07 January 2009

reflections on polygamy in genesis

(artwork is Lamech and his Two Wives, by William Blake)

For a number of years, I assumed that polygamy, while not condoned in the Old Testament, was at least considered relatively normative by the OT writers. A number of men in the history of Israel had multiple wives (e.g. Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.).

A recent study of Genesis has changed my mind concerning just how normative polygamy was seen to be by the writer(s) (not interested in an authorship debate here!). I believe that Genesis, long before the giving of the Law, spells out that polygamy is an unnatural state of affairs, and sets a tone of dissonance for polygamy in the rest of the OT.

To begin, Adam and Eve. It seems rather facile to start here, but it’s important to note that God did not create a second wife for Adam (extra-biblical legends of Lilith not withstanding). One can assume, I believe, that God’s pattern for creation can be seen as a Scriptural standard.

The first mention in Genesis of a man taking more than one wife is 4:19: “And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah” (ESV). Because Genesis does not normally name the woman in these early genealogies, this naming of the two wives is unique, and therefore, important. Lamech himself is not a shining example of humanity. First of all, he is a descendant of Cain. Secondly, he seems to have a capricious, violent temper: “Lamech said to his wives: ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold’” (4:23-24, ESV). Lamech is the first of Cain’s descendants that Genesis tells any details about, and to include in these details that he had two wives does not seem intended to mollify the reader.

It is relevant that Noah and his sons each had only one wife. Gen. 7:1 notes God’s command that Noah and his entire household are to go into the ark. V. 13 says, “On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark.” Four men, each with one wife, the household of the righteous Noah. Had there been other wives, would they not have been included in the “entire household”?

Abram is where it gets interesting. It is clear that he marries Sarai as his only wife. Genesis 11:29 reads, “And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah” (ESV). It appears that Hagar is taken as a wife, but only at Sarai’s insistence, where the Scriptures tell us that she gave Hagar to Abram “as a wife” (16:3, ESV), for the purposes of childbearing. However, Hagar is never again mentioned as a wife of Abram. Whenever she is given a title, it is “servant of Sarai/Sarah” (16:8; 25:12). It seems significant that 16:3 uses the phrase, “as a wife,” perhaps indicating that Hagar was given to fulfill the role of a wife in childbearing, but nothing else. I am not an OT scholar, so I would hate to make that claim, but it seems worth exploring.

Genesis 25 tells that Abraham took another wife, Keturah, after the death of Sarah. It also notes that Abraham had sons from concubines; at least one whom we can probably assume was Hagar. It is interesting that 1 Chronicles 1 lists Keturah as a concubine, rather than a wife. It could be argued from the context of Gen. 25 that “concubines” includes Keturah, in that vs. 4-6 is a discussion of Abraham’s children, separating Isaac from all other offspring. It seems that there are enough data to avoid naming Abraham a polygamist, at least a polygamist in the same sense as those before him.

Esau is the next true polygamist in Genesis, and once again there is a strong negative: “When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah” (26:34-35, ESV). While it seems that perhaps part of the bitterness for Rebekah seems to be that these women are Hittites (27:46), Genesis doesn’t seem to have the negative view of Hittites seen elsewhere in the OT. Up until this point in Genesis, the Hittites have been favorable to Abraham and his family, and Esau’s wives are the first Hittites mentioned unfavorably, so from an authorial perspective it does not seem that the distaste is simply because the women are Hittites.

Jacob seems to be the first true polygamist mentioned sympathetically in Genesis, though of course his situation was one where he was tricked into marrying Leah when he sought after Rachel. Jacob also had two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, but these were given to him by their mistresses when they were unable to have children (Leah thought she could have no more and Rachel was barren), giving birth on behalf of Leah and Rachel (for example, Rachel calls Bilhah’s son Dan her own in 30:5, though the lists of ch. 46 name Zilpah and Bilhah as mother of their children by Jacob). This situation parallels that of Sarai giving Hagar to Abram for the express purpose of bearing children. Rachel does seem to have pride of place as a wife (for instance, she and Joseph are last to meet Esau upon Jacob’s reconciliation to his brother in 33:2, placed by Jacob after Leah and her children). There is no record in Genesis that Jacob took another wife when Rachel died in childbirth (35:19), which means that Leah remained as his only wife (interestingly, it is Leah, not Rachel, who is buried with Jacob at Machpelah (49:31) with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah).

The taking of more than one wife by a man is not explicitly forbidden in Genesis. Yet Genesis seems, at the very least, to discourage it. Moreover, Genesis seems to indicate that polygamy was not a natural way of life, even in the earliest days of history. The pattern is given at Creation: the male is given one female as a helper. Noah and his sons each have one wife to start the world again. Lamech, the first named polygamist in Genesis, is an evil man, the first of Cain’s descendants about whom we are given any details. Esau brings bitterness to his mother in marrying two women (and he goes on to marry a third). No indication is given with Lamech or Esau as to why they take multiple wives, as far as justification in the light of childbearing.

Abram and Jacob seem to be different instances of men taking more than one wife, in which Abram takes Hagar as a wife, but Genesis does not record Hagar fulfilling “wifely duties” again to Abraham after Ishmael is born. Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah, intending to marry Rachel. Jacob does have a number of children through Zilpah and Bilhah, servants of Leah and Rachel, respectively. Scripture does not indicate that he had children with them other than when it was believed that their respective mistresses could not bear children.
The commission to Adam and Eve, and Noah and his wife and Noah’s sons and their wives, was to be fruitful and multiply (1:21; 9:1,7), yet each had only one wife. If the purpose of God’s command was simply to reproduce, isn’t it more logical for each man to have more than one wife. This contrasts to when Abram and Jacob “go in” to women other than their wives in order to have children.

· How significant is it that Adam, Noah, and Noah’s three sons (Creation and the “new” Earth of the Noahic covenant), each have only one wife?
· How significant is it that the two named outright polygamists in Genesis are evil men?
· How significant is it that Sarai gives Hagar to Abram as a wife for the purposes of childbearing, and that Genesis never again mentions Hagar as Abram’s wife?
· How significant is it that Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah, and had two wives against his will, and that he also “went in” to his wives servants solely for the purpose of childbearing?

1 comment:

Kim M. said...

Just thought I'd say "hello". Remember us?
Good thoughts... I've wondered about this a lot. :-)