Christian Polygamy? (Part 2 – OT Law)

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview, Culture Wars/Popular Culture 327 23

In the first article[1] in this series, I discussed if the teachings of Jesus and Paul had any insight to the issue of polygamy. In my opinion, they did, and it was a huge contribution because both seem to condemn it. However, supporters of Christian polygamy look mostly to the Old Testament for their support. Texts in the Old Testament Law include Leviticus 18:18 and various passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy. There is, of course, the fact that there are some very faithful men in this part of the Scriptures that were polygamists as well. In this article, and in the next, I will be examining the different points of view for the Old Testament Law. In this particular article, I will look at Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17. I will then return to other passages in the Law in part 3 and conclude it with a look at the Old Testament Law in general.

  • Leviticus 18:18

Leviticus 18:18 is an excellent place to begin our look at the Torah (law). This verse states, “Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.” This verse seems to be saying that a man should never have relations with his wife’s sister (his sister-in-law) while his wife is alive. The argument is fairly straight forward: the verse is in a section of Scripture (Leviticus 18:7-18) that is prohibiting sexual relations with near of kin, that is, “incest.” Although technically, the “incest” in this section of Scripture does not only deal with those whom one is biologically related to but also includes close relatives by marriage (for example, a sister-in-law).

The website biblicalpolygamy.com (hereafter just BP.com) believes that it is clear that this verse “is speaking in terms of the man being married to them [the wife and the sister-in-law] at the same time. The fact that this verse is even instructed actually PROVES that polygamy is otherwise a valid marriage possibility! After all, if polygamy was really a sin anyway, it would be completely irrelevant and unnecessary to specify a prohibition against marrying sisters anyway! That is, if it was truthfully a sin for a man to marry more than one wife anyway, then OBVIOUSLY he would not be able to marry two sisters beside each other in their lifetime!”[2]

This verse does seem to be proof that polygamy is ok in the eyes of God.[3] However, the anti-polygamy side of the debate has another view concerning this verse that is not widely known, and it argues that Leviticus 18:18 actually condemns polygamy. How can this be? Let’s take a look.

The meaning of the word “sister”

This interpretation views the word “sister” in this verse differently than the traditional one. Verse 18 contains the phrase “a woman to her sister.” Those who advocate that this verse actually condemns polygamy simply ask the question, “Does the word ‘sister’ mean biological sister, or can it mean something else?” This may seem strange to most, but bear with me.

The masculine equivalent to this phrase, “a man to his brother” appears twelve times[4] in the Old Testament and the feminine phrase, “a woman to her sister,” which appears eight times.[5] The masculine phrase was used to refer to Joseph’s brothers (in Genesis), to fellow-Israelites and other people(s), and to cherubim. The feminine phrase referred to curtains, clasps, and boards in the Tent of Meeting, and wings of cherubim.[6] The phrase, whether it was referring to people or inanimate objects, was used for the meaning of “one in addition to another.”[7]

Scholar Angelo Tosato, in his article on Leviticus 18:18, says that the phrase seems to have the meaning of a “fellow-citizen,” a “sister [or brother] in religion,” etc. Basically, according to Tosato, the phrase has the meaning of a man or woman belonging to the same people or religious community. Think of the way Christians use “my brother or sister in Christ.”[8]

Another writer on this topic, Richard Davidson, makes an interesting remark when he notes that Moses could have easily have written the expression as “woman and her sister” to avoid any ambiguity. In fact, he does this in the preceding verse (17) with “a woman and her daughter” where a literal mother-daughter relationship is described. “The fact that this available expression for literal relationship within the nuclear family was not employed lends further contextual support for retaining the distributive sense of the expression [a woman to her sister], as is found everywhere else in the [Old Testament].”[9]

Some may argue that “sister” in 18:18 must refer to a literal, biological sister because that is its meaning elsewhere in the chapter (for example, see verses 9 and 11-13). However, in the other verses the word “sister” is clearly defined in the context to refer to a literal sister. Verse 11, for example, specifically says that the sister “is the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father. She is your sister.” The context makes it crystal clear that the word “sister” refers to a biological sister. No such terminology is used in verse 18. We must always keep context in mind.[10]

This is an interesting detail about Leviticus 18:18. The word “sister” here does not have to mean a literal biological sister. However, I will admit that this does not by itself prove the anti-polygamy stance. The possibility that a word or phrase can have different meanings (its semantic range) does not prove one meaning over another. More evidence must be presented. (Although I do believe that understanding a word’s semantic range will help us determine a word’s meaning.)

The Literary Structure

Leviticus 18:7-23 is divided into two major sections: verses 7-17 regarding incest (remember the definition of incest that I gave earlier), and 19-23 concerning more general sexual laws (except verse 21). Notice that verse 18 lies right in between. The most common interpretation is that verse 18 belongs to the first section. This is logical if the verse is about a man marrying two literal sisters since that would qualify as a close-kin relationship. What do other scholars say about this? Well, they have reasons to believe that the verse in question actually belongs to the latter section.

But first, let’s take a look at exactly what Leviticus 18 teaches. Verses 7-17 include laws that condemn close-kin relationships. You are not to have sexual relations with your mother (verse 7), your father’s wife, i.e., a step mother (8), sister (9), niece (10), half-sister (11), aunt (12-14), daughter-in-law (15), sister-in-law (16), and both a woman and her daughter, or her granddaughter (17).

Verses 19-23 teach that you should not have sexual relations with a woman who is on her period (19), your neighbor’s wife (20), not to sacrifice your child to the ancient god Molech (21), not to have homosexual relations (22), and not to have sexual relations with an animal.

As I have already noted verse 18 is generally believed to be a part of the section of laws on incest, thus bringing about a conclusion that it allows polygamy (as long as it is not between biological sisters). However, there is good evidence that shows that verse 18 does not belong to the section on incest, but to the second set of laws.

