Polygamy and the Command to Multiply (commentary on D&C 132:34-35)

What is the “Law of Sarah?”

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.
  • 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.

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, this 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.