The Bible, Polygamy, and “Sister Wives”

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

While watching reality TV the other day, I asked Dan “Do you think this stuff should be on TV or do you think it’s exploitive?” 

“Yes,” he said. 

He was kidding of course, but the conversation highlighted the main reason we typically avoid watching reality TV despite its inexplicably addictive qualities.  

Lucky for me, I get to count my latest indulgence—TLC’s controversial “Sister Wives”—as research for my next book. The big season finale aired Sunday night, but you can catch a “Sister Wives” marathon tonight on TLC from 6 to 10 p.m. 

While contemporary expressions of “biblical womanhood” often focus on restoring the nuclear family, the reality is that biblical women were part of a radically different familial culture, one that looked a lot more like “Sister Wives” than “Leave it to Beaver.”  A glimpse at Abraham’s family tree reveals that a household in the ancient Near East might include multiple wives, handmaidens, slaves, and concubines…all under the same roof.  And not unlike “Sister Wives,” this arrangement produced considerable drama as women competed over reproductive prowess and the affections of their husbands (see Sarah vs. Hagar, Rachel vs. Leah, Hannah vs. Peninah.) 

Polygamy is one aspect of biblical womanhood that I am decidedly NOT interested in pursuing literally (nor is Dan; he’s got enough on his plate with one wife, bless his heart).  So instead I plan to read up on the subject, interview a woman in a polygamous marriage, and spend a bunch of time on the couch watching “Sister Wives” and “Big Love.” 

Polygamy is a hot topic right now, probably because of the success of these two shows as well as recent debates regarding the government’s role in marriage. In a way, the door was opened by the Dugger Family of TLC’s “18 Kids And Counting” (or is it 19? I can never keep up), whose lifestyle is indicative of Quiverfull, a religious movement which bases its principles on certain passages of Scripture regarding childbearing.  The best way to grow a large family is through polygamy, and if America fell in love with the Dugger family, who’s to say they won’t fall in love with the Brown family? 

In my research, I’ve found no direct condemnation of polygamy in the Bible.  1 Timothy 3:2 requires that a leader in the church be “the husband of one wife,” but the practice itself is not forbidden. Old Testament passages that chastise the men of Israel for taking foreign wives have more to do with the religious affiliations of said wives than the number of them.  In fact, some of the Bible’s most admired heroes—Abraham, Jacob, Caleb, David, Solomon, Gideon— had multiple wives and/or concubines. So why does polygamy strike so many of us as morally reprehensible? 

There are of course a lot of dimensions to this issue, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

From a biblical standpoint: Is it forbidden?

From a moral standpoint: Is it wrong?

From a legal standpoint: Should it be legal?

From an entertainment standpoint: Should we be watching reality TV shows about it?

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