Heidi, Thanks for your comment. There is a lot to unpack there, and there are nuances that deserve to be looked at, and nuances that we will miss if we paint with too broad a brush. I will respond to your points and mention where I think there are half-truths (or partial-truths) that are sufficiently lacking in detail that they become untrue. Here we go:
It is true what you say about there being more male babies than female, and also true that males die off more rapidly than females for a variety of reasons, so that there are approximately equal numbers of men and women of marrying age. However, there are a number of assumptions that make these facts insufficient as an argument against polygamy. First, the statistics you allude to only say something about numbers of males, but not about the number of males that are suitable for marriage partners (to be good husbands and fathers). Taking this into account will make the ratio of marriable women:men greater than 1:1. This is instinctively true from common experience as well as from various social statistics. This has to do with the fact that there is greater male variability (compared to women). There are more men than women who are highly educated, motivated & competent, pastors & preachers, and geniuses,etc. However, there are also more men than women who are criminals, idiots, irreligious, and lazy bums, etc. In other words, there are more men at BOTH ends of the bell curve (thus the greater male variability). There are more men who are homeless than women (about double). There are more men who are homosexual than women (again, about double). Looking at raw numbers of individuals is deceptive because: not everyone who COULD be married, SHOULD be married.
A more accurate, and truthful, statistic to report is that there are more marriageable women than men. What the exact ratio is, may be up for debate, but I think it self-evident that the ratio is not 1 (and in fact is > 1). Therefore, it is a misguided appeal to emotion to say that some men would have to go without a wife. Everyone knows that many men (and some women too) should not be married at all. Society does not owe all men a wife just because there are roughly equal numbers of men and women – what an absolutely horrific policy that would be, and I do not agree with your implication that this should be the case.
A second assumption behind your argument is that we (or other polygamists) are asserting that polygamy should be the rule for marriage. This is not the case. On the contrary, I assert that monogamy will always be, and should be, the most common form of marriage. However, it is unjust to limit marriage to monogamy, and doing so will prevent many women (who are eligible and desirous of marriage) to enter in to matrimony.
You mention Colorado City, and I will say amen to what you said! Warren Jeffs-style polygamy (marriages that are forced, assigned, controlled, dissolved, and rearranged by church leaders) is an absolute abomination, and a black eye on Mormonism. I believe only in marriage (monogamous or polygamous) between freely consenting adults. We have housed a young man who was a “refugee” from Colorado City in the past. His experience was tragic, and his upbringing has put him at a severe disadvantage.
You mention antagonistic brothers (Joseph & his brothers, and Ishmael & Isaac) as evidence against plural marriage, but I just roll my eyes at such cherry-picked evidence. Rivalry between siblings is 100% NOT a result of polygamy. It is either ignorant or disingenuous to insinuate otherwise. Envy, strife, and violence arise from the human heart and our fallen condition. Just ask Cain & Abel, or Jacob & Esau, or Nephi & Laman (all children of one mother and father).
Lastly, you mention Sarah & Hagar and say that God never approved it, which is not the case (Did you read the article that you are commenting on? I ask because, you did not actually address any of the points I made there – but merely assert, without support, that God did not approve of Abraham’s marriage to Hagar). In Genesis 16:7-16 the angel of the LORD actually tells Hagar to return to her family. It is true he tells her there will be difficulties, but he also blesses her, and her child-to-be, and tells her to go back. Contrarily, what we cannot say from the scripture is that God ever forbade it, or disapproved of it, or cursed or punished Abraham (nor anyone else for that matter) for it in any way. God never calls Abraham (nor Sarah) faithless (which is your assertion), and it seems to me that Abraham is blessed with Isaac BECAUSE he had shown faith in God’s promise by taking Hagar to wife. Sarah’s miraculous conception happens after Ishmael is born, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that there is a causal relationship between these events – that Abraham was blessed with greater things because of his faithfulness with those “talents” placed within his stewardship. In other words, Ishmael was a necessary precursor to Isaac.
In Galatians chapter 4, Paul compares these two children (Ishmael & Isaac), but his comparison is misunderstood by Christians generally. Ishmael represented the Covenant at Sinai (which was given and approved by God), while Isaac represented the Renewed Covenant (which was also given and approved by God). Unpacking this whole midrash of Paul is more than I would like to fully respond to in this format, except to say that both of these children were given and approved by God, and that they go hand in hand. Paul was not saying that the Law should be abandoned (please see Peter’s warning about assuming this of Paul in 2 Peter 3:15-17), but that is was a necessary precursor, or foundation, to the New (or Renewed) Covenant, and relying on only the Law (commandments) without Grace, or upon Grace without the Law (commandments), will cause you to fail of salvation.
As for sexual bonding, there is again a partial truth in that there is not symmetry between the sexes in this phenomenon. It is true that women will have a more difficult time bonding with a man who is not their first sexual partner (and it may even become impossible, as you point out, with repeatedly different partners); however, this phenomenon is not equally experienced by men. You mention horrific stories about plural families, and it is true that there are some horrific stories there, but these do not prove your assertion in the least. The news is full of horrific stories about monogamous families as well, and we all know of people personally who have experienced horrible marriage situations. Again, you share only half-truths. I would not blame monogamy (as an institution) for all the bad, failed, and abusive monogamous marriages in the world – but this is where your reasoning leads. Who knows, perhaps you are one of those Christians who believes that celibacy is a higher way of living than marriage (as evidenced by all the problems faced by monogamous couples and families). If this is your view, then we will have another disagreement.
As for me, I would blame all of that negative stuff on the deficiencies in the human heart, and our fallen natures. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jermiah 17:9) This is what the Word of God says, and it would be wise to bring ourselves in line with God’s word rather than leaning upon our own understanding. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)