“Multiple Marriage: A Study of Polygamy in Light of the Bible”
by Dr. Robert J. Hitchens
Published 1987 by Doulos, Elkton, Maryland ISBN 0 9617379 1 3
“Prove to me that polygamy is wrong!”
So opens this book, with the words of a missionary to Kenya. These words astounded Dr. Ernest Gambrell, then President of the Fundamentalist Baptist World-Wide Mission, who was so annoyed about it that he wrote to the board under which that missionary was serving. He found that polygamy was being allowed by missionaries who were serving where polygamy still prospered. However, Dr Hitchens soon came to help him recover from the shock by writing a book which tries to take up the missionary’s challenge.
It is not the first book by a Christian against polygamy. It may not be the last. To give it credit, it does spend almost 200 pages on the topic, which is a lot more than your average pastor would care for. It marshalls very many of the Christian-based arguments against polygamy and seeks to address the issue. However, it appears to see polygamy as a problem, rather than as a search for truth. It is a useful book to read as it illustrates some of the lengths to which those who would enforce monogamy have to go in order to argue that the Bible teaches monogamy, when it plainly does not.
It is important to emphasise that this review seeks to give a fair treatment to Hitchens book, and respects him for trying to get to grips with the subject. This review is at times very critical of Hitchens’ opinions or approach, but those who read the book will no doubt find that this review treats him with considerably more latitude than Hitchens treats those who believe that polygamy is permissable. It would be hard to condemn the review without having read the book. This review tries to deal with the debate frankly, while keeping to fair standards of debate. Some have felt that it has not done this, but it is clear that those who have expressed this opinion share many of Hitchen’s views. We all have a responsibility to get beyond the style and through to the issues of substance.
This review also serves as a summary of the debate about Christian polygamy, and is therefore useful to read in itself because it tackles a great number of arguments all in one place.
Dr Hitchens starts with his conclusion that sin has ’caused a departure from monogamy, God’s original plan for marriage’. This is important. Polygamists believe that if you read the Bible without preconceived ideas about marriage you would never come up with this idea.
He then describes the various types of what he calls polygamy. So we learn of ‘simultaneous polygamy’ and ‘consecutive polygamy’, of ‘group marriage’ and of ‘polyandry’, of ‘concubinage’ and…..well, pretty soon you’ve got a lot of fundamentally different concepts all suddenly sheltering under the polygamy umbrella. The normal believer in biblical polygamy suddenly finds himself with many strange bedfellows (the pun is intended). The ‘consecutive polygamy’ of which the author speaks is more normally called ‘serial monogamy’.
So, right at the outset, it is clear that the author is not only looking at Biblical polygamy. He is considering a wide range of practices that can be squeezed into the definition of polygamy, and not simply a set of scriptural arguments. This is not to impute any malice or wrongdoing to the author, but because he has decided that polygamy is wrong he sees no problem in grouping it with other things that he believes are wrong. However, it would have been better if the issue had been dealt with on its own as then we would be better able to decide it on its own merits.
The author is just getting into his introduction when fate descends upon him and …
…Well – did you spot the gap? Sadly in my copy two pages were simply blank, and it is possible that some important point was missed due to the error in printing.
In chapter 1, the author sets out to show what ideas modern evolutionists have about the origin of the family, and contrasts these with what he calls the Biblical version of the origin of marriage. According to the author, and I have no way of showing otherwise, ideas of original promiscuity and original polygamy attract the support of evolutionists. Dr Hitchens contrasts this with the good Creationists who believe in monogamy.
But this is pointless. People who believe in polygamy because they believe the Bible also believe in creation because they believe the Bible. People who embrace evolution and condemn polygamy often do both because of they don’t like the Bible and God, but Dr Hitchens does not talk about these people.
The point is a simple one. We can all quote good people who took our side and bad people who took the other side. But what Dr Hitchens does within the first few pages of his book is to do this in two different ways. Firstly he groups biblical polygamy with serial-monogamy, group marriage and polyandry. Secondly he groups polygamists with evolutionists. The implication is clearly the same in both instances – ‘you can’t believe in polygamy, look at the company it keeps’. But the company is what Dr Hitchens made it keep. This is a standard fallacy – that you can attack the merits of an argument by attacking the author’s character. The technical term is that this is an ad hominem argument, and as such it is an invalid method of criticising the polygamists’ case. They similarly could claim that nice people were polygamists, nasty people enforced monogamy, polygamy was Christian, monogamy was feminist, polygamy was good for society and monogamy was in there with abortion, promiscuity, prostitution and divorce. The ability of both sides in the argument to use the same rhetorical device just goes to show that it is not a useful indicator of truth. Sadly, this book puts polygamy with the bad guys just to give it a bad name.
Much of the rest of this chapter is uncontroversial. It doesn’t really address polygamy. It talks about marriage and ceremonies of marriage. We learn that the word ‘wedding’ is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, and that there is no record of a religious ceremony or exchange of vows as there is today. We learn that, in the early Church, Roman marriage laws prevailed. But somehow, a chapter that has talked of biblical views of marriage with hardly a mention of monogamy suddenly is summed up to say that marriage had its beginning in monogamy. But why is this important? Even polygamous marriages have their beginnings in monogamy. It’s fairly normal to marry one of the wives before the other one!
Chapter 2 – The First Marriage
In Chapter 2, Dr Hitchens warms to his theme. The first marriage is his concern here and he keeps coming back to it throughout the book. He seems to think it is quite an important and convincing argument.
But first, some more general comments about the first two chapters. Dr Hitchens is right to say that in a polygamous system, most marriages are monogamous. In other words, where men are allowed many wives, most men have just one. There are not usually enough for the majority to have two. But all their marriages are potentially polygamous. Their culture is polygamous. They may wish to be polygamous. They probably have no real problem with the idea of polygamy. But in fact, they have one wife, so Dr Hitchens defines them as monogamous. He tries to say that monogamy is everywhere but in doing so he counts potentially polygamous marriages as monogamous.
Oddly the reverse is often true. In monogamist systems, such as the Western World today, men are only allowed one wife. Promiscuity, adultery, prostitution and other factors combine to ensure that many men have more than one sexual partner. Would Dr Hitchens say they were polygamists? My suspicion is that he would also count these as monogamists, because they are only “allowed” one wife. But if you live in a polygamous system with polygamous goals and polygamous ideals, and if you are allowed to be polygamous, but in fact die having had only one wife, it’s not quite the same as living and dying monogamous. In fact, describing a man as monogamous simply because he only has one wife can be a misleading use of language, ignoring everything else he believes.
