Welcome back to the BRC Podcast, my name is Aaron Ventura and today we are going to talk about Those Polygamous Patriarchs!
We recently finished the book of Genesis and you may have noticed that some of the heroes of our faith (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) sometimes do things that make us uncomfortable. What are we to make of God holding up in many places in His Word, think of Hebrews 11, people like Abraham as exemplars of the faith. What are we to do with Scripture praising people that could never become elders in your local church?
In this episode I want to briefly lay out a few different ways of reading and thinking about these things:
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul is talking about the sins of Israel and then says, “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them.”
Positive & Negative Examples
So here’s the first principle, Scripture gives us both positive and negative examples.
So when we come to a text, we can ask ourselves, is there a virtue here for me to imitate, or is there a sin that I need to avoid?
In every passage, there is either a virtue to imitate or a sin to avoid, but the only way of determining this is by reading closely, considering the context, but most importantly, asking ourselves what the rest of Scripture says about it.
So for example, Lot is not someone we think of as worthy of imitation. He makes decisions according to the flesh, he chooses to live near Sodom and Gomorrah, His wife is turned into a pillar of salt, his two daughters get him drunk and sleep with him, I have not yet met any Christian parents who have named their kid Lot.
However, the apostle Peter says that Lot was a righteous man. It says in 2 Peter 2, God delivered “righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds).”
And you see that Peter is going out of his way here to emphasize the righteousness of Lot, he calls him righteous three times: righteous Lot, righteous man, righteous soul.” Now what was righteous about Lot?
Peter says it was that he was tormented or vexed by what he saw and heard in Sodom. They were lawless but Lot was righteous. And Lot’s righteousness was vindicated when God sent angels to lead them out of Sodom before it was destroyed.
So what is worthy of imitation from Lot’s life? It wasn’t the incest, or compromise, or being a poor husband and father. It was that he was oppressed and persecuted for not going along with the homo-parade. Lot lived in Seattle or San Francisco and he hated the wicked works done in those cities.
So just as God calls you righteous if you trust in Christ for salvation, so also God calls Lot righteous for trusting God to deliver Him from fire from heaven.
And just like you and I have lots of sins and chapters in the story of our lives that we would hate to have put into Scripture for everyone to read, so also the patriarchs have many sins and shortcoming and failings as well. But God calls them righteous.
More Holy Than God
Now where most people go wrong here is by acting like they are more holy than God. We think that the patriarchs in Genesis should live according to whatever our cultural standards are, and then we look down on them for not living up to them. This is what CS Lewis calls Chronological snobbery.
One of the prime examples of this is the whole #MeToo movement where we are told to “believe all women!” But that is a worldly standard not a biblical standard. If we applied our modern worldy standards to Genesis, then Potiphar’s wife must be believed when she tells her husband that Joseph attempted to rape her. But of course that was a malicious false accusation. Under biblical law, the person who makes a false accusation is punished with the same punishment they sought for the accused. So if rape is punishable by death, and a woman falsely accuses a man of raping her, she is liable to the death penalty. That’s biblical justice.
You see this increasingly with how people apply our modern concepts of consent when it comes to defining what rape is. But our worldly standards for sex are not God’s standards and we should not impose or read into various stories our own worldly sexual standards. What we in 2021 call “consent” is not what defines whether something is rape or not. God’s law must always be the standard. Returning to Lot…
Even despite Lot’s compromises, and the patriarchs moral failings, many of them are far more righteous than we are living in 2021, with Bibles on our phone, preaching on Sundays, and the access to knowledge and truth that we have. Remember that Genesis takes place before God gives the Law at Sinai. And so although God’s moral law applies universally, they did not have it written in stone for everyone to see and abide by. They also did not have decades of people who had meditated on God’s law and explained what each law meant. So we should cut them some slack. Imagine you had never read the Bible, you didn’t know anything about Jesus or salvation, and God appears to you and tells you to follow Him. That’s what happened to Abraham. Abraham was called out of idolatry.
So God judges us according to the knowledge we have, Romans 1 says we all have knowledge of God written on our hearts and in our conscience, and yet that knowledge is insufficient to save us. We need Christ, we need His Law and we need the Holy Spirit to empower us to obey that Law. Abraham had these things in types and shadows and in a lesser degree than we have post-Pentecost. So we should judge him the way we would want to be judged if we lived under those same circumstances. We are not as blameless as we think.
Now this is not to make excuses for the sins of the patriarchs, but it is to make their sins understandable (to account for them). Why did they do these things?
Which brings us to another distinction we should keep in mind as we read.
Prescriptive & Descriptive Morals
Not only must we distinguish between whether something is worthy of imitation or not, we also need to pay attention to whether what we are reading is prescriptive or descriptive.
Is the passage God commanding His people to do something? If so, it is always by definition righteous (even killing Amalekites). However, there is much of Hebrew narrative that is simply descriptive, it’s telling a story, and it takes more work on our side to determine whether what these characters are doing is good, or bad, or a mixture of both.
For example, when you get to the life of David, even before the incident with Bathsheba, he has taken multiple wives. This is clearly disobedience to God’s law, and especially the law for Kings, which says the Kings must not multiple wives, and yet David was writing Psalms, worshipping God, winning battles, he’s called a man after God’s own heart.
The only way then to judge these men rightly, is to judge them by the standard God gives us. The same applies to the polygamy of Abraham and Jacob. The way that Jesus and Paul read Genesis, both conclude that Adultery, Polygamy, incest, rape, and other sexual sins are forbidden by the very Law of Creation, as Jesus says in Matthew 19, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?
So just as creational law forbids homosexuality (it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve), it also forbids polygamy (It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve and Jessica, and Kate, and so on).
So Creational Law forbids these sins, and then the Mosaic Law makes them more explicit, and criminalizes some sins and regulates others. So adultery and rape become capital crimes (with some exceptions), Polygamy is forbidden at the outset (Leviticus 18:18), and then for those who are already in polygamous marriages, rather than divorcing some of the women which would leave them vulnerable, there are laws in Exodus 21 and Deut. 21, requiring the husband to give her food, clothing, shelter, etc. and not show favoritism to the children of one wife over another.
So creational law gives us the ideal, and then mosaic law deals with Israel already entangled in various sins and tells them how to live righteously within whatever circumstances we are in. And we can then look back at Genesis through the lens of Mosaic law to see how and why those laws were put in place.
So to summarize, we should ask ourselves, is this passage prescriptive or descriptive. Is God prescribing a command to do or not do something? Or is it a description of someone’s actions where we need to consider the context and the law of God to determine what is worthy of imitation and what is not.
One of the other ways we can become better readers of Scripture is to think about how the book started and how the book ended, and what God is communicating through that story arc.
For example, the book of Genesis begins with God and man in this beautiful garden of Eden, and it ends with a man in a coffin in the Egypt.
This suggests that one of the themes in Genesis is an explanation for how the world got so screwed up. And so after the Fall in Genesis 3, there are multiple falls that happen after it. Cane and Abel, The Flood, The Tower of Babel, Abraham and Hagar, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. There is both development and progression as God intervenes in a sinful world.
So when we consider polygamy within that context, the main point is to show us the consequences of it. Look at how much rivalry and sin and war comes from conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, brothers at odds. This all could have been avoided if Abraham had only married one wife and not listened to Sarah when she offered Hagar to him.