Polygamy and Christianity

With Forays into Related Issues


Responses to a Missionary


By Norman E. Anderson



This is a compilation of correspondence with a missionary regarding the interpretation of sexual and marital regulations in the Bible and their implications for today in both the church and politics. Woven throughout is discussion of polygamy and, to a lesser extent, of whether or not marriage is indissoluble.

Among the biblical passages discussed are these: Genesis 1:28; 2:24; 9:1-17; 38; Exodus 21:2-11; 22:16-17; Leviticus 18-20; Deuteronomy 22:13-30; 25:5-10; 1 Kings 11:1-8; Mark 6:17-29; 10:2-12; 12:18-25 (and parallels); Luke 8:2-3; Acts 15; 1 Corinthians 5-7; Galatians 3:28; 1 Timothy 1:10; 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6; and Revelation 2:15.

Among other sources discussed are: the Sumerian Prayer to Every God; the Hittite Laws; Strabo; the Temple Scroll; Philo; Josephus; the Slavonic Josephus; the Mishnah; Talmud Yerushalmi; Midrash Rabbah on Genesis; Sifre on Deuteronomy; the Protevangelium of James; Eusebius; and Bar Hebraeus = Abu-l-Farag.





At the end of 1998, I received a slew of e-mail messages all at once and out of the blue, as they say, from a missionary in North America. He was reacting to the portions of my index to human sexuality in the Bible that I had posted on the Web, which included the entries for levirate duty, monogamy, polyandry, and polygyny.

He and I had an intensive e-mail discussion over the next several weeks, and I found his questions particularly incisive and provocative. In the course of the conversation he responded to several more of my posted documents. It is generally wonderful when one can have a civil discussion on touchy matters that goes to the heart of issues, and this was no exception.

Following the flurry of discussion of the first two weeks, I decided to start editing the conversation, compiling it into a single document and organizing it topically. In the event that I might use this document for other than private purposes, I did not want to presume on my interlocutor; and I was chiefly interested in better access to what I myself had written; so I deleted most of what the missionary wrote, except for what was essential to my own chain of thought in the conversation.

Editing e-mail this way is a difficult task. Frequently e-mail incorporates quotations from previous messages, slotting in responses wherever the writer thinks appropriate. Furthermore, one message may respond to several received messages; and, conversely, several messages may be sent in response to a single message, some of them perhaps after the conversation has already proceeded along other lines. And that is only the beginning of the complexities to be encountered. This e-mail conversation contained many of those complexities; and, indeed, this compilation was precipitated by that very fact.

The result reflects compromise, chiefly chronological compromise. Messages and even portions thereof appear out of chronological order, an oddity that is particularly noticeable when one message refers to an earlier message which, however, appears later in the compilation. This problem, which is rooted in the relatively recent invention of e-mail, can fortunately be addressed, at least to some degree, by the even more recent invention of hypertext. Thus when one message refers to another message out of order, a link can be provided that ties them together; and that is precisely the solution that has been employed.

In editing this conversation, I did not hesitate to revise, delete, or amplify what was said by either party. To comment on each editorial action briefly in turn:

Usually, however, the exact wording of the original conversation was preserved.

A small but important point regarding definition: In reading the discussion, keep in mind that polygamy can be inclusive of both polyandry and polygyny and the term is not automatically a synonym of either. This distinction is carefully maintained throughout by both participants.

The conversation as presented here starts with an introduction of the missionary, and then proceeds first to several of his questions most directly related to the Bible. Ultimately it flows on to the discussion of broad moral and political issues.

A WARNING: The conversation is sexually frank. Please do not continue reading if you are not mature enough for such discussion or if you would take offense.



December 31, 1998, 4:44 p.m.

[NEA] Dear Missionary:

Thank you for your feedback on my index to human sexuality in the Bible. It is much appreciated.

I plan to get back to you in a bit regarding the questions you raised.

Would you care to introduce yourself and to tell something about your interest in the subject? This will help me in responding to you.

Thanks, again.

January 1, 1999, 3:51 a.m.

[Missionary] I am a missionary in the American West.

January 1, 1999, 3:21 p.m.

[NEA] What denomination and mission agency? Have you had theological training?

Please allow me to respond to your questions about divorce and polygamy in another message.

January 1, 1999, 12:53 p.m.

[Missionary] We are not sectarian. We are Christians only. We have no affiliation with any sectarian mission society.

Yes. I have studied the Bible since I began learning to read. I do read other people's books and writings. However, I do not ascribe to them any authority.

Levirate Duty

Levirate duty is the obligation of a man to marry the widow of a brother (or possibly of another close male relative) that has died without a son to be his heir. It is an obligation that was recognized in the Bible and in ancient Near Eastern culture. If the man already had a wife, the obligation could result in polygyny, that is, one man having two or more wives at the same time.

December 31, 1998, 7:59 a.m.

[Missionary] Regarding levirate duty, it is not clear to me whether the surviving brother was actually to take his deceased brother's widow to wife, that is, to marry her, or if he was simply to have intercourse with her until she produced a male heir to his brother. (Daughters didn't "carry on his dead brother's name.")

January 1, 1999, 3:23 p.m.

[NEA] As I read Deuteronomy 25 (especially verse 5) and related passages, a man was to marry his brother's widow. This interpretation is in line with that of early Judaism, as reflected, for instance, in Mark 12:18-25 and in the Mishnah. In my index, I used the term "levirate duty" rather than "levirate marriage" so as not to predispose the discussion.

Speaking off the top of my head, I would suppose that levirate marriage, as opposed to mere levirate intercourse, served several purposes:

First, it was in line with the humaneness that was integral to the Hebrew system of sexuality and marriage and which is often lost when its rules are applied out of social context. As part of this humaneness, the conjugal rights of the female were respected (cf. Exodus 21:10; 1 Corinthians 7:3, 5).

Second, if the first heir produced by levirate marriage died before taking possession of the inheritance, the chances were increased that another son would be available to serve as heir.

Third, it helped ensure highly valued domestic tranquillity with regard to tribal and family possessions, especially land. I strongly suspect that in ancient Israel women were perceived as having a far more integral relationship to the land than people in a highly mobile society can ever imagine.

A couple of points that go to the assumptions behind the language used in your question:

First, in an early rabbinic interpretation of Scripture, intercourse was one of the ways by which a woman could be taken in marriage. (See Mishnah Kiddushin 1:1.) This did not mean that a prostitute was married to every man she had had sex with. (Although take a look at 1 Corinthians 6:16, which I suspect is built in part upon a supposed interpretation of Leviticus 18:8 in Amos 2:7.) But it did mean that, given the intent, intercourse was enough to initiate a marriage. (By the way, the rabbis added a lot of qualifications later.)

Second, the levirate system of the Hebrews could conceivably be read in terms of the anthropological model of marriage to a family. Other models are also possible, for example, a substitution model, which I prefer. But the point I am making is that the individualistic model so engrained in modern culture is probably not the right one to apply to the Hebrews.

Finally a couple of points to address subtexts that may or may not be present in your question.

First, could you be wrestling with how levirate marriage fits with Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21? I am, anyway. The apparent conflict would seem to stand in either case, whether marriage or just intercourse was intended, since the Leviticus passages prohibit a man from having sex with his brother's wife. Several possible resolutions of the conflict are possible, but I'll refrain from digressing.

Second, you mentioned the issue of having daughters as heirs. Let me extract a couple of relevant entries from my index:

I hope you find this helpful.

December 31, 1998, 8:19 a.m.

[Index] Levirate duty by woman's father ... Genesis 19:30-38 (tentative)

[Missionary] This may not have been immoral at the time, as the incest prohibitions may not have been in place. If they were we have no record in the Bible. Moses, who wrote the incest laws, was the son of an aunt and nephew, Jochebed and Amram.

January 1, 1999, 3:24 p.m.

[NEA] Quite so (cf. Exodus 6:20; Numbers 26:58-59); although I suspect a more complicated history of the incest laws.

Note also that levirate duty would appear to supersede the incest laws in the case of the brother's widow, which might have meant a wider application of the principle.

Here's an interesting issue: If the biblical laws on incest are universal (a point which many would dispute), why were they not so before Moses?

January 1, 1999, 1:05 p.m.

[NEA repeated] First, could you be wrestling with how levirate marriage fits with Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21? I am, anyway. The apparent conflict would seem to stand in either case, whether marriage or just intercourse was intended, since the Leviticus passages prohibit a man from having sex with his brother's wife.

[Missionary] A man's brother's widow is no longer his "brother's wife." Death severs the marital relation and obligations. It does not, of course, make things as if the marriage had never existed.

January 1, 1999, 10:07 p.m.

[NEA] So it might seem, but can the same reasoning be applied across the board with regard to incest?



January 3, 1999, 1:04 p.m.

[Missionary] One's "blood" relationships never expire. I am not clear on some aspects of marriage with former in-laws where the natural relative has died. Step-siblings of no blood relation? Adopted siblings, relatives?

January 4, 1999, 4:59 p.m.

[NEA] I've just scrapped the first draft of an answer to you. Your questions keep getting harder and harder! Which is good.

Since the question about in-laws with a deceased blood intermediary is so tough, let me break it down.

Let us take each in turn.

1. The father's wife. There's the case of Adonijah and Abishag in 1 Kings 2:13-25. Adonijah, to put it mildly, was denied his deceased father's nurse, who may have been considered the father's concubine.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul condemns a man who has married his father's wife. Why did he not also accuse the man of adultery? Besides simple omission, three possibilities come to mind.

Since the text is silent, we must be careful about pressing any of these possible interpretations.

2. Father's wife's daughter. I have no evidence that comes immediately to mind, but there's a lot of ancient literature to cover.

3. Father's brother's wife. Again, I have no evidence that comes immediately to mind.

4. Son's wife. In Genesis 38:12-26 (cf. Ruth 4:12), Tamar took it upon herself to see that her father-in-law, Judah, performed the duty of the levir. Her action was more or less consistent (whether consciously or not, I don't know) with Hittite Laws, which say: "If a man has a wife, and the man dies, his brother shall take his widow as wife. (If the brother dies,) his father shall take her. When afterwards his father dies, his (i.e. the father's) brother shall take the woman whom he had" (193, Roth translation). Judah ended up saying, "She is more righteous than I" (Genesis 38:26); but the circumstances were not happy; and he refrained from Tamar thereafter. Of course, as events are presented, all of this preceded the promulgation of the Holiness Code of Leviticus; and, as both of us have previously observed, the accepted practices of Genesis were not always consonant with the later rules of Leviticus.

5. Brother's wife. Clearly performance of the levirate duty by a woman's husband's brother was expected (cf. Genesis 38:8-11, 14, 26; Deuteronomy 25:5-10; Ruth 1:11 maybe; Matthew 22:23-28; Mark 12:18-25; Luke 20:27-33); even by a woman's husband's half-brother (cf. Ruth 1:11 maybe; Matthew 1:15-16 in relation to Luke 3:23-24). Regarding the last two references in parentheses, levirate marriage has been used as a way of explaining part of the divergency in the genealogies of Jesus, so that Joseph, the father of Jesus, was the biological son of Jacob (Matthew 1:16) but the legal son of Jacob's half-brother Eli (Luke 3:23), by Eli's widow. See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1.7.

The Hittite Laws specifically qualify their rule: "If a man sleeps with his brother's wife, while his brother is alive, it is an unpermitted sexual pairing" (195a, Roth translation; italics mine).

The Slavonic Josephus presses the point that this relationship was disallowed even after the brother's death, if the brother had any living sons.

Philip departed this life, and his dominion passed to Agrippa. while his wife Herodias was taken by his brother Herod. Because of her, all the doctors of the law abhorred him, but they did not dare to accuse him to his face. Only that man whom they called a wild man appeared before him in wrath and said: 'Because you have married your brother's wife, in contempt of the law, the sickle of heaven will cut you down just as your brother died without mercy. The decree of God will not pass over this in silence, but will bring you to your death through sore afflictions in foreign parts, because you are not raising up seed to your brother but satisfying a carnal and adulterous desire, since your brother left four children.
(See the interpolation immediately after Bellum 2.168; the relevant passage is translated in Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, by F. F. Bruce, 1974, pp. 48-49)

We should not accept this interpolation as a true account of the story of Herod and Herodias. Bruce itemizes a series of errors and characterizes the narrative this way:

Plainly a passage marred by this kind of inaccuracy cannot be taken seriously as a historical source; and if one thing is more obvious than another, it is that Josephus (who was exceptionally well-informed about the Herod family and has given us a true and detailed account of these events) had nothing to do with this garbled version. (p. 50)

However, this much can be confidently surmised, that in at least one tradition older than this interpolation (which is dated to the 11th or 12th century C.E.), the general prohibition could be overcome only where the special exception obtained and not simply where the brother had died. (I have another reference, to yNedarim 3:5, which supports that point of view; but I don't happen to have that tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud handy at the moment.)

6. Woman and her daughter. I have no evidence that comes immediately to mind, if the reference is to a man's step-daughter and not to a blood relative. However, if inclusive of a man's own daughter, there is the story of Lot and his daughters. With the death of Lot's wife, Lot's daughters did not hesitate to make themselves pregnant by their father, although factors other than her death are represented as decisive in their decision (Genesis 19:30-38; for verses that might be tangentially related, see Ezekiel 22:9, Sirach 7:24, and 1 Corinthians 7:36).

For further discussion, check out the relevant portion of the document I have compiled, called The Statutes of Leviticus 18 regarding Marriage and Sexuality. (I probably ought to revise what I wrote in that subsection, in order to reflect more of a diachronic perspective, from Genesis to the Mishnah.)

In the rhetoric regarding incest, wouldn't it be nice if death severed all kinship relationships except those of blood? The logic would be clean and sharp, supposedly at least. Although when you think about it, the ancients had no reason to make such a sharp break. Their issues were not scientific. For them, the prohibition of incest served other purposes.

Now, regarding adoption:

There are some cases resembling adoption in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 15:2; 48:5; Esther 2:7; cf. John 19:26-27). However, to quote from The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (1965), adoption "is not legal in Jewish law." This suggests that the rules of kinship do not apply to the adopted. That's the simple answer, but the plot thickens if pursued, and this e-mail is already over long.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[Missionary, in response to the death penalty essay] It is not clear to me whether the prohibition of a man taking his father's wife applies after the father's death to his widow(s), or whether the marriage relationship and its restrictions are totally severed upon death. If a man married his father's widow not his own mother, it would certainly have the potential to confuse family relationships, as the man could be the stepfather of his own half-siblings.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] This I have addressed in our previous correspondence. Other relevant passages besides those we have discussed include Matthew 22:23-30; Mark 12:18-25; Luke 20:27-36; Romans 7:2; and 1 Corinthians 7:39. None of these passages says that death severs marriage. They only say, or imply, that the woman is freed by the death of the husband to remarry. (This is just a jab at the issue, not a finished answer, particularly since I've said that divorce ends a marriage quite effectively.)

It is easy for us to look at lines on a kinship chart and say, "Aha! Look there! Death breaks the link!" But I suspect that the Hebrews had a more organic and less linear sense of kinship, so that kinship, once established, was permanent (leaving aside the issue of the effect of conversion).

Marriage to Sisters


December 31, 1998, 8:39 a.m.

[Missionary] The prohibition in Leviticus 18:18 is not against marrying sisters. It is against compelling one to witness the act of sexual intercourse with her sister "to vex her."

January 1, 1999, 3:32 p.m.

[NEA] I can see how that interpretation is derived, but I don't buy it -- not yet, anyway. Quite apart from the linguistic problems with it, it doesn't make sense to me. How is witnessing an act of intercourse between one's husband and one's sister more vexing than witnessing such an act between one's husband and someone else? If it were legitimate under the kinship code (so that no one is inculcated with a negative attitude) and if neither sister were neglected, why should it be vexing at all?

December 31, 1998, 8:39 a.m.

[Missionary] Jacob had Leah and Rachel, who were sisters; and no wrong is indicated. Though, as I mentioned in my earlier e-mail, Leviticus had not yet been promulgated.

January 1, 1999, 3:32 p.m.

[NEA] Exactly. This is one of a number of cases where the practices represented in Genesis conflict with the later standards set out in Leviticus. I don't believe they have to be harmonized, unless, perhaps, that is done, for theological reasons, at the level of underlying principle.

December 31, 1998, 8:39 a.m.

[Missionary] If neither, or none, of the sisters were offended by seeing their husband coupling with another sister, the prohibition not "to vex" would be obeyed. Also, it is possible that here "sister" is not in the usual sense of having the same parent or parents but is "fellow wife." (I am not a Hebrew scholar and must rely upon dictionaries, etc.)

January 1, 1999, 3:32 p.m.

[NEA] I would imagine that you are referring to the interpretation that derives from a couple of passages in the Qumran sectarian document called the Temple Scroll (11QTemple 57:17-19; 66:15-17). The first passage enjoins monogamy upon the king. The second is a regurgitation of the sexual part of the Holiness Code of Leviticus, although marriage to women who are sisters of one another is not mentioned. However, the Hebrew phrase for "a wife to her sister" is employed, apparently as referring to any two women, leading one scholar, A. Tosato, to suggest in 1984 that Leviticus 18:18 is a prohibition of polygyny. That interpretation has been found wanting.