And so to the first marriage. Dr Hitchens opens with a simple description of the creation of Adam and Eve, and then goes on to talk of leaving your parents, setting up home with your wife, and cleaving together in an indissoluble union, leading him to the end of the fourth page of his chapter before he even touches on polygamy. This perhaps shows a problem with the mindset of many religious commentators. They often talk of monogamy as if it were the only form of marriage. Hence, when they speak of the good teachings of God concerning marriage they think that those teachings refer to monogamy alone. But this is wrong. Polygamist Christians will agree with an awful lot of what monogamist Christians say about marriage – after all, the teaching on marriage comes from the same Bible. Perhaps one lesson for those who believe in polygamy is that they need to convince their brethren that they believe what God said about marriage – that they are not throwing the biblical ‘baby’ out with the monogamous ‘bathwater’.
And so to the first argument of monogamists … “and they shall be one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24b) Dr Hitchens knows, and quotes, Eugene Hillman’s idea that ‘one flesh’ extends to all a man’s family and therefore does not exclude polygamy. There are other arguments he does not quote, but what is his reply? What logic leads him to set up monogamy as the divine ideal?
“God only made one wife for Adam. Had he intended for man to be polygamous He would have created several wives.“
Well, I doubt that Dr Hitchens walks round his house naked just because Adam was created naked. I doubt he sleeps in the open and doesn’t have a house, because God only made Adam a garden and no house. I doubt that Dr Hitchens attempts to develop a classification system for animals, doesn’t drive a car and only eats fruit and vegetables, just like Adam. We know that Dr Hitchens reads his Bible, even thought Adam didn’t have one, because in the rest of his life he realises that when God wanted us to follow what was in the beginning, he told us to follow it. That means, as he conspicuously failed to tell us to be monogamous, we don’t have to be monogamous.
His next point in support of this argument is that God only used the singular number in relation to Adam’s wife. He then repeats some of the text, placing his own emphasis on words like ‘woman’, ‘wife’ and ‘her’. He therefore establishes that God is able to count. Has he established anything else?
One thing to learn from the fact that in polygamous societies most men have only one wife, is that it is quite normal to talk of marriage in terms that refer to a ‘wife’ rather than ‘wives’. The use of the singular is quite normal. After all, most men have only a ‘wife’ and all polygamists are individually married to each ‘wife’ that they have. Singular references to ‘wife’ rather than ‘wives’ make perfect sense. Today, if we talk of a doctor and what ‘he’ does, that does not mean that there are no female doctors – merely that they are usually male and it is the height of obsessive political correctness to go around using the phrase ‘he or she’ in all of your sentences. And if a law talks about an employer and an employee, no-one would suggest that this means that an employer could have only one employee – merely that the law refers to the class rather than to the number of employees. Similarly it is normal to talk of marriage in the manner of a man and a ‘wife’, not because polygamy doesn’t exist, but because it reflects most cases accurately and there is no real point in creating a fuss over the language.
As a polygamist is married to each of his wives, it must be realised that there are many marriages – not just one. They are independent of each other. It is when that independence is breached (for example when one marriage is broken to allow another to start) that the problems begin. As each of a polygamist’s marriages is one man and one wife, this further supports the idea that use of the singular term ‘wife’ does not in any way exclude polygamy.
Hitchens’ third point about the first marriage is that the term ‘one flesh’ was used by the prophet Malachi as referring to monogamous marriage, in Malachi 2 vv 14-15, but this misrepresents the text. Malachi doesn’t refer to monogamous marriage at all. He talks of how God hates divorce. He even uses the phrase ‘wife of your youth’ which leaves open the option of there being other wives not of “your youth”. But nothing about monogamy. Perhaps the explanation is contained in footnote 27, to which the text refers. But by a cruel twist of fate, the footnotes move from 24 to 31 without going through the numbers which conventionally occupy the space in between.
His fourth attempt at establishing this point about one flesh focuses on the allegation that Jesus interpreted ‘one flesh’ as meaning monogamy. Take note of this. We will see it again, but then we will note that a completely different interpretation is given. When Jesus is talking to the Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 he refers to Genesis, saying ‘the two shall be one flesh’. The ‘two’ is new, but Jesus is God so it is fair enough to let him say what he means.
Hitchens uses this to knock down Hillman’s paper argument. Because ‘two’ is mentioned, Hitchens says that ‘one flesh’ can’t include a whole family, or two or three wives. In so saying, he makes a simple error. To say that two or three people make up a church is not the same as saying that four people is too many for a church. Each marriage is an individual action – a covenant involving a husband and one wife. Those two become united. There is nothing to say it stops him being united to anyone else. There is nothing to say that it could not be viewed as the new wife being united to both the husband and any existing wives, but the Biblical emphasis is on the relationship between the husband and his new wife.
I say this only to be fair to Hillman. His explanation of ‘one flesh’ as kinship is one possibility, but the phrase ‘the two shall become one flesh’ in no way disproves it. Hitchens puts forward the idea that oneness with a group of wives is what is on the mind of polygamists, and that this is untenable in Scripture. But firstly, it is quite tenable, and secondly it is not what many polygamists say. They say they are one with one wife, and one with another, and that one unity does not exclude the other.
This can easily be established by reference to 1 Corinthians 6 vv 15-17. Indeed considering that Dr Hitchens is so concerned about the meaning of ‘one flesh’ and quotes Malachi and Jesus, it is a little surprising that he misses out the one remaining text on ‘one flesh’ that is in the Bible. The omission is all the more important as the text very clearly will not support what Dr Hitchens is saying, for the apostle Paul says there that a man who is joined to a prostitute is one flesh with her. Imagine how many men must be one flesh with the same prostitute! It sort of destroys the idea that two becoming one flesh prevents anyone else becoming one flesh with the same person. Paul then goes on to talk of each believer as being joined to the Lord and being one spirit with him. Now, the Lord being joined and one spirit with Paul does not prevent him from being joined and one spirit with Dr Hitchens. This means that there is no credible argument against polygamy based in the ‘one flesh’ argument. Paul’s use of the term proves that ‘one flesh’ can include polygamy and therefore that polygamy was possible from the first institution of marriage.
Perhaps we should give Dr Hitchens the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he hadn’t read 1 Corinthians 6 or had read it and forgotten about it. The only problem with this theory is that in the same chapter of the book by Eugene Hillman that Dr Hitchens quotes, it mentions 1 Corinthians 6 and explains its relevance.
