The Old Testament does not condone polygamy!

polygamy

While I was reading an NPR article entitled: Same Bible, Different Verdict On Gay Marriage I ran across a claim that I have encountered one to many times and that has galvanized me into responding with this blog entry. An excerpt from the article states:

LaBerge resigned her post as minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after the denomination voted last year to ordain non-celibate gay clergy. She says the Bible is clear.

“From the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament, the only sexual relationships that are affirmed in scripture are those in the context of marriage between one man and one woman,” she says.

Actually, the Old Testament does condone polygamy. Still, LaBerge says, from Leviticus to Paul’s writings in Romans and First Corinthians, homosexual acts are called vile and detestable, and legalizing same-sex relationships does not change the sin.

As the author (Barbara Bradley Hagerty) interjects the phrase: “Actually, the Old Testament does condone polygamy,” I am left thinking to myself, Really? Where in the Old Testament is the reader told that God allows polygamy? In Hagerty’s defense, one will undoubtedly find many theologians who utter the same claim without hesitation [7]; but this observation in and of itself does not constitute a proof. To be sure, there are several accounts of Old Testament men who had multiple wives (Genesis 16:3; 25:6; 1 Samuel 1:1-2; 2 Samuel 5:13; Judges 8:30; 2 Chronicles 11:21; 13:21; 1 Kings 11:3 etc.) but then there are also several accounts of Old Testament men who worshiped idols (1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 16:30-31, 2 Kings 21:1-3, Judges 2:11-13, Hosea 13:2 etc.). Yet, in light of Exodus 20:1-5 no one in their right mind would claim that the Old Testament condones idol worshiping. The mere existence of polygamous unions in the Old Testament Scriptures is not a rational basis for assuming or concluding that God condoned the practice anymore than the existence of idol worshipers constitutes God’s acceptance of idolatry.

Therefore, in order to prove her case, Hagerty needs to show us a verse in the Old Testament where God is seen overlooking, excusing or allowing polygamy in society (without an ultimate consequence). After all, according to the dictionary (i.e. Princeton University WordNet Dictionary), the word condone means to: “excuse, overlook,…make allowances for” or to “be lenient with.” Hagerty’s task is a lot more difficult than it may first seem because it requires foreknowledge of an event which has yet to occur. In God’s patience, He often stays quiet about sinful behavior, yet one day He promises to set things in order before each sinner’s eyes (Psalm 50:21, Ecclesiastes 11:9). This is why 1 Corinthians 4:5 reminds us to “judge nothing before the time.” The proneness of men to mistake God’s forbearance for indifference is a phenomenon which the Scriptures both anticipate and rebuke. Ecclesiastes 8:11-12; 12:14 sums it up as follows:

Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God…For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

That appointed day in which “God shall bring every work into judgment” has not yet transpired (Acts 17:31, Romans 2:16, Revelation 20:12). It is not until the day of judgment that one can finally determine whether the Righteous Judge (Genesis 18:25: 2 Timothy 4:8) has condoned or instead punished an act of disobedience. If as Hebrews 2:2 implies, God will truly ensure that every violation and disobedience receives a just and adequate penalty, then it is both careless and presumptuous to suggest that the Old Testament condones the sin of polygamy (cf. Ecclesiastes 11:9; 12:14, Jeremiah 17:9-10). For if Christ on judgment day will require all persons to give an account for merely speaking an idle word (Matthew 12:36), then how much more of an account shall be required for actions like polygamy which Scripture (as we shall shortly see) deems sinful? How many passages of Scripture which refute the God’s-silence-means-He-doesn’t-care attitude, must we summon upon before the reader is convinced that silence does not equal tolerance (e.g. Psalm 73:11-20; 94:7-11; Numbers 23:19; Ecclesiastes 8:11-12; Isaiah 57:11-12, etc.)? Or, to put it another way, how many deceased sinners do you suppose are now irremediably confined to the torments of shame and everlasting contempt simply because they thought that God’s silence meant that He condoned their sin (Daniel 12:2, Luke 16:19-31)? Yet, Hagerty like many others who would (perhaps unwittingly) impugn the Old Testament, apparently feels confident that its pages condone polygamy. 