It should be obvious that if Leviticus 18:18 had prohibited polygyny, it would have become a major moral issue among the Israelites. We can presume that the prophet Ezekiel, especially, would have taken the Israelites to task for polygyny, given his close dependence upon the Holiness Code. (In fact, many scholars argue that the Holiness Code was written contemporaneously with Ezekiel. Compare Ezekiel 22. One quirk, though: Ezekiel represents God as engaging not only in polygyny, but also in marriage to sisters, which suggests that, on that point, he had a closer association to Leviticus 20, which does not mention the prohibition, than to Leviticus 18. See Ezekiel 23:2, 4; cf. Jeremiah 3:6-10.) The truth is that, so far as we know, polygyny did not become an issue among the heirs of the Israelites until much, much later.

I readily admit that I do not know of an interpretation of Leviticus 18:18 that fully resolves to my own satisfaction all the problems that flock to mind. The Hebrew is as difficult and as susceptible to a wide range of interpretation as is the English, and the history of interpretation underscores that fact. But of the various possibilities, the two I have been responding to, considered separately, strike me as being more tenuous than most.

By the way, I would be curious as to your sources. I'd like to look into the matter some more.

January 1, 1999 2:01 p.m.

[Missionary] The prohibition in Leviticus 18:18 would simply be that the practice of having two or more women in bed together was forbidden if any of them were offended ("vexed").

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] Fascinating. But this would seem to part even more from what the text actually says; also from the general pattern which has to do with the prohibition of kinds of sexual partners rather than of activities in bed.

On the other hand, it would be consistent with both polygyny and Ezekiel's representation of God as married to sisters. This calls for more research.

Solomon's Wives


December 31, 1998, 8:29 a.m.

[Missionary] Such a large number of wives as Solomon had (1 Kings 11:3) surely would be in violation of the instruction that the king not take many wives (Deuteronomy 17:17). Even with a great portion of the wives "out of commission" at any point in time due to menstruation, pregnancy, post-natal recovery, and various assorted "female complaints," it would seem that one man would be hard pressed to service their sexual desires, much less give them any real personal attention. Perhaps that was a function of all those eunuchs, who commonly are not impotent but simply are incapable of impregnation. Under the mores of the day, for a wife to have sexual intercourse with a man who was incapable of impregnating her may have been "winked at." Any info or educated opinion?

January 1, 1999, 3:26 p.m.

[NEA] I can only speculate about the sexual life of Solomon's seraglio. I would guess a wide variety of practices from virtuous abstinence to lesbian activity (which isn't specifically prohibited or even mentioned in Judaism until Pseudo-Phocylides 192 in the 2nd Century B.C.E. or later), use of sexual toys (cf. these questionable references: Jeremiah 3:9; Ezekiel 16:17, 36; 23:7, 30, 37), and, yes, maybe even the employment of eunuchs by the women. The social and religious diversity of Solomon's wives suggests the possibility of a variety of practices.

It is even conceivable that many of Solomon's wives were farmed out to courtiers, kind of like subletting an apartment, without Solomon having any sexual connection with them whatsoever. But I haven't a whit of evidence to support that theory. On the contrary, the picture that emerges, hazily to be sure but apparently by intent, is that many kings, including Solomon, spent a good deal of their time engaged in sexual intercourse as part of their state duties.

To speak more directly to the issue of eunuchs: Clearly at least some eunuchs were understood in ancient Judaism to be sexual beings, that is, with desire, only unable to fructify (cf. Sirach 20:4; 30:20). Clearly the system of having eunuchs oversee harems was known to the ancient Israelites (Esther 2:3, 14). And the control of paternity appears to have been a significant concern in ancient Israel.

However, it is less than clear that the Israelites employed eunuchs (although the Hebrew word for "official" can be translated as "eunuch"). The emasculated were excluded from the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1). And one passage, Isaiah 56:3-5, leaves the impression that those eunuchs to be found among the Israelites were originally foreigners.

Another countervailing point: It seems that the eunuch was expected by moralists to keep his hands off of other men's wives (cf. Wisdom 3:14 and context).

Despite the variety of sexual possibility I guessed at above, I would expect most of Solomon's wives to have been a frustrated lot.

However, I keep having this nagging feeling that I've come across something in ancient literature that speaks with a little more weight to your question.

January 1, 1999 1:50 p.m.

[Missionary] Solomon violated the law of Moses, which forbade alliances with heathens and intermarriage with pagans. In Ezra 10:2-44 and Nehemiah 13:23-28 marriages with foreign pagan women were dissolved.

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] The Mosaic prohibition was not so general in nature, but specified particular nations with whom the Israelites were not to intermarry. However, it would seem that Solomon violated even those specific prohibitions.

As for Ezra and Nehemiah, they pose several perplexing difficulties of interpretation, one of which is how to correlate the actions they record with the Mosaic prohibition.

Age and Marriage: The Case of Mary and Joseph


December 31, 1998, 9:14 a.m.

[Missionary] Tradition has it that Mary, mother of Jesus, was fourteen when she either conceived or bore Jesus.

January 1, 1999, 3:43 p.m.

[NEA] Yes, and it is reasonable to think that tradition is right or close to right on that point. Furthermore, according to tradition (cf. the Protevangelium of James 8.2; 9.2), Joseph was much older -- also a plausible supposition.

As for modern society, I agree with what seems to be the thrust of your concluding remarks (of December 31, 1998, 9:14 a.m.) <omitted above>, that we've gone overboard with regard to our negative attitudes towards teen marriage, including teen marriage to adults. There is some justification, however, for having done so because of the very nature of our society -- for instance, it's technological, not agrarian; and it's oriented to nuclear families, not extended families. Indeed, the very idea of the adolescent is a modern notion, created by modern circumstances. (Of course, there is this ironic countervailing point: It would appear that the onset of menses has on average been arriving earlier and earlier for American girls.)

In any case, one of the tasks ahead is to pull ourselves out of the muck and mire of prejudiced opinions and gut feeling and to rethink thoroughly the politics of human sexuality, as well as attitudes towards human sexuality.

John the Baptist versus Herod


January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[Missionary, responding to the death penalty essay] The narrative is silent as to whether Philip was still the living former husband of Herodias. But if Philip was dead, Herodias was free to marry even her former brother-in-law, wasn't she?

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] The relevant passages are Matthew 14:3-4; Mark 6:17-18; and Luke 3:19. A loosely parallel account appears in Josephus, Antiquities 18.109-119, 136 = 18.5.1-2, 4. In Josephus, it is clear that the half-brother is alive; although there his name is given as Herod rather than as Philip.

If we did not have the account in Josephus, we would have to ask why John the Baptist was making such a fuss about taking the brother's wife. There would be three reasonable explanations:

We could go further into whether or not John was attacking the polygyny of kings, that is, whether or not he was taking a position comparable to the Temple Scroll, which I've already cited. But none of the accounts focuses on polygyny as the issue; and the Herodian family was built through polygyny, so one has to wonder why Herod the Tetrarch would have been picked out.

January 30, 1999, 2:39 p.m.

[NEA] I mentioned above that Herod might possibly have been violating the law against adultery, which, however, I doubt. Let me take a moment to elaborate, since in one of your remarks (January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.) <omitted above> you implied that adultery was the primary issue.

I will begin with the key quotations from Josephus:

When starting out for Rome, he [the tetrarch Herod] lodged with his half-brother Herod, who was born of a different mother, namely, the daughter of Simon the high priest. Falling in love with Herodias, the wife of this half-brother--she was a daughter of their brother Aristobulus and sister to Agrippa the Great--, he brazenly broached to her the subject of marriage. She accepted and pledged herself to make the transfer to him as soon as he returned from Rome. (Antiquities 18:109-110, Loeb translation)

Their sister [i.e. the sister of the sons of Aristobulus] Herodias was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great by Mariamme, daughter of Simon the high priest. They had a daughter Salome, after whose birth Herodias, taking it into her head to flout the way of our fathers, married Herod, her husband's brother by the same father, who was tetrarch of Galilee; to do this she parted from a living husband. (Antiquities 18:136, Loeb translation)

In the first quotation, the phrase, "make the transfer," implies divorce. It is a change of abode, a departure from one household and a taking up of residence in another. Josephus provides all the specifics needed to determine kinship but maddeningly does not provide the specifics for determining whether or not adultery was committed under Jewish Law. This may mean that insofar as Josephus had a moral interest in the case, it centered on matters of kinship, not adultery. In any case, if Herodias obtained a divorce from her husband, she would have been free to remarry an eligible male. However, if she divorced her husband without his giving her a bill of divorce (a get) and then married another, in much of early Jewish thought she would have been regarded as an adulteress.

Since neither Josephus nor John the Baptist mentions adultery as being the issue, I presume that Herodias acquired the get and that the marriage was properly dissolved, albeit not in a way that was faithful either to her husband or to what was perceived as the divine plan for the Jews.

Now, it has been speculated that Jesus took the matter further in his divorce sayings by calling such actions adultery, meaning adultery in the literal sense. In my book on those sayings, I concluded that this was not the case.

Was Jesus Married?


December 31, 1998, 8:19 a.m.

[Index] Luke 8:2-3 [snip] Jesus' regular entourage, which might well have been regarded as his household, included women. Those women who were otherwise unattached to a husband within the company or who were not under the direct care of a close male relative may have been considered his wives. Otherwise, the close association would have been scandalous.

[Missionary] Recall that Jesus was not wont to show much consideration to mere traditions, though He was scrupulous in His observance of the Law.

January 1, 1999, 3:25 p.m.

[NEA] Quite so. This is one reason that the accounts of Jesus' entourage are not proof of polygyny on his part. They are, at most, suggestive.

Two further considerations, though:

First, a case can be mounted that, in the social context, an eligible woman who was brought into a man's household was considered, by definition, to be either his wife or his concubine. I tend to accept that case; but Jesus may not have regarded his entourage to be a household, even though other rabbis did regard their disciples to be part of their respective households.

Second, a case can be mounted that society determines what is and is not marriage. I reject that case, but the question is whether Jesus and the eligible women with him acceded and, if so, how.

January 1, 1999 1:33 p.m.

[Missionary] We have no evidence that Jesus was formally a rabbi.

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] The idea of the rabbi was fluid enough in the First Century that Jesus could be regarded as one by definition, that is, as a sage with some respectable degree of competence in Jewish Law. It would appear that his contemporaries saw him that way.

December 31, 1998, 8:19 a.m.

[Missionary] It is possible that Jesus simply did not correct those who assumed that the women were His wives or that they were assorted wives of His disciples following along with Him.

January 1, 1999, 3:25 p.m.

[NEA] Somehow a "don't ask, don't tell" policy doesn't square with Jesus' character or with the character of those who were watching his every move in order to trip him up.

As for the possibility of the women all being married to others, that's another reason why accounts of Jesus' entourage are not proof of his polygyny. You are absolutely correct.

I should say, however, that Western culture has inherited a strong bias against the idea of Jesus having been married, even more so against the idea of his having been polygynous. Jesus' cultural context would suggest that this bias is anachronistic, that is, it's read back into the Gospel narratives on the basis of later mores and notions of holiness.

January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] You said that Western culture has inherited a strong bias against the idea of Jesus having been married. This is simply due to there being no indication that He ever married other than His marriage to His bride, His church. Also for good reason. Can you imagine the arrogance that would be displayed by physical descendants of His physical body?

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] Three comments:

First, it's not so simple. I will refer you to the book, Was Jesus Married? by William E. Phipps (1970).

Second, the Messiah was expected to have offspring. Here's a relevant entry from my index:

Jesus as parent ... Isaiah 53:10 (the passage claimed by early Christians as applying to the Messiah speaks of "his offspring"); Luke 9:36-37 (dubious; the child in Jesus' home with whom he expressed an identity)

Third, it was dangerous to be a member of Jesus' family, especially if one espoused his ideas. Note the martyrdom of James the brother of Jesus (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23).

In support of your last comment, Eusebius spoke of the desposynoi, the relatives of Jesus, who passed down the family records, Eusebius thought perhaps out of pride (Ecclesiastical History 1.7.11, 14).

By the way, Phipps discusses the absence of recorded children on page 68.

The Husband of One Wife: On 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6


December 31, 1998, 9:14 a.m.

[Missionary] Regarding the passages in the Pastoral Epistles that speak of church officers being the husband of one wife: Even if the one wife of the officer dies, he has already shown his ability to govern a household.

I have heard, though, of a congregation dismissing an elder of long standing because his wife died.

That an officer needs to have experience and to demonstrate his abilities in governing a household is supported by a requirement for one wife. That he needs to have time to govern the church over which he is appointed is a good reason for him to have but one wife. But as there were supposed to be multiple elders (= pastors, bishops) it would seem that each elder would not have such a large portion of his time taken with overseeing the church and would have time for a large family.

January 1, 1999, 3:43 p.m.

[NEA] It sounds like you are on the horns of the dilemma as to how these "monogamy" passages in the Pastoral Epistles are to be interpreted. The data are so sparse that I find the passages intractable. <For my discussion, see the index to human sexuality in the Bible.>



December 31, 1998, 8:49 a.m.

[Index] Strabo (circa 64 B.C.E.-circa 21 C.E., Roman author) has a passage on sexual customs in Arabia Felix or Yemen, in which he says, "All the kindred have their property in common, the eldest being lord; all have one wife and it is first come first served, the man who enters to her leaving at the door the stick which it is usual for every one to carry; but the night she spends with the eldest... An adulterer is punished with death; and adulterer means a man of another stock." (Geographia 16.4.25)

[Missionary] This practice is strongly considered to be the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate" of Revelation 2:6, 15. Polyandry combined with polygyny, which was legal and widely accepted for thousands of years, results in group marriage, or "wives in common." The heresy appears to have entered into a few Christian communities from a misinterpretation, a mis-extrapolation really, of Acts 4:32, plus unbridled lust.

January 1, 1999, 3:40 p.m.

[NEA] Thank you. I'll consider adding Revelation 2 to the polyandry entry in my index.

I should say, however, that nothing is confidently known about the Nicolaitans other than what we see in Revelation; and even that is open to a wide latitude of interpretation. For example, the supposed sexual immorality may simply be a metaphor for unfaithfulness to God.

Still, legends have been passed down. Here is the version given by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History 3.29 (Loeb translation):

At this time, too, there existed for a short time the heresy of the Nicolaitans of which the Apocalypse of John also makes mention. These claimed Nicolas, one of the deacons in the company of Stephen who were appointed by the Apostles for the service of the poor. Clement of Alexandria in the third book of the Stromata [3, 25.26] gives the following account of him. "He had, they say, a beautiful wife; but after the ascension of the Saviour he was accused of jealousy by the apostles, and brought her forward and commanded her to be mated to anyone who wished. They say that this action was in consequence of the injunction 'it is necessary to abuse the flesh,' and that by following up what had been done and said with simplicity and without perversion those who follow this heresy lead a life of unrestrained license. But I have learned that Nicolas had nothing to do with any other woman beside her whom he married, and that of his children the daughters reached old age as virgins, and that the son remained uncorrupted. Since this is the case it is clear that the exposure of the wife of whom he was jealous in the midst of the disciples was the abandonment of passion, and that teaching the abuse of the flesh was continence from the pleasures which he had sought. For I think that according to the command of the Saviour he did not wish to serve two masters--pleasure and the Lord..."

This legend was expanded as time went on. For example, to quote from the 19th century Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, by M'Clintock and Strong:

Grotius supposes that Nicolas, being reproved for jealousy of those Christians who saluted his wife with the kiss of peace, ran at once to the other extreme, and imitated the custom of the Lacedaemonians and of Cato, permitting others to have intercourse with her, affirming that it was no crime when both parties consented. This is improbable, and unsupported by testimony.

For more, I would refer you to The Anchor Bible Dictionary and The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, and to their bibliographies. By the way, I would welcome any mention of the sources you have used, especially if they mention polyandry.

As another aside: The most salient example of the joining of biblical ideas to group marriage, and the easiest to study, is that of the Oneida Community of the mid to late 1800s.

Now, to take your moral point: It is indeed difficult to reconcile polyandry with the infusion of the Levitical Holiness Code on sexuality into the church by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), since the Holiness Code, for the most part, was geared to a patriarchal culture that generally expected exclusive sexual access of husbands to their wives and concubines.

Finally, to throw a bit of a wrench into your comment: Let me suggest that the idea of "unbridled lust" was foreign to the New Testament writers, that it came into play later under the influence of ideas outside of the Bible and was then read back into the New Testament statements about lust.

January 1, 1999, 2:21 p.m.

[Missionary] You said that the supposed sexual immorality of the Nicolaitans "may simply be a metaphor for unfaithfulness to God." God is always offended by unfaithfulness to Him. Why would Jesus emphasize unfaithfulness on the part of a particular faction or heresy at this point, with the emphasis "which thing I hate" when He was right in the middle of denouncing several assemblies specifically for unfaithfulness and for fornication?

January 1, 1999, 10:16 p.m.

[NEA] The ways of the writer of the Apocalypse were subtle. But I quite agree. I was simply scoping out the possible range of interpretation.



January 1, 1999, 2:21 p.m.

[Missionary] You suggested "that the idea of 'unbridled lust' was foreign to the New Testament writers." I cannot see that such was foreign, as fornication, licentiousness, effeminacy, lewdness, gluttony, drunkenness, and other sins of the flesh were roundly condemned on more than one occasion by the New Testament writers, who went as far as to declare that those who practiced such would not enter the Kingdom of God.

January 1, 1999, 10:16 p.m.

[NEA] Lust as sexual desire is so engrained in the Western mind, it is hard to recognize that sexual desire was not the problem in the mind of Jesus or the New Testament writers. Their issue was the inclination to rebel against God. Actually, it's much more complex than that, but the starkness of contrast is needed.