Each verse in 7-17 begins with the Hebrew noun erwat which means the “nakedness of,” and each of these verses also end with the command “you shall not uncover” (Hebrew lo tegalleh). It is interesting that the second set of laws, verses 19-23, and verse 18, do not use this literary structure. Instead, all six of these verses (18 included) begin with the waw conjunctive (the Hebrew word like our word “and”) and some other Hebrew word besides “nakedness of.” They also conclude with the negative particle lo, “plus the imperfect of some other verb than [‘uncover’].”[11]

Quite clearly, Moses wrote the two sets of laws to be their own separate units.[12] If verse 18 was supposed to belong to the set of laws about incest wouldn’t he have worded it the same as all of those other verses? Why word it completely different and like the next unit of sexual laws which do not deal with close of kin relationships?

Rivalry

There is another detail about 18:18 that needs to be considered. The verse says that a man should not take the wife’s sister to be a rival wife. William Luck, a writer and defender of polygamy, says, “Note here that rivalry is admitted, but not prohibited except where the rivals are sisters.”[13] I disagree with this statement.

Davidson makes a good point concerning the detail of rivalry when he says,  “Accordingly, if the motive for this prohibition was to avoid vexation to one’s wife, there is little reason for limiting its prohibition to a literal sister; both the Bible and anthropology provide ample testimony to the unpleasant reality of contention among co-wives, whether sisters or not.” Tosato adds, “In addition, the harm which the law wants avoided is such (rivalry, enmity) that any woman (and not necessarily a sister of the first wife) is capable of causing it…”[14]

In my honest opinion, I believe that the argument that Leviticus 18:18 is stronger. That is, the verse is not referring to a literal, biological sister. It is referring to any other woman (a “sister” in the sense of a member of the community of Israel). Verse 18 is also linked with the second set of laws which are concerned with bonds outside of kinship. To add to these arguments is the point about rivalry, it makes no sense to have a law only against rivalry when it is a literal sister when rivalry is caused by others as well. This is the major strength of the argument in my personal opinion. Leviticus 18:18 does not condone polygamy, it condemns it.

  • Deuteronomy 17:17

This is another important verse in the polygamy debate. Deuteronomy 17:17 says, “He [the king of Israel] must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” Verse 16 also prohibits the king from acquiring many horses.

Pro-polygamists tend to make the following arguments concerning this verse:

  1. In this context, the king is also prohibited from multiplying their money and horses. Luck says, “If we were to apply the anti-polygyny logic regarding multiplying wives consistently, we would have to imagine that kings were also restricted to one horse and one shekel. On the other hand, if kings could have been true to their inspired limitations by having more than a horse or shekel, then they could have been just as moral by having more than one wife.”[15]
  2. BP.com has a few things to add to this. 1 Kings 11:3-4 says that David’s heart was perfect. “As such, there is a clear difference between multiplying and merely adding. And this can be seen as the difference between Solomon and his father David. Where Solomon had multiplied (i.e., stored-up, hoarded), David had only added his 18+ wives.” The website adds, “(In Genesis 25:1, ‘Then AGAIN Abraham took a wife… Keturah.’ The word, “AGAIN”, there translates to add –or “augment”– in the Hebrew. And, indeed, Abraham was adding his third wife Keturah to himself.) So, Solomon’s sin was multiplying wives (which turned his heart away from God) while his father David had simply added wives. Hence, adding more than one wife is biblically acceptable (just as David did), whereas multiplying wives (just as Solomon did) is what was prohibited in Deuteronomy 17:14, 17.”[16]

With just about everything else in life there are at least two sides to every story. The anti-polygamists argue that this verse may not condone polygamy (or is at least not condone it as strongly as some think it does). Let’s start with the phrase “And he [the king] must not acquire many wives for himself…” The Hebrew for “many” is yarbeh which is one of the forms of the Hebrew word raba.[17] Raba has the meaning of “increase, multiply.”

It is argued that the meaning of raba implies that the king of Israel can have more than one wife, but that he cannot abuse the law by having an excessive amount of wives. Yarbeh is not only used for wives, but for horses and money as well. This form of the word literally means, “to cause to increase.” The context will naturally determine the exact extent of the increase (whether it is only a small increase or a massive one that most think it means in this verse).

One thing that should be noted is that the expression “shall not increase wives for himself” “was chosen not to facilitate some more modest level of polygyny, but to achieve an artful parallelism between the three characteristic sins of Canaanite (and Israelite) kingship.”[18]

The anti-polygamy side notes that it is interesting that in verses 16 and 17 yarbeh is used with no adverbial modifier in regards to horses and wives, but is used with the intensifying adverb meod, “greatly multiply,” in relationship to wealth. Thus, the only one out of these three where an excessive increase is meant is with money, and not horses or wives. It is thus reasonable to conclude that a king could have no increase in horses and wives, and have no excessive increase in wealth.[19] Those who promote a Christian form of polygamy tend to think that since the word raba has the meaning of excess in other parts of Scripture then must here as well. It is a fallacy to think that a word always has to carry its technical meaning at all times. The very fact that the word is not modified with horses or wives does tend to support the idea that it is not referring to an excessive increase.

This makes sense considering what we learned above with Leviticus 18:18. The king of Israel would have been bound to that law as well. He was to be the model for all Israelites. He was, in fact, a brother in Israel (17:15), and was “essentially equal to other Israelites.”[20] He was to study and follow the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:19) as was every Israelite (6:7; 8:1; 11:1). The same warning that was given to the king about exalting himself (17:20) was given to the whole nation (8:14), and the same caution about turning away from God was given to the King and all of Israel (17:20; 5:32; 11:28; 28:14).[21] Davidson says it well, “Thus the law prohibiting royal polygamy in [Deuteronomy] 17:17 serves to uphold and further emphasize the similar prohibition given to all Israel in [Leviticus] 18:18.”[22]

This may sound strange to many for one main reason. How could a king not have any kind of increase in horses? The fact is that the idea of having no multiplication of horses is found in other places in Scripture. Isaiah 31:1 says, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.” Psalm 33:17 adds, “A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.” It is interesting to note that the mule was the animal used for the coronation ceremonies of the king (2 Samuel 18:9; 1 Kings 1:33, 38, 44).[23]

We find the idea of relying on God and not horses in the book of Joshua. Joshua 11:1-15 records the event when the Israelites, commanded by Joshua, defeated a coalition of Canaanite kings who had amassed a great army in order to destroy Israel. 11:4 tells us, “They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots – a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashores.” Notice that the Canaanite kings had many horses, including chariots. The Israelites had no such thing. Yet, the Israelites won the day. Why, because they had faith in God, not in horses (i.e., their own strength).