The more that I think about Hagerty’s claim, the more I wonder why she did not instead claim that the whole Bible condones polygamy and not just the Old Testament. I suspect that Hagerty limits her claim to the Old Testament because she is aware of the numerous and clear admonitions against polygamy in the New Testament (i.e. 1 Timothy 3:2 , 1 Timothy 3:12, Titus 1:6, 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 etc). However, what the author probably fails to realize is that the New Testament is really just an exposition of the Old Testament. Or, as the trailblazing theologian Augustine put it “The New is in the Old contained, the Old is in the New explained” [13].  In fact, many, if not most of the New Testament ordinances are merely divine inferences from the Old Testament writings. Therefore, if the New Testament does not condone polygamy—and clearly it doesn’t—then it is chiefly because the Old Testament doesn’t either. Nevertheless, even if Hagerty were to restrict her  inquiry to just the first half of the Bible, does she really mean to suggest that the God of the Old Testament (who is exactly the same God of the New Testament) “excuses, overlooks or allows” the sin of polygamy?

Genesis 2:24

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

What about the second chapter of the very first book of the Bible, Genesis 2:24 where God says that “they [i.e. the man and his wife] shall be one flesh”? Here, the marriage covenant is clearly defined by God as a binding contract between one man and one woman. But as sinful men throughout history would seek to redefine this sacred contract to allow for various forms of ungodly cohabitation, Christ, in Matthew 19:5-8, reminds the reader that “from the beginning it was not so,” for “He which made male and female said, They twain shall be one flesh.” Wouldn’t condoning polygamy require God to say “the two or more will become one flesh?” If it is God’s will that the two married persons should in His sight become one, then how is it possible for someone to not regard subsequent marriages as a “breach of the first institution of marriage?”¹ Since it is impossible to have a union of two—and only two—souls within a polygamous context, then is it not irrational to suppose that a man can be permanently joined (at least in this life) to more than one woman at the same time? The wives of a polygamous husband cannot all say “My beloved is mine, and I am his” yet when we read these words in Song of Solomon 2:16 we are reminded that even Christ has but one bride—i.e. the single  congregation of believers worldwide—thus confirming the biblical standard of monogamy (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32). Moreover, Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:4 reminds us that in marriage, “the wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.” Yet, it is impossible for each wife of a polygamous husband to have power over their husband’s body seeing as how the same body is also owned by at least one other woman. Hence when Christ in Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:5-9 reaffirms Genesis 2:24 in explaining what is acceptable within the confines of marriage, this assures us that His standard has never changed in spite of what ancient history records men doing. Nevertheless, there is also biblical evidence suggesting that in ancient times (preceding the Mosaic Law) polygamy was already well understood to be against God’s will.

For instance, the English Anglican Bible commentator John Trapp states:

Laban, though he had cheated Jacob into the having of his two daughters to wife, yet he could not but confess it to be a sin against the light of nature. Hence at parting he takes a solemn oath of Jacob, Genesis 31:50 “If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness between me and thee.”¹

Therefore, in light of all the above, how could anyone think that Genesis 2:24 comports with God condoning polygamy?

Malachi 2:15-16

And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hates divorce: for one covers violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.

Or what about Malachi 2:15 where the reader is asked to ponder why God made only one woman for Adam when he had the residue of the Spirit (i.e the inexhaustible creative power) to have easily created for Adam many more wives? God’s answer to the Malachi 2:15 question is that He was seeking godly offspring. The implication here is that the monogamous standard is the only one designed to encourage godly offspring. From the lives of the patriarchs, Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon etc., the biblical record of polygamy’s sordid fruit stands as a confirmation of the Malachi 2:15 maxim and delivers sober lessons in what happens when this standard is neglected. Moreover, in reasoning  this way, Malachi clearly shows that God’s intent and will was that one man should only have one wife at a time. Apparently, but unsurprisingly, this precept like many others  had been widely disregarded by the Jews of Malachi’s day. From the context of Malachi Chapter 2, it is clear that the Jewish men of that day were not only engaged in polygamy but were also divorcing their old Jewish wives for younger women of foreign decent. In Malachi 2:14, God’s prophet claims that these men had “dealt treacherously” with the “wives of their covenant” (i.e. their first wife). By the way, in case the reader is  wondering why both polygamy (v.15) and divorce (v.16) are in scope for Malachi, it is instructive to consider that both polygamy and illegitimate divorce (i.e. solely for the purpose of remarrying) are functionally equivalent in at least two of their consequences—both result in adultery and the acquisition of multiple wives.

Exodus 20:14

Thou shalt not commit adultery.