Chapter 3 – The Fall of Man and the Introduction of Polygamy into the Ancient World
You’ll read through 8 pages of this chapter until you find a mention of polygamy. It is a fairly standard account of the fall of man, with two exceptions. The first is the suggestion that Adam and Eve were ‘clothed with the light of divine glory’, which dissipated when they sinned. Perhaps Dr Hitchens isn’t happy with nakedness, but the idea seems a little far-fetched. The second odd idea is that the dominance of man over woman is portrayed as a punishment of Eve due to the fall. It is accepted that leadership was the original intent, but it is suggested that dominance came as a punishment. This is objectionable on two grounds. Firstly there is the question as to whether man has ever historically been as dominant as suggested here – the feminist lobby would have you believe it, but that does not mean it is true. Secondly, it may not be a fair representation of what the Bible is saying. The pain of childbirth was the punishment. God foretells what is going to happen when he says ‘your desire will be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’. Women would try to seize power, but men would prevail. This reflects the order of things as they were from creation. What is new is the struggle, not the positions.
Then we come to the first recorded polygamist in the Bible, Lamech. Lamech is descended from worldly Cain, not godly Seth. He is therefore not the best of characters, and he is the first man recorded as having two wives. Dr Hitchens uses this opportunity to tell us of the ‘rule of biblical interpretation called “the rule of first mention”‘, which he presents as infallible – quoting A. T. Pierson to show that the first occurrence of a word, expression or utterance is the key to its meaning.
Dr Hitchens does not provide a Biblical text which declares this rule of first mention, or even one that demonstrates a man of the Bible using it. This is not surprising. There is no such rule to be found in the Bible, and any such rule is the invention of men. Dr Hitchen has come up with a rule he will use to attack polygamy, but it is not a biblical rule.
The next thing to notice is that Dr Hitchens does not apply the rule in the way suggested by the scholar he quotes. There is no word, expression or utterence that is spoken of here, and to which a ‘rule of first mention’ could apply, even if it did exist. ‘Polygamy’ is an ancient practice, but a modern concept. We are the people who think it matters whether a man has one wife or two. To everyone in the Bible it was just ‘marriage’. The term ‘polygamy’ was not there to be defined.
The argument is of course open to abuse. Should we think the first instance is the key to understanding? If so, men are incomplete without women. Yet Jesus and Paul allowed for some men to be celibate. If the rule of first mention operates then perhaps every man should marry all the available women in the world or at least the first one he finds, for that is what marriage is all about if we follow this ‘rule’ – as that is what happened the first time.
And finally on this point, the rule that he proposes tells you whatever you want to hear. Dr Hitchens will emphasize the fact that Lamech was a killer and a polygamist. He will not mention the fact that the first murderer was monogamous Cain – does that mean that the essence of murder is monogamy? He will say that Lamech was a godless man, who rejected the original command regarding monogamous marriage, but you will wait in vain for him to show you such a command. He says Lamech was not satisfied with one wife and took another. The scriptures however say that he took two wives, with nothing to indicate whether there was any appreciable gap in getting married or any dissatisfaction at all. He portrays Lamech’s declaration about his killing as a boastful act, but doesn’t dwell too long on the idea of Lamech being prosperous, and of his sons being creative pioneers.
Dr Hitchens makes a mistake when he moves from an acceptance of Lamech as the first recorded polygamist to an assertion that Lamech introduced polygamy into the human race. The Bible doesn’t claim that Lamech introduced polygamy. For all we know, Seth could have been the first polygamist. Hitchens’ approach assumes that polygamy is a big issue, which is quite a monogamist assumption. In the Old Testament, where polygamy was freely accepted, it would not be unusual for the real first polygamist just not to get a mention.
Further evidence to support this comes from the description of Lamech’s sons. Each is the ‘father’ or originator of this or that activity. But is Lamech recorded as the father of polygamists? No! Just at the time when the origins of behaviour are being discussed in the Bible, it fails to mention Lamech as the originator of polygamy, possibly because he wasn’t.
Therefore Dr Hitchens’s weapon that he would use against polygamy is a double-edged sword. Lamech could be portrayed as a prosperous man with a talented family. He could be portrayed as a man who realised the enormity of his own actions and committed this realisation into poetic form. And then we could say ‘he was the first polygamist, you know – which goes to show that polygamy breeds prosperity, talent and culture’. The so-called ‘rule’ of first mention is whatever you want to make of it. That is why it is not scriptural to use it, for it reduces objective truth to subjective speculation.
In his end-of-chapter summary, Dr Hitchens shows how his belief has altered his view of the world. He says that Lamech ‘being overcome with lust and ambition, took for himself two wives’. Even if Dr Hitchens was right about the lust and ambition, if he looked back at his Bible he would see that the taking of the wives is the first thing that is recorded. Dr Hitchens’s supposed effect actually happens before the supposed cause.
Chapter 4 – Forms of Marriage since the Fall
This chapter begins with an assertion that ‘with few exceptions, monogamy is the only form…’. I decided to stop the quote there so that you can contrast the uses of the words ‘exceptions’ and ‘only’. Dr Hitchens talks up monogamy and brow-beats polygamy. It is like the modern-day political spin-doctors. He wants to say it is the ‘only’ form of marriage permitted amongst every people, decides he can’t, and then squeezes the word in anyway. He later says that the numbers of men and women are ‘approximately the same’. Does the use of the word ‘approximately’ mean that the numbers are ‘NOT the same’? He says there is ‘a mate for nearly every person’. Doesn’t the use of the word ‘nearly’ mean that ‘there ISN’T a mate for every person’. By such use of language, and by constant repetition, the steady dripping of the teaching of monogamy could wear away any doubts in the reader’s mind.
In this chapter Dr Hitchens does a tour of the ancient world. The Hebrews were out on their own as monogamists it appears. That’s odd – I’m sure the law of Moses regulates and requires polygamy. The Greeks could only have one legal wife – so were monogamous, despite the fact you could have as many concubines as you wanted.
In fact the point of this chapter is an odd one. He seems to be trying hard to establish the non-biblical origin of monogamy. Having just slated polygamy for having Lamech as its first proponent, Dr Hitchens seems to want to be a monogamist because it is so popular with the pagans! Now, it won’t work. Polygamy was and is widespread – he would have been better ignoring the ancient world and concentrating on what is supposed to happen in modern Western society, but he doesn’t. This shows the signs of being a ‘natural law’ argument, but that is an odd and fruitless tack to take in a book that is supposed to be establishing that the Bible is opposed to polygamy.
The ‘historians’ he quotes are far from neutral. Letourneau talks of the Padans who set a good example to superior races by ‘blaming polygamy’ (we are not told of what). So he loses his professional objectivity. In fact, most of this chapter seems to be made of bits and pieces of Letourneau and Westermarck.
The text then descends into a discussion of concubinage. This is a form of polygamy allowed in the Bible, but regrettably the word is used today to mean everything from slavery to the keeping of a mistress. Dr Hitchens says ‘undoubtedly’ concubinage came into being because of man’s fallen nature, with no reason given for the belief or for it being held with the absence of doubt.
