Polygamy, Part 4


Posted by Matt Postiff February 16, 2008 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Interpretation 

In my September 14, 2007 post, I probably raised more questions than I answered with respect to the issue of polygamy and its practice in the Old Testament. One statement I made elicited some response from at least one reader. I said that "though Exodus 21:7-11 regulates polygamy, this does not necessarily endorse it." The question was whether that is a valid principle. If something is regulated, shouldn't we suppose that it is within God's will? That is to say, since God regulates polygamy, it seems that, at least in some cases, it must be allowable and God does thus endorse it. Of course, later in the same post, I said that the Levirate institution causes tension with my view "in that God gave this as part of the Law and so in some sense endorsed it."

I supported my position with a similar statement regarding divorce. In the case of divorce, God definitely regulated its practice in the OT (Deut. 24:1-4, among other passages). In fact, Exodus 21:10-11 sets forth some case law in the situation where polygamy and divorce together are at issue and again God "endorses" divorce by way of commanding that the first wife go free. However, Matthew 19:6-8 makes it clear, at least to this reader, that God did not endorse the general practice of divorce "from the beginning" of creation. It does not seem reasonable to suppose that God would positively endorse an act which is always the result of other sins. What marriage ended in divorce where there was not some sin leading up to the divorce? So I still believe the principle to be valid on the face of the texts--what God regulates he does not necessarily endorse. The specific cases cited are exceptions with regard to polygamy and divorce. But not all things that God regulates are within the boundaries of what he desires. (Of course, all things that come to pass are within the bounds of his decreed will. I am speaking of his "moral" or "desired" will.) Sometimes he regulates things simply to prevent total anarchy from taking over.

As both polygamy and divorce are disputed examples in this area, the reader asked if there are other examples. I could not think of any others besides the example of sin in general. God does not endorse sin of any type, but he does legislate punishments when it happens. In the OT, he regulated sacrifices that were to be made for particular sins and types of sins. He decreed for sin to occur, but clearly he is not the author of it, nor does he endorse it in some positive way. But he very definitely does regulate it. So, it is regulated but not endorsed.

Still this leaves me with an uneasy feeling regarding those exceptional cases with divorce and polygamy. Are those things that God "endorses" themselves sin? Would God command something to be done that is sin? Certainly we would agree that even if divorce were OK in some cases, it is definitely sin in others. When God commands it, we would not be correct to say that it is sin, for God cannot sin nor does he tempt any man to sin (James 1:13). It was somewhat of a help to me to think of the example of the killing of a person. If it is murder, then it is sin according to the 10 commandments. But God regulates this sin with another act that, on the surface, seems to be sin: namely, the killing of the murderer himself. This killing would seem to be sin, but as it is commanded by God, it is not sin. In fact, it is right and just as a punishment to extract a life for a life. God regulates murder with the death penalty but he is not thereby endorsing murder. It is only that without capital punishment, the end result would be more egregious than if capital punishment were not done, and the murderer was allowed to live. This would be a great miscarriage of divine justice, for the loss of life made in God's image would not be recompensed with a punishment of commensurate weight.

So I'm still sticking to the notion that though polygamy and divorce did happen in the OT, we do not have to bow to the idea that they were or are institutions that must necessarily continue in the present age because they carry God's stamp of approval. They do not. Perhaps you have some more thoughts that will help me refine my thinking.

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