Friday, 22 February 2013

Job and the subversion of polygamy

I’ve rather grown tired of the allegation that in the Bible wives are ‘property’, like houses, servants, oxen or other things the tenth commandemtn tells us we shouldn’t covet.
Personally, I’ve always found this a forced reading of both the text and the culture, not least because the biblical narratives hardly treat wives as something a husband simply ‘owns’. Rather, they are loved, and mourned when they die (eg Gen 23:2; 48:6).
And yet when you look at a man like Solomon, with his “seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines” (1 Ki 11:3), it is hard to escape the impression that the accumulation of a harem was seen as both acceptable and as having, at the very least, a certain social caché.
Thus when I was preparing a short piece on a ‘biblical theology’ of marriage earlier this week, I was particulary struck by both the beginning and the end of the book of Job.
Job is, of course, presented as the recipient par excellence of God’s blessing, brought out not least in the round numbers of his ‘goods’:
[Job] had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. (Job 1:2-3, NIV)
Similarly, when his fortunes are restored at the end of the book, we read,
[Job] had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters. (Job 42:12-13)
What suddenly occurred to me, however, was that he only had one wife. We meet her in 2:9-10 and she is mentioned twice again, in 19:16 and 31:9. And yet although the text assumes she is remarkably fertile following Job’s restoration, the important thing is that she is apparently neither replaced nor augmented.
Now had the assumption been simply that ‘wives plural’ were worth accumulating per se then surely Job, of all people, would have been credited with a suitably significant number of them. Yet he starts and ends with precisely one — indeed the same one.
And thus, I would argue, the text subtly indicates something about polygamy — namely (at very least) that whilst it may have been widely practised it was not necessarily regarded as something to be valued. Job is blessed with many things, but his one wife is blessing enough in that particular regard.
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  1. When discussing polygamy it is worth recognizing that the toleration of the - non-ideal - practice was in many contexts an accommodation to a far harsher world, where a significant number of men died in work and warfare, where procreation was far more highly valued, where women were isolated and vulnerable outside of the family structure as there was no state welfare system, where a woman's social standing depended greatly upon her husband, and identity was far less individualistic in character. In such a context, polygamy isn't an entirely bad thing, even though it is a serious departure from the ideal that should be pursued.

  2. Thanks John. Insightful.

    Also, in Job, his wife is struggling along side him and his 3 friends in trying to make sense of it all.

    It seems polygamy in the Bible is "acceptable" in the sense that, some Israelites just absorbed the practice of the nations around them. But often the Bible just seems to follow the consequences of polygamy. E.g. the start of 1 Samuel and the jealousy issues between the wives and the husband always between a rock and a hard place.

    Darren Moore

  3. The requirements of a Bishop is that he should be the husband of one wife. This might be said to be an indication that two or more would be too much of a distraction. I believe morelikely that this was an indication of a prefered move towards one wife and not the cultural custom of more.