January 5, 1999 8:34 a.m.

[Missionary] I cannot recall any information in the Bible to tell if the laws given through Moses were new or if they were a restatement of laws the Israelites' ancestors (maybe even Adam?) had been given.

January 5, 1999, 5:44 p.m.

[NEA] This is a big issue and directly relevant to sexual morality. In some early Jewish schemes and, I think too, in the early Christian scheme, the laws given to Adam and to Noah, the Noachides (Genesis 9), were laws that applied to all of humankind. They were probably the source of the authority referred to in Romans 13. The laws given to Moses applied only to the Hebrews and their descendants, although many, if not all of these laws were thought to have derived from the Noachides. Their specifics were for the Hebrews. Specifics for other nations could differ.

So how then did early Christians come to apply the sexual regulations for Hebrews to Christian Gentiles? This is an exceedingly complicated question, one that takes a lot of unraveling. It involves the Council of Jerusalem, early Christian temple theology, eschatological purity, and much more.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[NEA in the death penalty essay] "Now this [the present-day application of the Noachides] gets tricky since few people take seriously the Noachide against eating blood."

[Missionary] The ignorant or callous violation of one law does not render others moot.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] Nope. But the issue is tricky anyway for several reasons, among them these:

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[NEA in the death penalty essay] "For my part, I read it [the blood taboo] symbolically as an injunction to respect animal life."

[Missionary] We are not told not to eat meat, only blood.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] The question is, what did the eating of blood signify. The eating of meat was part of the established order (Genesis 1:30). But blood signified life (Deuteronomy 12:23). In other words, the Hebrew ideal was similar to that of many other cultures which have lived close to the land. The killing of animals for food was to be done with deep respect for animal life. Furthermore, the justification for the killing of animals was limited. The only two justifications I can think of were for food (Genesis 1:30) and as retribution for the killing of humans (9:5); however, I would have to research the matter more carefully to see if they were the sole justifications.

As an aside, note that the Noachic covenant extended to "every beast of the earth" (9:10), which means that God was understood not only as caring for even small creatures, just as Jesus said (Matthew 10:29-31; Luke 12:6-7), but that God was also understood as incorporating animals into a vaster scheme.

Council of Jerusalem


January 7, 1999, 11:03 p.m.

[NEA repeated] The church soon lost sight of the principles involved and established its sexual morality on other grounds, such as the soul/body dualism.

[Missionary] Please explain.

January 8, 1999, 3:39 p.m.

[NEA] The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) appears to have applied the "cut off" offenses of the Holiness Code of Leviticus to Gentile Christians. (Going into its probable exegesis would be rather long and involved.) This meant that porneia, one of the Council's four special prohibitions, had specific reference to the sexual regulations of Leviticus 18, all of which had to do with the kind of sexual partners that were prohibited. All of the rest of the attitude towards sexuality reflected in the Hebrew Bible was accepted -- the Hebrew Bible's positive attitude towards sexual desire, sexual activity, and the body in general; its celebration of erotic love; its embrace of polygyny; and its matter-of-factness about the place of sexuality in human life.

Nearly everything, maybe even everything, in the NT regarding sexuality can be read in that light, if one can manage to disengage from later attitudes. Paul, especially, can be read as explicating the decision of the Council of Jerusalem.

In subsequent generations, a different set of attitudes took hold. The import of the Council of Jerusalem's decision was lost, and it was completely reinterpreted; so that, for instance, its prohibition of ingesting blood became a prohibition of murder. That its special prohibitions were meant to be complemented by the laws of the nations was forgotten; and so the decision was reduced to silliness, which is why hardly anybody gives it much credit even to this day. (Hence nobody raises a moral outcry against the eating of meat that retains blood or against blood pudding, which isn't to say that the issue hasn't been raised, for instance by Patrick Delany, an Irish divine, in Revelations Examined with Candour, 1732-1736.)

As part of the process of reinterpretation, porneia became a nebulous violation -- sexual immorality. And that was characterized in part as being what was of the body rather than of the spirit -- never mind that both evil and good are of both body and spirit, not divided between them. From there, the accretion of attitudes utterly foreign to the Hebrew Bible piled up; and we have the incredible convolutions, distortions, and hatreds of body and sex that we often see today.

It may be that with the demise of the Hebrew social system, porneia should not be tied to the Holiness Code; for the application of rules that belong to a different system can result in great evil. To exaggerate only a little, it's like trying to play chess by the rules of monopoly, but with much more serious result. In any case, I am confident of this: that dualism as a basis for determining sexual immorality is far inferior to the Holiness Code as a basis for such determination.

Sex and Soteriology


January 8, 1999, 5:09 p.m.

[Missionary] You asked: Why should those who are not Christian be expected to follow the special holiness regulations of that religion?

They're not. They are all going to hell no matter what they do or don't do, unless they believe, repent, confess His name before men, are baptized, and continue until the end, that is, become His children, Christians.

January 9, 1999, 1:31 p.m.

[NEA] You have your finger on an interesting issue that arises out of the reconstruction of the early Christian theology of sexuality that I have sketched out for you, namely, what is the place of the "nations" in the scheme of salvation.

The answer you have provided is one of the possible solutions: The nations, or individuals within them, may be acting morally according to the Noachides as particularized for themselves; but moral behavior makes no difference to salvation without conscious belief in Christ.

However, if one is acting morally, when one takes up belief in Christ, why take up a different moral code? And is Christian sexual morality only special and not universal, even if everybody ought to turn Christian?

I'm a wider-hope theorist, so I don't operate with the same restrictions as you do in trying to address the issue. In other words, I think that we do not know all those whom God will save. We only know that one has assurance of salvation through belief in Christ. Let me refer you to No Other Name, by James Sanders (1992) for a discussion of the relevant Scripture passages.

Issues of sexual morality are tough enough without involving soteriology and ecclesiology, but there clearly are points of contact.

Indissolubility of Marriage and Polygyny


January 1, 1999, 3:51 a.m.

[Missionary] In the church of today are many men whose wives have abandoned them, usually having purchased divorce papers from the heathen courts -- what God has joined together man tries to put asunder.

As these men have not "put away" their wives, if they take another wife are they nevertheless committing adultery or do they then have two lawful wives before God?

January 1, 1999, 10:02 p.m.

[NEA] I wrote a book on Jesus' divorce sayings, posted it on the Web several months ago, and have barely given another thought to this incredibly intricate matter since, which means I'm feeling rusty.

If you read that book, you will see that I now operate with assumptions which might be quite far from your own. For example, I do not believe in the indissolubility of marriage or that Jesus taught it. Divorce, whether initiated by the man or the woman, ends a marriage quite effectively. Jesus was not speaking to the nature of marriage, but to the duty to God and to spouse.

Therefore if a man is divorced by his wife, should he marry another woman, he is neither living polygynously before God nor living in adultery.

However, let me moderate what I have said by quoting from The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion (1965) regarding a closely related matter as it would be handled in modern times according to Jewish tradition:

Since according to the letter of the law a Jewish marriage is in principle potentially polygamous, if a wife obstinately refuses to accept a d[ivorce] which her husband is entitled to give, the husband can be granted permission to remarry without the dissolution of his former marriage. However the remarriage of a Jewish woman without a get [a bill of divorce from her husband] entails the most serious consequences for herself--her second union is considered an act of adultery...

This quotation represents a long tradition and not necessarily the precise understanding of marriage and divorce with which Jesus was operating.

Regarding the "heathen courts," as you put it, meaning secular divorce courts, they are an extra level beyond what the Bible required. To secure a divorce in ancient Israel, all a man had to do was to give his wife a bill of divorce, releasing her to remarry. In the Bible, the state can neither make nor unmake marriage. That was entirely a family matter, the handling of which was answerable to God and, as things developed over time, the rabbinical courts.

In America, I think that the government, federal and state, has probably overreached itself in trying to define, regulate, and tax marriage; and, partly as a consequence, the country appears to be in the process of dropping away from statism. In other words, we appear to be going in the direction of letting relationships be family matters, or at least simple relational matters, and none of the state's business.

So we are in this peculiar transitional mode of having statist expectations for marriage and millions of people ignoring them, free of legal sanctions. Unfortunately that also leaves millions of people without vital protections, since such protections have not yet fully evolved in the new system that is emerging. (Ancient Israel did have certain protections for the divorced.)

That's a simple observation. As for value judgment, I think it is good to reduce certain aspects of the state's role in marriage and other sexual relationships; but I would wish for a more orderly and secure transition for the sake of the people choosing to go the non-statist route.

January 1, 1999, 3:51 a.m.

[Missionary] If a man simply has two lawful wives before God and does not live in adultery when one has divorced him and he has married another, it would certainly make life easier for believing men. But if they entertain hope of reconciliation with the first wife, they had better make sure the second wife is agreeable to sharing!

January 1, 1999, 10:02 p.m.

[NEA] Funny :-) But also a practical point.

Remember Paul's instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:11? If a woman separates from her husband, "let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband." He does not add, "provided the husband hasn't taken another wife." So what do we do with that!

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] Here is an abstract situation (abstract because all the parties are dead): A man and his fiancée, both of whom live in a state in which the woman is under age for marrying without parents' consent, cross over into another state where the age of consent is less than her age. She doesn't need a parent's consent to marry there.

They marry. There is no waiting period either. Just pay the fee and get married immediately by the Justice of the Peace who sold them the license, with the J. P.'s wife as witness. They spend their wedding night together and return to their home state.

Her mother sends the Sheriff to grab the woman and take her "home" to her parents' house, where she is locked in. Mother, who is wealthy and influential, gets a judge friend to issue an annulment of the marriage.

Mother tries to have the man prosecuted under the Mann Act (transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes); but the judge friend discourages her, as getting lawfully married is not an "immoral" purpose, and she would set herself up for a whopping lawsuit.

The man sues his wife's mother for "alienation of affection." Then he meets another woman, dates her for three weeks, and gets married to her. One of his uncles, who is a judge on the state court of criminal appeals, chides him for ruining his lawsuit against his first wife's mother. So he drops it.

A couple of years later, the first wife escapes from her parents, buys a train ticket to Philly, takes a hotel room, stuffs towels in all the cracks, and turns the light-fixture gas on. She is found asphyxiated. Killed herself over the break-up of her marriage and her true love's marriage to another woman, by whom by then he had had two children.

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] What a tragic string of if-onlys can be teased out of this story, one of which, I suppose, is: "If only polygyny had been perceived as an option!"

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] Question: Was he married to both women during the same time? The annulment was based upon supposed non-consummation, which supposition was false. The annulment was not based upon the lack of consent, as the wedding took place in a state where the woman was over the age requiring parental consent.

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] No, he was not married to both at the same time, especially if either party acceded to the annulment. More than anything else, marriage is a matter of the mutual will of the partners, if they are of age, and of the parents, if not. (This is what reflects joining by God.) Whether divorce or annulment is the mechanism, whether the grounds are false or not, it is the collapse of that mutual will brought to a decisive point that brings the marriage to an end.

January 7, 1999, 11:03 p.m.

[Missionary] Neither agreed to the annulment. It was forced on them by a politically powerful mother of the woman. She was of age in the state where they were married.

January 8, 1999, 3:39 p.m.

[NEA] Then the couple should have remained in the state where they were married until she was of age -- another if-only.

Of course the slightly flip answer I just gave skirts the issue of whether there is a universal of-ageness; also the issue of whether it is within the proper scope of state power to determine of-ageness. The basic problem you were wrestling with was how to deal with indissolubility and you didn't mention the particular ages, so I figured you weren't looking for me to address those issues.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] Supposing that man cannot put asunder (in the eyes of God) what God has joined together.

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] Jesus did not say that "man cannot put asunder." He said, "Let not ..." (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). That's the difference between a statement about the nature of marriage and a statement about duty in marriage.

January 7, 1999, 11:03 p.m.

[Missionary] "Let not" is a statement that it is not allowed. It is not a permissive recommendation. It is a statement that God does not recognize the legitimacy of such behavior, though He does not forcibly prevent man from committing such wrong.

January 8, 1999, 3:39 p.m.

[NEA] The phrase "does not recognize the legitimacy of such behavior" confuses ontology and deontology, that is, nature and duty. Simply say that God values marital stability and that God opposes unfair behavior, and the whole statement that Jesus made is adequately explained. In other words, it is enough to posit duty without having to posit nature as well. Generally speaking, the simplest explanation is the best (the law of parsimony, Occam's razor).

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] To repeat: Supposing that man cannot put asunder (in the eyes of God) what God has joined together. I know that you do not agree with indissolubility; nevertheless you are aware that many well-intentioned Christians believe that marriage is permanent "until death do you part."

Suppose also, for the sake of this question, that God does not countenance polygyny now, if He ever did.


If you can keep all that straight.

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] So you've given me two hypotheticals:

Was the man in the story living in adultery with the second woman? No, under the first hypothetical alone. No, under the second alone. Yes, under both combined. Although to be strictly biblical, perhaps it should be called something other than adultery, since adultery in the Bible is a man having sex with a fellow's wife, both participants being culpable. "Sexual immorality" would do, the immorality being the violation of monogamy.

Was his marriage to the second woman invalid? No, under the first hypothetical alone. No, under the second alone. But MAYBE, under both hypotheticals combined. The answer would be "yes" instead of "maybe" except for these caveats:

If at first invalid, did his marriage to the second woman become valid after the first wife died? No, under the combined hypotheticals. They would have to remarry. However, this remarriage could be as simple as a reaffirmation between the partners, unless they belonged to a community that did not recognize their marriage as moral. But we are beginning to show up the absurdity of the hypotheticals when combined and applied strictly. The point of difference between a yes and a no answer has dwindled to a whisper in the dark, and that just an echo, a repeat of a commitment made long before.

January 7, 1999, 11:03 p.m.

[Missionary] Regarding application of the "porneia exception": No. There was no allegation that the woman deceived him into believing that she was a virgin prior to their wedding night. Her mother invoked her own state's parental consent law as the ground for annulment and falsely claimed that they had not consummated their marriage.

January 8, 1999, 3:39 p.m.

[NEA] One scenario I had in mind was of the young woman claiming that, by virtue of his abandonment of her and remarriage, her former husband had committed porneia.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[Missionary, responding to the death penalty essay] The Mosaic sufferance for men to put away their wives was an allowance for their unteachability ("hardness of heart") as Moses was dealing with a mostly unrepentant, unbelieving people as a civil ruler, though outwardly they had to observe the ceremonies and laws. Jesus allowed only for divorce for the cause of "fornication," a term that, while broadly inclusive of adultery, is exclusively used to refer to sexual intercourse between unmarried men and women. In the case of fornication on the part of the woman she was not a virgin (or in the case of a widow was not chaste) and the marriage was invalid from the start, unless the husband knew of the impurity ahead of the marriage and accepted her "as-is." Even an innocent raped woman would have to apprise her husband-to-be of the situation.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] Here I take issue with almost every word. Yes there was a Mosaic sufferance, as Jesus said (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5). Beyond that, well, let me focus on just two matters -- fornication and the non-virginal bride.

"Fornication" is an old translation of the term porneia. Unfortunately the dictionary definitions of "fornication" have little to do with porneia in any precise way. To be sure we are on the same script, let me be specific.

Fornication is typically equated with the sexual intercourse of unmarried persons and adultery with the extra-marital sexual intercourse of married persons. However, as you say, sometimes the English term "fornication" is used more broadly to include adultery. Sometimes it is also treated as a synonym for promiscuity. Another qualification: The term "adultery" is often used more broadly to include the sinfulness of single persons insofar as they have sexual intercourse with married persons.

To understand the actual meaning of porneia, we need to scrap ALL of that. In wrestling with the determination of the meaning of porneia by scholarly means, there are two basic schools of thought.

I belong to the second school of thought and have suggested that for the Council of Jerusalem and the NT writers the term applied primarily, but perhaps not exclusively, to the sexual offenses mentioned in the Holiness Code of Leviticus. Thus, if a man married his father's wife, he probably had a truly constituted marriage; but under the porneia exception in the Gospel of Matthew, he had proper justification for divorce in order to bring himself and his wife into conformity with the Holiness Code.

By the way, the translation of porneia as "sexual immorality" entails something of a compromise between the two schools. The vagueness of the term tilts towards the first school. The word "immorality" tilts just a bit towards the second school, insofar as morality has to do with God's Law and reason, not social mores. (For more on porneia, see above.)

Now about the non-virginal or unchaste bride: In my understanding, such cases, far from being the primary meaning of porneia, barely slip in between the threshold and the bottom of the door. On the basis of the prohibition of adultery (Leviticus 18:20 = 20:10), from which it can be inferred that a woman held in custody for marriage, usually by her father, was to be kept chaste, and by virtue of the fact that this inference is specifically confirmed in Deuteronomy 22, it can be argued with some confidence that premarital unchastity of the woman would have been considered by the Apostles a form of porneia. I emphasize the word INFERRED.

Well, I could go on and on. A marriage to a woman who had been unchaste was valid. A groom did not have to be informed. If he found the hymen to be missing, he did not have to turn his wife over. If she had been unchaste, he did not have to put her away, although that is one course Joseph considered (Matthew 1:19). But enough.

February 4, 1999

[NEA] When I arrive at the end of a response to you, I have a tendency to be too short and quick, supposing that you will come back and push me into the necessary qualifications. Just so with my communication of January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m., in which I see I have left myself dangling and exposed. Each of the statements I made in the last paragraph call for elaboration and qualification.