Hitchens says that ‘In prostitution a woman sells her body while in concubinage she gives her body’ – which tells us nothing but appears to be another version of guilt-by-association. He quotes Parsons who says it is a form of marriage, but that makes you wonder how those Greeks count as monogamous if they had so many wives! He says the Hebrews permitted concubinage as it was authorised in Deuteronomy 21 vv 10-14. Sorry? Who permitted it? The Hebrews? Doesn’t Dr. Hitchens believe that is was God who wrote Deuteronomy, and who therefore permitted and authorised concubinage. We ought to give Dr Hitchens credit for mentioning it, but he does skip over it fairly quickly.
Dr Hitchens completes his tour of the ancient world by considering the many polygynous societies. It is a decent and comprehensive tour, marred only by attempts to link polygamy with slavery and ideas of women as property. Dr Hitchens does a nice job of pulling research together to give a quick view of the ancient world. He even admits on page 39 that the Hebrew Levirate, of marriage with a brother’s widow where no male children survived, was a practice that required polygamy. He doesn’t mention that it is a practice enshrined in the Bible, and so it is portrayed as an ‘acceptable institution’ rather than as a divinely endorsed form of polygamy.
Dr Hitchens then considers polyandry. Apparently the original Greek term ‘polyandrion’ meant a ‘mass grave’ and only later took on the meaning of a woman with several husbands. I don’t know if that is right, but it did make me smile. The text moves on to consider group marriage and thus to a conclusion. This chapter is historical and sociological, and makes for an interesting read.
Chapter 5 – Polygamy in the Old Testament
The author quickly states ‘although no other accounts of polygamy are given until Genesis chapter 16, it is certain that it was practiced both before and after the flood due to the wickedness of the heart of man’. Why bother with evidence and proof when you can just go around asserting things like this? There is no record of whether it happened, or of why it happened if it did, but Dr Hitchens soon supplies certainty of motivation where the Bible has none.
Dr Hitchens includes a couple of things missed by other authors. He acknowledges that Esther, whose name is given to a biblical book, was a wife of a polygamist. He mentions Job acknowledging the practice in Job 27 v 15 when talking of a man whose ‘widows shall not weep’. He mentions the reference in the Song of Solomon 6 vv 8-9 where the Shulamite is praised by the ‘threescore queens, fourscore concubines and virgins without number’, showing that this hymn to love was written by Solomon after 140 of his marriages, and so is hardly compatible with monogamy.
But this chapter is as interesting for what it fails to mention as it is for what is included. How does Dr Hitchens fail to see the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah where God refers to himself as having two wives simultaneously? (Answer – he includes the Ezekiel material in a footnote to a later chapter). How does he not notice Nathan’s speech (2 Samuel 12 v 8) where it is shown that God gave many wives to David. These scriptures which show God, not merely tolerating but actively promoting and endorsing polygamy, simply are not mentioned in this survey.
Once again we find that the author’s text is marred by poor rendition into print. The first page of the chapter jumps from Gideon’s concubine to the prophet Samuel, combining them in a sentence that makes no sense. It is clear there was something in the middle, but it has been lost. We are left with less than two pages on the general subject before Dr Hitchen begins to explore the reasons behind the practice.
The first apparently is lust. Lamech is quoted as an example, without proof. There is more proof with David, but only because he lusted after Bathsheba – which does not what motivated his many other marriages. Solomon is also blamed for being ‘sensuous’ and lustful, without anything to substantiate these comments.
The next reason offered is social custom. Abram, Esau and Jacob are mentioned. The example of Abram shows social custom allowing polygamy, but it does not show one as the reason for the other. Esau’s example is groundless, leaving Jacob as the only real example here.
One reason advanced for polygamy is that of where a man desires an heir and wants to make sure he gets one. This would appear to be true with Abram, but Jacob, Elkanah and Joash are all quoted with little in the way of justification. Another reason advanced is that polygamy brings or displays power and prestige. David, Gideon and Rehoboam are cited as examples for this, again with nothing that amounts to proof.
‘Political Alliances’ are mentioned as one reason behind the polygamy of Kings, and there is a certain degree of sense in this. It seems that David and Solomon both made use of marriage as a way of cementing such agreements.
The author says that Sarah in Genesis 16 v 2 and Rachel in Genesis 30 v 1 both show that polygamy came about when women wanted to avoid the reproach of childlessness. There is also an interesting reference in Isaiah 4 v 1 where it is prophesied that seven women will want to marry one man to “take away our ‘reproach”. The author reveals his bias when he says of these women that ‘they would rather enter into polygamy and all its attendant horrors, than to live single and childless’. The author says this was because it would prevent them from being the mother of the Messiah. Given that only one Jewish woman in all of recorded history could be the mother of the Messiah, it seems that Dr Hitchen believes these women were gambling their lives on worse odds than you would get in a state lottery. There is no proof given for his assertion. There is more to say for the idea that the reproach stopped them from obeying the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’.
The final reason advanced for polygamy is the existance of the Levirate. It is asserted that it was voluntary and was limited to brothers who dwelled together. ‘Voluntary’ is a term of art, as a failure to marry the widow of a brother without children appears to have been tantamount to a breach of contract. It is presented as a duty which has not been honoured, and the man who will not perform the levirate has one of his sandals removed and the widow spits in his face, saying ‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.’ (See Deut. 25 vv 5-10). This may seem odd, but Ruth 4 vv 7-12 shows that contracts where property was exchanged were finalised by the exchange of sandals. For the brother who would not perform the levirate, this meant he was stigmatised as someone who did not do his duty or keep his side of the bargain.
The significance of this is that Dr Hitchens acknowledges that the Bible does not limit the Levirate to single men. He says it provided an occasion for polygamy. But it did more than this. In many circumstances it provided a man with a choice between polygamy and a social stigma ordained by God. The levirate therefore appears to promote polygamy – this was not simply an example of God tolerating a polygamy that he didn’t like – he was actually encouraging it.
Dr Hitchens then moves to an account of why God permitted polygamy in the Old Testament. He starts with the time before the law of Moses.
He says that the human race was in its infancy, quoting Paul’s comment that ‘when I became a man I put away childish things’, but not mentioning that Paul nowhere calls polygamy a ‘childish thing’. Dr Hitchens is putting the idea that God tolerated polygamy as childish behaviour to be abandoned now the human race has grown up. But have we really grown up? And is it fair to say that God tolerated not childish behaviour but sin? For, if Dr Hitchens is right, then polygamy is sin. And the final problem with this view is that it is not a question of tolerance. God encouraged, promoted and advanced polygamy. He did not merely tolerate it. And if he encouraged it that seems to indicate it wasn’t a ‘childish thing’ or a sin.
