Bible History Online
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. Meaning of the Term
2. Origin of Polygamy
3. The Old Testament and Polygamy
4. Polygamy Unnatural
5. Weakness of Polygamy
1. Meaning of the Term:
Polygamy has been and is the open blazon by the human race of sex vice. The very term is a misnomer. Since man became moralized he has apprehended that the proper marriage relation between the sexes is monogamy. Whatever may have been the practice, since man could ask himself, What is right? he has known that ap' arches ("from the beginning," Mt 19:4), au fond, at bottom, marriage is the choice of one man and one woman of each other for a life family relation. La Rochefoucauld said: "Hypocrisy is a sort of homage which vice pays to virtue." There is hypocrisy beneath the word polygamy. It is an attempt to cover up by the term "plural marriage" what is not marriage and cannot be marriage. There is no particular need of defining what the condition is, so long as we can look upon it as a violation and negation of the marriage relation. The very use of the term from any language covering a like condition is attempt--
"To steal the livery of the court of heaven
To serve the Devil in."
Polygamy is a general term and might mean a multiplicity of partners in the family relation by one of either sex. But it does not. Polygamy practically means exactly "polygyny" (gune), i.e. it describes a many-wived man. The correlative term "polyandry" describes the condition of a woman who has many men in family relation with herself. They are all husbands to her, as in polygamy all the women are wives to one man. But polyandry in historic times has had so little illustration that it may be dismissed as so exceptional as to be worthy of no further notice here.
Why polygamy has captured the whole position philologically covered by polygyny is readily apparent. The might of the physically strongest has dictated the situation. Man has on the average one-fourth more muscular force than woman. When it comes to wrong in sex relation, man has that advantage, and it has given him the field covered by the word "polygamy." There he is master and woman is the victim.
2. Origin of Polygamy:
It is plainly evident that polygamy is primarily largely the outcome of tribal wars. When men had separated into clans and had taken up different places of abode, collisions would soon occur between them. What would happen in such cases would be what we know did happen in North America soon after its first settlement by Europeans, to wit, the destruction of the Hurons by the Iroquois. The great majority of the men were massacred; the women and children, driven to the abode of the conquerors, disappearing there mainly in concubinage and slavery. What shall be done with this surplus of women? Here again the might of the strongest comes to the front. The chief or the most heroic fighter would assert his right to choice of captives, and thus concubinage or what is the same thing--polygamy--would be set up. Successes in further wars come and add other women to be distributed. Of course to the sheik or king there soon comes the seraglio and the harem. Polygamous practices will come in in other ways. The prisoner of war becomes property and passes from hand to hand by gift or sale. So woman--the weaker party--endures what comes to her as slave, concubine. We have now no longer the "helpmeet" originally destined for man--"bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh"--for whom he would "leave his father and his mother" and to whose single self he would "cleave" for life (Gen 2:18,24; Mt 19:5,6). Monogamy, with its unity in labor, thought and feeling, with its immeasurable modifying influences of moral, ideal and spiritual cast, is gone. Woman is reduced to the position of ministrant to man's unmodified sensuality.
3. The Old Testament and Polygamy:
The complications introduced into morals by polygamy are not often considered. But the Bible sets them forth in plainness. The marriage of Abraham and Sarah seems to have been an original love match, and even to have preserved something of that character through life. Still we find Sarah under the influence of polygamous ideas, presenting Abraham with a concubine. Yet afterward, when she herself had a son, she induced Abraham to drive out into the wilderness this concubine and her son. Now Abraham was humane and kind, and it is said "The thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight" (Gen 21:11). But he was in the toils of polygamy, and it brought him pain and retribution. A Divine direction may be hard to bear.
The conditions of Jacob's marriages were such that it is hard to say whether any of his children were of any other than of polygamous origin (Gen 35:22-26). Where the family idea and affection went, in such mixed condition, is evidenced by the unblushing sale, for slavery in Egypt, of one of the brothers by the others (Gen 37:28).
David was a singer of sweet and noble songs and wanted to be a righteous man with his whole heart. Yet, probably in common with all the military leaders and kings of the earth of his day, he had a polygamous career. His retributions ran along an extended line. There was a case of incest and murder among his children (2 Sam 13). The son in whom he had most hope and pride organized treason against his throne, and lost his life in the attempt. David left his kingdom to Solomon, of whom much might be said, but of whom this can be said--evidently originally a man bright, keen-witted, wise, yet in his old age he went to pieces by the wiles of the women with whom he had loaded his harem. Partly by his extravagance in his polygamous life, and partly in attempt to build temples in distant places for the religions represented by the inmates of his harem, he bankrupted his nation. As a consequence his kingdom was divided at his death, and there was never again a united Israel (1 Ki 11:12). Polygamy may be justly charged with these untoward results.