Let me offer just one qualification by way of quotation from Keil and Delitzsch, which, however, would in turn call for further discussion and excavation. This is a qualification of my statement that "A groom did not have to be informed" in the event that his bride had previously lost her virginity.

The punishment of death was to be inflicted upon her [if the groom turned against her and charged her publicly and she was found guilty of shameful deeds], not so much because she had committed fornication, as because notwithstanding this she had allowed a man to marry her as a spotless virgin, and possibly even after her betrothal had gone with another man (cf. vers. 23, 24).
-- C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch commenting on Deuteronomy 22:20-21 (v. 3, p. 411 in the Eerdmans edition of their Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament)

Indissolubility of Marriage and Slavery


January 1, 1999, 3:51 a.m.

[Missionary] Interesting questions that probably have no relevance today: A slave woman matched up with a slave man lived as his wife, bearing children. But if the man's term of service as an indentured servant expired, he left her and the children behind with his (now former) master. How is this reconciled with the "what God has joined together, let not man put asunder?" If marriage is to be permanent, how can it be that a slave woman purchased for sexual purposes, "to wife," was simply sold back to her family if her master took another woman and then neglected the first woman? Had they not become "one flesh?" Had they not been "joined together by God?"

January 1, 1999, 10:02 p.m.

[NEA] Exactly. All of these are serious problems with what I regard as the false notion of the indissolubility of marriage.

January 4, 1999 5:28 a.m.

[Missionary] Cannot these things be explained relative to the condition of slavery, which was then lawful (and is never condemned by God's Word, only regulated)?

January 5, 1999, 5:44 p.m.

[NEA] I don't see how if one maintains that the indissolubility of marriage is a creation principle, that is, a principle far more fundamental than any that may exist in the master-slave relationship.

January 7, 1999, 11:44 a.m.

[Missionary] The accepted "right" of a master to use his female slaves sexually did not in their minds constitute marriage. Her offspring were not considered to be his heirs but were looked upon as his property. The law of Moses limited the abuse of slave women by forbidding selling them off to foreigners once their owners were tired of them. A master could elevate a slave woman to the status of wife, usually called "concubine," and her children therefore raised to be his legitimate heirs, if he so chose.

[NEA] I understood myself to be responding principally to these examples you raised in your message of 5:28 a.m., January 4, 1999:

[Missionary repeated] A slave woman matched up with a slave man lived as his wife, bearing children. But if the man's term of service expired (indentured servant) he left her and the children behind with his (now former) master. How is this reconciled with the 'what God has joined together, let not man put asunder?' If marriage is to be permanent, how can it be that a slave woman purchased for sexual purposes, 'to wife,' was simply sold back to her family if her master took another woman and then neglected the first woman? Had they not become 'one flesh?' Had they not been 'joined together by God?'

[NEA] You are obviously referring to Exodus 21, which is about Hebrews in bondage to other Hebrews. Some of the tangentially related passages are Leviticus 19:20-22; Deuteronomy 21:10-14; and 1 Chronicles 2:34-35.

Regarding the first situation, presumably, a male slave with a wife was allowed by law to take his wife with him, UNLESS she had been given to him by his master. Presumably he was not required to accept a wife from his master. Nor was he required to leave her. But if he left, she was to stay with the master.

Now something I should point out: The bit about "let not man put asunder" applies in the first instance to the husband, not to a court, not to a master. Among the Hebrews, the person primarily responsible for divorce was the husband.

The male slave had the legal opportunity to retain the wife given to him by his master and thus conform to the principle, "let not man put asunder." However, it would appear that the principle of freedom for the male slave and the principle of household control by the master were such that allowed for a permission to break the "let not man put asunder" principle, which, as I have explained, spoke to duty in marriage, not the nature of marriage.

Regarding the second situation, Exodus calls the master's behavior unfair; and the description of what occurs is entirely consonant with Hebrew divorce, except that, in this case, the additional humane measure is enjoined of allowing the slave woman to be redeemed. So once again, divorce is allowed; and indissolubility is shown to be false, as I said.

Some of your other comments seemed to suggest that slavery was exempted from the normal rules of sexual behavior, for example this sentence (January 7, 1999, 11:44 a.m.) <omitted above>:

[Missionary] Masters and slave women had a legal relationship, as did slave men and slave women by permission or command of their masters, thereby apparently sexual connections between master and slave woman and slave man and woman did not constitute fornication or adultery.

[NEA] The fact of the matter is that the law did not allow a free-for-all between masters and slaves, if I read between the lines correctly. A master was not allowed to lie with a male slave. Nor was he allowed to lie with the wife of his male slave. However, he was allowed to lie with an otherwise single female slave of his own; and she would thereby become his concubine. As Raphael Patai wrote in Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East (1959) with specific reference to Exodus 21, "a man could acquire also directly a concubine by buying a free girl from her father, either for himself or for his son" (p. 42). If you have evidence that she was not his concubine or even that a non-Hebrew woman would not have been a concubine under such circumstances, I would like to see it so that I can adjust my index accordingly.

Apparently there was a practice in the ancient Near East of indenturing one's wife, who would then become the sexual slave of another; but I can think of no instance of that practice among the Hebrews.

Finally, let me respond to one more of your previous comments on slavery. You wrote (January 7, 1999, 11:44 a.m.) <omitted above>:

[Missionary] Mistresses and slave men as husbands are not mentioned in the Bible to the best of my recall. I cannot think of any instance of a free woman having bought a slave man to be a sexual partner.

[NEA] The closest example I can think of, besides Joseph and Potiphar's wife, is found in 1 Chronicles 2:34-35.

As I mentioned earlier, there were also male cult prostitutes, who may have had women among their customers, I suspect more for fertility purposes than for pleasure. See Deuteronomy 23:17-18; 1 Samuel 2:22 (tentative); 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7; and Wisdom 3:13 (dubious).

In the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.) it is clearly contemplated that single women would sometimes have male slaves. Sexual connections between them were also contemplated, in which case the women lost certain standing.

Prostitution and Becoming "One Flesh"


January 1, 1999 1:05 p.m.

[Missionary] In the New Testament period and up until very recent times prostitutes did not engage in non-copulatory activities as a rule. They did become "one flesh" with their customers as the customers put their flesh, their sperm, into the prostitutes. This is an insult to the marital relationship, which is intended to be holy, but nevertheless the physical contact is the same as with a lawful wife.

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] Three comments:

First, it is clear from ancient literature, surviving graphic representations, and archaeological artifacts that the sexual practices and preferences of the ancients were at least as diverse, apart from the employment of technology, as are those of our own time and that this diversity extended to (and from) those who were paid for sex.

Second, the idea of "becoming one flesh" as the depositing of sperm is problematic. Substitute your definition and I think you'll see that it doesn't work well in either Genesis 2 or 1 Corinthians 6. For example Paul's argument has no effect if that's all becoming one flesh means. His point becomes nothing more than a tautology: "Don't you know that if you have sex with a prostitute you're putting your sperm in her?" Yeah, so what? For Paul's argument to work, becoming one flesh must have some other significance, perhaps entailing responsibility, spiritual inheritance, and implications for purity.

Third, regarding insult, I would refrain from looking for insult where none is necessarily intended.

January 4, 1999, 5:38 a.m.

[Missionary] You said, "For Paul's argument to work, becoming one flesh must have some other significance, perhaps entailing responsibility, spiritual inheritance, and implications for purity." With a whore? What responsibility? What spiritual inheritance? What implications for purity?

January 5, 1999, 5:44 p.m.

[NEA] The responsibility to care for her as for a wife, which is shucked off by treating her as a whore.

The spiritual inheritance of sanctification (à la 1 Corinthians 7:14); or, alternatively, of profanation.

Eschatological purity, which the early Christians were trying to usher in by broadening the application of the Holiness Code. (I would need to cite a host of texts to explain this. Here's just one: Zechariah 14:20-21.) The sexual rules were to them not about rational living, but about their vision of the end times -- or so I have been postulating. Trouncing the Holiness Code by the visitation of prostitutes undercut that vision.

But I said "perhaps." It's been a while since I've studied the "one flesh" concept.

January 7, 1999, 11:44 a.m.

[Missionary] You spoke of a man's responsibility to care for a whore he has visited as for a wife. Fat chance he'd get far with that with a whore. Maybe in the case of debauching, seducing, a virgin, but not a professional whore. Paul didn't call the Christian men to go back and marry every whore they had ever lain with. He called them to cease such behavior. Whoredom in this instance has a spiritual implication, as is usual in Biblical examples.

January 7, 1999, 11:37 p.m.

[NEA] Rahab the whore was portrayed in Hebrews 11:31 as one of the heroines of faith. The Bible does not write off whores so quickly.

In any case, you are making my point. If a man cannot or will not follow through on his one-flesh responsibility to a woman, then he shouldn't initiate a one-flesh relationship with her. Such reasoning would work better in Paul's argumentation (1 Corinthians 6) than the one-flesh-as-deposit-of-sperm concept. But, again, I am saying only that some such reasoning is necessary, not this particular reasoning.

January 3, 1999, 1:04 p.m.

[Missionary] The ancients didn't have commercialized sex, other than prostitution and the sale of slave women for sexual use, with sex used to sell all sorts of items.

January 3, 1999, 9:57 p.m.

[NEA] Interesting point. My sense is that commercialized sex as we know it today came in with capitalism, especially industrialized capitalism.

In the days of the Soviet Union, I was traveling both behind the Iron Curtain and in the Middle East. The sexual undercurrents were strong and sometimes profoundly distorted, but well below the surface. Emerging into the capitalistic West, the contrast was powerful, with blatant sexuality plastered about everywhere, usually for commercial purposes.

To go off-track just a bit: Let me say that the undercurrents in the West were likewise profoundly distorted; and the plastering seemed to me to be just another way that symptoms of distortion would show themselves.

But to return to the matter at hand: I would qualify your point; for I suspect an incipient association of sex with commercialism among the ancients. Or else would we have all of that erotic pottery from archaeological digs? And that's not all. A long list could be made -- amulets, Hermes figures, etc., etc.

However, most of what I am referring to strikes me as an association of things with sex, not sex with things. The point was:

It was not psychological association to make something irrelevant to sex more salable. The Museum of Corinth is heavily stocked with artifacts reflecting the sexual obsession (if that's what it was) of some of the ancients. Everything I can recall seeing there could fit into the first category.

One way of telling the difference: Ask, is it about titillation or consummation. If titillation, it's more likely to be about general commercialism than about sexuality, for purchase of the product is supposed to be the consummation.

So my working hypothesis is that you are basically right, but I'm awfully skittish about making sweeping generalizations with regard to the ancient world.

The Value of Polygyny


January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] Polygyny came into disrepute through the influence of the Greco-Roman culture, which had not since antiquity accepted polygyny to any degree. (The practices of kings and princes were winked at, except by John the Baptizer; and he was condemning Herod as a fellow Jew -- an Edomite of a family that had been proselytized into Judaism).

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] Of course, John the Baptist did not condemn Herod for polygyny, but for taking his brother's wife in violation of Jewish Law.

January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] Polygyny was widely accepted in the ancient world as a means of ensuring that every woman had a husband and that there were few fatherless orphans in the land.

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] I've not seen any evidence that that was the motivation. The closest I can think of would be Job 31:16-18 and Sirach 4:10.

January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] Polygyny raises the value of women, as upon the acceptance of polygyny, there is immediately a shortage of women instead of the usual shortage of men. (Males suffer much greater rates of attrition from conception onward.)

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] I know a lot of people who would dispute the idea that polygyny raises the value of women. Many of them would say that within a polygynous marriage women are devalued because of over-supply. For my part, I object to the market supply-and-demand principle being applied to human relationships, from either direction.

January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] There are never enough women available to satisfy the demand of men for more wives.

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] There are if exclusivity of sexual access is not the norm. There could be in a society where women outnumber men if many men are either monogamously inclined or monogamously committed. And there could be in a society where polyandry creates a shortage of available males relative to available females. Just a point of logic.

March 4, 1999

[NEA] As a rider to my comment on exclusivity of sexual access, I don't wish to leave the impression that I think numbers are what polygamy is necessarily about. Perhaps in some cultures the number of spouses signifies prowess or wealth or personal influence upon the future population or some such notion. But to my mind, polygamy is, in the first instance, about particular individuals (for instance, David and Abigail in 1 Samuel 25), it is about persons in relation, it is about love.

For me this is a point of integrity: to work with ideas in their strength when I am capable of seeing their strength, not merely in their weak, degenerate, or straw forms.

January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] Even a poor man would like to have two wives. An older wife wants her husband to take a younger woman.

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] I have read that if polygamy were allowed in the West, monogamy would still be the dominant form of marriage. I expect that's true.

January 1, 1999, 1:40 p.m.

[Missionary] Men are being killed off by diseases contracted through immorality; and many more men are becoming sodomites than formerly, leaving women husbandless. (Few women are interested in exclusive homosexuality.)

January 2, 1999, 5:53 p.m.

[NEA] Several comments:

First, diseases have no regard for whether or not sexual relations are moral.

Second, I don't have the statistics at hand, but I suspect that the number of deaths world-wide due to sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, is more or less evenly distributed between males and females. In America the male/female proportion of deaths due to AIDS has been shifting.

Third, I'm not sure what you mean by sodomites, since sodomy has borne so many meanings. I'm guessing you mean gay males. <See the discussion of language below.>

Fourth, I know of no evidence that the percentage of gay males in the American population has changed over history, only their visibility.

Fifth, I'm cautious about stereotyping sexuality, as in "few women are interested..."

Sixth, I'm even more cautious about buying into the gloomy idea of America sinking into degeneracy. That is an outlook associated with reactionary views, which must be carefully distinguished from Christianity. <For more on my perspective, see the relevant section of my opinion piece on confession, toleration, rights, and social decay.>

Polygyny and Christian Fellowship


January 1, 1999, 2:25 p.m.

[Missionary] If God does not forbid polygyny in the Christian era, and He joins a man and a woman as husband and wife in a union indissoluble except by death, then how can we impose upon him as a condition of fellowship that he abandon his later wife or wives, keeping only the first?

January 1, 1999, 10:21 p.m.

[NEA] We can't.

I grew up in a pastor's home. Had many missionaries visit. Some of them were asking the same question or this other: Even if polygyny is not proper in the Christian era, might it be a greater evil to break up polygynous marriages?

The answer is yes.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] A church congregation occasionally encounters a convert from a religion and culture that allows or even encourages polygyny. Should the church refuse him fellowship until he puts away all of his wives except for the first?

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] Putting aside the issue of incurring the wrath of the state <see below>, this calls for a judgment on the part of that church as to whether or not polygyny itself is moral. I haven't spoken to that particular question in our communications. In the cultural context of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, I have come to the conclusion that, at least in biblical terms (leaving open the broader question of values), it was moral.

HOWEVER, I'm not a primitivist. I don't believe that it is the duty of the church to restore the social system of the Hebrews. It is rather the duty of the church to work towards the realization of its highest vision, which includes sexual parity (Galatians 3:28). All of this means that I use different principles of application than would a primitivist church.

Such a church might very well conclude, if it comes to the same determination about polygyny in the Bible as I have, that polygyny is indeed morally acceptable in the modern era. But I ask questions such as these:

The questions raised by polygamy go as much to the heart of what the nature of Christianity should be at the brink of the Third Millennium as any other set of issues I can think of.

March 1, 1999

[NEA] I see I have not answered your question as definitely as I would like.So let me try again.

Here it may be appropriate to offer a couple of quotations from the book, After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy, by John Cairncross (1974):

[Christian missionaries in the Nineteenth Century] found it more and more difficult to defend a rigid stance towards their flocks when confronted with incontrovertible evidence that polygamy had been countenanced by Jehovah among His chosen people. And they came to realize that, by forcing a convert to repudiate all his wives but one, they were helping to dissolve the moral fabric of the community, forcing the husband to indulge in a shameful breach of a solemn covenant and thrusting the discarded wives into vice if not into prostitution. (p. 197)

In 1884, a conference of missionaries of various denominations meeting in Calcutta (including the Church of Scotland and the American Presbyterian Board) unanimously agreed that, 'if a convert, before becoming a Christian, has married more wives than one, in accordance with the practice of the Jewish and primitive Christian Churches, he shall be permitted to keep them all; but such a person shall not be eligible to any office in the church.' (p. 198)

Teaching that polygynists should divorce all of their wives but one is the most direct contradiction of Jesus' statements on divorce that I can think of. Thankfully some missionaries came to a realization of the mistake they had been making on that score. I would hope that the church world-wide would come at least as far in its thinking.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] Consider the problem of the Christian brother whose wife has abandoned him, in other words, divorced him. Can he marry another woman, all the while nursing a hope, however dim, of reconciling with his first wife?

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] This also depends upon a moral judgment about polygyny itself. In the New Testament context, my judgment, say if I had been one of Paul's companions, would have been yes.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] Even though the state is not offended, if a legal divorce was purchased, should the church countenance the idea that he may still reconcile with his first wife?

Of course, women in this culture, Christians or no, are conditioned against polygyny. The likelihood of a man reconciling with his first wife is poor enough as it is, much less if he has married another woman.

But is it only his first wife who is in the wrong? Is he right to say, "Well, I'm open to reconciliation. She's the one who refuses to reconcile. Why do I have to do without a wife for now? She may never come back to me. After all, God never condemned a man having two or more wives as long as he didn't discard one in order to get another one."