Next, Dr Hitchens says polygamy was allowed because of the hardness of men’s hearts – a phrase he has taken from Jesus’ teaching against “putting away” wives. Notice that a fact Jesus stated as applying after Moses is here used as justification for a ‘tolerance’ instituted before Moses. Dr Hitchens takes an argument Jesus made about something entirely different from polygamy, indeed something opposed to polygamy, and then forces it on to this subject – failing to point out that Jesus himself did not apply it this way, and that it is rather difficult to say how it counts as ‘hardness of heart’ for a man to recognise his responsibilities towards his women and children.
Dr Hitchens’s last pre-Moses argument is that a high infant mortality rate justified polygamy. Would it still justify polygamy today in the societies where such mortality rates are still high and where Dr Hitchens would seek to have missionaries discouraging polygamy? His argument seems to be based on the assumption that polygamy leads to more children – which is not necessarily true.
The account then moves into reasons for tolerance of the practice after the law of Moses. Apparently polygamy had already become a deep-rooted social custom, so God put restrictions in place not to ban polygamy but to let it slowly die away. But this argument is flawed on two grounds. Firstly, God does not seem shy of challenging social customs he disagrees with, whether it be human sacrifice, oppression of the poor, idolatry or anything else. No reason is given for believing polygamy to be one of these practices or for explaining why God suddenly decided to tolerate this one when he clearly opposed all the others. Secondly, the regulations the Old Testament places on polygamy are just that – regulations, not restrictions. Indeed the levirate and the requirement for a man to marry any single women he had fornicated with would only seem to encourage polygamy rather than to let it die away. The regulations ensure that polygamy is fair and reasonable. In fact they make it sustainable, and prevent it from dying away even if it were under threat. And it is difficult to see how they let polygamy slowly die away if, hundreds of years after being established, people like Solomon still felt able to get married 1,000 times.
The second reason Dr Hitchens says that polygamy was permitted after Moses was because the written revelation of God was not yet complete. And it is wrong, so he says, to reach conclusions on any Biblical doctrine before the Bible is completed. If this is true then the Bible must still be being written – because God has not yet forbidden polygamy. In fact the Bible has been finished and polygamy has not been banned – it would seem to be that we are in a position to say that it is an acceptable practice. In fact, Dr Hitchens’s argument here only goes to attack his assertion that monogamy was obviously God’s plan from the beginning. If it was so obvious then conclusions could have been drawn before the time of the New Testament and didn’t need to wait for the end of written revelation.
The last reason offered for God’s tolerance of polygamy is that “Israel’s ethics were progressing, not perfect”. Yet Dr Hitchens acknowledges that Israel didn’t even progress, eventually turning to idol worship. And once again there is no indication that polygamy is anything less than part of a perfect ethical system.
In his summary, Dr Hitchens says ‘God never sanctioned the practice, it was temporarily permitted’. Yet it is clear that the reverse is true. God sanctioned and encouraged polygamy. He gave many wives to King David, and provided for men to have many wives as a consequence of the laws and practices enshrined in the law of Moses. God even portrayed himself as polygamous. And all Dr Hitchens can offer against this is ‘possibly’ God tolerated polygamy for one reason or ‘possibly’ another. God definitely saw polygamy as a normal form of marriage, and did nothing to indicate that polygamy was only a temporary measure.
Chapter 6 – Accounts of polygamy: 1st Century through the 19th
This chapter provides an interesting historical account and references to other works from which greater detail can be gleaned. The author starts by quoting verses of New Testament letters where use of the term ‘wife’ rather than ‘wives’ is said to indicate monogamy. This is merely a repetition of the argument refuted earlier.
The text moves rapidly elsewhere, to opponents of polygamy in the 2nd Century AD, such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian. The latter considered marriage to be the same as fornication! The details of the Roman legislation against polygamy are given and can also be found in the writings of Hillman and Miller.
Augustine and Boniface show the existence of polygamy in 6th century England and 7th century Germany and further details of early polygamist British Kings can be found in John Milton’s ‘History of Britain’. Included is Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great.
There is much more to this history than what appears in this review, but another high point is when Cardinal Cajetan was said to be advocating polygamy as an option for Henry VIII. Luther’s tolerance of polygamy is admitted, as is the example of Landgrave Phillip of Hesse. Reformer Philip Melancthon wrote to Henry VIII in 1531 that ‘if the king wishes to provide for the succession, it is much better to do this without any stigma on the previous marriage. And this can be done, without any danger to the conscience or reputation of anyone, through polygamy’.
Sir Walter Raleigh wrote in his History of the World that it was “unwise to forbid polygamy for everyone”. Many exponents of polygamy are named and quoted, and the chapter moves to a conclusion with a survey of where polygamy was practiced in the nineteenth century.
Chapter 7 – 19th Century Polygamy in North America
This chapter links polygamy to the purchase of wives, to the keeping of ‘chief’ and secondary wives and to the ranking of children. These may happen but none is a necessary feature of polygamy. It should also be noted that the marital anarchists mentioned in this chapter held ideas quite significantly different from the principles of biblical polygamy, and any criticism of these people cannot extend to those who advocate biblical polygamy.
Unsurprisingly the Mormons are mentioned, together with at least three occasions in which Congressmen from Vermont sought to legislate against the practice. An account of the Woodruff manifesto is given, where the Mormon president sacrificed his principles for the sake of political expediency.
There isn’t much for a Christian to argue with in this chapter – apart from another attempt to link polygamy with slavery.
Chapter 8 – Polygamy in the 20th Century
This is another chapter which takes the reader on a world tour, to show that polygamy is decreasing in popularity in some places and increasing in others. Apparently the Kings of Uganda and Loango each had 7,000 wives, so Solomon wasn’t given to excess after all!
Polygamy is portrayed as particularly prevelant in Africa and it is noted that Zulu women favour the practice. It is admitted that concubinage is still prevalent in monogamous China. The terminology really needs to be sorted out here. You can’t treat concubines as wives one minute (to establish that polygamy happens) and mistresses the next (to establish monogamy as the norm).
Chapter 9 – Reasons for the Practice of Polygamy
The following are offered as explanations as to why polygamy is practiced:-
- The attraction of female youth – ‘women seem to age faster than men in primitive societies’. He does not appear to consider that this may be a way of maximising fertility.
- Barrenness of a first wife.
- Economic Prosperity – (which does not sit well with the suggestion that polygamy is only for the wealthy – it can be a way of creating wealth).
- Prestige – it can also be a method of social insurance or security.
- An increased number of offspring – In the real world this is a matter of some debate, but here it is accepted along with the offensive suggestion that promiscuity ‘usually accompanies the practice of polygamy’ leading to the spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. No evidence is offered, despite the fact that one of the books heavily relied upon by Dr Hitchens (‘Polygamy Reconsidered’ by Eugene Hillman) suggests that the opposite is true.
- There is a surplus of women.
