By Bola Bolawole
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Abram (later Abraham), the father of faith and the progenitor of Judaism, Islam and Christianity married more than one wife. He married the wife of his youth, Sarai (later Sarah) and when Sarah offered him her maidservant, Hagar, he took her and bore a child, Ishmael, through her. While some authorities said Abraham married Keturah after Sarah’s death, others said Hagar and Keturah were one and the same person and that Isaac went to bring her back to Abraham after his mother, Sarah’s death. Abraham had 8 sons – the oldest was Ishmael (with Hagar), followed by the child of promise, Isaac (with Sarah), and Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah (with Keturah). Some Bible scholars posit that Rebecca was Isaac’s second – not first and only – wife. Rebecca bore Isaac twins – Esau and Jacob. Esau had three wives – Adah, Judith and Mahalath – while Jacob married the two sisters – Leah and Rachel – who in turn gave him their maidservants as wife, Bilhah and Zilpah respectively. Jewish traditions regard such “wives” as concubines. Jacob had 12 sons in this order – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Isaachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin (the last two with Rachel). Leah bore Jacob six sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Isaachar and Zebulum and the only daughter, Dinah. Dan and Naphtali were the sons of Bilhah while Gad and Asher were Zilpah’s sons.
Notable Bible personalities like David and Solomon had many wives and concubines. But others, like Joseph, Eli, Job might have had only one wife. The New Testament said very little about the family life of the disciples of Jesus but bible scholars posit that Joseph the carpenter, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, had only one wife. Judging from the above, did God frown on polygamy? If we trace the matter back to the Garden of Eden where God unfolded His perfect will for Man but where, unfortunately, Man also lost that perfect will, God’s purpose for man was for him to have a help meet (singular, not plural). Gen. 2:18 says it is not good for man to be alone and that God will make for him a help meet: Just one help meet, not two, not three and not four. God knew or was of the view that one help meet was all Adam needed. Needs are different from wants. God could have, from the single rib He took from Adam’s rib, made multiple help meets for him if He thought that was what was required. How come, then, that Man began to have more than a single help meet? This was one of the many imperfections that entered the life of man after he lost Paradise (in the Garden of Eden).
Did God then acquiesce to man’s diversion from His original purpose and perfect will? I dare to say that it appears so because God noted, with regret, that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21). “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart…” (Gen. 6:6). The heart (of man), saith the Lord, “is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”; who can know it, He asked! (Jeremiah 17:9). But God was not minded to sulk over man’s mistakes: “And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he is flesh: yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3). It is not the perfect will of God for man to marry more than one wife but once man missed it in the Garden of Eden, sin crept in and all manner of imperfections became the order of the day. Man lost the ability to operate in the perfect will of God once the devil stole in.
Seventeenth-century English poet, John Milton, captures the episode so graphically in his poem, Paradise Lost (first edition, 1667 and second edition, 1674) in which he tells the biblical story of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve (and, by extension, all humanity) in the Garden of Eden. In Paradise Regained, a sequel to Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of Christian heroism – enduring faith in God, belief in prayer, and a spiritual strength to persevere through obstacles. Milton showcases the character of Jesus as the epitome of Christian heroism. Little wonder, then, that Romans 5: 12 -19 says “… just as sin entered the world through one man”, forgiveness of sin, righteousness and salvation also came through one man (Jesus Christ). But things are never going to be the way they used to be, as Bob Marley crooned in his evergreen song, Natural Mystic.
Did God chide Abraham when the father of faith took his wife’s advice to go in into her maidservant Hagar and rear an offspring through her? Did Abraham doubt God’s promise or was he acting to please Sarah and give peace a chance? When the same Sarah insisted Hagar and her son Ishmael must be sent away and Abraham hesitated, God told Abraham to do as Sarah had demanded (Gen. 21:12). When Abraham groaned and travailed like a woman in labour over Ishmael, God comforted him (Gen. 17:18). Obviously, neither Abraham nor Sarah contemplated the outcome of their decisions but God, knowing the ending from the beginning, kept His peace! Does silence mean consent? When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite’s wife and, to cover his tracts, send the poor fellow to his death, God sent the prophet Nathan to convict David of his sin. If I were to go by Nathan’s proverb to David (2 Samuel 12: 1–12), I will judge him the second wisest man in Jewish history after King Solomon!
God, driving home His point, told David: I anointed thee king over Israel… and I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have given unto thee such and such things…” Is this another confirmation that God supports polygamy? Bible Mesh: the Trusted Theological Education asked the question: How should we respond to Old Testament Polygamy?” and provided the following answers: “Did not God in the Old Testament allow for polygamy? If that is true, then, how can you say that marriage is defined as being only between one man and one woman?’ The truth is that the story of polygamy in the Old Testament is, well, a problem… Although monogamy was clearly God’s intent from the beginning, the picture blurs pretty quickly after Adam and Eve’s first sin and expulsion from the Garden. Accommodations were made. By Genesis 4, you have Cain’s son, Lamech, taking two wives. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob themselves had multiple wives and concubines…
Moses had two wives as well. The Mosaic Law likewise accommodated the practice of marrying more than one wife, including captured prisoners from foreign conquests (Deut. 21:1-17). It also made provisions for continuing the family line by marrying a brother’s wife if he died without producing heirs (Deut. 25:5-12). And the stories keep coming: Gideon, one of Israel’s champions, had many wives; Elkanah, a presumably godly man and the father of Samuel, had two wives. In sum, during the Old Testament times, polygamy was not only permitted, it was sanctioned…Queen Esther was undoubtedly part of a harem! And what of Ruth? Boaz most likely had another wife but was obligated to marry Ruth out of his legal obligation to his relative’s family…King David, the ‘man after God’s own heart’, had eight wives. God not only seemed to “permit” this activity but in one instance, at least, actually took responsibility for it. In 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba (already cited above)… David’s son, Solomon, however, went overboard, flouting a stipulation in Deuteronomy 17 that kings not accumulate “too many” wives. For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
How does one respond to this situation? The answer begins by seeing that God always points his creation back to the primacy and perfection of the original design. Next, you have to read every book to the end and, especially, in its biblical context. And if you read the stories about the characters referenced above, you will quickly find that polygamy was an unmitigated sociological disaster that created heartbreak and sowed familial discord. By the time of the writing of Malachi, God’s desire was clear: covenantal monogamy was to be the norm. Further, through the ministry of Jesus, we see God ‘reset the clock’, so to speak, to the original goodness of monogamous marital union… He also enacted new provisions to protect women and raise their standing in society. Jesus showed a world that had distorted the meaning of marriage back to the beauty of “the man being joined to his wife and two will become one flesh.” He showed that there is a way to go back to our “origin story” in the Garden – where one husband is joined to one wife – a relationship Saint Augustine once called ‘the basic bond of society’”
Good as this is, there are factors working to necessitate polygamy in today’s Nigeria. We shall x-ray these next week! TO BE CONTINUED!