This situation is real to me.

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] Until you tell me otherwise, I shall assume that you are talking about a pastoral counseling situation. The core duty of the pastoral counselor is to address the conscience, to inform the conscience according to the teaching of the church, to protect the consciences of others, and to do all of this within the tensile framework of confidentiality on the one hand and church support on the other.

Five consciences are involved in the scenario you describe -- that of the ex-wife, that of the man, that of his potential next wife, that of the pastoral counselor, and that of the church. Consciences can and, in this scenario, may very well differ. To take each in turn:

Should the ex-wife be badgered into feeling guilty because, out of her own sense of morality, she will not accept polygyny as a condition for reconciliation? Certainly not.

Should the man marry only a woman who is prepared to accept the possibility of polygyny if the first wife decides to reconcile? Or is the man free to marry a woman with a mutual expectation of monogamy? If the latter, isn't it disingenuous and a mere legalism to say that since polygyny is a moral possibility, he is in theory open to reconciliation with his wife? Generally I am not friendly to legalisms, but in this case the man is living under two systems, an ancient one and a modern one, which are in profound conflict. Furthermore, other values are involved -- romantic love for one, which nowadays is almost the exclusive way of mating. When systems and legalities put people in a bind, then they should be allowed to exploit them to find a way out. So in my judgment a man is free to marry either way, that is, he is free to choose monogamy-only, giving the modern persuasion its due; and he is free to leave open the possibility of polygyny for the sake of reconciliation, giving ancient biblical values their due -- the choice depending upon his own conscience, which must take into account other factors in addition to the issue of monogamy-only versus openness to polygyny. However, if he changes the rules after marrying, moving from a monogamy-only principle to polygyny, he should do so only with the consent of his wife -- at least to the point that her conscience might be offended by living in a polygynous marriage. Of course, there are practical reasons for acquiring such consent as well. (A different evaluation might be called for if polygamy had not been seriously contemplated before entry into a monogamous marriage.)

Should his next wife be required to accept the possibility of polygyny as a precondition for marrying him? Only if the reasoning in the preceding paragraph is rejected. In any case, it should be obvious that if polygyny is an issue at play for the man, he should talk it over with any prospective wife and let her take it into account in her decision-making. That is only fair in a society which presumes monogamy, not polygyny.

Should the pastoral counselor support polygyny as an option if the church (or its elders) cannot back him? No. The counselor might reasonably assuage the consciences of those who have chosen polygyny. He or she might even suggest support groups. (They can be found via the Web.) And he or she can certainly present an argument for polygyny to the church or its elders. But if church support is lacking, the pastor should not recommend polygyny as a course of action in a counseling situation. The moral value of marital reconciliation may or may not be outweighed by the value of churchly conciliation, but it is outweighed by the church's need to come to grips with its own conscience and its right to have its pastors counsel accordingly.

If the man finds a path of conscience that involves acceptance of polygyny, should the church stand in the way? This question requires a lot of unbundling. Just to start the unbundling:

For my part, I would hope that polygyny could be found to be tolerable, since people can, of good conscience, come to the conclusion that it is biblically acceptable and, at times, the most conscionable course to pursue.

January 7, 1999, 11:37 p.m.

[NEA] I'm a little surprised you didn't respond to some of my comments in the message about pastoral counseling and conscience, some of which I thought might tweak you a bit.

January 7, 1999, 10:52 p.m.

[Missionary] Which ones?

January 8, 1999, 3:39 p.m.

[NEA] It was chuckerblock full of issues. A couple of examples would be primitivism and biblicism. But if we continue this conversation, many of the issues will doubtlessly come up again.

Unwed Mothers and Christian Fellowship


January 27, 1999, 10:21 a.m.

[NEA in The Theory of Human Sexuality and Marriage: A Report on My Work] "I was offended by the stigmatizing of unwed mothers; and, to this day, I find even the suggestion that they should be stigmatized heinous."

[Missionary] It is difficult for us to distinguish between sin and its effects when the same effect results from non-sinful activities.

Why, in a society which trivializes, even encourages, fornication, or sexual intercourse by unmarried persons, is the natural evidence of intercourse stigmatized? If she is "responsible" and uses contraception, then fornication is OK as long as disease is prevented???

Yet in a former (more "Christian"?) day, contraceptive practices were regarded as worse than fornication or adultery. This was probably because the use of devices applied prior to intercourse demonstrated premeditation, and the most common method used during intercourse was viewed as especially depraved, a "crime against nature."

January 28, 1999, 1:37 p.m.

[NEA] Stigmatizing unwed mothers entails judgmentalism in an area of privacy. Pregnancy tells nothing about the moral factors involved in the situation. It tells nothing about the state of the woman's conscience in relation to God. And judgmentalism is fundamentally unfair when it is only women who show the "evidence" and not the men.

Stigmatizing unwed mothers has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. It is instead all about social attitudes, typically social conservatism.

As for contraception being evidence of premeditation, thankfully premeditation is these days forensically irrelevant in such matters. And evidence of premeditation is morally irrelevant, since, when one looks into one's own heart, one does not ask, "Did I use contraceptives," but, "Did I do wrong on purpose?"

January 28, 1999, 1:28 p.m.

[Missionary] "On purpose" has to do with the degree of guilt, of culpability. But a wide-ranging "Did I do wrong on purpose?" goes against "ignorance of the law is no excuse."

January 29, 1999, 12:15 p.m.

[NEA] I was speaking to the issue of premeditation, not ignorance. There are, of course, other questions one must ask in the process of self-examination.

January 28, 1999, 1:28 p.m.

[Missionary] Only the act of wilful fornication should be stigmatized.

January 29, 1999, 12:15 p.m.

[NEA] Stigmatizing is not a biblical punishment. Your statement would carry a little more weight if you were arguing for the punishment of being cut off from the church. The English term generally used by Jews is "extirpation" and by Christians "excommunication." (A somewhat comparable practice among the ancient Greeks is called "ostracism" or "exile.")

However, if we were to excommunicate every Christian who sins, I fear the church would be empty.

I am wondering why you are setting up "fornication" as a special sin for stigmatizing, as opposed to coveting, for instance.

January 30, 1999, 2:39 p.m.

[NEA] I wrote that stigmatizing is not a biblical punishment.

Let me just add: Excommunication is a judicial act of purification for the church and a corporate act of tough love for the excommunicate (who would also be called vitandus). Stigmatizing a person is the opposite: It is a societal act of hatred. Even if it is said that stigmatizing a person is an act of hatred against sin, given the nature of stigmatizing this is inseparable from being an act of hatred against the person.

January 28, 1999, 1:28 p.m.

[Missionary] Pregnancy is but an item of evidence of sin, not absolute proof, and may be rebutted.

January 29, 1999, 12:15 p.m.

[NEA] Rebutted for whom? The parents? A future husband? The church?

A closely related question: Who has the appropriate standing to offer forgiveness and why? This question, which I ask rhetorically (unless you want to answer), is meant, in part, to drive to the heart of one's ecclesiology.

January 28, 1999, 1:28 p.m.

[Missionary] The attitude of the church toward fornication is to discourage it, to instill resistance to temptation in the hearts of Christians, not to ferret out fornicators when there is no real outward evidence of it. Excommunication, or withdrawal of fellowship, is to instruct the sinner and shock him into repentance and restoration, and to protect the church from "Jezebels." The church is not a police agency.

An unmarried Christian woman is pregnant. Do we even have to ask how it happened? Is it any of our business, or should preaching/teaching against fornicating be general and directed at the whole church and not at individuals? I tend to the latter. A child, however it is conceived, is a blessing from the Lord. The church should so treat any pregnancy while still not approving of illicit sexual activities.

January 29, 1999, 12:15 p.m.

[NEA] Ahh, humaneness blossoms!

Forgive the lack of an appropriate segue, but let me point out that you are touching on incredibly complex issues, which have to do with both the nature of the church generally and the character of the church in a religiously free society. For instance, in a religiously free society, people can reject the teachings of a church on sexuality and set up their own church. Being cut off means little in temporal terms, especially if one is being cut off from what is called a "free church" (which I expect is how your church would be characterized) and not from one that claims apostolic continuity from bishop to bishop (as in the Roman, Eastern, and Anglican traditions).

I am reluctant to plunge very deeply into issues of ecclesiology, since I haven't any desire to dissuade people from the churchly forms they have chosen and, on the contrary, am wont to encourage them to look to their own traditions. However, if you have a really serious desire to delve into the relationship between ecclesiology and sexuality, I suppose we could go down that road a way.

Now to answer your questions more directly, but without getting into the ecclesiological and practical rationales:

Polygyny and the Wrath of the State


December 31, 1998, 9:14 a.m.

[Missionary] Nowhere is the Christian man COMMANDED to take more than one wife. He is not commanded to take even one wife. So when living among people who prohibit polygamy, it would seem that the Christian should not do something that is not necessary that incites the ire of his neighbors.

January 1, 1999, 3:43 p.m.

[NEA] The trouble with that way of thinking, referring to your last phrase, is that it spirals into traditionalism, maintaining the status quo, social conservatism, when Christianity was meant to have a prophetic (forthtelling) center from which it could shake up the world and instill a higher vision. You said it yourself, "Jesus was not wont to show much consideration to mere traditions." There's no substitute for figuring out the right way(s) to live. The Apostle Paul's exhortations not to cause offense (for instance, in 1 Corinthians 8) were hardly meant to be a cul-de-sac.

It seems to me, then, that the question of polygamy is not whose ire is raised, but whether or not it is morally acceptable as a form of marriage and, if so, how it can be rightly and legally practiced.

March 4, 1999

[NEA] Upon rereading this exchange, I would question your premise that "Nowhere is the Christian man COMMANDED to take more than one wife." However, I would recast the issue as one of obligation rather than of command.

In the New Testament era, was a Christian man of Jewish heritage obligated to take his deceased brother's sonless wife even if he already had a wife? I know of nothing that would let him off the hook (except the process established in Deuteronomy 25).

If a married man forced a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), was he free to refuse her marriage or was he obligated to take her as another wife if he would be had as a husband? Again, I know of nothing in the NT that would let him off the hook.

When Paul admonished a departed wife to reconcile with her husband (1 Corinthians 7:11), was the husband expected to reject her if he had taken another wife? Remember that, for a man released from a wife, to take another wife was no sin (7:27-28). I strongly suspect that Paul would have considered the husband obligated to keep both wives.

If a man felt compassion for a widow and felt the capacity to love and care for her in addition to one or more other wives, did it at some time cease to be a righteous act to do so? (Cf. 1 Samuel 25:39-43; Job 31:16-18; Sirach 4:10; 1 Timothy 5:14.) I know of nothing in the NT that says that righteousness ceases, but much that says we are obligated to act righteously.

Here is an argument that I have a number of serious reservations about, but I'll present it anyway for the sake of discussion: In the Hebrew Bible, polygyny was presumably a way of producing more children of the covenant into which their fathers had entered. (A big supposition.) The NT, far from making biological children of the new covenant irrelevant, affirmed their sanctification (1 Corinthians 7:14). (A theologically sticky issue.) Are we to countermand the impetus to generate proportionately more children of the covenant? (Note well: This is not an increase-the-population argument but a covenant and proportionality argument. Nevertheless, the idea of proportionality itself can lead to a population race and to shortages of females for some groups of males, thus creating problems in both the social system and planetary ecology.)

The more I study biblical sexual ethics, the more impressed I am with the degree to which the rules are written relative to polygyny. When we reject polygyny, we reject a number of biblical obligations along with it and, indeed, one of the main fundamentals of the social system in which the sexual code of the Bible operated. <For more, see the relevant section of The Statutes of Leviticus 18 Regarding Marriage and Sexuality.>

December 31, 1998, 9:14 a.m.

[Missionary] With the liberalization of marriage and "marriage" relationships, and living arrangements, I do not see how modern society can keep up the charade.

January 1, 1999, 3:43 p.m.

[NEA] I presume you mean the "charade" of calling polygamy immoral and outlawing it when society accepts other relationships that have traditionally been called immoral. I fully expect that this is going to be one of the areas of enormous social change over the next century. The ball was started rolling by the likes of Charles Fourier, John Humphrey Noyes, and Victoria Woodhull in the 19th Century; and it picked up a lot of momentum in the 20th.

January 1, 1999, 3:51 a.m.

[Missionary] If it is true, as some claim, that according to the New Testament it is permissible for a man to have two or more wives, could a Christian be justified in taking two or more wives in spite of secular laws prohibiting bigamy and polygamy?

January 1, 1999, 10:02 p.m.

[NEA] I digressed above, about marriage in America, in anticipation of this question. In the present transitional mode, the non-statist alternative is a viable option for just about any kind of domestic arrangement. So long as you don't register, the law will tolerate it (although situations do arise).

But your question goes deeper.

First, does the governmental prohibition of polygamy lead to moral conflict? If not, why not accede? Take the tongue-in-cheek remark I made above, about how the Apostle Paul's injunction could be applied that a wife should reconcile to her husband whether her husband had taken another wife or not (1 Corinthians 7:11). A person could be justified in taking such an interpretation quite seriously and therefore could find herself in a conflict between law and conscience -- this because the state has arrogated unto itself what may belong primarily to the province of morality. If the choice is between following law or moral conscience, which would you choose? Should the state stomp on conscience?

The issue is actually much bigger than the example suggests. The legal imposition of monogamy upon polygamous peoples created countless horrendous and, I would submit, immoral situations; and it has contributed to the shattering of many cultures. That is just a start. Consider, for instance, the endless cases of love lost that need never have been lost if polygamy had been allowed; or the observation made by Albert Ellis in 1962 that monogamous societies tend to be more coercive and restrictive than are polygamous ones. The enforcement of monogamy-only requires an extraordinarily high level of moral justification; and, I'm afraid, the West has lost sight of how to mount such a justification -- which doesn't necessarily mean that one can't be mounted.

Second, does governmental interference with private lives call for civil disobedience? As human rights have received greater and greater articulation both internationally and nationally, the recognition has been spreading that the proper scope of government is limited, especially with respect to the spheres of privacy and sexuality. If government oversteps its bounds, are we morally obligated to comply? I say that we would be morally obligated to weigh many considerations, but at bottom we would not be morally obligated to bow to power that lacks moral suasion. Furthermore, some, in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, might quite justifiably feel called to civil disobedience in opposition to such intrusion. That, at least, is where my opinion is coming down at this moment.

So if I were on a jury, I would be hard pressed to convict anybody of breaking a law against polygamy, even if it meant having to exercise the jury's right to nullify the effect of the law in that case.

Now to answer your question dead on: Yes, a Christian could be justified in taking more than one wife contrary to law, provided that he knows what he is doing, that is, provided that he has moral justification and is not simply being a scofflaw. (Compare the amplification of Luke 6:5 in Codex Bezae about the man working on the Sabbath.) This is not to pass judgment one way or another upon polygyny, only upon the issue of conscience versus the state in private matters.

As for bigamy, in the sense of defrauding one spouse by virtue of having another secret spouse, that's a different matter. Fraud is a matter for the state.

Note to reader: Please forgive the sharp break in the flow here. It is explained in my response.

January 3, 1999, 1:14 p.m.

[Missionary] Even when polygyny brings the "wrath" of the civil state on them and further upon the local church?

January 3, 1999, 10:00 p.m.

[NEA] I'm not sure which of my comments you are asking about:


If the first, well, that's a matter between the state and the family. If the state is imposing conditions of fellowship upon the church, that's a serious violation of religious freedom.

If the second, that also is between the state and the family; but the reaction of the state might well be factored into the evaluation of what can be expected to result in the greater evil.

If the third, that too is between the state and the family; but putting this escape aside, it seems to me that the question drives to the deeper issue of the extent to which an individual's conscience must be in line with community conscience in order for community support to be appropriate in the face of state opposition.

For instance, if a man thinks that he has the duty to chastise his wife with a rod, should his church support his right of conscience? I think not, because that involves social protection of the individual. But voluntary relationships are different.

Certain Supreme Court decisions (in 1876 and 1890, if I'm not mistaken), upheld the outlawing of polygyny; and initially forcible suppression was the rule of the day. But over time, it has more or less come to be recognized that people may have what relationships they want, but that they can expect benefits only for those relationships that the state officially supports. This renders the issue somewhat academic.

However, if forcible suppression were still going on, I think a strong case could be made for a church strategizing to protect personal freedoms, especially if it regards those particular freedoms to be within its special purview.

A fourth possibility of what you may have in mind occurs to me. Should a church participate in the formation of polygynous marriages if they are morally acceptable and even if it means bringing down the wrath of the state? The question can be made even more pointed by restricting it to cases of conscience, as with a first wife, divorced, reconciling with her husband, since married -- the example I have been using.

Historically speaking, the answer has generally been no. From key groups of Jews to key groups of Mormons, the official decision has generally been to accede to the state; and the individual's conscience is subordinated to the greater concerns of the religious community. After all, is it worse for a wife to be unreconciled with her husband or for a whole religious community to be at odds with the state?

I have some hesitations about the compromises involved here, but these are not just practical decisions, they are also moral decisions. It is moral values that are being weighed.

Fortunately, this does not leave the church at a dead end, for it can make its case through political processes. Furthermore, alternative courses of action are sometimes available. For example, some New Age movements -- the Church of All Worlds and the Venusian Church, to name a couple -- are instituting irregular marriages without involving the state. And, of course, "gay marriages" are being blessed in quite a few churches these days.