- Due to the presence of taboos against intercourse during pregnancy and nursing, coupled with legitimate sexual needs.
- The existence of the Levirate – here it is recognised that in the Old Testament this was an act of love.
- Sickness of the First Wife – said to be one of the major justifications for Islamic polygamy.
- A decrease in the workload of the first wife.
- The desire for security – justified by the fact that women prefer to have a good provider where one is available. The point is spoiled by the slur that polygamous societies place women in a far lower social status than men. He must not have read the book by John Cairncross which suggests that polygamous societies often treated women better than their counterparts. It is odd to see a Baptist pastor advocating a feminist position.
- Ambition of the first wife to be married to a man of status.
- The frequent absence of wives to visit family – leading to the African phrase that ‘to have one wife is to have none’.
- Child mortality – again presuming that polygamy increases reproduction rates.
- Religion – and specifically the belief that having more children is better for you in the afterlife, which again assumes that polygamy provides this.
- As a substitute for divorce. (And a better substitute it would be hard to find!)
Chapter 10 – Evidence from Observation that monogamy is the plan of God for all ages.
Talk about an ambitious chapter heading! It is of course accepted that one can learn some things about God from observation. In Romans Paul says that God’s eternal power and divine nature are obvious. Dr Hitchens moves far beyond this. He believes that monogamy is obvious. I don’t. I wouldn’t seek to maintain an argument about the freedom to be polygamous on the basis of what I can see. I think that the evidence supports the scriptural freedom to be polygamous, but it doesn’t replace the reliance on scripture. Dr Hitchens is moving in dangerous waters – where his arguments can easily be countered.
His first argument is that the existence of prohibitions on marriage around the world proves that God put restrictions in men’s hearts that they later abandoned. Of course this is useless. There is nothing to say whether or not the restrictions are universal or good. One of the main restrictions is on incest, and God didn’t see fit to restrict that until the time of Moses. Indeed it was necessary for the earth to be populated. There is therefore no evidence for the restrictions, and no evidence that monogamy was ever part of any such original restrictions.
His second attempt is to say that the number of male and female births is approximately the same around the world. Again this proves nothing, partly because it is the gender ratio at marital age that is most important. And of course, ‘approximately’ means that the numbers are not the same. Indeed, societies the world over have an excess of women compared to men at marriageable age. Polygamists do not say that people should be polygamists, merely that they should be free to be polygamists.
Dr Hitchens then says that monogamy is the major form of marriage. This is untrue. To make it true you have to count many marriages in polygamous societies as monogamous, even though they could be polygamous at any time. In these societies these marriages are ‘potentially polygamous’, not monogamous, and marriages are seen as ‘marriage’ not as ‘monogamy’. In fact this is nothing other than the previous argument in disguise. Roughly equal numbers make for marriages where there is usually one man and one woman. There is nothing to say that every marriage should be like this. And finally, it is tempting to ask whether Dr Hitchens would follow this line of thinking if polygamy was the most popular form of marriage. I suspect he would agree with me that what is right is not decided according to what is popular. Morality is not democratic.
He next tries to suggest that human nature has a tendency towards monogamy, yet opens his argument by talking of continual temptation towards adultery. Perhaps he means that men who already have a wife often want another one – so really the human nature (of men at least) tends towards polygamy. And we must ask if it is safe to base morality on the tendencies of human nature, for surely that is to base morality on something which can be sinful.
Dr Hitchens says that family structure tends towards monogamy. He even says that polygamy does this! He maintains this argument by saying that some polygamists keep wives in separate apartments or adopt a structured form of polygamy. What he means is that family structure tends towards the nuclear family. This is wrong, for in many cultures the extended family is important. Also, it is worthwhile noting that biblical polygamy involves a set of interconnected marriages between one man and each of his wives. This does not make them monogamous or tending towards monogamy, but simply describes how the relationships are seen by God.
Dr Hitchens then says that the highest affections are developed only under monogamy. He asserts that exclusiveness is necessary for love. This is really pathetic fare! Can Dr Hitchens love only one son or one daughter – can he not love his entire family? Does he love only one member of his congregation – can he not love all of them? Does God only love Dr Hitchens- or doesn’t he love all his children? Of course love is not exclusive – it is by its very nature inclusive. And the Bible’s greatest hymn to real love and not just Western romance, is the Song of Songs, written by a polygamist for a single woman he was courting.
Perhaps Adam showed Eve this ‘highest affection’ that Dr Hitchens talks about. Perhaps he did this in abandoning God’s order and following her, introducing sin and death into the world. Perhaps it is significant that the most-noted monogamist quoted by Dr Hitchens allowed his wife to overturn God’s order and followed her in his twisted devotion to her rather than to God. Perhaps it is significant that the most-noted polygamist in the Bible wrote the book about marital love.
Dr Hitchens asserts that family bonds are strongest under monogamy. He says that polygamous societies are plagued with adultery. We know that Dr Hitchens has read Eugene Hillman’s book, but he does not quote Hillman at this point, when Hillman explained that adultery and prostitution were practically unknown until monogamy was introduced. Dr Hitchens says a polygamist father can never be the father to his children that a monogamist can be. But a monagamist can have just as many children as a polygamist, if not more. Is a man less of a father if he has five children than if he has four? Possibly fatherhood is more about setting an example and being there in times of need, than in simply taking a number of hours and dividing them by the number of children you have. Possibly the children can learn from a joint relationship with Dad – possibly they can learn from each other’s mistakes. To attack polygamist fathers in this way is nothing but speculation.
Dr Hitchens seems to forget that a polygamist father with many children will early learn most of the lessons of fatherhood, and will be able to use those lessons later on. Most of his kids won’t be ‘guinea pigs’, but will have the benefit of a dad with significant experience of fatherhood.
Dr Hitchens suggests that monogamy provides for the superior care of wives and children. He suggests that in polygamy ‘older wives are discarded for younger ones’. Is that not the hallmark of our allegedly monogamous society? Polygamy is about keeping your wives, not discarding them. Dr Hitchens says that several wives cannot be treated equally and favouritism is bound to occur. Does this happen with children? Do you have to pick a favourite? Of course not. So why is it suggested that it is any different with wives. Dr Hitchens rounds off this argument by quoting the ‘some’ who suggest that a division of fatherly attention explains a higher mortality rate in polygamous societies. If these people saw a cart and a horse they would surely get them in the wrong order. Unsurprisingly, higher childhood mortality rates favour a higher incidence of polygamy in society, because boys tend to die in disproportionate numbers to girls. It is important not to confuse cause and effect.