Take a look at Deuteronomy 20:1 (just a few chapters after the passage in question). 20:1 says, “When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.” The verses immediately following speak about the LORD earning the victory, not the Israelites. The Canaanites have horses (one of the best weapons of war at that time and throughout most of history), but the Israelites have the LORD.

The two major points about the king of Israel not being able to increase his horses is twofold: 1) he and Israel were to depend on God only for their military victories; and 2) the Israelites were not to go back down to Egypt where they had been slaves for centuries. It is not unrealistic that the king of Israel could not own multiple horses.

Conclusion

I know that my conclusions in this article will not please anyone who has committed themselves to a pro-polygamist view of Scripture. However, I do believe that the nontraditional views of Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17 are at least reasonable. Even if one wants to completely disagree with these interpretations I still find it very difficult for someone to directly apply these verses to the life of a Christian. I’ll discuss that in part 3.

What do you think?

[1] As some readers will notice, the date of publication for this article is about a month earlier than part 1. Originally this article was to be the first, but as I was finishing the rest of this series I decided I wanted to change that. So I published my discussion of the New Testament as part 1 and changed the title of this one to part 2.

[2] BP.com “Not marry sisters.” http://www.biblicalpolygamy.com/exegesis/not-marry-sisters/. (Emphasis in original.) BP.com adds, “It is additionally important to also note something about the previous verse (not listed here, Leviticus 18:17) and its relevance to this verse 18 here. Namely, the previous verse 17 prohibits a man from uncovering the nakedness of a mother and her daughter. That is also, by such implied instruction, clearly also meaning that it is a prohibition from marrying both mother and her daughter. That makes that also another proof that polygamy is Biblical by the fact of it even being instructed.”

[3] This is the general consensus among many. See also William Luck. “On the Morality of Biblical Polygamy.” https://bible.org/article/morality-biblical-polygyny. Anthony “Polygamy is not sinful.” Christopher J. Wright. “Leviticus” in New Bible Commentary 4th Ed. ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994. 146.

[4] Genesis 37:19; 42:21, 28; Exodus 16:15; 25:20; 37:9; Numbers 14:4; 2 Kings 7:6; Jeremiah 13:14; 25:26; Ezekiel 24:23; 33:30.

[5] Exodus 26:3, 5, 6, 17; Ezekiel 1:9, 23; 3:13.

[6] There is also a similar expression, “a woman with her friend/neighbor,” which referred to the gathering of birds with their mates” and a woman teaching “each to her neighbor.” See Isaiah 34:15-16; Jeremiah 9:20 .

[7] Richard Davidson. Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007). 194. Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 113. Ronald A. G. du Preez. Polygamy in the Bible. Ph.D Dissertation (Barrien Springs: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1993). 78-79.

[8] Angelo Tosato. “The Law of Leviticus 18:18: A Reexamination.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46:2, April 1984. P. 202.

[9] Davidson 195.

[10] Du Preez 76. Davidson 196. Davidson (195) also notes, “This, however, overlooks the fact that ‘elsewhere in Leviticus 18 we find ahot and not as in v. 18 issaahotah. A simple equation between these two philologically different expressions seems to be false.’ One cannot responsibly confuse the specific idiomatic expression with straightforward references to literal sisters in earlier verses of [Leviticus] 18.”

[11] Davidson, 195-196. Tosato, 203-205. Du Preez 73. Copan, 113.

[12] Pro-polygamists argue that this interpretation of the structure of these verses is wrong for two reasons: 1) verse 9 does not fully fit into this view. Verse 9 is the only verse in 7-17 that does not conclude with a clause providing justification for why the prohibition was issued in the first place. I do not think that this is enough to throw out the entire argument that the anti-polygamists make. Verse 9 still fits very well within the overall structure with using “nakedness of” and “you shall not uncover.” 2) It is argued that verses 6-16 present a structure of vertical and horizontal relationships. I personally do not find this argument by itself convincing especially in the light of everything else that has been presented in this article. Secondly, Luck wants to place verse 19 in the incest laws. I completely disagree. How can a prohibition of having sexual relations with your wife while she is on her period be regarded as part of a unit on incest?

[13] Luck.

[14] Davidson, 196-197; Gordon Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 117. Quoted in Davidson, 197. Tosato 207.

[15] Luck. BP.com “Multiply Wives.”

[16] Bp.com “Multiply Wives.”

[17] yarbeh is the hipil form of raba.

[18] Hugenberger 119, quoted in Davidson 199; also see Daniel Block. Deuteronomy. In “The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). 419

[19] Davidson 199

[20] Gordon McConville. “Deuteronomy” in New Bible Commentary 4th Ed. ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994.) 216.

[21] Davidson, 200

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 199-200.

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23 thoughts on “Christian Polygamy? (Part 2 – OT Law)

  1. lionroot

    This is a much better article. More thoughtful and you seem to have given it much more of the depth it deserves. I still do not agree with some of your conclusions, but I am thankful for your willingness to explore the topic.

    Reply
  2. lionroot

    Since you have begun to tackle the question of marrying sisters would you spend sometime exploring the two examples of sisters being married to one man that are presented by the Bible? This should give you an ample opportunity to explore whether the text is for literal or figurative sisters or both. This might be a nice way to apply the observations you made in this piece.

    Reply
  3. lionroot

    I have been thinking over your blog. If all women might be considered sisters. One might limit such a title to the people of God. Then every woman married in the Bible to a man with other wives is forbidden, especially if we do not look at the vex issue.