Just because the state outlaws a certain form of marriage, does that make the informal undertaking of such a marriage immoral? I would suggest that it is not the state but the church that has the preferred standing to be the arbiter of private morality in such cases. So a church may accept a relationship as moral even if the state forbids the formality of state-sanctioned marriage.

To conclude: Many factors have to be weighed; probably in most cases the moral values involved in the religious community's interest should win out (not by virtue of number but by moral weight); and a church may yet have other avenues to follow.

I'm speaking in the abstract. If you have a particular case in mind, I'd have to consider it much more carefully.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] You said, "From key groups of Jews to key groups of Mormons, the official decision has generally been to accede to the state; and the individual's conscience is subordinated to the greater concerns of the religious community." That's fine for Mormons and Jews, whose religious doctrines are established by a sort of legislative body in their respective religious organizations.

However, Christians (supposedly) go by the Bible, especially "Protestants" (remembering the Reformation principle of sola scriptura) and "Bible Christians." The first and all-overriding concern is "What does the Bible say about it?" Command, permission, or prohibition?

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] How about, instead, principle of the Spirit-filled heart? Note 2 Corinthians 3:6.

Do I detect that you are of a divided mind? Here you are sounding very biblicist. But in a previous message (January 1, 1999, 1:13 p.m.) <omitted above>, you said, "Particulars of incest have varied and still do," which seemed to suggest that you are not a stickler when it comes to the biblical rules of incest.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] With regard to the support of polygyny, what if the church risks the ire of the community?

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] Beyond the answer I've already given, I guess I'd have to know more specifics. Whose ire? That of people within the church community itself? What kind of ire? The kind that arises out of bigotry or out of moral sensibility or out of a sense of offense to a harmonious working system or out of something else? The questions go on and on. A lot has to be weighed; and, as I've said, it's not just practical matters but moral values that are being weighed.

One thing I definitely think wrong: that is setting up a dynamic which has no place for bettering the church or the world. Christianity and the impact it ought to have on the world cannot be gutted more effectively than by such a dynamic, unless it is by dishonesty or by acting oppressively. Even disunity allows for Christian beneficence, that is, for the church to be a blessing for the world.

January 7, 1999, 11:15 a.m.

[Missionary] The "community" I meant is the community outside the church, the secular community. Ire? The kind of ire that gets your house set on fire. The kind that gets you thrown in jail.

January 7, 1999, 11:37 p.m.

[NEA] It is in the nature of following one's conscience that the ire of others will sometimes be aroused; also that, due to certain kinds of contention, one will sometimes be led to abandon a course one believes to be perfectly acceptable. In between is a murky area, where a variety of values must be carefully weighed, one of which is how to have a beneficial effect upon the world and the church.

Subjecting oneself or the church to ethical manipulation and emotional blackmail by letting the ire of others determine church policy would, I suggest, not be the way to have a beneficial effect. However, that's a bottom line; and a lot of tactics are available to be exhausted before that bottom line is reached.

You keep pushing this issue, and so I suppose I have not driven to the heart of your concern. Perhaps you would like to make your issue more sharply pointed. Does it have to do with confrontational tactics? a specific kind of church involvement? evasion of law? something else? And would you care to narrow your context, perhaps to the United States, or do you prefer to keep the context universal and abstract?

January 7, 1999, 11:15 a.m.

[Missionary] A few years ago in Turkey, a semi-secularized Mohammedan nation, a man married two women the same day.

Polygyny as such is illegal in modern Turkey. However the state recognizes both religious marriages contracted before an imam or other Mohammedan clergyman and, of course, civil marriages.

So this man married one woman in the morning before the imam and in the afternoon married the other woman before a civil officer. The women in his town were livid, cursing him as he passed by, spitting on him, etc. The police were looking into the apparent "end-run" he made around the state laws against polygyny.

January 24, 1999

[NEA] Imposing monogamy-only is, in some cultures, a strategic step towards breaking patriarchal social structures in the move towards sexual equality. Monogamy can be intensely patriarchal and polygamy wholly egalitarian; but when polygamy is exclusively a male right, often the least difficult way to achieve sexual equality in social structures without offending mores is by moving to monogamy-only rather than to the social acceptance of polyandry in addition to polygyny.

America has gone through that stage and has, more or less, broken patriarchal social structures. In fact, it has gone further and, to a degree, broken patriarchalism even within monogamous marriage. Now, with sexual egalitarianism largely in hand at least at the level of social structure, it has lost its compelling rationale to prevent any cluster of marital forms that comports with its achievement. The marital form a person chooses to participate in becomes an issue of private morality rather than of social policy.

None of this is to say that I approve of the state imposition of marital forms, even for such strategic purposes.

January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] If polygyny had been a lawful marital relationship in Old Testament times, as it certainly appears to have been, and if it had continued to be lawful in early New Testament times, as it appears to have been, and if it had continued to be lawful in Martin Luther's time, and if a state legislature could outlaw this form of marriage and have its legislation upheld by the Supreme Court, then what is to keep a state legislature from outlawing conventional, customary, one-man-one-woman marriage?

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] Nothing. Absolutely nothing, except fear of the populace.

You mentioned Martin Luther. You realize, don't you, that he recommended polygyny in a particularly difficult marital situation that was brought to him, the case of Philip of Hesse? He was taken to task, and he pulled back for practical reasons. See The Library of Christian Classics; v. 18 (1955): pp. 288ff; and After Polygamy Was Made a Sin, by John Cairncross (1974): chapter 2.

Luther was pivotal in the history of marriage. State regulation of marriage, clergy marriage, and much more were brought about by his words and actions. Just think if he had stood his ground on polygyny. Perhaps a couple of Henry VIII's wives would have been saved from beheading! (The historical situation was, of course, much more complex than this flippant comment would suggest. And, in fact, Luther actually did suggest that Henry practice polygyny. See Cairncross, pp. 49-50.)

By the way Luther also lit into the idea of prohibited degrees of incest. Good for him! Although, if I remember correctly, he ultimately pulled back some there too.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[NEA in the death penalty essay] "the death penalty was not applied in the case of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)."

[Missionary] This was an anomaly. David should have been put to death for raping Bathsheba, a married woman. Then, if he managed to evade that, he should have been put to death for commanding the murder of Uriah, her husband. There is some possibility that the people did not regard his violation of Uriah's wife and then his life as so serious a matter, as Uriah was not an Israelite but a Hittite. The Bible is silent on this aspect. My surmise is that no one dared go any further than did Nathan.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] Your surmise is probably safe. But that's the point. Who, besides God, had the authority or power to go further!? In coming to grips with that point, perhaps you will see that the case was not an anomaly.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[Missionary] Democracy, or a republic founded on democratic selection of representatives, is based upon the idea that man defines rectitude. But according to 1 Peter 2:14, God commissions government among fallen men to do two things:

  1. Praise the righteous, and
  2. Punish the doers of evil.

Authority comes down from on high, not from the will of the majority of the qualified electors in a democratic republic. If we say that all power comes from the people, then the total power of the people can be no more than the sum of the powers of the individuals in the community. If my neighbor has no lawful power to confiscate my property at gun-point and apply it to projects he considers worthwhile, how can he, along with the rest of my neighbors, give such power to their hired servants? When the authority of God is abandoned as the foundation of civil government, the only thing that remains is what comes out of the muzzle of a gun, as adeptly expressed by Mao Zedong.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] Hmmm, I guess I sharply disagree. Just as the marriage of two people reflects joining by God <see above>, so democracy reflects divinely invested authority at least as much as did the Roman government Paul was referring to in Romans 13; and I would say more so.

As I've stated before, the Noachides allow for considerable variation among the nations. All of these variations, insofar as they stay within proper limits, derive from divine authority.

As for trying to turn moral law into civil law, I will readily argue that civil law requires moral suasion; but I reject the notion that civil law must embody the full scope of moral law. Outside of theocracy -- that is, outside of genuine rule directly by God -- the natural limitations of human government call for the scope of civil law to be drawn in.

February 7, 1999

[NEA] You wrote, "If we say that all power comes from the people ..." Let me point out that this is precisely what a liberal democracy does not say. A liberal democracy holds to human rights, which are not to be overruled by the majority.

January 30, 1999, 2:39 p.m.

[NEA] You wrote: "When the authority of God is abandoned as the foundation of civil government, the only thing that remains is what comes out of the muzzle of a gun, as adeptly expressed by Mao Zedong."

I think I more or less directly and adequately addressed the main thrust of your remarks on democracy. But I want to return for just a moment to three presuppositions in this statement of yours.

First, what determines whether or not the authority of God is to be abandoned? Nothing else but human will. Certainly the authority of God stands regardless. But the construction of your argument puts the onus on human will, not on God.

Second, I utterly reject the notion that ultimately the only power is the power of the gun, which, of course, is serving as a metaphor for both physical compulsion and influence by elimination. There are many, many kinds of power, including, for example, the power of moral conviction combined with non-violent resistance, the power of generation, and the power of shaping children's minds. If it were not so, this world would be in a sorry state indeed!

Third, I disagree with the notion that, apart from the Bible, people and governments cannot act morally or have moral systems that advance goodness. I am not arguing perfection here, only that goodness can be and often is afoot even where the Bible is absent.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[NEA in the death penalty essay] "Human beings should be enormously cautious about the death penalty, if for no other reason than that human history is full of use of the death penalty for insufficient reason or with inadequate proof."

[Missionary] Man has decreed the death penalty for many crimes for which there is no basis in the Word of God. One of the more infamous is the death penalty for rape of an unmarried (including unbetrothed) woman. As odious as this crime is, we have no warrant for putting an offender to death for it.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] Oh dear! You seem to be alluding to Deuteronomy 22:28-29, one of the most troublesome passages on sexuality in the Bible; and we're at the end of a long communication. If you wish, we can take it up when I'm fresher.

Punishment of the Rapist according to Deuteronomy 22

This segment could easily be clustered with the earlier discussion of biblical passages. However, it both falls late in the conversation and flows out of a discussion of the relation of the state to sexuality; so I have decided to place it here.

February 5, 1999

[NEA] Well, now that I'm fresher, I'm not sure I have any comment for you that would totally satisfy me. I thought I had written on the matter before with some insight, but I can't seem to locate what I had penned. Perhaps it was simply a marginal note in a draft of somebody's dissertation. So it's from scratch then.

Typically people derive four messages from Deuteronomy 22:28-29:

Is that how the passage is to be interpreted? Let me try to address just the first two issues, the first because grappling with it will help to elucidate the meaning of the passage; the second because it bears directly on your comment regarding penalty for rape.

As for the last two issues, regarding the treatment of people as commodities, I will simply say that I disagree with the oft expressed notion that, in the Hebrew Bible, women were but cogs in a patriarchal economic machine. (I'm curious about when this notion started. It goes back at least to Simon Linguet in 1767.) We can get into that further at a later time, if you wish.

Let's start by placing Deuteronomy 22:28-29 side by side with Exodus 22:16-17, with which it has many affinities. The Exodus passage is part of the earlier Mishpatim or Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:2-23:19), which has many parallels in Deuteronomy. Keep in mind that both passages are referring to a Hebrew man and a Hebrew maiden.

Exodus 22:16-17 (15-16 in the Hebrew)

Deuteronomy 22:28-29

"And if a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for [endow] her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry [bridal payment] for virgins." (NASB)

"If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged [i.e. betrothed], and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days." (NASB)

Seduces = pathah

Seizes = taphas

In the chart, I have given the Hebrew roots for the words on which the interpretation pivots. Let me mention pivotal words in two related passages, since they will have some relevance in the discussion to follow, even if I don't mention them:

The point is that the pivotal words do not readily link with pivotal words in related passages, since they are all different words.

Traditionally, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has been interpreted in one of three ways:

To take each in turn:

Forced sex is the clear meaning in the Septuagint (LXX). It uses the same word, biasamenos ("by force"), in both Deuteronomy 22:25, the context there reinforcing the idea of force, and in 22:28. The word used by the LXX in Exodus 22:15 is apatese, which, in its infinitive, means "to cheat" or "to deceive." In other words, the Septuagint makes a sharp distinction between the situations in the two passages.

So does the Mishnah. It reads: "Wherein does the violator differ from the seducer? The violator pays [compensation for] the pain and the seducer does not pay [compensation for] the pain; the violator must pay forthwith, but the seducer only if he puts her away; the violator must drink out of his earthen pot <see below>, but if the seducer is minded to put her away he may put her away" (Ketuboth 3:4, Danby translation; the square brackets are Danby's).

Sifre on Deuteronomy, piska 244, is in the same mold, making a clear-cut distinction between seduction in Exodus 22:16 and forced sex in Deuteronomy 22:28.

This interpretation, by the way, leaves the seduction of an unbetrothed virgin unaddressed by Deuteronomy, although this might be explained by its having been covered in Exodus.

Seduction is the meaning preferred by those who believe Deuteronomy 22:28-29 to be a mere refinement of Exodus 22:16-17. Take, for example, these remarks by Calum M. Carmichael in The Laws of Deuteronomy (1974): "The D[euteronomic] law is of a later date and is designed to improve upon M's law [that is, the law in the Mishpatim]. This improvement takes two forms. First, in M the seducer could evade the law by divorcing the woman soon after marriage. D rules that out. Second, in M the bride-price is not fixed, while in D it is fixed at fifty pieces of silver so that there can be official supervision of the transaction" (p. 169). Furthermore, Carmichael says, it has been suggested that "in contrast to the M law, D shows sensitivity to the maiden's dishonor" (p. 169, note 21).

Carmichael's critical reflection has certain affinities with some Protestant scholarship of an earlier time. For example, John Gill (1697-1771), the English Baptist scholar, commenting on the phrase, "If a man ... seizes her and lies with her," adds the gloss: "she yielding to it, and so is not expressive of a rape, as in ver. 25; where a different word from this is there used; which signifies taking strong hold of her, and ravishing her by force; yet this, though owing to his first violent seizure of her, and so different from what was obtained by enticing words, professions of love, and promises of marriage, and the like, as in Exod. xxii.16, 17; but not without her consent." In other words, Gill draws a distinction between the situations in the two passages; but, in the end, in his view, both situations entail consensual sex.

This interpretation, by the way, leaves the situation of sex being forced upon an unbetrothed virgin unaddressed by Deuteronomy. However, it is the one interpretation that would let us off the hook with regard to the questions concerning rape.

That the Hebrew word taphas (and, for that matter, pathah ) might cover both force and seduction appears to be the view of Philo, who conflates Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29. He speaks, in Greek, of overpowering (harpaze) and seducing (phtheire) in the same breath (De Specialibus Legibus 3.69) and then goes on to speak in an integrated way about the father refusing, which is a distinctive portion of Exodus 22, and about the prohibition of divorce, which is a distinctive portion of Deuteronomy 22 (De Specialibus Legibus 3.70).

This interpretation, by the way, is the only one that allows Deuteronomy 22:23-29 the virtue of speaking to mutually exclusive categories.

Up to a degree, the force-only and both-force-and-seduction options can be harmonized. Mishnah and Sifre both treat Deuteronomy 22:28-29 as presupposing and building upon Exodus 22:16-17. In other words, the rapist would suffer the same penalties as the seducer and, in addition would have more penalties (if "penalties" is the right word). In that this refinement of the "force" interpretation above respects the differences between the two passages as well as the difference in vocabulary between Deuteronomy 22:25 and 22:28 (since 22:28 alone reflects a telescopic effect relating to Exodus 22:16, thus implying a continuum), and in that it lays to rest most other problems as well, I tend to prefer it. The chief problem for the modern scholar is that it is too neat (harmonization is regarded as bad method); and, besides, it leaves us with the moral problem of marriage to a rapist.

February 5, 1999

[NEA] Now let's begin to try to answer the two specific issues raised at the head of this segment.

Must a virgin marry her rapist? The answer was no. The Exodus passage makes explicit that the father could refuse the marriage, and the Deuteronomy passage implies nothing else. As the commentators Keil and Delitzsch wrote: "The omission to mention the possibility of the father refusing to give him his daughter for a wife, makes no essential difference. It is assumed as self-evident here, that such a right was possessed by the father" (v. 3, p. 412). Of course, any parent will understand that a daughter can have considerable influence upon parental decisions related to her.

However, to go a step further: Philo spoke to a special contingency, saying: "If she has lost her father, she must be asked by the judges whether she wishes to consort with the man or not. And whether she agrees or refuses, the terms agreed upon must be the same as they would have been if her father were alive" (De Specialibus Legibus 3.71, Loeb translation).

Why would a virgin marry her rapist? Philo stresses the humane dimension of the law: "This is in the interest both of himself [the seducer], to make the rape [i.e. the coition] appear due to legitimate love rather than to lasciviousness, and of the girl, to give her for the misfortune, which she has suffered at their first association, the consolation of a wedlock so firmly established that nothing but death will undo it" (De Specialibus Legibus 3.70, Loeb translation). Whether accurately reflected by Philo or not, the values of the ancient Hebrews, even on the part of many of the victims, it would appear, were vastly at variance with the values we hold today.

Perhaps this is the place to make a couple of points about how the divorce prohibition, that "He cannot divorce her all his days," brought advantage to the woman.

Obviously, there remains one big area to explore on the woman's side: Just what options did a girl have if she did not choose marriage to her rapist? This is a question that will have to be explored if we move into the notion of virginity as a commodity among the Hebrews, which, for the time being, at least, we are putting off.

Now to move on to the second issue:

Is it true that a rapist was to be punished with a fine and marriage? Several points:

Polygamy Today


January 4, 1999, 4:18 a.m.