Dr Hitchens says that monogamy alone does not have destructive effects on the male population! Apparently polygamy promotes sensualism, rather than a desire to achieve. Of course this could also be viewed as concerns for family replacing the materialism so often associated with monogamy. Dr Hitchens sees the need for impartiality as a problem, not as a challenge requiring and promoting honesty. He sees polygamy as expensive, forgetting that he has earlier listed as a reason for polygamy the fact that it is linked to the production of wealth and increases social security. He also suggests that polygamy forces celibacy on men. In fact it removes compulsory celibacy from women. It tends to promote marriage later amongst men, allowing them to build up more capital and maturity before they marry.
Monogamy is, according to Dr Hitchens, the only form of marriage which promotes social progress. He accepts shameful assertions that polygamous women are subservient pieces of property, and applauds monogamy’s concern for “women’s right”. Is this further evidence of an alliance between feminism and monogamy? Surely that is hardly an argument for favouring monogamy. Did Dr Hitchens find this a difficult piece of his book to write?
Dr Hitchens did not cover the ways in which polygamy can reinforce social stability, and a sense of responsibility for the larger community. He accepts a correlation between education levels and monogamy as evidence that it is God’s plan. He will also find correlation between education levels and abortion rates and a belief in socialism. Perhaps then he would have to recognise that educated people are not always right. It appears that ‘social progress’ is seen in monogamy’s links with materialism and selfishness. ‘Highly developed’ seems to mean ‘industrialised’. Polygamy is more closely associated with family values and the responsibilities an individual possesses towards others in his community. Polygamy favours social progress.
Chapter 11 – Evidence from the Bible that monogamy is God’s plan for marriage in all ages
That’s ambitious, isn’t it? In his title, Dr Hitchens commits himself to saying polygamy always was wrong. Many monogamists try to say things changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament. They then have to explain why. Dr Hitchens is at least consistent, and doesn’t have that difficulty – but he may soon appreciate why this short-cut is taken by so many – it’s because they cannot get to monogamy by following the route that Dr Hitchens suggests.
Dr Hitchens opens with the evolutionary paper tiger of chapter one before launching into his first argument, namely that ‘Monogamy was instituted in the beginning’. We’ve dealt with this. Monogamy was never instituted, marriage was. Dr Hitchens emphasizes the word ‘one’ in ‘one man’ and ‘one woman’ even though these words are not to be found in the biblical text. Then he draws a false inference of ‘if polygamy had been intended He would have made MORE than one woman for Adam’. Presumably Dr Hitchens belongs to the ‘if God had wanted us to fly he’d have given us wings’ school of thought.
His next argument is that monogamy was to be the rule for Israelite Kings. This is patently untrue. Deuteronomy 17 limits the multiplication of wives, horses and riches by the King – it nowhere restricts the King to one wife, any more than it restricts him to one horse or one piece of silver or gold. Dr Hitchens refers to the limitation so that ‘his heart not turn away’ as a reference to sensuality coming with polygamy. The rest of the Bible shows that Kings’ hearts turned away in marrying foreign wives and following their gods, not in marrying many wives.
Dr Hitchens says that monogamy was held up as the ideal in the Old Testament. His argument from the use of singular terms such as ‘wife’ has already been shown to be ineffective. He uses Old Testament symbolism to show monogamy as the ideal, and here falls into a trap. The careful reader will see that Ezekiel 16 and 23, which talk of the plural wives of Jehovah, have been relegated to a footnote. Jeremiah 3 v 23, which does the same, has not even been noticed. So when God is speaking of one wife in the early part of Ezekiel 16, it is held up as an ideal by Dr Hitchens. The latter part of the chapter is rather awkwardly dealt with as indicating a marriage that began before one kingdom was divided into two. In such a manner the language is explained away, but the fact remains that it is there and God portrays himself as a polygamist. And in Ezekiel we are not talking of two kingdoms, but of a city (Jerusalem) and a province (Samaria), so it is hard to see his explanation holdng. When God has one wife in Jeremiah 3 v 1 this is seen as an ideal, but not when there are two wives in the 23rd verse of the same chapter. You have to be very selective with your evidence if you are to be a monogamist.
Dr Hitchens says that in the Old Testament polygamy was ‘permitted’ but not ‘endorsed’, forgetting the references in his footnote to God as a polygamist, God’s gift of many wives to David, God’s extensive legislation on the topic, and how concubinage was seen as being blessed by God in the time of Rachel and Leah (Genesis 30 vv 1-6). That’s a lot to forget. He compares this permission to the existence of ‘high places’ in the Old Testament, which were alternative centres of idol worship, forgetting also that while some Kings permitted them, they were criticised for it, and that other Kings were regarded as good for trying to get rid of them. So the analogy between ‘high places’ and polygamy does not carry. But perhaps the most worrying thing is this idea that the practice would have to be endorsed. When we have freedom, we do not need our acts to be endorsed if they are wise and comply with the law. That is what freedom is about.
Dr Hitchens asserts that the Mosaic law prepared for the eventual extinction of polygamy. Let’s not allow the facts to get in the way of such self-confidence! It is true that polygamy was regulated, in fact all marriage was regulated – but not so that it would be abolished. Dr Hitchens’s arguments collapse as they are built. The restrictions he mentions remove negative aspects from polygamous marriages. Such legislation surely only helps polygamy, by preventing it from becoming entangled in many troubles. It is very difficult to see how on any view this could reasonably be represented as being a preparation for the extinction of polygamy.
Dr Hitchens moves to the New Testament by saying that Jesus endorsed monogamy. This is apparently due to his presence at the marriage at Cana in Galilee. At best, this could show an approval of marriage, not monogamy, and it is difficult to establish even that. What about Christ’s interesting tale about ten virgins all waiting for one bridegroom to come? This is not mentioned. Presumably he thinks they were bridesmaids, but oddly the Bible does not say so, and doesn’t seem to mention any other ‘bride’ for the bridegroom to marry.
Dr Hitchens does not like the argument that Christ disliked “putting away” but never said anything against polygamy. He says that Christ never condemned slavery, inferring that those who accept polygamy must accept slavery. He relegates his description of Hebrew slavery to a footnote. It was more like a fixed-term contract after which a man could opt to remain in service permanently because of his recognition that he had such a good master. Yes, Dr Hitchens, Jesus never said anything bad about treating employees well and giving them job-security.
Dr Hitchens then launches into a strange justification of Christ not mentioning polygamy because he came to deal with the root of the problem (sin) and not the fruit (its effects). This reminds me of the work of one of Dr Hitchens predecessors, who in criticising Rev. Martin Madan for his defence of polygamy said that Mr Madan should have written his book in verse, for then it could not be alleged that the book had “neither rhyme nor reason”. Apart from rhyming (“root, not fruit”), this argument has no merit, because there is plenty of evidence that Christ dealt with both root and fruit, but he still never said anything bad about polygamy.