No one—I dare say not even Hagerty—would ever mistake the O.T. to condone adultery. For enshrined in the the most famous system of law which the world has ever known—namely, the Torah’s Decalogue (i.e. The Ten Commandments)—are the poignant words of the the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Well, what if it turns out that polygamy is actually a form of adultery? According to the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, the biblical meaning of adultery is “the sexual intercourse of a married woman with any other man than her husband, or of a married man with any other woman than his wife.”[4] This is a fair definition, but without some further investigation, its words do not necessarily implicate polygamy as adultery. Yet, upon my scriptural exposition of the term adultery, I have found that its semantic range appears to be a lot wider than what many theologians have previously allowed. However, before we commence our journey into the full scope of the term adultery, it may first help to start by dispelling a popular, yet erroneous, notion about what is divinely condonable (i.e. acceptable) within the confines of marriage.

For instance, George Morrish’s Bible dictionary conveys a prevailing and yet unfortunate notion of adultery by suggesting the following:

It seems clear, that as far as the man was concerned, if he had intercourse with a woman unless it was with a married woman, he would not be charged with adultery, though he himself might be married; indeed how could he be when he was allowed more wives than one, as well as concubines and slaves? [5]

Whether or not Morris accurately conveys the practices of the Jewish society to whom God’s law was entrusted, it is clear that such ideas regarding adultery do not reflect what God had actually communicated in His Word, nor what He had envisioned as acceptable behavior. For example, the idea that men are “allowed more wives than one, as well as concubines and slaves” is a great misconception of God’s law and is a claim which is contrary to godly living. Our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ demonstrates why this is so in His controversial Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and also in a subsequent  dialogue (Matthew 19:3-12) on marriage with the Pharisees.

Looking back to an earlier (and somewhat related) point in Matthew 5:28, Jesus had famously delivered a shocking interpretation of the Seventh Commandment by deducing that the man who only lusts after a woman with his eyes is still an adulterer. By the way, Christ’s stricter interpretation of adultery in Matthew 5:28 (a.k.a. the only interpretation which really matters) would undoubtedly implicate most (if not all) married men who have ever lived. This means that according to the divine standard, all married men are probably adulterers. Why hasn’t God been more vocal about his displeasure of this widespread and ongoing sin. Obviously, it would be foolish to suppose that God’s silence means that He condones this imperceptible form of adultery. Yet, such reasoning would not be fundamentally different from the rationale which skeptics employ when claiming that God condones polygamy.

Nevertheless, in the same Matthew 5:28 spirit of delineating the intended meaning of God’s law, Christ in Matthew 19:9 (cf. Matthew 5:32) proclaims that a man who divorces his wife (for any other reason than her infidelity) and marries another commits adultery. In other words, “An illegitimate divorce gives place to adultery because God doesn’t recognize the divorce, and sees a new relationship as bigamous.”³ Bigamy is the illegal marriage to a second person while still legally married to a first.[9] Contrary to the Pharisaic mindset, Christ’s teaching showed that an unlawfully divorced man is actually still married to his unlawfully divorced wife—at least in God’s sight. Matthew 19:9 implies that if a man is still married, then it is adulterous to marry again. One necessary inference then, of Matthew 19:9 is that a currently married person cannot engage in subsequent marriages without committing adultery. Otherwise, there would be no reason for Christ to label as adultery, the acquisition of a new wife by the illegitimately divorced man. Because it is the case that any man who comes along and marries an unlawfully divorced woman commits adultery (Mark 10:12), and because it is also the case that all unlawfully divorced men upon remarriage commit adultery (Mark 10:11), it becomes both necessary and prudent to categorize polygamy as a form of adultery—howbeit one that does not require capital punishment (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:21-24).

In other words, if God considers subsequent marriages to be adultery in the case of an illegitimate divorce (Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9), then it follows that God must also consider subsequent marriages to be adultery in the case in polygamy. After all, both scenarios start with one wife and end in at least two. Since the sin of adultery includes being sexually involved with a married person, the conclusion that must follow from all of this is that: a remarried woman is actually still married to the husband who dares to illegitimately divorce her (and vise versa). Hence in both illegitimate divorce and polygamy, the husband becomes an adulterer and ends up with multiple wives. It is no wonder then that the Bible uses the word “hate” when describing what God thinks about divorce (Malachi 2:16). One cannot deny that Malachi 2:14-16 clearly demonstrates polygamy to be against God’s will, and since this is so, then how can anyone claim that God condones it? Moreover, since God in the Seventh Commandment forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14) and since polygamy is here seen to be a form of adultery, then mustn’t it follow that God forbids polygamy as well?

