Deuteronomy 21:15-17: If A Man Has Two Wives

As a single young man whose relationship history has been spotty, I’m not someone who is greatly interested in polygamy for its own sake. And yet in debating this subject over the course of this past weekend with others, I have recognized that the subject of polygamy as discussed here in this law is worthy of mention for several reasons, and so I would like to comment on this law and its relevance to us and without giving a full discussion on the institution of marriage (which I am ill-equipped to talk about in more than a theoretical manner) at least provide a connection between two possible interpretations of the passage of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 and show how polygamy is more relevant to our contemporary cultural politics than may seem obvious at first blush.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17 reads as follows: “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the unloved, and if the firstborn son is of her who is unloved, then it shall be, on the day he bequeaths his possessions to his sons, that he must not bestow firstborn status on the son of the loved wife in preference to the son of the unloved, the true firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.”

There are two ways this law can be interpreted. It can be viewed as a (tacit) acceptance within the Bible of polygamy and a reminder that husbands cannot play favorites with their wives and choose the eldest son of their favorite wife as their firstborn heir. There are situations in the Bible (Jacob is one example) where this was a serious problem. In addition, the law can be viewed as a command to men to give the firstborn son of their “first wives’ club” the firstborn status and not cut them out of the inheritance for their children from later marriages, in the case of the serial monogamy for which our culture is justly infamous. Malachi 2:10-16, for example, deals with this problem.

From this dual application of the passage, we can see a connection between polygamy and divorce. This is worthy of some comment. In some cultures (France, Italy, and Latin America come to mind), it is acceptable for powerful men (even presidents) to marry and yet have an official mistress (which the Bible would consider a concubine) and have more than one household, possibly with children by both women in a de facto polygamous way. Sometimes, as was the case when former French president Francios Mitterrand was buried, the major wife and the minor wife and their children presented a unified front at his funeral [1]. Whether recognized by law or not, Mediterranean cultures have long had a de facto recognition of polygamy, with officially recognized mistresses in addition to wives.

In some cultures, like that of the United States, this is not an acceptable state of affairs. Indeed, it is far more common in such cultures for a first marriage of equals to end in middle age (during a midlife crisis) where a financially successful man leaves an aging first wife and marries a much younger and much more physically attractive second wife (who is often judged to be an ambitious social climbing home wrecker). The divorce and remarriage and serial monogamy of our elites in the United States is a reaction to the fact that the unofficial polygamy of other cultures is not culturally accepted either by the general public or (perhaps more importantly) by wives. But the result of either sort of culture is precisely the same situation as that envisioned by both interpretations of the same law.

Let us now turn to two biblical passages that deal with each of the interpretations of this passage, and that demonstrate that both interpretations are valid simultaneously in light of what is said. First, let us look at 1 Samuel 1:1-7: “Now there was a certain man of Ramaithaim Zophim, of the mountains of Ephraim, and his name of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. And he had two wives: the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. This man went up from his city yearly to worship and sacrifice to the Lord of hosts in Shiloh. Also the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, the priests of the Lord, were there. And whenever the time came for Elkanah to make an offering, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved Hannah, although the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable because the Lord had closed her womb. So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat.”

This story (and others like it) demonstrate how polygamy, whether official or unofficial, tends to provoke hostility between women and internally bickering families. Why anyone would want to have bickering women arguing over how loved they were or how their son was supposed to inherit the throne or the family farm or business is beyond my understanding. Peninnah knew that she was not loved by her husband, regardless of how many children she had, a bitter feeling understood by Leah, the first (and unwanted) wife of Jacob. She took out her feelings of being unloved and unwanted by tormenting her “sister wife” Hannah about the only thing she could, the fact that she had a fertile womb and Hannah did not. Hannah, being deeply insecure and hurt by her lack of children, which may have been seen to reflect on a sin of hers in the eyes of others, was driven to distraction by this torment. Here we have a deeply unhappy family, where Elkanah’s well-meaning attempts to show Hannah of his love for her (by giving her the double portion of the firstborn) provoke conflict and misery among his two wives.

We see a similar sort of dynamic of divided and unhappy families in Malachi 2:10-16: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers? Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah has profaned the Lord’s holy institution which He loves: he has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob the man who does this, being awake and aware, yet who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! And this is the second thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your comopanion, and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s harment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

God hates divorce, and yet divorce is alarmingly common in our society, increasingly more common the more often one is married, because of the cavalier disregard for the covenantal aspect of marriage on the part of those who have previously violated their covenantal oaths of loyalty to a spouse made with God as witness. Here in Malachi we are told that the husbands are to blame for abandoning their Jewish wives (and children) to marry the daughters of the heathen (presumably for political reasons), to bring up children who do not understand or respect the ways of God but instead follow the customs of the wicked. For this Malachi gives a stinging rejection from God that the offerings of those who treacherously break the bonds of marriage will not be accepted. In practice both husbands and wives are often to blame for the breakup of marriages. A husband may become wealthy and successful and desire an attractive partner to shore up his own insecurities about aging, while the same insecurities may drive a wife to become shrewish and unloving and disrespectful, driving her husband away. On the other hand, a husband may drive a wife away by a lack of financial success (if his wife is superficial and materialistic, blaming him for a lack of ability to provide for his household), by neglect of the emotional needs of his wife, or by abuse. But God hates divorce, even for those reasons where he allows it, because it causes violence to families and brings bitterness and division and strife where God desires peace and harmony and love.

We may therefore see from this rather brief parallel treatment of the two interpretations of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 that the end result of both polygamy and serial monogamy, the two possible interpretations of this verse, are largely the same. There is division within families and fighting over love and affection and material resources where God desires unity and harmony and working in cooperation. This law represents a way to discourage polygamy or serial monogamy through providing the dominant share of economic resources to those parts of the family that paid their dues. But the choice of working through the difficulties of our relationships and remaining committed to keeping our families together belongs to us. And we don’t do a very good job of it, unfortunately.

It is perhaps interesting to note in this context that the threat of polygamy (and serial monogamy) exist from both the right and the left. Traditionally in history, polygamy has only been available to those who had the means to support multiple households, generally limited to the wealthy and those who (like the Mormons) wished to adopt the lifestyle of the patriarchs, for their own political purposes. The harems of kings and the mistresses of the wealthy and powerful have traditionally been a prerogative of the wealthy and elites. However, the decline of moral standards has led to the rising desire for fairly permanent threesomes among the bisexual, and the desire for gay “marriages” is probably only the first blow in a culture war, to be followed by an appeal for “plural marriages,” which opens the floodgates of polygamy back into the culture wars, where they have not been in the United States since the Mormon controversy over marriage of the 1800’s.

What we find is that the threats to monogamy, God’s apparent original design, as reflected both in Eden (Genesis 2:20-25) and in the prophetic marriage supper of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:1-10), come from both the right and the left. From the left comes the pull of sexual immorality and the inability and disinclination of people to control their lusts. From the right comes the pull to increase one’s power and economic position, and to preserve the family lineage and property, through either large families or second wives taken if the first has proven to be infertile, or through second marriages for political reasons (as was the case in Malachi 2). Both our lust and our greed and selfishness are powerful threats to the sanctity of marriage. Let us not forget to defend against the threats from both sides.

[1] http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/mitterands-funeral/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, Love & Marriage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Deuteronomy 21:15-17: If A Man Has Two Wives

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