Exegesis

12.22.13

Polygamy, the Bible’s Ultimate Family Value

When a court ruled that polygamy won’t be prosecuted in Utah, conservatives said it was a sign we’re losing our “Judeo-Christian” family values. They must not read the Bible much.

In the wake of the Sister Wives lawsuit, and the ruling that cohabitation may not be criminally prosecuted in Utah, it is no surprise to once again hear cries from the religious right that we have fallen ever further down the slippery slope toward utter immorality. It would seem that the words of the prophet Santorum from ten years ago are coming true: “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery”—a list which he elsewhere expanded to include bestiality.

Our bedrock Judeo-Christian values are being undermined by secular modernity, it would seem. Though it might not seem that way if we actually bothered to examine the bedrock of those Judeo-Christian values: the Bible.

At this point it’s been all too frequently repeated, usually via this meme, that the Bible presents lots of different models for marriage and sexual relationships, including monogamy (Adam—though what choice did he have, really); bigamy (Abraham); and polygamy (Jacob, David, Solomon). Since, however, our contemporary issues are legal ones, we might profitably look at the biblical laws regarding marriage and sex. And when we do, what we find is that our view of what can and should be legislated overlaps only very infrequently with the view attributed to God.

Here’s where the agreement lies: bestiality and incest. Both are forbidden by both biblical and modern American jurisprudence. Adultery is on Rick Santorum’s list, and it’s certainly prohibited in the Bible, but there are 27 states in the US that don’t agree, and 23 more that don’t enforce the Puritan laws still on their books.

Homosexuality is a tricky one. Leviticus pretty clearly forbids two men from having sex. Nowhere, however, does the Bible prohibit two men from being married. Which is to say, a gay couple can, according to God’s law, enjoy the same sort of sexless married life as anyone else. And lesbians have all the freedoms they like, since they are nowhere mentioned anywhere in the Bible.

If a man thinks his wife has been unfaithful, she has to drink a potion made from the ashes of a scroll with a curse written on it, and if she falls ill, she’s guilty. Call it the Salem bitch trials.

Which brings us to polygamy. There are no laws explicitly permitting polygamy, but there are no laws explicitly permitting much of anything—laws are for restricting, not for allowing. So put it the other way: there are no laws explicitly prohibiting polygamy. Actually, more than that: there are laws that fundamentally assume polygamy as their starting point: “If a man has two wives…” (And it doesn’t go on to say “he should be put to death,” just “he should treat them equally,” which actually sounds a lot like the traditional Mormon argument.)

We might as well mention divorce while we’re here. In the Old Testament, a man can divorce his wife for any reason at all. Once he’s divorced her, he can remarry her if he wants, but not if she marries someone else in the interim. In the New Testament, Jesus says that divorce is permitted exclusively in cases of adultery. Our legal system is more Judeo than Christian, in this case.

These are the classic conservative bugaboos, the “traditional” no-no’s that they fear becoming yes-yes’s. But there are other biblical marriage and sex laws that we decided to let go without so much of a fight. Cross-dressing is forbidden in the Bible, but aside from a few counties (weirdly, in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey), we’ve decided that Bosom Buddies represents a morally acceptable paradigm. The Bible gives husbands complete authority over their wives’ decisions; women’s suffrage pretty much sounded the death knell for that one.

And there are a lot of laws that are not only no longer on our books, but never made it there in the first place.

If you sleep with a virgin, you have to marry her—or at least pay her father as if you were going to marry her. Honestly, college is expensive enough as it is.

If a man thinks his wife has been unfaithful, she has to drink a potion made from the ashes of a scroll with a curse written on it, and if she falls terribly ill, she’s guilty. Call it the Salem bitch trials.

If you tell your fiancé that you’re a virgin and it turns out you’re lying, you can be stoned to death. Though to be fair, the Bible hands out stoning penalties like they’re speeding tickets.

If your husband dies before you’ve had a son by him, you’re obligated to marry his brother or other male relative. So always make sure to marry the second-cutest of the bunch, just in case.

Having sex with a woman during her period is forbidden. It’s not a law anywhere in America, but plenty of men sure act like it is. You know who you are.

It’s not just that the biblical laws of sex and marriage aren’t being upheld in contemporary American society. We haven’t somehow lost our Judeo-Christian moral compass when it comes to these issues. We stopped following the biblical map long ago; in most cases, in fact, we never even considered it a reasonable guide.

This makes appeals to the Bible from either side seem rather disingenuous. If you’re against polygamy, then you really can’t use the Bible, since it clearly allows polygamy. If you’re for polygamy, you still probably shouldn’t call on the Bible as your proof text. Yes, in this case it supports your view that the law shouldn’t enter into your private life. But when it comes to invading privacy, the Bible makes the NSA look like a bunch of amateurs.

We should probably admit that our various views on marriage and sex are what they are, and that the Bible really doesn’t have that much to do with it. Though to be fair, the family picture painted by the Bible is probably closest to the one on Sister Wives.