Polygyny, Typology and Hermeneutics
Last Wednesday, James posted a response to an essay I had posted a week earlier, which was itself an example of the kind of thinking that Stephan had written about closer to the beginning of this blog. This excites me because it represents a respectful and serious engagement of ideas, which is what this blog is all about in the first place. Continuing this grand trajectory of ideas, I’m now posting my own response to James’ response to my application of Stephan’s original series, per his intention. All this to say: we’re all friends here, are taking our disagreement seriously and are enjoying ourselves.
First off, James says that my last post was “an argument against the idea that monogamy is a practice that can be defended strongly from the Bible.” I’d actually argue otherwise; defending polygyny, as I did, isn’t necessarily an attack on monogyny, though it is necessarily an attack on the exclusive ethical correctness of monogyny. I believe that my post was an attack on this exclusivity that Westerners claim for monogyny as the ideal for marriage, not on the fact that monogyny is one perfectly acceptable and ideal model of marriage.
I’m unclear on who “us” is in this paragraph. Is this a reference to “us” American Christians or to “us” Christians worldwide?
James is right in pointing out that I don’t clearly classify Adam and Eve as anecdotal or typological. On closer examination, it’s probably prototypical more than either other category; it’s used to establish precedent for marriage in general, whether you think polygyny is acceptable or not. It’s not a metaphor, which rules out typology, and it’s a clear precedent for propositional teaching both in the immediate context and elsewhere in Scripture, ruling out the spirit of what I was referring to by “anecdotal.” What details of the story of Adam and Eve are to be used as models for our own marriages and what details are incidental is another question, however. I don’t remember any passage of Scripture that uses Adam and Eve to argue against polygyny.
James does ask, in reference to Genesis 2:24, “Once you are already ‘one’ with another, how can you be a part of a ‘two’ with someone else that becomes a new ‘one’?” This may be a question in our minds, but it doesn’t seem to have been one that Moses (assuming he wrote both Genesis and Deuteronomy) considered to be an issue. The fact that we have difficulty understanding or envisioning something because it is outside our experience does not mean that it is impossible. Not having experienced, or even witnessed, polygynous relationships, I’m hardly qualified to explain their inner workings. Difficulty in conceiving of something as possible does not disprove something, especially when the Bible teaches it. I have heard, second-hand, of loving, functional polygynous marriages, so my strongest positive argument on this issue is that I hear that this is possible.
Regarding typology, James is again right; sometimes typology is the clear teaching of Scripture. The typological understanding of marriage as a reflection of Christ and the Church is clearly taught in Scripture. Types should be seen, though, as metaphors that don’t have to have one-to-one correspondences with the greater reality they represent. For example, Jesus points out with the sign of Jonah that the Pharisee will not repent in the same way that the Ninevites did. Another important difference between Jesus and Jonah are that Jonah was swallowed because he refused God’s commission, while Jesus died and was buried because He accepted God’s commission. Jesus’ point was not that Jonah’s story corresponded on all points with His, but that, just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, so Jesus would be in the Earth for three days and nights, as well as pointing out that the Pharisees were more stubborn than the Ninevites. In the same way, Paul’s clear point in teaching that Christ and the Church and husbands and wives reflect each other typologically is that wives should submit to their husbands and that husbands should love their wives. He does not mention polygyny, as it’s outside the Ephesians’ experience even more than it is his own.
I actually won’t push back on the plural nature of the Church; the Church is a corporate but singular entity. What I will push back on is that Christ only has a relationship with the Church. I would argue that God has a special relationship with Israel at the same time He has a special relationship with the Church. Not only is this eternal relationship established through covenants, but it is also described as marriage by God: Three examples are Isaiah 54:1-10, Ezekiel 16 and the entire book of Hosea. If we are going to argue polygyny from typology, I believe that these distinct, special relationships that God has with the Church and with Israel actually argue for the acceptability of polygyny. (I also realize that my understanding of Israel and the Church as distinct is the result of my Dispensationalism and that it is hardly the majority position among Christians today; I don’t expect all Christians to accept argument immediately, but I am willing to defend it.)
James and I are in agreement about one more thing: neither of us advocate practicing polygyny in America, though for different reasons. My reasons are that we don’t have a significant surplus of women and that we are having enough trouble keeping our monogynous marriages working that we don’t need to complicate things by adding another woman to the mix. Polygyny usually occurs in cultures where women outnumber men because warfare or some other phenomena kills off men in significant numbers; we don’t have that in the US. In other cultures and situations, polygyny solves problems (providing husbands for women who otherwise wouldn’t have husbands, providing for women who can’t have careers outside of prostitution, providing heirs for deceased brothers) while in US culture, it would cause problems.