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.

  1. I am curious why you argue for biblically acceptable polygyny, i.e. we see male characters of the OT engaged in relationships involving more than one woman, and therefore conclude the moral acceptability of the practice (i.e. “if it’s in the OT it must be morally acceptable” sort of logic), and then conclude that it is only acceptable given a sort of necessary telos (which, apparently, is childbirth as P9 seems to suggest).

    If we are to follow your premise fully to its conclusion it would seem that polyamory is completely acceptable too. If: one, in your view the bible admits to monogyny being acceptable as long as it has a “necessary” telos (i.e. childbirth), and two, this therefore justifies going against a quasi-ideal (Israel and god, the church and Christ, Adam and Eve, et al), it seems that we can easily justify polyamory. After all, we can easily make up such a telos (whether that be “love,” childbirth, child rearing, etc.) and, to be honest, we could even *hold* to a quasi-ideal (reflect the love of the trinity, that of Christ and the church (after all the church is comprised of many members), etc).

    In other words, could you expound on “why polygyny” and not, say, polygamy or polyamory? There seems to be no other reason save that men were patriarchal in the OT and only used women as means of child-birth (given your sketch). Further, I would like to ask how polygyny (or rather polyamory) would NOT solve some problems in the US? Polyamorous relationships would reduce divorce, increase the amount of stable households in which to raise a child, create a space for meaningful relational bonds, etc.

      • Staples
      • June 22nd, 2011

      I’m not sure if you’ve looked at my original post on this topic; this is a multi-post conversation and starting with this- the latest entry in the conversation- is bound to be confusing. You can find my initial argument for polygyny as a practice which should not be universally banned here:


      In a nutshell, my argument for polygyny is not that we find examples of it in the OT (one can find examples of just about any evil act in the OT, so mere occurrence in the OT should not be seen as justification for anything), nor that there is some end goal that somehow justifies polygyny (the ends don’t justify the means), but that not only are there no commands against polygyny in the Bible (either NT or OT), but that the command from God in Deuteronomy to engage in Levirate marriage actually requires brothers who were already married to become polygynists. When God requires polygyny in one situation, I find it difficult to conclude that polygyny should not be acceptable in any other situation without very clear commands on the matter from God.

      I’d argue that these criteria differentiate polygyny from practices such as polyandry and polyamory, which are not mentioned, let alone endorsed or commanded in the Bible. If we take other Biblical teachings on love and marriage seriously, I believe that we can rule these other types of relationships out as acceptable forms of marriage. Teachings on the headship of the husband seem like they would rule out polyandry, as headship requires one head. Most forms of polyamory (the term is vague, and could be argued to include all forms of polygamy, including polygyny), especially as practiced in the contemporary West, include a lack of commitment, namely marriage, which is clearly taught against in Scripture. So, in contrast to polygyny, other forms of polygamy and polyamory seem to me to include, by definition, aspects that conflict with a Biblical understanding of marriage.

      So far as the problems that would be caused by introducing polygyny to the United States, complicating an already abysmal situation doesn’t seem like a good idea, pragmatically speaking. When Americans can get monogamy right, they may be ready to try polygyny, which is, I doubt anyone will argue, a more difficult type of marriage to practice well. In addition, there seems to be no practical reason to begin practicing polygyny; marriageable women do not significantly outnumber marriageable men, so the widespread practice of polygyny would result in large numbers of marriageable men going without wives. Besides the ethical wrongness of such a general practice, young, single men are an unstable element in society and it makes little pragmatic sense to increase their number in our society. While I have no universal moral issues with introducing polygyny to the United States, I do have both situational, context-based moral issues and pragmatic issues with introducing polygyny to the United States.

      Finally, I utterly doubt that “Polyamorous relationships would reduce divorce, increase the amount of stable households in which to raise a child…” I’m very interested in any evidence, theoretical, anecdotal or research-based, that would support these assertions, with divorce defined as the termination of a committed (if not exclusive) relationship.


