Polygamy and "One Man, One Woman"

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In the wake of same-sex marriage court decisions and legislation, many seek to define 'marriage' in terms that require a marriage to be between one man and one woman. Now I'm not on the bandwagon that says that, just because the term has always meant that, it must still mean that. A lot of people apparently think that's a good argument, but words change their meaning. It's never safe to base your ethical argument on what a term has meant in the past. Nevertheless, some of the responses to this sort of view are also pretty lame. One argument I've seen a handful of times showed up recently in a comment at Pharyngula:

Sure is funny how "God ordered each and all marriages [sic] to be between one man and one woman". Gosh, I guess Solomon missed that one. And others - I'm no bible student, help me out here.

Right, you're no Bible student. A Bible student would know that Solomon was criticized for his marriages within the very same book that sees his marriages as a sign of the prosperity God had blessed him with. So the biblical narrator's attitude toward Solomon's marriages is at least complex.

But you're apparently also no logic student. Think about polygamous marriages. Did Warren Jeffs have a group marriage? Were the women he was married to also married to each other? Or was it just a bunch of marriages, each one consisting of Jeffs and a woman? Did Solomon have all these wives who were married to each other as much as they were married to him? Or was he married to each one of them in a separate marriage? Maybe group marriages have occurred. I have no idea. But that's not polygamy. Polygamy is one man marrying separate women in multiple marriages, with each marriage involving one man-woman pair. Polygamy is no exception to the claim that marriage has always consisted of one man and one woman. It's just an exception to the claim that no one has more than one marriage at once.

5 Comments

So what would your view be on the morality of polygamy since New Testament times? Is it strictly forbidden? Permitted (provided it's legal) but unwise? Dependent upon the culture?

I think it's been a general principle since Genesis 2 that it's immoral. This was so even for the patriarchs, never mind the kings. There are possibly extenuating circumstances in some cases, e.g. maybe when Jacob was tricked and thought he was marrying Rachel. Certainly cases like Bathsheba. The adulterous relationship was immoral, as was the murder of Uriah, but a plausible case can be made that it was David's obligation to take Bathsheba into his family after that. There's no Torah prohibition, but it's clear that it's contrary to the ideal of marriage in Genesis 2, as Jesus points out when he confronts a different issue (serial marriage with divorce instead of serial marriage where the original marriage continues).

That means in most cases it won't be morally permissible, since there's no such thing as a second-best that's morally ok in biblical morality. But there may well be exceptions, as there are with almost all moral principles (perhaps all moral principles besides the command to follow God with all one's being and to love neighbor as self). But the fact that there are laws against it in most of the Western world today means the moral principles that might outweigh the principle against it are that much more heightened, because it involves an additional moral wrong, that of breaking a law

I think the bible is not as clear cut as all that when it comes to polygamy. Because I recently read it, I'm specifically thinking of Genesis 24, where Abraham sends a servant back to his relatives to find a wife for Isaac. The servant meets Rebekah (and the rest is history..) when he comes upon Rebekah's mother's household. Obviously, there is polygamy going on here--Rebekah's father, Nahor, has more than one wife. But I can't find any implicit critique of the situation in the text. Although Rebekah's brother Laban turns out to be something of a scoundrel, Rebekah, the product of a marriage conducted in a polygamous context, is portrayed as a paragon of hospitality, beauty, competence...this is why she is picked to be Isaac's wife. And Abraham is very particular about having his servant promise to get a wife from -his- family, and not of the Canaanites--his family is part of a culture that practices polygamy, and that produces women like Sarah and Rebekah.

Again, based on this example, I think there's some ambiguity going on in the bible re: polygamy.

Something here bothered me at first and I wasn't sure what. After thinking about it for a bit, I think I realize what it might be.

Your logical point's right, I think. At the same time, there seems to be something unnecessary about putting the "one"s in this phrase if all someone is trying to say is that marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. The phrase could be used to emphasize a prohibition on the sorts of group marriages you mention, but that's just not something people are too concerned about these days, so I don't think it really gets at what many people mean when they use it.

I think the point of the phrase as it's commonly used is to emphasize at least two particular prohibitions: a prohibition on gay marriage and a prohibition on polygamy. The latter would explain why the "one"s are in there, but it would follow that many people are making a logical error when they use the phrase this way. Considerations of charity should make us cautious about taking people as making such mistakes, but I think in this case it's ok to do this. At least, it's not so obvious to me that we shouldn't take them to be making this error.

You're probably right that some people are making this error. But there are those who acknowledge polygamy as quite common. My main point was the logical one, though. I like people to describe things accurately, and this attack on this expression annoys me because it's not accurate.

I do think the view that God intended marriage to exclude polygamous additions is easily motivated for those following the biblical texts. The complicating factors seem to me to indicate exceptions to a general moral principle. So that's where I'd want to steer the conversation when it comes to the objection against seeing a biblical prohibition on polygamy. But I thought the way the objection was phrased was tremendously unhelpful given the logical point.

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