Deuteronomy 17:17

Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away…

And what about in Deuteronomy 17:17 where we are told that kings (who’s wealth and power made them the most likely culprits to commit polygamy) are forbidden to have multiple wives? Wouldn’t the a fortiori argument (i.e. reasoning from the greater to the lesser) when applied to Deuteronomy 17:17 also forbid all other men from engaging in polygamy? Therefore, if the directive to not have multiple wives is taken seriously, then one cannot also assert that God condones polygamy. If God is a righteous judge, then He cannot be said to condone that which He forbids.

The only possible exception to this rule would be if God were to grant someone an exemption from a particular edict. For when someone is exempt, then certain actions which would otherwise be deemed sinful are no longer sinful. For instance, since the priests where required to kill animals and burn them for sacrifice on the Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-10) it was understood by inference that they were exempt from the command not to work (Exodus 20:10-11) or kindle a fire (Exodus 35:3) on the Sabbath.

Nevertheless, God’s famous long-suffering and His discretion as it pertains to how He deals with the violation of his law are being wrongly construed as tacit approval of disobedience by those who don’t understand or respect the nature of God’s sovereign prerogative. But I guess when God says not to do something, one can apparently take that to mean that He condones it. This is the type of reasoning exhibited by undiscerning readers who would rather rely upon invalid inferences from popular sentiment instead of the actual words of Scripture. Ironically, that’s what the whole NPR article referenced above boils down to: Should one take the biblical text seriously or not? Of course, if there is no reason to take the Bible seriously, then logically speaking (i.e. by again arguing from the greater to the lesser), there is also no reason to take any other text seriously. After all, the Author of the Bible dares to proclaim Himself omniscient, a class to which all other authors must admit they cannot approach.

Conclusion

Barbara Hagerty, the author of the NPR article, would do well to remember that not everything mentioned in the Old Testament is condoned in the Old Testament. I have shown in this essay that it is incorrect to use the word “condone” when referring to polygamy since the Bible clearly teaches that God doesn’t condone, overlook or excuse ANY sin, no matter how small (James 2:10, Ecclesiastes 12:14, Hebrews 2:2). There is coming a day when God will judge the secrets of men (Romans 2:16) and if on that day God were to uncharacteristically ignore the polygamy that men are found guilty of committing, then only at that time could it be said that God condones polygamy. Nevertheless, since the necessary inference of Hebrews 2:2 is that every disobedient act will receive a just recompense of reward, we are thereby assured that God does not (and will not) overlook the sin of polygamy.

The conclusion then is that, if disobeying God’s edicts or directives is still considered a sin (1 John 3:4), and if in the O.T. God issues edicts or directives which make polygamy a sin (Genesis 2:24, Deuteronomy 17:17, Exodus 20:14, Malachi 2:15) and if also, God does not excuse or overlook any sin whatsoever (Ecclesiastes 11:9; 12:14, Hebrew 2:2) then it follows by good and necessary consequence that our God who “will by no means clear the guilty” does not excuse or condone polygamy in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:7).

Countering The Objections

The skeptic says: okay, but hold on. If God does not condone polygamy, then why does He tell the reader in 2 Samuel 12:8 that He gave King David his “master’s wives”? After all, the result of this transaction meant that David would have multiple wives. Doesn’t this show that God condoned David’s polygamy? And if God allowed David to engage in polygamy then isn’t it fair to state that God condones polygamy?

This is an important type of charge to refute for it goes to the heart of crucial Bible topics such as necessary inference and how to employ a defensible hermeneutic (i.e. systematic way of interpreting the Bible).

By the way, a cousin of mine (who is in a polygamous relationship, though not in this country) argued somewhat similarly that since David had multiple wives (2 Samuel 5:13, 2 Samuel 12:8) and since in Scripture he is referred to favorably (e.g. David is called a man after God’s own heart—1 Samuel 13:14; 1 Kings 15:3; Act 13:22, and is placed in the lineage of the Messiah by the promise that Christ will sit on the throne of His father David— Luke 1:32) that this therefore demonstrates polygamy to be acceptable in God’s eyes.