  2. I wonder if a polygamous man would qualify as an elder in a church? Maybe I am misunderstanding some nuance of this admittedly heady subject. But, it seems to me that arguing from the design of Adam & Eve is only the first in a series of steps that Scripture presents as the ideal, God’s open condemnation of polygyny notwithstanding.

    You argue against the practice here in America due to our overabundance of women. However, God’s prohibitions in Scripture are not circumstantial. He does not declare, “Well it’s war time over here, so the ban is lifted…” He condemns it and declares a marriage to be a man and a woman becoming one flesh.

    If we argue for polygyny, even if outside of our own context, then this erodes the veracity, efficacy, and sacredness of the marriage covenant. And if marriage is indeed a covenant before God, you must somehow craft an argument that creates a “Dogma” sized loophole that will make God covenant with individuals who are breaking his covenant simply by entering into it with more than one person.

    I hope this makes sense.

      • Staples
      • June 22nd, 2011

      I’m interested in where you find “God’s open condemnation of polygyny.” I addressed the utter lack of condemnation of polygyny in Scripture in my earlier post here:


      The only reason I’m making a conditional argument against polygyny in the US is because I don’t believe that there is a blanket condemnation against polygyny in Scripture. I’m curious how you can say that there is a blanket condemnation against polygyny in Scripture if Scripture commands Israelites to practice levirate marriage. (Also, my argument is not, as you say, that we have an “overabundance of women,” but that we have about the same number of women and men. If anything, then, we have an “overabundance” of men.)

      If arguing for polygyny “erodes the veracity, efficacy, and sacredness of the marriage covenant,” then it seems to me that God is arguing against the “marriage covenant” by commanding levirate marriage. Obviously, this can’t be the case. I would argue that, instead of the marriage covenant, God’s command to engage in levirate marriage should be eroding your personal understanding of the marriage covenant, which, incidentally, is exactly what our “Christian Objectivity” series of posts is about: challenging our own *cultural* misunderstandings of the teachings of Christianity.

      • Stephen Hale
      • June 23rd, 2011

      Credo wrote:
      If we argue for polygyny, even if outside of our own context, then this erodes the veracity, efficacy, and sacredness of the marriage covenant.

      I respond:

      And Credo also said:
      However, God’s prohibitions in Scripture are not circumstantial. He does not declare, “Well it’s war time over here, so the ban is lifted…” He condemns it and declares a marriage to be a man and a woman becoming one flesh.

      I respond:
      Again, Staples has argued the Bible NEVER, EVER condemns polygyny. In other words, God Never Condemns it.

      I think the responses of both Credo and jdavidcharles show a point you made in your previous posts, Staples: people read their cultural preference for monogamy back into the Bible, and never notice it isn’t there. Of course, it’s easy to notice when other people do this (in this case, I think Credo and jdavidcharles), but it’s harder to see when I’m doing it. We need each other to point these things out. There’s no shame in accidentally reading your culture back into the Bible. There is shame in not trying to face it when it happens. Cultural blind spots happen to everyone, but they distort our ability to follow God.

      On the other hand, it is always possible Staples (and I) is wrong: can one of you two provide a text of Scripture which condemns polygyny. I would suggest, however, that you read Staples original post before you do so. He has already rebutted a number of the ideas you have presented here, and many others. (I don’t mean to be rude about that, I’m just trying to move the conversation forward. Nobody expects anyone to read every post on the internet!)


  3. It was not my attempt to read monogomy onto/into the bible–in fact my intention was quite the opposite–rather than read the Bible as a text which teaches polygyny as an exception to an otherwise monogomous trend throughout scripture (or even as complimentary position)–rather to radically read the Bible devoid of “-gyny” as such–just as Lacan declared radically “there is no woman,” so too I would like to propose a biblical reading devoid of this notion of “the woman” as an ontological compliment, the exception, to the otherwise patriarchal and male dominated narrative–a zero-level reading, a reading without difference.

