Polygamy Reconsidered: African Plural Marriage
and the Christian Churches
Behaviour change and sustainability
African Plural Marriage
Chapter 5) Polygamy and the Bible
"The great evil... was not really polygamy as such, but so-called 'successive'
polygamy - a husband was able to annul his marriage, send his wife away, and enter into a new
marriage." Edward Schillebeeckx
The author states 'the biblical texts that are usually cited to show
the incompatibility of polygamy with Christianity are concerned specifically with other matters', as polygamy
involves neither divorce or remarriage. In the Bible adultery, divorce, polyandry, serial monogamy,
fornication, prostitution and male homosexual acts are condemned, but not polygamy.
The author outlines the false reasoning of many as based on the idea
that God once permitted polygamy, but allowed it to become progressively less common. Monogamy is taken
as an ideal in the Garden of Eden and monogamy is assumed to be true throughout the New Testament
(neatly side-stepping the failure to condemn it).
"However, the method of interpretation is rather suspect. the whole
biblical case against the practice of polygamy is developed only by inferences, and it hinges on a number
of assumptions which can no longer be taken to be self-evident." Claus Westerman says "Without really
realising it we have become accustomed to listen to the Bible in the light of a particular type
of interpretation." Perhaps it is the Western culture, rather than the Bible, which has provided Christians
with their basic notions about marriage. Perhaps we should wonder at what other doctrines are based
merely on inferences and have been smuggled into our minds without a true scriptural basis.
Mr Hillman does not attempt a detailed exegesis of the Bible. He merely
seeks to raise doubts about the presumption of monogamy. Particularly this can be done in realising
that each of the passages cited can be interpreted in such a way as not to exclude polygamy.
"Marriage was regarded as a social instrument required for the preservation
and continuation of familes and clans. Through daughters being married into different families,
there was a mutual strengthening of kinship bonds - each family giving its own flesh and blood to other
families." This contrasts radically with the Western emphasis on individuals.
"Such a conception of marriage was congenial to the custom of having
more than one wife at the same time. In the Mosaic law polygamy is clearly regarded as a normal and
licit practice (cf. Exod. 21:10; Lev. 18:18; Deut. 21:15-17)...Nowhere in the Old Testament is this form
of marriage called into question. The one and only admonition against the acquisition of too many wives
(Deut. 17:17) is not an attack upon the institution of polygamy; it is, if we take account of the
context, simply a warning against an abuse - against the king's taking too many wives, foreign wives specifically,
because they would turn his heart toward their foreign gods (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-8)." Indeed it has
even been suggested that the passage is talking about 'tribute' rather than wives, but the Hebrew is too complicated
to present here.
It is pointed out that Jeremiah (in 3vv6-10 & 31vv31-32) portrayed
Jehovah as a bigamist, and that the imagery of man and wife used of God and Israel and Christ and the Church
need not be any more monogamist than the other imagery such as parent and child, shepherd
and flock, vine and husbandman.
Regrettably, Mr Hillman loses all his senses and begins to defend himself
from an evolutionary perspective. Quite what this has to do with the Bible is anyone's guess.
Mr Hillman then invokes the biblical idea of 'one flesh' as being equivalent
to 'kindred' or 'kinship' and quotes Gen 29:14, 37:27; Lev. 18:6; Judges 9:2; 2 Sam. 5:1, 19:12-13;
Neh. 5:5; and Isaiah 58:7 in support of this. This allows 'one-flesh' to apply to everyone in a
Of Matthew 19 vv 3-9 Mr Hillman suggests that perhaps Jesus was answering
the questions that the Pharisees had asked him - a question on divorce. 'We need not expect
to find here the answer to a question that was not asked.'
Of the tendency to talk of 'wife' in the singular, he says 'elsewhere
in Deuteronomy, the singular 'wife' is used in laws that could apply to cases either of monogamy or polygamy
(Deut 22: 1, 22) and 'wives' appears only in regulations which could not apply to monogamy (Deut.
21:15-17) while other rules of behaviour simply take polygamy for granted (Exod 21:10; Lev 8:18).
And the issue of divorce only pertains to one wife at a time, so the use of 'wife' is unsurprising.
In fact it is the normal biblical way of talking about either form of marriage.
He points out that if celibacy was rare and men married young then the
Levirate law required polygamy. He also argues that the principle of no change in status on conversion
could apply to polygamists just as much as monogamists.
We learn that Jerome and Chrysotom thought that polygamy was not allowed
for church officials in 1 Timothy 3 and that this meant that it was widespread within the church.
He suggests that the term 'one flesh' has a carnal sense and a kinship
sense and therefore explains that 1 Cor 6 is no difficulty as a man can obviously be 'one flesh' with any
number of prostitutes. Also Eph 5:28-33 shows us as members of his body, a plurality and unity - a
corporate personality. "In actual historical fact, God's beloved people is a plurality of persons."
- The historical missionary and pastoral problem of African Polygamy
Chapter 2 - Cultural Presumptions of the West
Chapter 3 - Demography
Chapter 4 - Anthropology
Chapter 5 - Biblical texts
Chapter 6 - Theological Rationale
Appendix - On the Council of Trent
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Where is the Culture of the people?"