    Yet, when Nathan scolds King David. He compares having many wives to having many sheep. I believe that God’s law is okay with multiple sheep. However, that would mean that it would be wrong to have multiple sheep, but I think you would have a hard time supporting such a position. Note also, that Nathan does not scold David for having multiple sheep.

    1 Kings 15:5
    because David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

    Reply
  4. eternitee

    So let me get the argument straight. The verse says “sisters” meaning all women. So then why is there any need to prohibit a man from marrying a woman and her daughter? They are already “sisters”…. no need for a separate verse. Similarly with the “don’t marry your mother OR your father’s wife”…. obviously two different women so the father apparently married two “sisters” in the general “we are all sisters” sense of the world…..no need for the extra clarification

    Reply
    1. Robert

      Or simply forbid the taking of another wife while the first one yet lives. Then there would be no needed to beat around the bush.

      That is the formula Paul uses about women who marry another man.Very clear language.

      Reply
  5. doc

    In a followup to lionroot, it should be noted that throughout the OT, the Lord was never shy in pointing out the sins of His people or their leaders. If polygyny was to be considered sinful, then shouldn’t we have multiple instances of the condemnation of the sin?

    Reply
    1. lionroot

      Hey Doc,

      I think that in cases where there is a Law given, and the corresponding sin is committed by leadership God does not fail to condemn it. At least, I cannot recall of any examples. Perhaps Matt McClellan can.

      Unfortunately for Matt’s argument, his case revolves around subtlety of the language, not the Law of God. The fact, that he has to shuffle the scriptures to switch sisters from siblings, to all women and then check through the original languages for subtleties that do not make it to trusted English translations, does not strengthen his position. In fact the death blow to these arguments are that none of these scriptures are used to forbid anyone from having multiple wives in any chapter of the Bible.

      Fortunately, this is not how God declares his Law. Let’s face it, He is just not subtle. In all cases He is bold in declaring the Law and bold in Condemning the associated sin.

      Reply
  6. eternitee

    The second argument basically sounds like we don’t need a lot of horses and chariots or riches to win a war if God has our back….. so now that we don’t need those. …. we can make do with one wife? That is silly. God was not prohibiting you from anything. Just saying rely on me, not stuff.

    Reply
  7. Matt McClellan

    Thanks for the comments. I apologize for taking all week to say something, but I’ve been busy (I work two jobs during the week so that leaves me with very little time to work on my writing during the weekdays). All of you have written a lot of comments and questions so I’ll do my best to reply:

    1) First off, you guys are jumping ahead of me. This is only part 1 of a (likely) five-part series. I will get to King David in another article, and I will also talk about passages in Scripture that may allow polygamy in certain circumstances (for example, Leviticus 18:8). For the record, I do not believe that 1 Kings 15:5 permits polygamy. The phrase “did what was right [or evil] in the eyes of the Lord” is not as straightforward as most think (I’ll talk about why I believe that in the article where I will discuss David and the other kings of Israel).

    2) Lionroot, what exactly are you asking when you bring up the two examples of Scripture where a man marries two sisters? Are you asking if Jacob’s wives were biological sisters or just “sisters” in the sense of fellow-citizens? Genesis 29:16 makes it clear that they were biological sisters. Also, what is the second example of a man marrying two biological sisters? I looked through my notes and I noted only Jacob. Apparently, I have overlooked one.

    3) Also, I plan on having two articles examining all the polygamists in Scripture (Abraham, Lamech, Jacob, David, etc.) in the near-future, so I will examine all of them in great detail then (including Jacob marrying two sisters). I will also discuss whether or not the limitation to all women being sisters applies to only Israel (I will have an article where I only look at the New Testament perspective on polygamy.) I will also discuss why it seems that God did not condemn the polygamists at every chance he had.

    4) Eternitee, you note “The verse says ‘sisters’ meaning all women. So then why is there any need to prohibit a man from marrying a woman and her daughter? They are already “sisters”…. no need for a separate verse.” If your argument holds any truth to it then the entire Bible has a problem. Why have four Gospels? Isn’t one enough? Why are the Ten Commandments presented in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5? Isn’t once enough? Why do 1 and 2 Chronicles go over the kings of Judah for a second time? Isn’t once enough? Leviticus 19:11 says not to steal. But that was presented in the Ten Commandments? Isn’t once enough? Leviticus 19:30 says to observe the Sabbath, yet the Ten Commandments already does that. Leviticus 19:11 says to not lie, and then it immediately says to not deceive one another. Wouldn’t deception technically be lying? Also verse 35 says not to use dishonest scales. Isn’t that lying/deception? That’s three times in one chapter. Also verse 36 says to use honest scales. Why have a separate verse about honest scales when the preceding verse says not to use dishonest scales? Isn’t that repetitive. Scripture tends to repeat itself a lot. That is just the way it is.

    5) Eternitee, you also say, “Similarly with the “don’t marry your mother OR your father’s wife”…. obviously two different women so the father apparently married two ‘sisters’ in the general ‘we are all sisters’ sense of the world…..no need for the extra clarification.” See my responses above in points 1 and 4).

    6) Doc mentions “that throughout the OT, the Lord was never shy in pointing out the sins of His people or their leaders. If polygyny was to be considered sinful, then shouldn’t we have multiple instances of the condemnation of the sin?” There are a couple problems with this argument. First, why does God have to denounce something multiple times in order for it to be sinful? You are assuming that is what God would do, but there is no evidence anywhere that he had to do it like that. Instead, we find instances where Scripture is clear something is wrong, but God does not take the opportunity to condemn it. For example, Lot’s daughters committed incest with him, yet we do not find God directly condemning it in that particular passage. Also, 2 Peter 2:7, 8 calls Lot a “righteous man.” Does this mean that incest is ok? Of course not (we have Leviticus 18 for that). Yet, why didn’t God use those instances (Genesis and 2 Peter) to condemn incest? We could say the same thing about Abraham marrying his half-sister (Sarah). We should be very careful in thinking God would do something the way we would do it.