Before addressing this objection, we should first examine the entire chapter of 2 Samuel 12 for context; and when we do, we find God scolding king David through the mouth of His prophet Nathan for David’s arranging of Uriah’s murder in order to steal Uriah’s wife. In God’s condemnation of David’s behavior, He reminds David that He had given him his “master’s house” and his “master’s wives.” It is worth noting here that there has been some debate among theologians about exactly what “master’s wives” in 2 Samuel 12:8 means. This is due to the lack of a Bible verse clearing corroborating David’s acquisition of Saul’s wives [8]. In fact, due to the sparsity of details surrounding most of David’s wives, it is not certain that “master’s wives” couldn’t refer to the list of wives which David would end up with prior to his affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 3:2-5, 1 Chronicles 3:1-9). Yet, Scripture reveals that David also had concubines (2 Samuel 5:13; 20:3, 1 Chronicles 3:9), an action which would end up implicating David as a polygamist anyway. In other words, regardless of what God gave David in the way of his “master’s wives” it seems clear that he nonetheless practiced polygamy.

With all of this in mind, it is still abundantly certain that, based upon the text and the context of 2 Samuel 12:8, the claim that God thereby condones polygamy does not necessarily follow. We shall shortly see why this has to be the case. Nevertheless, one should first realize that if 2 Samuel 12:8 did mean that God condones polygamy, we would be forced to conclude that God is a person who contradicts Himself and that the Scriptures are therefore unreliable. For it is abundantly clear from the previously mentioned sections that God is not a supporter of polygamy nor does He condone sin of any kind.

However, before we foolishly decide to discard the central axiom upon which the Christian worldview rests (i.e. the reliability of the Scriptures) perhaps we should first examine the spurious reasoning behind the claim that 2 Samuel 12:8 amounts to God condoning polygamy. Apart from the question’s convenient sidestepping of the glaring Deuteronomy 17:17 mandate which applied to all kings including David, another obvious problem with using 2 Samuel 12:8 to endorse polygamy is that the act of God giving David his predecessor’s wives is entirely different from David going out and marrying multiple women on his own [²]. Polygamy is when a man marries multiple women in defiance of God’s will, whereas even the most liberal understanding of 2 Samuel 12:8 would only involve David’s acquisition of wives by the hand of God and in accordance with God’s will [²].

In other words, there is a rule (Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 17:17, Malachi 2:14-15, etc.) and there is evidently an exception to the rule (2 Samuel 12:8). The presence of an exception which specifically applies to 2 Samuel 12:8 actually reinforces that a general  rule exists. Moreover, the exception is not itself a rule. The sin of polygamy could never apply to God’s act of orchestrating or allowing a person to acquire multiple wives. If it did then that would mean that God is susceptible to sin which is not only irrational but also rank heresy.

Nor is it right to argue from the presence of a rare, warranted and God-initiated exception that some sort of inconsistency abounds. For God is not partial (Deuteronomy 10:17, Deuteronomy 16:19: 2 Chronicles 19:7; Romans 2:11) nor do we even know why God allowed David to have multiple wives. Perhaps God wanted David—a “man after his own heart” (Acts 13:22)—to see the ruinous end of such an arrangement. Nor does 2 Samuel 12:8 constitute the one and only exception which God would grant David in his lifetime. For David, not being a priest, was nevertheless allowed to partake of the temple shewbread which was only lawful for the priests to eat (Matthew 12:4, 1 Samuel 21:1-6). Later on, he wore the priestly linen ephod and engaged in the priest’s task of making burnt offerings before the Lord (2 Samuel 6:14-18)—the same task for which Saul was berated (cf. 1 Samuel 13:8-13). Even David’s sons were called priests (2 Samuel 8:18) in contravention to Numbers 3:10,16:40. Yet, the reader must take it for granted that these exceptions were all sanctioned by God. Unlike the actions of men, God’s actions (i.e. His exemptions) cannot be brought under the scrutiny of the law (Job 36:22-23; 40:8; Isaiah 40:13; 1 Corinthians 2:16, Romans 9:14; 11:34). For the law is only meant for creatures and for the (potentially) unrighteous (1 Timothy 1:9).

In fact, King David is not the only person for whom the Bible records God making an exception.  For instance, back in Genesis 2:17 God proclaims that human death would be the penalty for sin. This edict has ever sin been the rule whereby the lives of all men are governed. This is why, in the clearest terms possible, Hebrews 9:27 confirms sin’s death penalty and declares that ALL men are appointed to die. Yet, God is seen making specific exceptions for both Enoch (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11[6]. For neither of these two men experienced death even though God plainly declares that all men are supposed to die. In light of these two exemptions, would I be justified if I were to thereby argue that God condones (i.e. excuses, overlooks or is lenient with) sinners defying His death penalty for sin? No!

