Saturday, 28 January 2012

Multiple Marriage

I've been contemplating multiple marriage. Not for myself, you understand. When I consider the instances of woeful manhood with which I am often confronted around the Community, and the behaviour of certain rats in the past on Greek islands, pretending he was a well-connected stock-broker when he was actually an arc-welder from Walsall, I shudder at the thought of even one marriage.

No, I've been thinking about the instances of multiple marriage and concubinage in the OT. And trying to make some sense out of it all. After all, nobody's told they can't have multiple wives. And when Solomon's wives are mentioned, it's not because they are as numerous as the sand on the seashore that they are disapproved of - it's because they encourage him to worship foreign gods.
Although, let's face it, it must have been a nightmare trying to remember a thousand birthdays.

And I guess there's a natual gender inequality to these considerations of multiple marriage in Biblical times. After all, the Israelites were often at war. If the men went away to war and few came back, it would make demographic sense for the remainder to have multiple wives if you needed your population building up again. Also if a man could only have one wife in those days, it would have meant lots of unmarried women around, either sitting around in withdrawing rooms like the Misses Bennets, playing poorly on the piano-forte and leeching off their dads, or out plying a trade, if you get my drift, on the streets. I'm not saying that these life-choices weren't unfairly constrained, in our modern eyes, but polygamy was more of a symptom of the situation than its cause.

Statistically in a time of peace, there would presumably have been more men about than women - due to death in childbirth. But a woman taking two husbands would have little statistical impact. Her lifetime average number of children would barely have changed, but the number of bits of car engine laying around on the kitchen table waiting to be degreased and refitted would have gone up exponentially. So what was the point? Far better for potential husband number two - on statistical grounds, making no moral judgements here - to be out using up any spare energy in working his socks off in the fields to produce more food. Or going off on a raid to find himself a "wife" from the Moabites or wherever.

So far, so based on economic principles. Making no moral judgement, just doing. - as the Americans so amusingly say - the math. But then we turn to those two fore-runners of Our Lord himself, David and Solomon. What a pair.

For these two, it's not enough just to optimise the reproductive rate of the nation. Oh no. For David and Solomon it's about wealth, the exercise of naked power, and foreign relations.

Bathsheba already had a perfectly good husband. She didn't need another one. But David was ageing, the young men were at war and Viagra hadn't been invented - so she was just the lift he needed. The inconvenient presence of Uriah was dealt with through something which could fairly be described as conspiracy to murder and the gaining of an additional wife became a matter of abuse of power.

Solomon's wives were the result of a lot of diplomatic activity. But you have to wonder. I mean - there weren't 700 countries he had to keep on friendly terms with. Did he ever think, round about wife 400 or so, that enough was enough and he really ought to pack the hobby in now, before he had to build another extension?

Solomon's acquisition of wives was in fact far beyond the efficient level of optimal population growth. And let's face it, he'd have been worn out with the diplomatic activity - hem hem - required simply to keep each of his wives, as it were, feeling at all wanted. This is about oppression - of a man over women, and of one man over other, less powerful, men. I'm sure the under-sexed and frustrated men of Israel must have rejoiced, as they went out to reap crops and slaughter cattle to feed the multitude of Solomon's women and children - that they had such a powerful king to look up to.

And this number of wives must have been the cause of Solomon's famous expostulation "vanity, vanity - all is vanity". Mostly as he waited for his turn in the bathroom in the morning.

But enough of desert regulations under the Mosaic, Adamic and Noahic Covenants, they all cry. What of the New Testament? Well again, no condemnation of polygamy - although no real mention of it, either. Maybe the People of Israel had just got out of the habit.

But there is one class of people for whom the number of wives is specified, and I think this needs spelling out. It's in Paul's first letter to Timothy.

"Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach...."

This is the ESV - other versions read "bishop", "elder" or minister. And if we are to take the Bible literally, what does it tell us? That the clergy must be male - and that they must have.precisely one wife each. Nobody with two, and nobody with none. One wife, and just one wife. So I'm out on my ear, Drayton Parslow is, as in so many ways, borderline (is that one wife at a time or one wife in a whole lifetime?) and Rowan Williams is absolutely fine. But the Pope, Augustine of Canterbury and a miriad of others should never have got past selection conference if Paul were one of the advisors. Meanwhile, on Biblical authority, every other man can have as few, or many, wives as they can coax to the altar. It's all fine. It says so in the Bible.


  1. St Paul, of course, himself had none. So we're in good company, Archdruid, if you, like me, are unmarried.

  2. Pastor, he certainly had none of which we are aware. I sometimes wonder whether he had one whom he lost prior to his adventures in Acts, or one who told him to clear off either through his persecuting obsession or his conversion.

  3. I used to know an African-based church which took very much that position on 'surplus' wives. A minister could only have one, and you couldn't marry any more after you joined the church, unless your existing spouses all died. But if you came with multiple wives, you kept them. I wonder what happened to all the 'extra' wives the missionaries made people get rid of?

  4. Robert, I think it was David du Plessis in A man called Mr Pentecost that told how when missionaries insisted African Christians gave up all but one of their wives, the others ended up either in poverty, or as prostitutes. Leaving people as they were seems a much more sensible policy on this one.

  5. Much easier to remember a thousand birthdays than just one. You just need a stock of cards pre signed to "My Darling Wife", and give 3 out every day.

  6. I haven't read du Plessis, but knowing what I do about African culture (my wife's African) I suspected as much. It's a terrible disgrace to be rejected by your husband, and many families would have refused to take the women back.


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