    7) Doc adds, “The second argument basically sounds like we don’t need a lot of horses and chariots or riches to win a war if God has our back….. so now that we don’t need those. …. we can make do with one wife? That is silly. God was not prohibiting you from anything. Just saying rely on me, not stuff.” Of course God wasn’t prohibiting me from anything because this passage was to the king of Israel, not every person in history (or even every single ruler who would ever live). The king of Israel was in a very important position as he was the ruler of the kingdom of priests. God was preparing the Israelites for a particular service.

    God is commanding Israel not to build up horses/chariots, but this does not mean that this command is directly given to every nation under the heavens. Jesus tells the young rich man to sell all of possessions, yet this does not apply to every rich person who has ever existed. There are also laws in the Old Testament that are given to Israel, yet the church is not expected to follow (for example, clean and unclean food). God did give some commands to Israel that are not necessarily given to all of mankind (although I do believe there is a theological point that Christians can get from the entire Law). How do we know which apply only to Israel? We look at the immediate context, and we look to see how the New Testament views the Law.

    8) Lionroot, once again you are jumping ahead of me when you mention that God never condemned a leader from being a polygamist. I’ll talk about it later.

    9) Also, you mention that my case revolves around the subtlety of language and not the Law of God. You note “The fact, that he has to shuffle the scriptures to switch sisters from siblings, to all women and then check through the original languages for subtleties that do not make it to trusted English translations, does not strengthen his position. In fact the death blow to these arguments are that none of these scriptures are used to forbid anyone from having multiple wives in any chapter of the Bible.”

    Language is the way we understand any kind of communication. Language is the way God communicated his Law to us. So understanding the language is how we are going to know what it means. When it comes to the language for Leviticus 18:18, I simply noted that the word “sister” can have different meanings in different contexts. This by itself does not prove one interpretation over the other (I noted that in the article). It is the fact that verse 18 does not belong to the literary unit on incest (understanding language in its context) and also, to think that the God of peace would not allow rivalry between biological sisters, but would allow rivalry (which causes a lot of stress and sins like jealously) among non-related women makes no sense.

    Thanks guys for the comments. If you could please keep the comments on topic, that would be appreciated. This is an article on Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17, not King David or any other polygamy related passage. You can comment on those when I publish those particular articles.

    Reply
  8. William Luck

    Matt. With no disrespect intended…did you really fact check anything that Davidson/du Preez/Hugenberger wrote? All I see are regurgitations of their writings. Their works are filled with logical fallacies and hermeneutical errors, not to mention factual errors. Davidson’s chapter in Flame (repeated in du Preez), makes its way on arguments from silence, selective sampling, guilt by association, post and cum hoc reasoning, etc. They are a broken reed, brother. Beware. As for my work, the one you cite was a separately published copy of an appendix to the first edition of my book Divorce & Remarriage; Recovering the Biblical View (1987). The second edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2008), with further refinements of that appendix can be found on Bible.org.

    The errors of Davison are too numerous to deal with here. I’ll settle for a couple. You cite the male expression “man to his brother” to deny that the Leviticus 18:18’s use of “woman to her sister” refers to biological sisters. Actually the first 3 male citations do refer to the biological brothers of Joseph. That virtually destroys their point regarding Leviticus 18:18. The alleged “same” and “similar” instances of the female form simply need to be read in context to see why they are figurative…all but one of them relate to non-human things. Citing passages which are wholly unlike Leviticus 18:18 (which is undeniably about humans) is patently disingenuous, but it sounds very scholarly if not actually considered in depth.

    Every one of Davidson/Tosato’s nit picking grammatical and structural arguments re this Holiness Code regulation is flawed. They strain at gnats and swallow camels. They admit that verse 9 doesn’t fit their allegedly airtight structural point. So why can’t 18 be an exception to it as well? And they ignore major structural matters. In 6-16 there is a pattern of listing first vertical close kin relationships then horizontal ones. That group is addressing the close kin of the men to whom the laws are directed. Verses 17-18 (19) present the same pattern in regard to the hypothetical man’s wife. 17 is vertical; 18 horizontal. Indeed verse 19 continues to speak of the wife. It is more closely related to 17-18 in that regard than it is to 20. Etc. But instead of seeing the trees or the forest, they are set on making us look at the shape of branches.

    In the end, it is pretty arrogant for the anti-polygynists to assert that it is “unreasonable” to take the passage as relating to biological sisters, when every Bible translation (at least all that I know of) interprets it that way. Is everybody but Davidson/Tosato unreasonable? Probably not. Leviticus prohibits a man taking his wife’s sister to vex her…from dividing her family in the pursuit of a neurotic “war” with his wife…a behavior that God hates (Prov. 6:19). As such 18:18 only prohibits one kind of sororal polygyny, and leaves the rest uncondemned.

    As for Deut. 17:17 are you aware that Davidson himself and his source had to admit that the language of that verse is too “imprecise” to shut the door on (even) regal polygyny? “Multiply” doesn’t mean “the addition of one” or even several. It means significant increase, as in Gen. 1:28. They had to fall back on their botched interpretation of Leviticus 18:18 to conclude that this text must prohibit kingly polygyny. After that initial admission in their analysis of this passage they ever after refer to it as if it were precise. “Too imprecise”? I find that rather insulting to God. If He had intended to preclude kings from taking more than one wife He simply could simply have said, “A king shall not take to himself a wife when he has to himself a wife.” Similarly Leviticus 18:18 could have settled the matter in the same way for non-kings. Instead Davidson and company turn hermeneutics into a veritable Da Vinci Code to support their preconception that polygyny is wrong.

    I would close by noting that these two texts are the major texts in the didactic Law to which the “con” position can appeal. If they lose here, they are in serious trouble, because the burden of proof always rests upon the person laying a charge, in this case that polygyny is a sin. I have often said that no one would be more pleased to find the smoking gun against polygyny than I would. I’m neither a polygynist nor the son of one. But after 30 years of search and analysis, I haven’t found it yet, and I’m not about to follow the traditions of the fathers, even if they are as old as Justin Martyr, over and against the plain meaning of God’s Word, interpreting Scripture with Scripture.

