Abraham’s Toxic Polygamy


All references are to the Joseph Smith Translation.

250px-Sarah-HagarThe story of Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham is commonly used by pro-polygamists to bolster their position of polygyny being approved by God. However, others point out that the only reason Sarah did this was because she didn’t have enough faith that God would give her a son. Meaning that it was only through Sarah’s lack of faith that Abraham committed polygyny to begin with. In this article I will look deeper into this issue and expound this a bit more.

 

The Lord first give a promise to Abram in Genesis Chapter 12. In verse 2 God promises that he will make of Abram a great nation and that in him the nations of the earth will be blessed. In verse 6 the Lord promises the land to Abram’s seed. So far there is just a general promise of becoming a great nation and his seed possessing the land. There has been no indication from the Lord that these promises must be fulfilled through Abram’s literal descendants. As far as anyone knows Abram’s house qualifies for fulfilling these promises.

 

We learn later in Chapter 15, when the Lord comes again to talk with Abram, that Abram has already arranged an heir. That heir is Eliezer, a man who was born of Abram’s house. In verse 2-6 the Lord clarifies that it will be a literal descendant of Abram who will be his heir. This is important in understanding what comes next.

 

In Chapter 16 we get into the situation with Sarai and Hagar. Before giving Hagar to Abram, and Abram consequently becoming polygynous, Sarai recognizes that she is barren. At this point in time Sarai is about 75 years old. Abram and Sarai have been married for some time now and it is pretty clear that not only was she barren in their youth, but she has long past the age of child bearing. It is important to note that Sarai says that “the Lord hath restrained me from bearing”. Now, considering the fact that she truly was barren, I think it would be accurate of her to say that the Lord has restrained her. Certainly if the Lord wanted her to have a child, He would have caused it to happen.

It is because of this that Sarai decides to give her handmaid(servant) Hagar to Abram as a wife so that through her Sarai might have children. It is here that Sarai lacked faith in the Lord, or so people say. But let’s look carefully at what is going on.

– First, the Lord promised Abraham seed (plural).

– Second, one of these seed that would be his heir, would be a literal descendant of him.

– Third, Sarai was barren and there was no indication that the Lord had not caused it.*

The assumption behind the Sarai lacking faith theory is that they say Sarai knew that it must be through her that the heir was born. And that she did not have enough faith that the Lord would open her womb. The problem with this is that nowhere in the text does it state that the heir would come through Sarai. Up until this point there has been no indication that the heir has anything to do with Sarai. We only know that it must be through Abram.

Based on the information given, Sarai arrived at the logical conclusion that, since she couldn’t have children herself, they must have to come through someone else. I would say that the decision to give Hagar to Abraham as a wife was not a result of lacking faith; instead it was driven by faith.

Now we start getting into problems when Hagar conceives. When this happens Hagar becomes very prideful. She despised Sarai. Now, imagine that one moment you are a servant girl, and the next you are the mother of the heir to everything. For me it is easy to see why Hagar would be prideful. However, this was not a good thing, Sarai tells Abram of Hagar’s attitude. Sarai realized that perhaps Hagar was not the best choice to have given to be Abram’s wife. Some people look at verse 5 of Chapter 16 and think this is proof that Sarai knew giving Hagar to Abraham was the wrong thing. But again, looking at the evidence; Sarai had no indication that the heir and other seed would come through her. All she knew was that Abram must have seed. If Sarai thought that giving Abram a second wife was wrong, she only could have thought that condemning Abram to having no children was a better option. This a clearly absurd. Sarai’s statement of her “wrong” must have been about her regretted giving the prideful Hagar, as opposed to some other woman, to Abram.

 

After this, Abram tells Sarai that she should take care of it because Sarai is still Hagar’s mistress. Sarai then dealt hardly with Hagar, and Hagar flees. People using the story of Sarai and Hagar to show how bad polygamy is point to this incident and say, “See look how toxic polygamy is.” But what is going on here has little to do with polygyny and more to do with Hagar’s pride. Meaning, there is nothing inherent in polygyny that caused Hagar’s reaction. Her reaction came because of her perceived status change in becoming the mother of the heir.

 

While in the wilderness an angel comes to Hagar. The angel tells Hagar to go back and submit herself to Sarai, after all Sarai was Hagar’s mistress. The angel also blesses Hagar’s child. Something interesting to note here is that the Angel doesn’t say that Ishmael will be the heir, but also doesn’t say he won’t be either. So still no one in this account has any reason to think that Ishmael is not the heir. My personal thought is that it was Hagar’s despising of Sarai that may have lost it for Ishmael.

 

36481_all_09-02-AbrahamHagar returns and Ishmael is born. Thirteen years later and Chapter 17 starts. That’s over thirteen years for the Lord to say that Sarai would have a son, but He didn’t. It is safe to assume that Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael, and everyone else believed that Ishmael was the heir. It is here when the Lord comes and changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Also in verse 22 is the first mention of Sarah being the one to bear the heir. This reaffirms that, unlike what detractors claim, Sarai’s actions in promoting polygyny were done with faith, not without it.