4. Polygamy Unnatural:
It can be demonstrated scientifically, even mathematically, that polygamy is a moral wrong. Statistics show that births are substantially equally divided between the sexes. Excess seems slightly on the side of males. When this fact is considered and also the fact of the wide prevalence of polygamy, it would seem that polygamy (polygyny) is a greater crime against Nature than polyandry. To put out of view for a moment the wrong to woman in denying to her the rights and privileges of monogamous marriage, the interference with the rights of man to such marriage looms up in vast proportion. Every harem is the denial to men of the right to seek among its inmates wives according to the dictates of their own hearts.
But we are not done with the crime against man. Given a harem, and he who set it up has made, or there brought, the eunuch. The lord of the harem must be served by emasculated men. A search in history will reveal an amount of this wickedness that is past belief. The eunuch has been everywhere among all nations and peoples and tongues. They have not only been servitors to women in harems, but they have acquired such influence with their masters that they have sometimes even dictated the policy of government. They have been the secret cabinet that has had the last word in public affairs. They have sometimes held public positions and shown therein astonishing ability. Witness Narses, the brilliant general of the emperor Justinian.
5. Weakness of Polygamy:
Gibbon noticed the fact that nations began to decline in power when their policies were dictated and managed by eunuchs. But that is taking a symptom for the disease. There are weaknesses behind that weakness. We have found woman in muscular strength equal to three-fourths of a man. If we claim nothing more for woman than that ratio through the whole scale of her potencies, what would be thought of a nation that should try to reduce that three-fourths of potency as nearly to zero as it could? This is what polygamy has done--reduced woman as nearly to a cipher as it could in all the departments of her being. She has been held to the lowest and most primitive industrial pursuits. She has been deprived of intellectual development. She has been debarred from society, permitted to look at it only through a home lattice, or, if abroad, through a swathod face. The harem of sheik or sultan has fixed the condition of woman in province or nation--set the bounds to her life. The highest office assigned her has been breeder of children, and for one-half of them--the daughters--she could have no possible hope or ambition.
Where in such degradation is the "helpmeet" for man in all his problems? This condition is reflected back over man. What possible appeal can there be to him for thought and energy except to repeat the same dull round exhibited in his daily life? Polygamous nations have never been industrial inventors, have contributed little to science. They have usually ruined the fertility of the lands they have occupied. They have been heavily weighted with the lethargy of a system that appeals to nothing but the most primitive instincts and vices of man.
The monogamous have been the forceful nations. Rome conquered the world while she was monogamous, and lost control of it when she dropped to the moral level of the sex corruption of the peoples that she had conquered. The Teuton trundled into and over Europe in ox-carts mounted on solid wood trucks. But his cart carried one wife, and now all polygamy is held under the trained guns of the Tenton.
There may seem to be two exceptions--the establishment of the Mogul empire in India and the subjugation of Western Asia and Eastern Europe by the Turk. That in both cases there was great success in war is granted. They were authorized by their religion to exhibit the frenzy of bloodshed and indulge in lust. Indeed, enjoyment of the latter was a bright hope for the life to come. But when they had possession of a country, and massacres and ravishing were over, what then? For what is mankind indebted to them?
A lyric has been put in the hand of the present writer by a friend who wrote it at the last date of the title. It is one of the lyrics of the centuries in its synthesis of history and in its insight into the forces physical, moral and immoral at work in the Mogul empire of India. Notice the dates. The text will show what took place between.
THE MOGUL 1525-1857
A war steed coursed out the wind-swept north,
Jarring the crags with hoofs of fire,
Snuffing far battle with nostril wide,
Neighing the joy of fierce desire.
The crisping herbage of arid plains
Had toughened his sinews like bands of steel;
The snow-fed waters of Zarafshan
Had nerved the might of a northern will.
The war steed grazed in the fertile meads,
Drinking the waters of indolent streams:
He rested at eve on bloom-dight beds,
Toyed with by maidens in the goldening gleams.
They charmed his ear with dalliant song:
They closed his eyes in witchery's glee:
They fed him the vineyards' wildering draught--
He slept in the breath of the lotus tree.
White bones lie strewn on the flowering mead,
In flesh-rank grass grown high and dark.
The carrion bird hath flown--hath died--
Riseth the war-horse? Neigheth? Hark!
--JOSIAH TORREY READE, Amherst, 1856.
The above lyric may be taken as the epitaph of any polygamous nation. The last words are significant--"Neigheth? Hark!" Would the old war steed arise? "Hark!" The Sepoy rebellion was on! We "hearkened," but the rebellion went to pieces and an end was put to the Mogul empire. We have listened for half a century and heard no sound. We hear mutterings now, but the end will be as before--even if the "war-horse" riseth and is victorious. He will then again lie down in "flesh-rank grass grown high and dark," and the "carrion bird" will fly from his "white bones." Streams cannot rise higher than their fountains. The causes remaining, the same effects will follow.
See DIVORCE; FAMILY; MARRIAGE.
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'POLYGAMY'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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