    That is to say, rather than asking “Is the bible monogynous/polygynous and how do these relate?” I would prefer to ask no such question for three primary reasons–one, I am of the opinion that throughout the biblical text we get extraordinarily differing depictions of gender at times cogent, disparate, or outright contradictory (re-read Genesis with this in mind and see how even the concept of “the woman” radically changes from Eve to Hagar to Rebecca to Tamar); two, although interesting to read these texts in light of gender trouble it is not something the texts themselves seem terribly concerned with for the most part ( I agree with the sentiment, “Well it’s war time over here, so the ban is lifted…” rightly because the god-of-the-text doesn’t really seem to care about establishing or disestablishing a monogynous/polygynous mandate); which leads to three, the very notion of a distinction between monogynous/polygynous is a recent one and the socio-political significance of marriage has changed drastically since the time of say Abraham until now. It only takes a brief skim of certain passages of the OT (think of Abram/Hagar, Juah/Tamar, Hosea etc) to realize that women were considered a sort of property (maybe not exclusively or reductively but there is an economic value to the woman in a way there is not for men). Rather than presuppose a anachronistic socially constructed binary, I find it more helpful to ask questions about gender, marriage, and sexuality as such.

    True, Levitical law “commands” polygyny, but, one, I am not (and I assume you are not) a Levite nor have I or plan to take any sort of Levitic vows, and two, Levitical law also commands the stoning of male homosexuality (but not female homosexuality), male masturbation (but not female masturbation), and calls for the stoning of married women in the case of adultery or the forced marriage of a woman in the case of a single woman having entered adultery. Most of this seems to stem from one: the myth of the male seed as being sole carrier of the child, thus why the punishment according to Levitical law is the same as infanticide, and two, general patriarchal hegemony. I admit this is slightly speculative given the ambiguity of text and history, but I think we can safely draw the conclusion that there has been a drastic revision of what gender, sexuality, birth-sex, conception, pro-creation, et al, mean and what they are for.

    Forgive me if I have misconstrued your argument–I understood you to be saying, in short, “monogamy is not outright commanded, polygyny exists in the Bible and is not outright condemned, it seems polygyny is acceptable in certain cases–let’s explore that.” My point about polyamory was that polygyny as a practice from our perspective may exist in the text, but the aformentioned socially constructed binary is not (if we went back in time and asked David if he was monogomous, monogynous, polyamorous, polygamous, or polygynous he’d be very confused). Polyamory includes polygyny, so my question was why must we stop there? Why not equally ask, “Although polyamory appears in the bible only as so-called “polygyny,” given our radically differing gender roles and sexual hierarchy, and given that it isn’t explicitly condemned, why do most Christians conceive of polyamory (along with polygyny) as perversion?”

    PS–Sorry about the length of this post, I wanted to avoid some of the confusion I seemed to cause by being curt. Also, yes, I did read your original post as well as James’ response.

    • Stephen Hale
    • June 24th, 2011

    Well that brings up some points that made me think, jdavidcharles. Especially your point about David not sharing our categories (monogamy, polygamy, etc). It seems a bit easier to see when we look at Abraham and Hagar. Was Abraham monogamous or not? Well…sort of…

    Some good things to think about!

    BTW: What did Lacan mean by “there is no woman?”

  4. Well, Lacan’s critique in short is that society doesn’t grant any positive psychological signification to female sexuality–that male sexuality exists radically in symbolism and linguistically but that “the feminine” is markedly absent except in reference to male sexuality. The notion of “woman” in the modern western world (and perhaps the western metaphysical tradition at large) is an absence (Lacan’s distinction between “the Real” and “the Symbolic” is helpful here–the woman does not exist in the symbolic order, she is an absence, yet she exists in the Real–like a trauma). This is what the suffix “-gyny” implies. It puts all the wait on the man as the central portion of any marriage–it makes the man the precondition and referent of marriage as such. In other words, it reduces the woman to a suffix. This is in part why I wanted to shift the conversation away from “polygyny” and towards “polyamory”–it treats women as having actual positive significance. This is what I was trying to get at as regards a reading without difference–a reading that doesn’t defer/differ “the woman” as a metaphysical absence.

  5. Whoops: *weight

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: