“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”
Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.
And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.
The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.
Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.
This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.
Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.
Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.
Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.
A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.
The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.
At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.
Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.
For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?
The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.
Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.
*Names changed for security
Photo by zelle duda on Unsplash