Because God is innately perfect, any attempt by fallible men to scrutinize his actions will invariably lead to uninformed or unsound conclusions (Job 40:2,8). The lesson here is that God’s actions and men’s actions are not to be treated the same way. The failure to realize this not so subtle distinction has ensnared many into the irrational act of accusing God of excusing sin or breaking moral laws. The biblical God is the world’s only true Potentate (i.e. a ruler who is unrestrained by any law). Therefore, it necessarily follows that His edicts do not apply to His own actions. When God does something which He forbids His creatures to do, that’s just called being God. After all, He is the creator and the owner of all things; any act of discretion is by definition, righteous, and His rightful prerogative. Yet, God’s actions, in light of His omniscience, are always unquestionably perfect. For instance, God forbids murder, yet in 1 Samuel 15:2-3, God punished the Amalekites for their many atrocities (Genesis 15:13-16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19) by commanding Saul to totally destroy their city (including men, women and children). Was God condoning or perpetrating murder? No. First of all, killing is only wrong when it is in contravention to God’s will (i.e. murder). Secondly, God is the legal owner of all vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35, Romans 12:19).

God is above the law because He creates the law (Isaiah 33:22; James 4:12) and the law is merely a reflection of His will. In Hebrews 3:3 we read “he who builds the house has more honor than the house.” If the house-builder is greater than the house by virtue of being it’s creator, then God must also be greater than the law by virtue of Him being it’s Creator. Yet, some Christians are uncomfortable with appealing to the idea that God is above the law. Indeed, the phrase “above the law” can unintendedly denote opposition to the law, instead of mere superiority. Yet that God is above the law but not opposed to the law can be seen in the events surrounding Christ’s instructive debate with the Pharisees about whether or not it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Mark 3:4, Luke 6:9; 14:3). This debate seems to have arose from the Jews misunderstanding about what was (or wasn’t) permissible on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10, Luke 6:7; 13:14) and from the numerous times in which the Jews accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath (Luke 6:2; 13:14; John 5:18; 9:16).

On certain occasions, Christ proclaimed His innocence to this charge by appealing to the moral argument (i.e. According to the law, I have not broken the Sabbath.). For instance, in (1) Matthew 12:10-12, (2) Luke 13:14-17 and (3) John 5:9-11; 7:21-24 Christ employs three persuasive ad hominen (i.e. non-abusive) arguments in demonstrating that, according to their own understanding of the law, he had in fact not broken the Sabbath. In modern times, the Latin term ad hominen has been redefined to refer to a logical fallacy where an opponent’s attributes are attacked rather than the substance of an argument itself. However, traditionally speaking, to argue in an ad hominem fashion is to use the concessions of an opponent as a basis for drawing a (valid) conclusion, thereby forcing the opponent to either accept the conclusion or to retract their concession [10]. In the matter of Christ’s three ad hominem arguments, each conclusion which Christ arrived at was based upon concessions which the Jews had already allowed on the Sabbath and therefore demonstrated that Christ could not be guilty of breaking the Sabbath. What makes these three arguments all the more remarkable is that they are also of the a fortiori brand. A fortiori is a Latin term meaning “with even stronger reason.” The a fortiori argument applies to situations in which, if a first thing is certain then one can necessarily infer that a second thing is even more certain. This is due to the relationship between the first thing and the second thing which is either from a greater degree to a lesser or vice versa. Because Christ employs a fortiori reasoning, each conclusion He draws follows with even greater logical necessity than the prior premise already accepted in the argument [11]. Hence, in response to the charges of Sabbath-breaking, the impressive validity of Christ’s reasoning utterly eliminated any doubt as to his innocence.

Yet, there were other times when Christ proclaimed His innocence to the charge of Sabbath-breaking by merely appealing to the potentate argument (i.e. Even if I broke the Sabbath, so what?). For instance, in John 5:16-17, Christ (implicitly) argues that both He and His Father worked on the Sabbath because they were above the law. In fact, in the very next verse (John 5:18), we are told that His audience clearly understood the implications of His claim: i.e. He had “broken the Sabbath” and was “making himself equal with God.” In a similar fashion, Christ, in Matthew 12:1-6, puts forth the argument that He has Sabbath-exempting power. As we mentioned earlier, Israelite priests who engaged in Sabbath-defying work were rendered blameless because of their work’s association with the temple (Matthew 12:5). This meant that all priestly work done in the temple was exempt from being classified as Sabbath-defying merely because it was done within the temple. From this premise, Jesus argues that since He is greater than the temple (2 Chronicles 6:18), then any Sabbath-defying work which his disciples are found doing while in his company should similarly be exempted. The devastating force of Matthew 12:1-6’s a fortiori argument left no doubt in the minds of Christ’s audience about His claim to deity and His divine right to defy the Sabbath. In Christ’s own words he declares: “the son of man [i.e. Christ] is Lord also of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8, Mark 2:28, Luke 6:5).