    Blessings.
    William Luck

    Reply
  9. lionroot

    Matt you wrote, “Language is the way God communicated his Law to us.” I agree. In fact, it is almost formulaic. There are three parts to every sin in the Bible. Two of which exist for everyone of them. These are the Declaration, The Punishment, and examples, or what some theologians like to call case law.

    The Declaration – You shall not eat from the tree’
    The Punishment – If you do you shall surely die
    The Example – Adam (Not every sin has an example: I.E. bestiality)

    When God declares His Law. He is not bashful, ashamed, or subtle. You seem to be arguing that subtle is okay, by diverting to defending the use of language. Which would suggest that you agree with my assessment of your argument that you are mining subtleties, that might mean something more to your a priori.

    For the record I was not arguing against subtlety. Though I do not believe that God is subtle in the declaration of His Law. Rather, I was arguing against your personal translation versus other trusted English versions of the Bible. I do not know, you may have the credentials to offer such a translation, but it would be a remarkable claim in the light of the number of versions and learned men that have tackled just these verses, and not revealed these nuances here, until now. It seems to me that you may be guilty a semantic range fallacy, but I would need someone that knows the original language.

    I suggest we do not restrict ourselves to two verses but rather use the whole of God breathed scripture, and that we stick to trusted English versions. And if you would like to use the original language issues, please express your credentials, or cite your source and their credentials.

    Thanks and God Bless

    P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure when I write in from my phone it will say Robert.

    Reply
  10. Matt McClellan

    Thank you for commenting Mr. Luck, and thanks Lionroot for commenting again. Boy, there is a lot of information to go over so I’ll just get right to it. First, Luck mentions that Davidson and du Preez’s works are filled errors and fallacies. However, this does not mean that they are wrong in everything. I would love to meet a scholar or scientist who has never committed any errors and have always been right. In fact, I am going to be criticizing Davidson and company on some issues in other articles in this series. I do not agree with them on everything.

    Second, you bring up the issue with the phrase “a woman to her sister” being only concerned with inanimate objects except in one case. You also mention that in three of the instances the phrase “a man to his brother” refers to literal brothers. You also bring up the vertical and horizontal issues in Leviticus 18. There are many things for me to mention here. 1) I actually had the details you mention about the man/woman to his brother/sister in my notes and I had it written out in my rough draft. When I was finalizing the article I decided to rewrite it as a footnote. I was so sure that I had included it in there that I thought you had looked over it, but when I went back and double checked it wasn’t there. It is still sitting in my old draft incomplete. I apologize about that and I will go back and edit that information back in. Thanks for pointing that out though, I appreciate it.

    2) Thanks for bringing up the vertical/horizontal structure in the chapter. I acknowledge that may bring verse 18 back to the incest unit. I’ll look into that more. However, the word meaning/literary structure is not my main argument (even though I do understand that just by the wording itself one could interpret the “sister” here as literal or not literal – I thought I said that in the article). I only bring them in to show that the literary evidence for Leviticus 18:18 is not proof for polygamy. (You even acknowledge that there are instances when they do not refer to literal siblings, especially with “a man to his brother”).

    The very purpose of Leviticus 18:18 is that a man should not marry two women so as to cause rivalry. Rivalry is going to happen regardless of whether or not the women are literal sisters or not. You bring Proverbs 6:19 into the picture which says that “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” is detestable to God. You write your comment as if this is referring only to literal brothers. If this is true then is it ok to stir up dissension among people who are not literal brothers? What about doing it to literal or nonliteral sisters? If I take your logic to its full conclusion then we have some real problems. Does this mean that it is ok for rivalry between two women that are not biological sisters? You also say that Leviticus 18:18 prohibits a man from “dividing her family in the pursuit of a neurotic ‘war’ with his wife.” It seems to me that you are reading that into the text? That interpretation comes from the conclusion that this verse has to promote some form of polygamy (or polygyny).

    An interesting thing appears when I look at the current conversation. We both approach the text completely different (naturally). You begin with the idea that the sisters here must be literal sisters. So when it comes to the issue of rivalry then it must be bad only if it is between two biological sisters. However, I notice that the words can have flexibility depending on context so that there could be other interpretations (I acknowledge that this by itself doesn’t prove anything). Although this context includes incest laws right before it, it also includes the details of rivalry which are clearly the main reason for God even giving the law (at least that is what seems to me). Since I see rivalry differently than you do I then come to the conclusion that the “sisters” here are probably not literal. It is more complicated than that of course. After reading your work it is clear that you see many different passages in Scripture as supporting polygamy, but I do not. This detail affects both of our interpretations. My argument against polygamy is founded mostly on a “big picture” argument, looking at all the relevant passages in the debate (but I haven’t had the chance to publish the entire series yet). This is why I have made a change to the series.

    Here is what I am going to do. Since you guys want to comment on other passages on this topic right now I am going to delay the rest of the series until the week of March 23-27. The reason why is that I am going to be on vacation from both of my jobs that same week. I was going to publish a new article in the series every week to week in a half until I had the chance to finish the last couple of articles that last full week of March.

    Instead, I think it would be best for me to just publish the rest of it together so that all of my arguments will be out there in the open at the same time. I think my overall argument against polygamy makes better sense when all the relevant texts are examined together. Publishing them all closer together would help me better make my case (and probably satisfy your interest in other passages in the debate). I mentioned in my last comment that you guys jumped the gun when clearly I did since I should have waited and published the entire thing together. Btw, I do believe in interpreting Scripture with Scripture and not restricting ourselves to just two verses. I just didn’t want to start publishing parts of my other articles in a comment section on part 1 of the series.

    Also, do you have the source where I can check on Davidson and du Pérez’s blunder with Deuteronomy 17? I’m interested in seeing it.