[Missionary] Even if a Christian man is certain that having two or more wives is lawful before God and perhaps sometimes even desirable, he had better make sure his original wife agrees. And more than agrees, that she is in favor of his taking an additional wife or wives. Unless he believes that strife is a boon to life.

January 5, 1999, 4:38 p.m.

[NEA] This underscores the reality that you are working not in the Hebraic system but in the modern system. The flavor of this remark is very similar to many you are likely to find at alt.polyamory (a discussion group about loving more than one at a time romantically); and it's right on the mark for our times. But, in the Hebraic system, suffice to say that each wife might very well have her own tent (Genesis 18:6; 24:67; 31:33; Judges 4:17), a practice which could reduce strife. This is not to downplay the role a Hebrew wife sometimes did have in shaping a polygynous marriage.

January 7, 1999, 11:03 p.m.

[NEA repeated] In the North American context of sexual equality, mustn't we resolve whether polygyny can be moral without polyandry also being moral?

[Missionary] No. Polyandry is condemned in Scripture. Polyandry combined with polygyny is "all wives in common" and "all husbands in common," just one big bed-hopping fiasco.

January 8, 1999, 3:39 p.m.

[NEA] I'm not sure that the issue can be dismissed so quickly. There's the egalitarian vision of Christianity derived, in part, from Galatians 3:28. There's disengagement of most of Christianity from the land of Palestine (note Leviticus 18: 28). There's the demise of the Hebrew system and a sexually egalitarian system in its place. There are scientific developments, from effective birth control to DNA tests, which can determine paternity. And other rules either govern or can govern relationships, so that chaos doesn't reign.

There are also issues of political philosophy. For instance, this rhetorical question: Why should those who are neither Jewish nor Christian be expected to follow the special holiness regulations of those religions?

That rhetorical question can be extended into one of moral philosophy: Why should anyone be called immoral if he or she follows a moral code regarding sexuality which happens not to conform to the holiness regulations of Jews and Christians? After all, don't the Noachides allow for considerable variability <see above>?

I see scriptural problems with polyandry, just as you do. In grappling with them, I try to eliminate sexuality prejudices on my part. Only in this way is there some possibility of a fair result.

By the way, an argument could be made that polyandry on the part of the woman is not specifically condemned in Scripture. Such an argument might go like this:

I doubt that this reasoning would have flown with either the Hebrews or the early Christians. For one thing, strictly speaking adultery was defined only from the man's point of view, that is, as having sex with a fellow's wife; and it was by that definition that both the adulterer and the adulteress were punished. However, this discussion points up the fact that the supposed immorality of polyandry is based upon inferences rather than upon a direct addressing of the issue by Scripture.

Deuteronomy 24:4 would, perhaps, have some bearing upon the discussion, but even that passage is talking about something other than polyandry, namely two divorces in sequence.

January 8, 1999, 5:09 p.m.

[Missionary] If polygyny is so great for women, why does the most opposition and outright hostility seem to come from women? Or is that just my impression?

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] You say, "If polygyny is so great for women ..." I'm not exactly sure what you have in mind with this premise, although I suppose I could make my own list of ideas, starting with more partners with whom to share child-care.

January 9, 1999, 1:31 p.m.

[NEA] To speak to your questions about polygyny and women (however, leaving aside the first premise):

For starters, it is safe to say that the majority of people who have participated in polygyny are women. In answering your questions, this could, of course, cut either way.

A number of points could be made contrary to your key premise that most hostility towards polygyny comes from women, among them these:

The last two groups, which overlap, are redefining polygyny in a sexually egalitarian way and would prefer not to use the term at all, since it conjures up patriarchal structures.

Assuming for the moment that your premise is correct, a number of reasons could be offered as to why women today tend to be more hostile to polygyny than are men. Actually many of these reasons would be apropos to men and women alike, but women might internalize them differently in conjunction with both other reasons more specific to them and social factors:

Combining all of this together, it is possible to see how women might come out with stronger feelings about polygyny. However, I would not want you to think I am attempting to speak for other people. Each individual will have her own reasons.

Bottom line: My impression is not at all the same as yours, but I can see how your impression might have been formed.

January 9, 1999, 8:01 p.m.

[Missionary] You wrote, "it is safe to say that the majority of people who have participated in polygyny are women." Stands to reason. And for most through the ages there was no choice.

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] You seem so definite. I myself don't subscribe to that generalization.

January 9, 1999, 8:01 p.m.

[Missionary] What is "polyamory?" "Free love?" "Nicolaitanism?"

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] Polyamory is loving more than one person at the same time romantically and with honesty towards those loved about the other loves. It is a term that embraces many kinds of lovestyles. Some may entail no sex at all, only emotion. Other lovestyles may entail multiple sexual partners or, perhaps, one or more sexual relationships plus one or more non-sexual ones. Participants may form any combination of:

The combination is self-determined according to the participants' own preferences, values, and inter-relational dynamics.

Relationships may be either open or closed. If closed, the more specific term is "polyfidelity."

I don't know when the term "polyamory" was coined -- around the early 1970s, I think.

Technically polygyny comes under the umbrella of polyamory. However, one of the dominant values among polyamorists is egalitarianism with regard to the sexes; and, therefore, many polyamorists have trouble with the patriarchal associations of traditional polygyny.

The "movement" has gained a strong foothold in most English-speaking countries and some non-English speaking ones as well, such as Germany. (Most French and Spanish-speaking countries, among others, already possess systems that accept, either formally or informally, having multiple sexual relationships, whether stable, semi-stable, or otherwise.) Polyamory has been steadily burgeoning over the last decade or so, with USENET and the Internet being among the catalyzing factors.

Some polyamorists do discern roots of their cluster of lovestyles in the free love and intentional community movements of the 1960s. Actually their roots in some of the fictional literature of the period are probably as strong as in anything else. To mention three titles: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein (1961); Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein (1966); and The Harrad Experiment, by Robert H. Rimmer (1966). However, I think the general self-perception of a large number of polyamorists is that their distinctives, such as they are, and sense of common purpose gelled later, most especially in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

I suppose I should mention movies too, given their appeal, such as the Randal Kleiser film, Summer Lovers(1982), which is warmly embraced by many polyamorists. It's the story of a threesome, one man (played by Peter Gallagher) and two women (played by Daryl Hannah and Valeri Quennessen).

As for Nicolaitanism, following your definition (not mine), it too would come under the umbrella of polyamory. It may be relevant that there is a strong Christian contingent among polyamorists, even a small organization called Liberated Christians, which is spear-headed by one man; although my impression is that the percentage of neo-pagans is much higher than in the general population and the percentage of Christians correspondingly less. There is also a literature behind some of the Christian contingent, for example, Honest Sex: A Revolutionary Sex Ethic By and For Concerned Christians, by Rustum and Della Roy (1968).

I became aware of polyamory in the late 1980s and have ever since been keenly interested both in its social implications and in its development of ethics. One of the many fascinating aspects of this development is that it has been dialogical rather than dominated by a few intellectuals or religionists.

January 10, 1999, 1:58 p.m.

[Missionary] It's not my definition of Nicolaitanism. I got it from The Oxford English Dictionary, which cites R. Cawdrey, Table Alph., Nicholaitan (1604), "an hereticke, like Nicholas, who held that wiues should bee common to all alike"; also from Bible commentaries. Otherwise I wouldn't have a clue as to what Nicolaitans taught or did.

January 11, 1999, 11:29 a.m.

[NEA] Thank you for the reference.

I should caution you, though, to beware of English language dictionary definitions when trying to interpret the Bible. They are almost always encrusted with cultural accretions, especially when it comes to sexuality.

I'm cautious even of definitions of Hebrew and Greek words, since I know a little about lexicography and hermeneutics. I rely more upon primary sources and context for key meanings.

January 9, 1999, 8:01 p.m.

[Missionary] Polyandry is group marriage. All wives in common. All husbands in common. (Unless at the same time polygyny was prohibited.)

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] Polyandry is, of course, one woman having more than one husband simultaneously. (For the purposes of this definition, cicisbei might count as husbands, just as, with regard to polygyny, concubines count as wives.) Polyandrous relationships can be closed, just as polygynous ones can be, which means, logically, that polyandry and polygyny can coexist without group marriage, as you describe it -- that is, omnigamy -- occurring.

I'm not sure why group marriage should be more of a bugaboo to you than closed polyandry.

January 11, 1999, 11:29 a.m.

[NEA] Let me add to what I wrote. Closed polyandry is as closed to a free-for-all as is closed monogamy. Open, both polyandry and monogamy can result in a free-for-all, although both lose something of their character in the process.

January 10, 1999, 1:58 p.m.

[Missionary] You wrote, "I'm not sure why group marriage should be more of a bugaboo to you than closed polyandry." It is wicked and will bar one from entering the kingdom of God, that's all. No other reason. It is not "more" of a "bugaboo." It's about the same but just more exaggerated in numbers.

January 11, 1999, 11:29 a.m.

[NEA] First a logical point: A particular instance of polyandry could involve more persons than some particular instance of group marriage. For example, a group marriage could have three men and three women, but one woman could have ten husbands.

Second, on the matter of wickedness, that touches the nub of my own investigations. I have asked, what makes any particular sexual offense evil. I have encountered and wrestled with evil that is bigger than any single person, and so I know something of its feel and character. Where does the feel of evil reside in sexual activity and relationships? These are some of the core questions I put to myself as an ethicist.

January 9, 1999, 8:01 p.m.

[Missionary] If polygyny became accepted and popular -- and I can't see how hostility to it can remain in society in general, what with the permissiveness toward sodomy -- there soon would be many men who could not get a wife even if they would like to be married. The rich, the handsome, and the suave would get most of the women or, at least, enough to create a real shortage.

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] My guess would be different. As I said earlier, I imagine that monogamy will continue to be popular with both sexes, even if polygyny is an accepted option. I can add that I doubt women in a free society will flock to certain kinds of men absent exclusive devotedness.

Apart from polygyny, I expect the shortage of eligible males, especially in certain age brackets, to continue into the indefinite future. If you're right, there will be a shortage one way. As things are now, there's a shortage the other way. If shortages are the problem, neither monogamy nor polygyny is the answer.

As for "permissiveness toward sodomy," I would agree that much of the discussion about homosexuality in society and the church has implications for non-monogamy; although many affirm monogamy-only while also affirming homosexual unions, thus driving a wedge between the issues.



January 4, 1999, 5:38 a.m.

[NEA repeated] I'm not sure what you mean by sodomites, since sodomy has borne so many meanings. I'm guessing you mean gay males.

[Missionary] No, I really don't mean "gay." The use of "gay" to mean "homosexual pervert" is a corruption of the word, which means anything but "perverted." "Gay" is "happy," "delighted," "joyous," "lively," "merry," "light-hearted," "bright," "brilliant," "given to social life and pleasures." Also, in the phrase "gay dog," it means "wanton, licentious." It is only in this last context that it can have any association with perversion.

January 5, 1999, 5:44 p.m.

[NEA] Words take on new meanings all the time. It's in the nature of language to evolve. As a general rule, I prefer to call people what they choose to call themselves.

January 7, 1999, 11:44 a.m.

[Missionary] Sure. When embezzlers call themselves "wealth re-allocators," I'll still call them thieves.

January 7, 1999, 11:37 p.m.

[NEA] If one wishes to understand the Bible, it's best not to use loaded language. Take your term, "sodomite," for example. You have given (in your message of January 4, 1999, 5:38 a.m.) <omitted above> a definition of "sodomy" from the Oxford English Dictionary: "An unnatural form of sexual intercourse, especially that of one male with another."

In the King James Version of the Bible, the word "sodomite" translated the Hebrew term for male cult prostitute.

Probably the closest biblical term to your meaning would be arsenokoites, a Greek term used in the New Testament (NT), although the precise meaning is in dispute. (See 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10; cf. malakos in 1 Corinthians 6:9). Use of arsenokoites rather than "sodomite" or "male homosexual" helps to prevent us from prejudging its meaning.

If in the NT arsenokoites means what you have in mind, it had reference to Leviticus 18:22; 20:13, about a man who lies with a male as with a woman.

Now Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 proscribe having a certain kind of sexual partner. The NT term simply refers to those who take such sexual partners. In other words, it was a short-hand way of referring back to Leviticus. But over time further meaning has accreted to the term, especially in translation. For example, "sodomite" refers to a class of persons, with whom all sorts of associations are made. It came to suggest "unnatural acts," a phrase which presupposes a whole set of medieval ideas. And, of course, it conjures up the story of Sodom.

Now go back to Leviticus. It is, as I said, having a certain kind of sexual partner that is proscribed, just as with the incest laws -- not a class of persons, not even certain sexual acts. In fact, IF you assume that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have some sort of reference, either direct or oblique, to kinds of acts (as distinguished from kinds of partners) and you apply strict logic, the acts are implicitly approved in male/female relations.

That is: A man is not to lie with a man as with a woman. He is unable to have vaginal intercourse with a man. However, it is possible for him to have anal, oral, and manual sex with a man. That then may be the kind of sex he might have with a woman that he is not allowed to have with a man, particularly if that kind of sex with a woman is not otherwise explicitly condemned. The idea of such sexual activity being equated with unnatural acts, then, goes by the boards -- in this strictly logical analysis (which is not to say that proper exegesis has been performed). <For more, see the relevant section in The Statutes of Leviticus 18 regarding Marriage and Sexuality.>

Even without going into the story of Sodom, which has other issues, the whole edifice of meaning associated with the term "sodomite," especially as a translation of arsenokoites (or for that matter, any other biblical term) collapses -- as it should, because it is so heavily loaded.

So when I want to condemn an embezzler, I will call him or her an embezzler or a thief. But when I am wrestling with meaning and the proper application of the Bible, I look for original terms, precise neutral terms, and terms of self-description. Thereby understanding is advanced. But not only that. Use of such terms actually helps give a hearing and advance dialog.

Two thousand years has put a lot of loadedness between the Bible and ourselves, giving us two horizons, one ancient, the other modern. Bridging the gap between arsenokoites and "gay male" is one small part of the hermeneutical task of figuring out how those two horizons should meet.

Onan and Contraception

This segment would quite appropriately fit with the other topics of biblical interpretation near the beginning. However, chronologically the discussion of Onan occurred close to the end of the conversation; and it presupposed so much that had been said previously, that I decided to allow it to stand as an exception to the general organization of this document.


January 8, 1999, 5:09 p.m.

[Missionary] You spoke of "effective birth control." However, most birth control is either child murder (abortifacient), Onanistic, or involves one spouse refusing the other in violation of God's design for married persons (I Corinthians 7:2-5).

January 9, 1999, 1:31 p.m.

[NEA] So what kind of birth control do you think is acceptable?

By the way, "onanistic" is another term I find ambiguous. Typically it is used to refer to self-masturbation. Here it looks like you may be referring to coitus interruptus or perhaps to blocking fertilization. In Genesis 38:8-10, Onan's sin was slighting his levirate duty, a sin which was flagrantly punctuated by being committed in the very act of sex.

If Onan's sin would be regarded by any as a sin in the modern context, once again we have an issue of conscience with regard to polygyny. A man may be married already, but if his brother dies leaving behind a sonless wife, then he might well feel obligated to take her as a second wife.

January 9, 1999, 8:01 p.m.

[Missionary] Masturbation is never mentioned in the Bible to my recall. Onanism is the obtaining of sexual release by having sexual connection with a woman and taking measures to avoid conception. Logic would lead from that position to conclude that masturbation to avoid sexual connection with one's wife to avoid offspring would fall under the same status of an abomination.

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] Personally I would find both the interpretation just given and the logic extremely difficult to maintain.

But you are right about masturbation not being mentioned in the Bible, unless possible (if unlikely) references to the use of idols as dildos count (cf. Jeremiah 3:9; Ezekiel 16:17, 36; 23:7, 30, 37).

January 9, 1999, 8:01 p.m.

[Missionary] The penalty for shirking the levirate duty was to be denounced publicly by the brother's widow. The ritual involved having one's sandal strap loosened, she spits in his face, and denounces him. He then was known as the one who had his shoe latchet loosed. Deuteronomy 25:9, 10 (Law of Moses). The death penalty was not invoked.

January 10, 1999, 4:25 p.m.

[NEA] Genesis 38:8-10 presumably preceded Deuteronomy 25; and, as we have seen, the practices in Genesis were not entirely consistent with the later Mosaic Code. Besides: Fair procedure along the lines of Deuteronomy 25 was blatantly neglected by Onan. Onan misused his brother's wife. And the death penalty was not passed by human judgment, rather the text presents God as both determining and executing the judgment.

January 10, 1999, 1:58 p.m.

[Missionary] You wrote that you "would find ... the logic extremely difficult to maintain." Only if you start out with the preconception that God was displeased with Onan's shirking of his levirate duty rather than with his physical act of pulling out of Tamar before climax and ejaculating on the ground.

January 11, 1999, 11:29 a.m.

[NEA] The writer stresses Onan's intent. Spilling his seed on the ground was simply the way he carried out that intent.

January 10, 1999, 1:58 p.m.

[Missionary] Of course God has not struck dead every violator of either the levir or every coitus interruptus practitioner.

January 11, 1999, 11:29 a.m.

[NEA] Thankfully not.

Nor has God struck down every challenger to divinely appointed authority (cf. Numbers 16) or everyone who has tried to deceive the church (Acts 5:1-11).