In the 8th chapter of John’s gospel, the apostle reveals a series of contentious discussions between Christ and the Pharisees. On one of these occasions, the Pharisees challenge Christ’s testimony as unlawful and it is in this account that we find yet another example of God (i.e. Christ) showing that He is above the law but not opposed to the law. In John 8:13, the Pharisees claimed that Christ’s divine assertions amounted to a self-witness and therefore did not meet the requirements of the Law (in Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:5). In response, Christ again presents the moral argument for why His self-testimony was true (John 8:17-18, cf. John 5:31-37). As the law required that any claim be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:5), Christ in John 5:31-37 identifies John the Baptist, His miracles, and God the Father all as His law-satisfying witnesses (cf. John 8:17-18). Yet, in John 8:14-16 Christ also invokes the potentate argument by appealing to His omniscience and divine appointment as an ultimate proof for why His testimony was authentic and did not need to conform to the demands of the law.

Hence, in both of these examples from Scripture, we see Christ appealing to His divine position in order to exempt Himself from the law and it’s scrutiny. Therefore, to those who would still question why God would only grant King David an exception to the monogamy mandate, they should not be surprised to hear the following hypothetical reply in a manner similar to that of John 21:22.

If I will that David have multiple wives, what is that to you? Obey thou me!

In Isaiah 20:1-4 God commands the prophet to walk around naked for three years in contravention to the Genesis 3:21. In Ezekiel 4:9-17 God commands the prophet to eat defiled bread in contravention to the Deuteronomy 14:3. In Hosea 1:2 God commands the prophet to marry a prostitute in contravention to Deuteronomy 23:17-18. Was God being hypocritical in all of these matters? No! He was simply exercising His prerogative to instructively defy the law as the Judge and Owner of the earth’s inhabitants (Genesis 18:25, Deuteronomy 32:36, Hebrews 2:2). In each case, God had His reasons—reasons which would adequately justify the anomaly even in man’s irrelevant court of opinions.

Besides, no one who professes the godliness of Scripture as his or her axiom can rationally assert that God is capable of wrongdoing since the Bible states that God alone is (innately) perfect, righteous and thus the standard of goodness and righteousness (Psalms 36:9; 145:17; Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4, 1 Peter 1:15-16). Therefore, any claim that God is being inconsistent or immoral is without a rational warrant. Polygamy according to the Bible is sin (Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:15, Deuteronomy 17:17, Exodus 20:14). Similarly, all kings who kept concubines were engaging in sin. Abraham sleeping with his wife’s handmaiden at his wife’s behest (regardless of whether or not it was an A.N.E. norm) is sin. Just because God is friendly and accommodating with a sinner doesn’t mean that He condones the sinner’s sin. The next time the reader wonders about God’s patience in dealing with certain sins, perhaps he or she should reflect upon the goodness and mercy of God in his or her own life. “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

Unfortunately, many readers confuse or take the Mosaic Law’s remediation of societal ills as a a tacit endorsement of those norms. For instance, the Bible states in Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce, yet, what we find in the Mosaic Law are instructions regarding how to properly execute a divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Does this mean that God condones divorce? Of course not! But bad behavior in God’s congregation must still be regulated so as not to approach the licentiousness of their heathen neighbors. Yet, some skeptics see this mere regulation of impropriety as something more. This type of confused reasoning leads to the sort of objection that asks why God would allow provisions for polygamy in the Mosaic Law especially if He doesn’t approve of it (e.g. Exodus 21:10 says: If [a man] takes another wife…)? After all, doesn’t this demonstrate that God condones this type of behavior? Interestingly enough, in the first verse of the same chapter (i.e. Exodus 21:1) we read “If a man steals an ox or a sheep…” yet, no one would therefore argue that God condones theft—especially in light of the fact that the 6th commandment states: “Thou shall not steal!” (Exodus 20:15).