    Third, you mention that it is pretty arrogant for anti-polygamists to say that it is unreasonable to interpret this passage differently than all other Bible translations? You then bring up that you have 30 years of searching and analysis. At the beginning of your comment you speak about Davidson and du Preez’s fallacies. Yet you commit a fallacy here: a faulty appeal to authority. You appeal to yourself (the 30 years) and you appear to make the assertion that surely no one can go against the translators. Basically what they say must be true since they are the authorities. Since you have 30 years of research in this then surely no one else could be right. I highly doubt that this was your intention in your comments, but can you at least see what I’m saying? Just because many or most of scholars agree on something does not mean that it is automatically right. Does this mean that Martin Luther was arrogant for confronting Catholic traditions that were hundreds of years old? What about Copernicus? Was he arrogant when he went against the status quo? What about other scholars who disagree with polygamy but have just as many years of experience as you or even more?

    Fourth, and lastly for now, what would this “smoking gun” look like?

    I will take all other comments and concerns into consideration. I’ll be interested in seeing the comments in a few weeks when the rest of my series is finished. Thanks.

    Reply
  11. lionroot

    Matt,

    Thanks so much for opening the dialog, Brother. I am certain that you are interested in truth, and the search for truth. It doesn’t matter what we profess to believe. All that matters is truth as revealed in God’s word. I am equally certain that you understand that wisdom and knowledge both begin with fear of the Lord. While at times some things may not be clear, God has ways for us to work through his Word to establish truth.

    Come let’s reason together…

    Paul reasoned weekly in the Synagogues

    Iron sharpens Iron…

    That one is almost cliche. I do not know a whole lot about beaten metal fabrication. To which I believe this refers. I do know that it is done with repeated strikes. each blow shaping the object a little. The smith does not switch on the second blow to a big hammer and create a finished item in one strike.

    I would urge you not to do as you proposed. One huge Blog, will certainly not be read in it’s entirety. The modern reader just doesn’t have the stamina. As a result much of your work would never be viewed. Further and more pragmatically, I believe that this subject will turn out to be one of your highest drawing series, so having more issues will draw more clicks, and more effectively engage your audience. More opportunities to do good.

    Additionally, people are less likely to deal with your individual points. Which I am sure sounds good right about now, but it would not establish the soundness of your position. Only proving that people either did not read it, or engage with it.

    I personally have no problem with you dealing with two verses on the same blog. I wish they had been more intimately related. All truth shall be established on the testimony of two or more witnesses. Would I be right in assuming that these verses will be foundational to the rest of you work on this subject? If so, taking this in smaller steps will assure that you include any valid points that are made. I know that you would never intentionally build on a faulty foundation, or build on arguments that have been fully refuted. Doing so would be a waste of you and your readers time.

    I will make every effort to stay focused on the scriptures of your post, only posting applicable references to illustrate the point being made. Similarly it is hoped that you would be charitable in your assessment of those points. No Christian wants to believe a lie, but rather we both seek to fully understand the truth just as God has revealed it.

    Lastly, I would remind you that there is a warning in God’s word about “many words”.

    “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” – Proverbs 10:19

    Let’s keep things small. My next reply will deal exclusively with one verse in your blog, and I think we can put that one to rest.

    How’s that sound?

    God Bless,

    Robert

    Reply
  12. lionroot

    Matt you said, “Leviticus 18:18 is an excellent place to begin this study. “ You did not give any support for this. I would argue that it is not a good argument for a monogamy mandate, precisely because it does not overtly support your position. The fact that you can not find a more assertive prohibition, such as a specific command, wars against it.

    After all you admit, “This verse seems to be saying that a man should never have relations with his wife’s sister (his sister-in-law) while she (the wife) is alive. “ I agree with you it does seem to say that. So much so, that you have to finesse an entirely different understanding by appealing to the range of meaning of the word “sister” and “literary structure”. You are arguing from subtext. I will argue here that these arguments both fail within the context of this verse and that you are left with only the position that remains in your own words, “This verse does seem to be proof that polygamy is ok in the eyes of God.”

    “The most simple and obvious meaning of any passage is usually the correct one.”
    – How to Understand the Bible: Study Course for Youth and Adults
    By W. Robert Palmer page 65

    It is said that “A text without context is a pretext for a subtext”. So lets take a look at the context. Israel has escaped Egypt and is about to enter the land of Canaan. Lucky for us this context does not’t have to be mined somewhere else. Instead we see it clearly on either side of the verses you dealt with in Leviticus 18 like contextual bookends.

    You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.

    (Leviticus 18:3 ESV)

    and on the backside…

    “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.

    (Leviticus 18:24-25 ESV)

    So this is a list of practices that God forbids for all people both Jewish and pagan. The Canaanites were expelled from the land, and God spells out exactly why here in these passages.

    In your blog you appealed to “the literary structure”, “Leviticus 18 is divided into two major sections: verses 7-17 regarding incest (remember the definition of incest that I gave earlier), and 19-23 concerning more general sexual laws (except verse 21).

    Actually there are three separations here.

    “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD.

    (Leviticus 18:6 ESV)

    Close relatives are listed in verses 6-16.
    7 mother, 8 fathers wife, 9 sisters, 10 grand-daughter, 11 half sister, 12 cousins, 13 aunts, 14 aunts ( by marriage), 15 sons wife, 16 brothers wife.

    An unrelated woman.
    Verses 17 through 20 are about women that are wholly unrelated. 17 A woman and her daughter, 18 a woman and her sister, 19 a woman menstruating, 20 A woman married to another man

    Verses 21 through 23 are other forbidden practices. 21 Offer children to Molech, 22 Homosexuality, and 23 Bestiality.

    “You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are relatives; it is depravity. And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”

    (Leviticus 18:17-18 ESV)

    Notice the formula:

    “You shall not” AND “you shall not”

    These are connected thoughts through the conjunction “and”.

    Notice the parallel pattern here:
    “HER daughter” AND “HER sister”

    It would be confusing in the text to say that the first line is about a literal daughter, but the next connected thought, in the same breath is a metaphorical sister. There is no period in Hebrew, with the word “and” makes these parallel thoughts.