But let me clarify my position. Failing to perform one's levirate duty would be only a minor offense, provided that a fair process has been followed. (In fact, later in Judaism the Deuteronomy 25 procedure became largely proforma.) In Onan's case, not only did he fail in this duty, but he disobeyed his father (potentially a capital offense, cf. Deuteronomy 21:18-21), he abused both his deceased brother and his brother's wife, and he spurned the inheritance provisions for the holy people of God. What happened to his semen was inconsequential except insofar as it brought all that about.

January 11, 1999, 2:21 p.m.

[NEA] I fear I have still not expressed myself well. In the last paragraph, I did not mean to deflect from Onan's levirate duty. On the contrary, the whole story is about just that. However, his was a particularly egregious case, which pushed all sorts of related buttons.

It's rather similar to this: If a president wants to ratchet a sexual indiscretion up to the level of an impeachable offense, what he should do is to commit perjury and obstruction of justice in order to cover it up. The sexual indiscretion is wrong, but he won't be impeached for that; instead he is impeached for the other offenses.

Onan disobeyed his father on the matter of carrying out the duty of the levir. (Was he a minor? Does it matter in the Hebrew context?) Onan abused his deceased brother's memory by refusing, out of pure ego-centrism, to carry on his name. Onan abused his deceased brother's wife not only by excluding her from her right to try to produce a male heir with the appropriate standing, but also by excluding her from due process and by physical insult. By his act, she had presumably become ineligible to the next in line, Shelah, until his (Onan's) death, since she was Shelah's living brother's wife or, if divorced, ex-wife. Finally Onan showed utter disregard for the orderly processes that had been established for the chosen people to hold the chosen land -- perhaps a function of his having been half-Canaanite. All of this was bound up with Onan's levirate duty; but if he had simply passed the buck on to Shelah or had impregnated Tamar with a male child once and thereafter practiced coitus interruptus, I expect that the story would have had a very different turn.

Frankly, I do not see that the story of Onan has any relevance to either masturbation or contraception; although it might have tangential relevance to the disposition of frozen sperm or embryos after a father has died.

To my mind, the passage that has central relevance to contraception is the first command to humankind, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). However, I do not take that as a command that every emission of semen must be oriented to procreation, or that each and every spermatozoon designed to fertilize an ovum must have its chance of doing so maximized, or that each and every ovum must be fertilized. Nor do even I take it as a command that every individual must reproduce. As Jesus said, there are eunuchs, even for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12; cf. Isaiah 56:4-5). It is rather a general instruction to humankind corporately, and when fulfilled, obeying the command becomes a matter of maintenance and good management.

The intent of the first command was not to tax the resources of the planet or to bring other species to extinction by way of our competitive demand. It was rather for us to take our proper place in the universe and to carry on; or, to put it another way, for us to take our proper place in the eschatological scheme of things. So I see in that command no prohibition of contraception, unless we are talking either about contraception practiced to the point of the demise of humankind or taking the right of procreation away from others.

January 11, 1999, 10:42 p.m.

[Missionary] Both Jewish and Christian theologians and scholars' position is that Er, Onan's older brother, was put to death by God for the same act. He had no levirate duty to perform. Judah feared for his third son Shelah also.

January 12, 1999, 2:13 p.m.

[NEA] There is an ancient legend that Er's wickedness was some sort of "unnatural" sex. Midrash Rabbah on Genesis (specifically Vayesheb) quotes the passage, "Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord" (Genesis 38:7; 1 Chronicles 2:3), and then adds, "because he ploughed on roofs" (85.4; cf. Targum Jonathan). The Soncino edition has this explanatory note: "A delicate expression for unnatural intercourse, so that his wife should not conceive." The Jacobite Syrian bishop and polymath, Gregory Abu-l-Farag (1226-1286), who is also known by the name of Bar Hebraeus since he was of Jewish descent, suggested that the activity was not the same as Onan's, but was instead sodomy (see the commentary by John Gill).

This idea of unnatural sexual practices came out of a period after Judaism had been subjected to the same kind of cultural invasion I described earlier with regard to post-apostolic Christianity. I know of no background evidence that would suggest that the writer of Genesis 38 was working with such a conception.

Alternative speculations have been put forward, for example, M'Clintock and Strong says: "It does not appear what the nature of his [Er's] sin was; but, from his Canaanitish birth on the mother's side, it was probably connected with the abominable idolatries of Canaan."

A closely related possibility: The writer's concern was with Er and his brothers being of a Canaanite mother. In other words, they were all thought of as wicked by virtue of God's judgment upon the Canaanites collectively, and their lines were not to continue, at least not by means of the Hebrews. This would explain why Judah was portrayed as being afraid for his son, Shelah (38:11).

Some have suggested that the passage simply means, "Since Er died young (under the specific circumstance of being early in the line of promise), he must have deserved it."

However, the fact of the matter is that nobody knows what Er's wickedness was, because the text is silent; and reputable scholars, much as they may make educated guesses, generally concur on that point.

Note on Abu-l-Farag, January 24, 1999

In the preceding message, I mentioned Abu-l-Farag (old spelling: Abulpharag). John Gill referred to page 16 of his Hist. Dynast. The edition he used may have been this one, the bibliographic record for which I found in the Library of Congress catalog:

Bar Hebraeus, 1226-1286.
[Tĝarĝikh mukhtaòsar al-duwal. Latin & Arabic]
Tĝarĝikh mukhtaòsar al-duwal =
Historia compendiosa dynastiarum /
authore Gregorio Abul-Pharajio ...
historiam complectens universalem, â mundo condito,
usque ad tempora authoris, res orientalium accuratissimè describens ;
Arabice edita & Latine versa ab Eduaro Pocockio ...
Oxoniae : Excudebat H. Hall ... impensis Ric. Davis, 1663.
LC Call No.: D18.B33 1663

To this, there was a supplement:

Pococke, Edward, 1604-1691.
al-Dhayl °alá Tĝarĝikh mukhtaòsar al-duwal =
Supplementum Historiae dynastiarum :
in quo historiae orientalis series a Gregorii Abul-Faragii
exitu ad nostra usque tempora compendiosè deducitur /
ab Eduuard Pocockio ...
Oxoniae : Excudebat Henricus Hall ... impensis Richardi Davis, 1663.
LC Call No.: D18.B33 1663

In 1932, the work in question (I believe) was published with an English translation by E. A. W. Budge under the title, The Chronography of Gregory Abu-l Faraj.

Just as a point of interest, Abu-l-Farag was one of Edward Gibbon's many sources in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788).

January 11, 1999, 10:42 p.m.

[NEA repeated] All of this was bound up with Onan's levirate duty; but if he had simply passed the buck on to Shelah or had impregnated Tamar with a male child once and thereafter practiced coitus interruptus, I expect that the story would have had a very different turn.

[Missionary] Mere speculation. Serves no purpose.

January 12, 1999, 4:21 p.m.

[NEA] Not speculation, rather the logical outcome of my hermeneutical reasoning -- an expectation, as I said, albeit hypothetical. And the purpose it served was to show that divine punishment for spilling semen is hardly the necessary interpretation of Genesis 38:9. This complemented the other points I made, which showed such an interpretation to be both unlikely given the presentation in Genesis and absurd when carried out to its logical extreme. <Regarding unlikelihood, see above regarding intent. Regarding absurdity, see above regarding Genesis 1:28.>

January 27, 1999, 10:21 a.m.

[Missionary, in response to The Theory of Human Sexuality and Marriage: A Report on My Work] The prohibition of intercourse during menstruation was cited as a sin late in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 18:6; 22:10). Now the Roman Church endorses this practice as part of its "Natural Family Planning" birth control method. And few others seem to be concerned except as to the æsthetic aspects.

January 30, 1999, 2:39 p.m.

[NEA] Earlier you wrote that "The ignorant or callous violation of one law does not render others moot." Should I take it that that is your position on this matter as well?

Curiously the prohibition of sexual intercourse with a menstruant is the only sexual prohibition mentioned in Leviticus 18 that is not mentioned in the NT -- that is, if we allow 1 Corinthians 5 to speak for all forms of incest and if we interpret Romans 1:26 as referring in the first instance to bestiality. The prohibition is not even alluded to in the most obvious spot where one might expect it, that is, where Paul is talking about marital sexuality (1 Corinthians 7:5).

It is easily conceivable that the Apostles did not regard Gentile Christians to be subject to this prohibition. A couple of possible reasons come to mind:

Thus a reasonable case can be made that the Apostles excepted sex during menstrual uncleanness from the porneia prohibition.

Nowadays, we know from scientific research that the prohibition of sex during menstruation is wholly irrational. (I am using the word "irrational" in a neutral, not a pejorative sense.) For Protestant Christianity to reinstitute the prohibition without any sense of rationale or of spiritual understanding other than apodictism would be a hard case to make.

Of course, Orthodox Jews continue the prohibition, but they have a strong tradition behind it. See the tractates Niddah in Talmudic literature.

By the way, I would welcome any specific references you may have to Roman Catholic endorsement of sex during menstruation. I know that some penitential books proscribe it.

Evil and Sexuality


January 11, 1999, 10:33 p.m.

[NEA repeated] I have asked, what makes any particular sexual offense evil.

[Missionary] Whether or not God says it is or not. Some acts are not particularly described but are included in described offenses. Reason is required. And that is where people get into trouble, for human reason is faulty and is often not reasonable.

January 12, 1999, 4:21 p.m.

[NEA] So for you the law on sexuality is simply apodictic, that is, it hangs on words given, not inner principle. We can have no immediate knowledge of how or even whether it is grounded in goodness. Goodness is indiscernible to us, except perhaps in a profoundly flawed way, even with regard to something that is intimately germane to humankind and presumably not at all to a Being of pure spirit.

When we say that God is good, this then has no human meaning. It is entirely an abstraction divorced from human life. Even if God were entirely an arbitrary Being, whatever such an arbitrary Being decides is good. The idea of goodness provides no parameter.

Furthermore, for you reason enters in not at the basement level, the level of understanding, but only in a forensic way. When we operate out of spirit, then, we are not operating out of a spirit of understanding or even a spirit of goodness, but a spirit of legalism.

The above remarks are directed more at me in their pointedness than at you, because the apodictic view of the laws on sexuality remains one of the live options for me in trying to answer the question I posed. However, my apodictism comes not out of present-day legalism, but out of the ancient Near Eastern concept of unknown offenses against the gods, as exemplified, for example, in the "Sumerian Prayer to Every God." Here are a few short excerpts:

May the god who is not known be quieted toward me (line 2)
The sin which I have done, indeed I do not know (line 27)
Man is dumb; he knows nothing;
Mankind, everyone that exists,--what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know (lines 51-53)
From: James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed., pp. 391-392.

Such a sense of divine inscrutability is not entirely alien to the Hebrew Bible; and overcoming it, one could argue, is, in part, the purpose of Hebrew Law.

January 27, 1999, 9:10 a.m.

[Missionary, responding to essay, The Death Penalty in the Bible and American Society] It appears without being spelled out that Cain knew that murder was displeasing to the Lord, and that he recognized that as a murderer he would be liable to being killed by others, though it is not specified that he feared being killed specifically as a penalty for murder. This was generations before Noah.

God also said He drowned the world for "violence," and this was before the narrative we have preserved to us related the death penalty for murder.

The Bible repeatedly calls God "just," and part of justice is that the accused be aware that what he is accused of was unlawful before he committed the act. All this requires some assumptions to be made. The Bible does not come out of nowhere, but is on a background of human experience and revelation.

January 28, 1999, 1:34 p.m.

[NEA] I'm not sure if you are backing away just a bit from your apodictism, for example by your reference to human experience, or if you are looking to reinforce it.

Before proceeding, you should know that I do not take a literalistic view of Adam and Eve. I read the primeval pair as a metaphor for humankind awakening to moral consciousness.

In early rabbinic thought, the Noachides were essentially a repetition of commands originally given to Adam and Eve; and a considerable amount of exegesis is proffered to support that theory; although some of it is tortured. This tack might well support your apodictism.

However, I am not satisfied; because an awakening to a consciousness of good and evil implies more. It implies an experiential awareness and the ability to verify, at least to some degree, that an action or a command is good. This ability may be recognized as limited, as we saw in the Sumerian Prayer to Every God, and as easily corrupted (cf. Romans 1). But it is also recognized as being in some very basic way innate to the human heart.

So there are two routes by which you can say that the punishments meted out before the Noachic covenant were just -- one by arguing that the laws were present from Adam on, the other by arguing an experiential and innate awareness of good and evil (which, by the way, may yet leave a place for some apodictism).

There is a third way as well, one which contradicts one of your statements. Certain passages of Scripture emphasize the absolute right of the Creator over that which is created (for example, Isaiah 64:8; Jeremiah 18:1-6; and Romans 9:21). In that sense, if God chose to discard portions of humankind at the beginning, who is to dispute the matter? However, your basic point is correct. Genesis portrays God as having appropriate cause for meting out punishment and destruction upon antediluvian peoples.

January 30, 1999, 2:39 p.m.

[NEA] Earlier I wrote that "an awakening to a consciousness of good and evil implies ... an experiential awareness and the ability to verify, at least to some degree, that an action or a command is good."

In both philosophy and theology, there's a long tradition of trying to answer this question: How do we know that God is neither evil nor indifferent? If God is either evil or indifferent, then presumably the heroic course for humankind would be to rebel against, rail against, and renounce God.

A pure apodictism, one that says that good and evil are to be known by God's words alone, has a great deal of trouble in trying to address that question. However, if we have within ourselves some innate ability to determine what is good and what is evil and can make a reasonable case that we have this ability, then we are a long ways towards answering the question.

Rights and Sexuality


January 11, 1999, 10:42 p.m.

[Missionary] You spoke of "the right of procreation." How is procreation a right? Collectively for humankind? Or is it an individual right?

I am incapable of procreating. To procreate I must obtain the cooperation of a woman. And, I have no right to compel a woman to cooperate with me in this.

Same thing goes for women. They can't do it either without obtaining the cooperation of a man, and they have no right to compel a man to help them out.

So the idea of a "right" seems kind of stretched.

January 12, 1999, 4:21 p.m.

[NEA] First, just a point of fact: It is technologically feasible for people to reproduce without the cooperation of the other sex. Cloning. Don't think a lot of women haven't noticed.

Now to your question. The first divine command to humankind was to multiply and fill the earth. From the Bible believer's point of view (and that of many others as well), the state can claim no legitimate authority to force people to disobey. The proper scope of government does not include flying in the face of God. In this sense there is a collective right, that is, the state has no right to prevent the populace from procreating.

But the first command goes further. By virtue of being a general instruction to humankind corporately, it is the assumed mandate to individuals, unless, by nature or circumstance or vocation, one is led down a different path. So, by the same reasoning, procreation is also an individual right, in the sense that the state has no place prohibiting an individual from procreating.

However, if the mandate is filled collectively, an argument might be made that the state has a place in the management of procreation. If management entails prohibition, this violates other established rights, such as the right to privacy. Besides prohibition is a horrible and generally counterproductive way to go about population management. But as for providing incentives and that sort of thing, I think the state does have a legitimate role.

Other arguments could be brought forward, but this was all I had in mind when I used the phrase, "right of procreation."

One more word: I am dismayed when these days, all too frequently, I see Christians attacking rights. They have forgotten the heroic struggles and complex arguments of many of their Christian predecessors to secure the very idea of rights. This isn't to say that some people aren't claiming rights willy-nilly without either philosophical or theological justification. But to treat rights as offensive and disposable or as silly and disposable -- not to suggest that you are doing either -- rather than as sacred is an ill course to follow. <For more, see the relevant section of my opinion piece on confession, toleration, rights, and social decay.>

Concluding Comments


January 1, 1999, 3:43 p.m.

[NEA] Thank you both for your remarks and for your questions. Your questions were incisive. often going straight to the heart of the matter. As for your remarks, I'll be sure to take them into account when I return to amplifying and revising the index. Right now, I'm working on another project, the Sexual Ethics Test, a version of which is already posted.

January 24, 1999

[NEA] Two weeks, almost, have passed since our last exchange; and so I assume that our conversation has run its course.

I trust that I did not offend by my pointedness or in any other way. The written word is cold, highly susceptible to attitudinal misunderstanding; and sexual ethics, I find, is one of the touchiest of issues. To be candid, over the years I have had a number of friends turn permanently chilly towards me in response to the mere suggestion that the Bible may say something different about it than what they think or, even more innocuously, in reaction to the sheer fact that I am interested in pursuing sexual ethics with intellectual rigor. The quest for truth in that field would seem to carry a heavy personal cost, even in this age which touts academic integrity, intellectual freedom, and openness about the topic of sexuality; even for those, like myself, of gentle disposition.

I sincerely hope that you have benefited from this conversation as much as I have.

I have digested and revised my side of the conversation in a single hypertext document, necessarily incorporating those questions and remarks of yours to which I was directly responding. You will notice that I have added a few facts and comments, for example a response to your Turkish anecdote.

If you have any comments on the document or any objection to my sharing it with others -- for instance, by my posting it on the Web, which I don't intend to do right away -- please let me know.

January 30, 1999, 2:39 p.m.

[NEA] I hope you don't mind if I fold some of our ongoing conversation into a hypertext document on the same principles as what you have already seen, perhaps to be posted someday.




Norman E. Anderson

Compiled, January 17, 1999; posted, May 5, 1999; new url, January 29, 2004; last modification, January 29, 2004

Copyright ©1999-2004 by Norman E. Anderson

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