In other words, the bizarre claim that the mere inclusion of certain acts within the Mosaic Law must mean that God endorses them, when drawn to its logical conclusion, leads to all sorts of absurd consequences. In logic, the reductio ad absurdum argument is a technique whereby absurd inferences are drawn from a proposition in order to demonstrate its unsoundness. Hence, the reductio ad absurdum of God condoning the polygamy in Exodus 21:10 is that God also condones the theft in Exodus 21:1. Even so, Exodus 21:10 does not stand as the only verse which is alleged to permit polygamy; others include: Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Exodus 21:10-11; Leviticus 18:18 etc. Yet, in every case, it would be thoroughly irrational to infer a divinely-granted license to commit polygamy, since doing so would also permit the absurd conclusion of Exodus 21:1’s  reductio ad absurdum argument, as stated earlier.

When God does not immediately deal with a particular sin, or does not immediately respond to a disobedience with a reciprocating punishment, this does not mean that He condones it (Psalm 50:21, Ecclesiastes 8:11-12). For example, the 73rd Psalm is all about the foolishness of arguing from one’s own ignorance and God’s apparent silence that He therefore condones sin. In that passage, the Psalmist laments: “So foolish was I, and ignorant” after finally realizing that God is not indifferent concerning sin but that He will eventually “awake” to confront the sinner in judgment (Psalm 73:20,22). God’s law states that a married couple should not seek to divorce (Malachi 2:16), the same way that God’s law states that we should not murder (Exodus 20:13), the same way that God’s law states that polygamy is wrong (Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:15, Deuteronomy 17:17, Exodus 20:14). Therefore, to subsequently say that God condones these actions is to imply that God condones sin, yet, we know that transgressing the law of God is not permissible. Every single departure from God’s commandments will be dealt with sooner or later (Hebrews 2:2, Psalm 50:21, Ecclesiastes 11:9; 12:14). For the soul who chooses to believe in the words of the promised Messiah, his or her sins are already accounted for and forgiven; this is what is meant by obeying the gospel. On the other hand, for those who choose to be willfully ignorant of God and for those who have not obeyed the gospel, every single sin committed awaits that person on the day of judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:8, Hebrews 2:2-3).

In Psalms 50:21, God states: Because I have kept quiet at these things that you have done, you thought that I was exactly like yourself: but I will condemn you, and set your sins in order before your eyes (cf. Ecclesiastes 8:11-12; Isaiah 57:11-12). The Amalakites (a.k.a. the Amorites) probably thought that because God kept quite for hundreds of years (Genesis 15:13-16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19) while they multiplied their sins, that He was indifferent to sin or that He was just like them; but God’s mercy ran out and they were made into an example (Exodus 17:8-16, 2 Peter 2:6) so that others could see the folly (Psalm 73:11) in thinking that God does condones sin.

No, Hebrews 2:2 reminds us that on the day of judgment, all unbelievers will discover that God does NOT condone polygamy.

References

  1. [Trapp – Mal 2:14]
  2. The Scriptures inform us that David did apparently of his own accord marry other wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). These women, if they were separate from, or in addition to those implied in 2 Samuel 12:8, would not be ordained by God, and would therefore impugn David with the sin of polygamy.
  3. [Guzik – Mat 5:31-32]
  4. McClintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1981. See Adultery.
  5. Morrish George, A New and Concise Bible Dictionary, London, 1897. See Adultery.
  6. There are those who will be raptured in a future event, but the rapture should not be seen as exceptional to human mortality since the sentence of human mortality was rectified by Christ’s Calvary sacrifice and his subsequent resurrection.
  7. A small list of these theologians could include: Adam Clarke on 2 Samuel 5:13; Albert Barnes says in 1 Kings 1:2 that “the Jewish Law allowed for polygamy”; Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges commentary on 2 Samuel 3:5;
  8. For instance, it does not seem to be the case that Saul’s wife Ahinoam (1 Sam 14:50) and David’s wife Ahinoam (1 Sam 25:43; 1 Sam 27:3) are the same person.
  9. Princeton University WordNet Dictionary
  10. David Hitchcock, Why there is no argumentum ad hominem fallacy, https://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~hitchckd/adhominemissa.htm
  11. The New Twentieth Century Webster’s Dictionary. Second Edition.
  12. Some logicians do not see John 5:9-11; 7:21-24 as an example of the a fortiori (e.g. Avi Sion, http://www.thelogician.net/A-FORTIORI-LOGIC/A-Fortiori-in-Christian-Bible-10.htm). Nevertheless, the juxtaposing of circumcision’s making a man whole vs. Christ’s miracle which more impressively restores a man to wholeness (being a work of much more importance) certainly qualifies John 7:21-24 as an a fortiori.
  13. Mears, HC 2011, What the Bible is all about, Regal, Ventura, California, USA, p.24
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