    The Bible teaches that God is not the author of confusion.

    Let’s look at verse 18 all by itself. “And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”

    In order to take that “woman as a rival wife” this word “sister” cannot be a general word for any woman. It must very specifically refer to a woman that is already your wife.

    Just to review:
    *The “ Literary Structure” has three parts not two.
    *The second part is about a woman you are not related to by blood or marriage
    *Verses 17 and 18 are parallel verses about such an unrelated woman.
    *All of these activities are specifically forbidden by God to the “people of Isreal”.

    “But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.””

    (Leviticus 18:26-30 ESV)

    Notice these are abominations, that make one ceremonially unclean. So we would expect to see either an absence of these activities, or condemnation of them. For instance there are no examples of homosexuality or bestiality among the people of Israel. We do see some examples of adultery David, and Herod with his brothers wife both of whose actions are strongly condemned. We do see condemnation but not about a rival wife who was not a sister. 1 Sam 1:6 And if these sisters are not real sisters that throws the door open to all other such families, but look what the Word says about wives to the same man.

    “Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the LORD make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem,”

    These are well wishes, not appeals to abominations.

    (Ruth 4:11 ESV)

    And just one more thing I wrote earlier that there is another example of sisters that are not said to be rivals but share the same husband. Please explain how the man in Ezekiel 23 can be engaged in an abomination and something that would leave Him unclean either literally or figuratively.

    God Bless,

    Robert

    Reply
  13. Matt McClellan

    Hey guys, I am about ready to start publishing the rest of the series. However, before doing so I wanted to make some comments before doing so. First, I am going to make a change to the order of the series. My original plan was to publish in the following order: 1) Leviticus 18 and Deu. 17 (as I did); 2) the rest of the Old Testament Law; 3) the polygamists in the OT; and 4) the New Testament. However, I have made a change. I will make the NT the first part of the series (my mind simply changed on this so it is what it is). This article will become part 2 instead. I am going to edit a few things on Leviticus 18 and Deu. 17 so I will be republishing this article as part 2 and that means that this current page will be removed from the site although it will not be deleted, but only made private. So if you need anything from the comment section just let me know and I’ll put the old article on public for a short time before putting it back on private.

    Second, as soon as I start publishing part 1 (NT) I will publish the next article within one or two days (if something comes up and I have to have an extra day for some reason I’ll let you know). Also, this article will be put on private as soon as the new part 1 is published. Thanks for reading.

    Reply
    1. Robert

      Okay, does that mean you do not plan to reply to this blog any longer? Or your just going to reactivate this same one but in the new sequence?

      Reply
      1. Matt McClellan

        I was going to keep it on private permanently and repost it as a new article, but I can if everyone wants me to, just reactivate it as part 2. I would just have to put a footnote at the beginning of the article to explain why part 2 has a post date in Feb. while part 1 has a later date. If that is better for everyone then I will just do that (reactivate it a day or two after part 1 is published).

        Reply
        1. Matt McClellan

          Well I tried to make this article private so I could edit it but the site wouldn’t do it (even though I have done it in the past with other articles). So this article is still public. So please be aware that it has not been updated as of March 31 at 9:16 pm. I will post something here in the comments as soon as I update it.

          Reply
          1. Matt McClellan

            Oh and the new article has been published.

          2. Matt McClellan

            Part 2 has been edited. Part 3 is close to being finished and will be published soon.

  14. Chris Nystrom

    That the God does not condemn polygyny is clear. No prophet was sent to David to condemn him for marrying Abigail, even though David was already married (1 Samuel 25:43), for example.

    About Deuteronomy 17:17, in most cases financial ability limited a man from marrying too many women, more than he could reasonably in God’s eyes be a husband to. However, a King did not have this financial limitation, and could live off the labor of others, thus the need for a prohibition on an excessive amount of wives. It is certainly not a command for monogamy. Further it would not be needed if monogamy were a general command, so its presence is clear proof in favor of polygamy.

    As for Leviticus 18:18 and “Rivalry is going to happen regardless of whether or not the women are literal sisters or not.” Rivalry happens in monogamous marriages, too. A wife’s rival might be a man’s job, or his golf game, etc. God’s intention here is not a futile attempt to remove all rivalry. What it is apparent from this verse that a woman was not required to continue her possible rivalry with her sister into her marriage. She is entitled to a new set of circumstances, her own new family and husband, different than the sister she grew up with. But there is no requirement or even expectation of monogamy here. I would further argue that this verse does not prevent sisters from marrying the same husband, only that they have the option of refusing if they so choose. Remember in these days women did not often have a choice in who they got to marry. In this particular circumstance God preserves for them an option. Not all sisters are rivals.

    Reply
  15. AuthorAppleton

    I know I am late to this thread, however with the proliferation of sexual immorality and its acceptance in the public sphere (in the forms of sodomy in particular) I have been studying Scripture to ascertain where my beliefs are grounded. Certainly sodomy and transgenderism is condemned very clearly in Scripture and I believe that we must always rely our interpretation of the Bible as a whole on an understanding of Old Testament law (as Jesus led by example in this regard).

    I am not a polygamist but in my studies I find it hard to dissuade the arguments of some Christian polygamists. The patriarchs most certainly practiced it and there is no condemnation for it that I can ascertain. Also, there is not a single instance where God condemns a polygamist however he condemns clearly for adultery. (God condemned those who condemned Moses for marrying another woman, and condemned David for relations with Bathsheeba).

    In regards to your article, while I find it well-examined I do not find it convincing. And for my part I have been trying to disprove the Christian polyginist argument. But your argument for “sisters” did not convince me and I say this because Moses himself was the lawgiver and from Scripture we know he had three wives. Also, Josephus confirms that Moses had at least two.

    Why would the intention of a patriarch polygamist be to condemn polygamy? I am not being sarcastic but sincere. I am curious what your take is on this as I study it out. Thanks for bringing up this fiery topic, I don’t envy you the extent of controversy that surrounds it.

    Reply

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