Great post by Nathan Bierma on ThinkChristian on the Bible and Polygamy. I was thinking of writing a post about my sermon this week but this provided me a chance to do a comment and a post at the same time. Here is my comment on his post.
Great topic Nathan. This week I preach on Luke 20:27-40 which has Jesus’ response to the Sadducees regarding their test case/fable of a woman passed among 7 dead brother. I’ll try to be more brief than my sermon will be.
1. For being such a self-professed tolerant, pluralistic culture we seem to have little capacity to own our own expectations which fuel our abhorrence for this kind of thing we find in the Bible. We have difficulties respecting ancient people’s social customs enough to do some anthropological evaluation of their practices. We quickly jump to condemnation.
2. The relationship between the Bible and its cultural contexts (there are more than 2) is a nuanced and complicated one yet one that has to be discerned if we want to hear God within our own contexts. Robert Alter makes the terrific observation that within Genesis there is a subtle polemic against primogeniture and polygamy. This polemic seems to escape many readers. The subtle manner of this polemic is itself and important point. God so often gently whispers peace to us while the consequences of our choices in this world are whipping our proverbial asses. Polygamy bore some bitter fruit.
I’m not sure your NT perspective is accurate. Polygamy doesn’t get much of a mention but my understanding is that it was still both permitted and practiced.
3. I don’t believe Jesus’ point in Luke 20 was to give us insider information about the details of the life in the age to come but to rather focus on the radical departure from our assumptions of duty, obligation, and the ways we seek to overcome the age of decay.
Marriage and sex for most of human history were about survival in ways that our culture is no longer in touch with. Stephanie Coontz’ book on the history of marriage should be required reading for evaluating marital practices of past generations.
Our individualistic culture also makes their communal, familial “cheating death through procreation strategy” seem nonsense. Many cultures today that practice veneration or prayer of sorts to dead ancestors might be able to make better sense of it. The notion is that we live through our descendents. Our inability to access this idea reveals also our presuppositional definitions of what “life” is.
4. What Jesus offers here is an alternative to the cult of family, something that is difficult to hear in our “family values” soaked evangelicalism. Family is NOT our ultimate value. Being remembered by our creator is more foundational to our rescue from the age of decay than having our children remember us or even simply carry with them our genetic code.
Polygamy is simply another mechanism by which we attempt to live forever. Nature bears witness that multiplication is a key survival strategy and the biological fact that one man can multiply himself through many women helps polygamy make sense. (Shout out to Genghis Khan here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genghis_Khan#Descent) It also helps us realize why sons were so important to mothers. Its an amazing realization for an age that had no scientific knowledge of genetics. Our bigotry against the ancients is regularly proved unfounded.
Anyway, great post Nathan, and a great discussion too. pvk