When he has gone to such trouble to show that Christ wouldn’t have mentioned polygamy even if he hadn’t liked it, it is then strange to find Dr Hitchens arguing that actually Christ did mention it. He asserts that Christ’s use of ‘the two shall become one’ means monogamy, with two as a limit. As mentioned before, it is right to say that a man becomes one with each of his wives – this is no contradiction. There is a contradiction in saying that Christ didn’t talk about polygamy, and then claiming that he did. If two was a limit, why did God breach it so often?
This argument culminates with what is, at best, incompetent handling of scripture. Dr Hitchens quotes the following – “Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her’ and says “Notice here that a second marriage while the first wife is still living is called adultery by the Saviour. How the new wife is acquired, successively or simultaneously, is not the issue”. I’m sorry, Dr Hitchens, but it most certainly is the issue. Christ said it was the issue – he was the one who chose the words ‘whosoever shall put away his wife’. If you haven’t put away your wife, and you have married another, you obviously are not classified as an adulterer by this verse. This is a clear example of monogamists forcing scripture to make it say what they want it to say. They would happily skip over the reference to putting away your wife. They would really rather have it that those words were not there. But this is simply an attitude of ‘I know better’, and is a wilfully irresponsible way of treating God’s word.
The mistake Dr Hitchens makes is to take a correct statement (that ‘THIS second marriage while the first wife is still living is called adultery’) and to change its meaning ( to ‘ALL second marriages while the first wife is still living are called adultery’). In the simple terms of philosophical logic, if A is the set of ‘second marriages while the first wife is still living’, and B is the set of ‘second marriages where the wife is still living and has been put away’, then it is true to say that all B’s are A’s, but it is not true to say that all A’s are B’s. Christ talks about set B, not set A. To use a similar example, it is true to say that all dogs are animals, but it is patently false to say that all animals are dogs. There may be a law which says that in a public place all dogs should be kept on a lead. Such a law would not mean that cats, rabbits, chickens, cattle, sheep, and pigs should be kept on a lead. When Christ refers to those second marriages which precede and depend upon unjustified “putting away” he clearly is not referring to polygamy where there is no such “putting away”..
Dr Hitchens moves on to say that the marriage of Christ and the church is framed in monogamous terms. It is unsurprising – as all believers are saved by one act of grace, the sacrifice of the Saviour. Dr Hitchens does not explore the ideas in 1 Corinthians of the Lord being ‘one spirit’ with many different people in the same way that a person can be ‘one flesh’ with many other people, or the other scriptures which portray that marriage as a polygamous union (see The marriage of Christ and the Church).
It is then alleged that Church leaders are to be monogamous. Firstly, it is far from clear that 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 require anything more than that an elder or deacon be married and not divorced, yet no other view is countenanced in this book. Dr Hitchens advances the view that this was done to draw people away from polygamy, an opinion which has no basis in scripture. Secondly, it would not matter if they had to be monogamous, as it would leave polygamy as an option open to the vast majority of the church.
Dr Hitchens is probably not aware that in England bigamy moved from being a mere ecclesiastical offence to being a criminal matter in the reign of the same King James who had the Bible translated into an ‘Authorised Version’. It is perhaps unsurprising that this English translation supports an anti-polygamy reading of the text which may not be conclusive in the original languages. It is also unsurprising that the other English translations have followed the lead of the King James Version in this regard.
The next argument is that marriage is only presented in monogamous terms in the New Testament. We’ve heard this before – it only shows that Dr Hitchens seems to think that instead of being free within the law, Christians have to have their behaviour authorised by God. How you get such authorisation is not made clear.
Dr Hitchens says in his summary that polygamy was allowed due to the hardness of men’s hearts. So a suggestion in his text becomes a fact in his conclusion, and interestingly it uses a biblical term and misapplies it to polygamy. If you know your bible well you know it refers to the putting away of a wife and not to polygamy. The danger is that those who are not sufficiently familiar with the Bible could hear such language and assertions as these and begin to think that they actually refer to polygamy when clearly they do not.
Chapter 12 – Missionaries and the Polygamy issue
The author reveals that it has been a common policy among missionaries to encourage polygamous men to put away their wives. Dr Hitchens knows this is wrong so he suggests that a man live with one wife but maintain the others in separate dwellings.
I wonder what scripture he could quote to a man that he should provide for someone who is not his wife, for that is effectively the policy that is being suggested. If it is suggested that they really are his wives, but that it would be wrong for him to have sex with them, then we must consider 1 Corinthians 7 and other scriptures which show that women have sexual needs that their husbands have a duty to fulfil. And above and beyond all this is the scriptural idea that women feel they are suffering from ‘reproach’ if they cannot have children. Who shall take away their reproach? Dr Hitchens has put forward an idea that would leave them childless.
It has long been recognised that such a policy presents constant temptation to the man and women in these circumstances. Temptation which they may not be able to bear, simply because there is no basis for saying that it would be scripturally wrong for them to give in to such temptation. This allegedly compassionate approach makes it a real tragedy for a woman if her husband becomes a Christian. What sort of image of the faith is being presented? In whose name and by what authority can missionaries do this to people? We have already shown that it is not any requirement of God.
The sort of fudged solution offered here is evocative of other problems with this position. Dr Hitchens clearly says that polygamy is adultery, but is reluctant to apply that. He is reluctant to say that Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon were unrepentant adulterers. He is reluctant to portray God in such a relationship. He is reluctant to say that God promoted and required adultery. He is reluctant to say that by this reasoning Solomon was illegitimate, and therefore was prevented by the law from being in the congregation of Israel, still less being its King. Yet all these things flow from his suggestion that polygamy is sinful adultery. And it is because the consequences of his arguments are so unacceptable that we can say they are wrong. He is right – it is a question of root and fruit. The fruit of this monogamist view shows that the root is all wrong.
Dr Hitchens builds the superstructure of monogamy on a crumbling and insubstantial foundation. Like many before him, he builds his house not on the rock, but on the sand. To change metaphors, it is clear that he is suffering the problem of trying to make bricks without straw. The challenge was ‘Prove to me that polygamy is wrong’ – the reason Dr Hitchens makes such a poor job of it is that it cannot be done. He tries hard. Although I have been critical I will acknowledge that he has studied this matter, he has read about it, he has thought about it, he has devoted much more space and consideration than many who prefer simple answers. In the process of doing so he has brought together some useful historical and geographical information about polygamy, but he has not met the challenge, and has been forced into uncomfortable, illogical and contradictory positions in his attempts to do so. He gets marks for effort, but not for achievement.
It is an interesting book to anyone who understands enough to see its errors and the technique of repetition used to promote its views. It is dangerous in that those who don’t have such understanding will use it to confirm their views and to form the views of those who are still learning. The question may be asked of Christians who believe in monogamy – Is this the best that they can do? I fear that it is.