As we are reading through 1 and 2 Samuel in our daily Bible readings, you may have one or two questions, I know I do! It is quite the story of David and Saul and their families. A lot of intrigue among other things. How is this edifying, we might ask.
One of the things that you may wonder about is polygamy. David, for example, seems to be collecting a lot of wives along the way. And with his son Solomon it will be even much more the case.
What’s the deal with that?
When I finished seminary, each graduating student had to give a sermon at one of the chapel services of that final semester. I had learned that if there was a difficult Biblical text then that is the one to focus on. And that it is important to preach on the Old Testament.
Here is what came up that for that day
Genesis 4:19-24 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
19 And Lamech took two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Na′amah.
23 Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, hearken to what I say:
I have slain a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
Quite the text to draw!
Although we come across polygamy (having more than one wife) quite often in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) this is the first case of it. Which makes it important for interpreting polygamy when we come across it later.
So, let’s see what I can recall from studying this text all those years ago.
Lamech is a descendent of Cain, child of Adam and Eve. Also, the first human being to kill another. Out of jealous bitterness, resentment and anger Cain killed his brother Abel. We see how God has made humanity: male and female together embody God’s image. They are the priests in God’s Temple/Garden Eden and meant to tend and serve in holiness and intimacy with God, and unity with each other: “male and female he made them, so a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they will become one flesh” Genesis says and Jesus later repeats.
Before the creation of the woman the human being is just called ha adam (the one made of the earth) but when the woman is made, we might say created from ha adam, there is now male and female.
When the man saw the woman for the first time, he said
Here, at last, is the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh
She shall be ishah (woman) for out of ish (man) was she taken
Clearly no polygamy here. Quite the opposite.
What we see in the first 11 chapters of Genesis is the sacred image of God, male and female, wonderfully made and then fallen and broken by human sin. The desire to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil is a desire to be no longer just human, satisfied in this wonderful creation, but to be god (as the serpent from the old chaos that God had defeated at the beginning whispering in the human ear). That is that they could be “like gods”. That is when the trouble starts. If I am a “god” then that pretty much has me moving to the centre of the universe. Which means we suddenly have a lot of “centres of the universe” banging into each other. (Don’t you know who I think I am!)
And so, we see the inevitable work its way out almost immediately. Adam turns on and blames Eve. Eve is dominated by Adam. Work becomes drudgery. And (as stated above) jealousy and rage are not far behind. God warns Cain, “Sin crouches at your door and it deeply longs for you, but if you wish you can overcome it”. He doesn’t.
As things go from bad to worse, even the beautiful covenant between man and woman break down. And so Cain’s descendant, Lamech, is even worse than his ancestor. He is more vengeful (he says) than Cain and being a “god-like” figure (in his own mind) he begins to collect wives. If you are the centre of the universe, why not?
Because of the radical fallenness of humanity which works its way out in these 11 chapters, polygamy becomes part of the fabric of human culture. The thing we can notice though whenever it appears, it is either just plain bad, or has disastrous results.
Polygamy in the Hebrew Bible, like so many things, is not prescriptive; it is descriptive. It is not saying “this is the way things should be”, but rather, “this is the reality of how things are”. “This is the raw material God has to work with as he brings redemption”. Here is the “glorious ruin” of human culture. So yes, David has numerous wives (but see, for example, that his first wife, Michal, despises him and Bath Sheba the mother of Solomon; well that is a painful story which you have been reading).
In all this mess of truly distorted human culture, God is seeking to write straight within our broken lines, again and again. Solomon, the greatest and wisest king, the child of David and Bath Sheba as a result of Royal polygamy, is in the end (as we will see) undone by polygamy. Back to Genesis 1-11 all over again.
All lines converge at Jesus, who, when asked about marriage, points back to the way God made us “in the beginning”. He said “male and female he made us and a man shall cleave to his wife (singular) and they shall become one flesh”. (just as they were in ha adam to begin with).
1 and 2 Samuel are full of folly and tragedy, it’s true. Because God inspired the Hebrew writers to not turn their kings into gods, as their pagan neighbours did, but to tell the truth. Egotism leads to brokenness. We are not the centres of the universe bumping into each other.
Polygamy, after all these centuries, is making a comeback now called “polyamory” (wait for it to dominate the news cycle over the next few years. It will). Let’s call it what it is; same old same old “I am the centre of the universe I will have no restrictions”. “Let us be like gods” (and just trash your life and your family while you’re at it). It’s been tried and found wanting (to say the least) in the pages of the Bible in one long cautionary tale. 1 and 2 Samuel teach us that.
But sometime you should read the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew, Jesus’ ancestors. There are not supposed to be female names there, but there are a few. Bath Sheba for one, with her whole tragic story in the background. Our tragedy built into Jesus’ pedigree. As someone put it, in the Bible our tragedy is overcome by God’s (in the classical sense of the word) Comedy.
There is one centre of the universe and he “emptied himself taking on the form of a slave” says St Paul quoting a hymn early Christians sang. The complete opposite of Lamech. Jesus reverses old Lamech; he (Lamech) really eats the dust in the end, egomaniac as he was. As St Paul says “let be joined to this mind” (instead) — that is the mind of Jesus.