 

In verse 22, the Lord says that it will be Sarah who will bear the heir of Abraham. Abraham goes on to rejoice. But he doesn’t rejoice because it will be Sarah who will bear the heir, as some suppose; but that two people as old as they are will have a son. Immediately after this though, Abraham prays for Ishmael. The Lord then confirms that it is Isaac who will be the heir.

 

Later in Chapter 18 three angels as men came to visit Abraham. They confirm to him that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah overhears this and laughs. She has a hard time believing that a she and Abraham, in their old age, could have a son together. If there was any part of the story where it could be said that Sarah lacked faith it would be here. But after a short discussion with the angel Sarah accepts what will happen.

 

ishmael-and-hagarLastly in Chapter 21 Isaac is born. At the great feast in celebration of Isaac’s weaning, Ishmael mocks him. Here we see that Ishmael perhaps has inherited his mother’s prideful tendencies. It is also possible that Ishmael is hurt due to the fact that he knows he used to be the heir but now Isaac is. But Ishmael’s mockings of Sarah’s son are too much for her. She tells Abraham to cast out Ishmael and Hagar. With Hagar still being the servant of Sarah the Lord, in verse 10 recognized that she had the right to do that. Abraham was upset because of this, but the Lord comforted him. He then sent Hagar and Ishamel away with provisions. While there in the wilderness the Lord provided for Hagar and Ishmael.

 

Opponents of polygyny like to point to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as an example of why polygyny is bad. They say that Sarai lacked faith in giving Hagar to Abram. They also point to Sarah and Hagar’s relationship and say that polygamy is toxic and a stumbling block. However, I have shown that by looking at the actual text, neither of these views are correct. When Sarai gave Hagar to her husband she had no indication from the Lord that she would literally bear Abram’s heir. Thus she cannot be viewed as lacking faith. The first conflict was between Hagar and Sarai was because of how Hagar treated Sarai, rather than anything inherent in polygyny. The second most influential of the two conflicts had nothing to do with Hagar at all. It was a conflict between Sarah and Ishmael. Again, nothing to do with polygyny. It is clear that this story is not anti-polygyny at all; and that those who use it as such have no basis for their argument. Instead they rely on weak recollection of the story and excessive summarization rather than the actual text.

 

*It is my assumption that this would be a common belief that divine power closed the wombs of women. Whether Sarai’s barrenness was the Lord’s doing or not, the Lord had given them no indication either way.

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9 Responses to Abraham’s Toxic Polygamy

  1. Lilli says:

    I appreciated this article for I gained some new perspectives on this story. But we must realize that polygamy was a common practice back then, and probably a very popular practice. And I believe Sarah & Abraham knew polygamy was wrong, or Abraham would have taken another wife or wives long before he was nearing 100, especially when he worried that Sarah may never have a child. And because it seems he was very well off to take care of more then 1 wife. So it does seem that Sarah’s faith in what was right did weaken when she tried to take matters into her own hands and try to control who became her husband’s heir and thus she tempted Abraham with polygamy. Abraham also seemed to loose faith in what was right when he went along with Sarah, probably because he so badly wanted a real heir and because polygamy is very enticing to men, especially with a much younger wife when your wife is now elderly. And it seems God commanded Abraham to stop living polygamy with Hagar later on, once Sarah changed her mind about it all. We also see that from this point on it appears Abraham lost the Spirit (which polygamy would cause a person to do) and he started to do things that a righteous man, let alone a true prophet, would not do, like send a woman let alone the mother of your child & the child out to suffer and maybe die and not make sure they were taken care of comfortably for the rest of her life, even if he wasn’t living with her anymore. And he later fell for false revelation and tried to sacrifice his son and he even went on to practice more polygamy with another wife after Sarah died and with concubines. These things were all things Christ taught against. Christ especially condemned polygamy in multiple ways, by way of the Golden Rule, by his teachings on love, and by his teachings on divorce and remarriage, which also condemned all polygamy. A true & righteous prophet would not have done these things. If Abraham was righteous he would have told Sarah ‘no’, when she asked him to take Hagar to wife and would have advised her to leave things in God’s hands. Christ was very clear how to tell a true prophet, ancient or modern, for he will keep all the commandments of Christ.

  2. Heber Frank says:

    Interesting. If Polygyny is always evil, but tolerated by God before Jesus, then it would make sense that Jesus would clearly condemn it. But he did not by any record we have. Rejecting the possibility of a faithful man being given more than one wife by God is rejecting God’s right to rule over us and it is rejecting God’s version of patriarchy.

    • Daniel Scott says:

      When Jesus said a man was to “cleave unto his wife,” he spoke in the singular. That is all.

      • zo-ma-rah says:

        Hardly conclusive. Especially when considering scriptures like 1 Corinthians 7, or those in Exodus. It would be far more conclusive if Christ would simply come out and say, having more than one wife is always evil, all who did so were sinning, in every case.

        The problem is that the Lord has given what appear on the surface to be mixed messages. In the Book of Mormon we have a clear condemnation of polygamy citing David and Solomon as a reference. At the same time the Lord never condemns Abraham or Jacob? He also gives instructions in the Bible allowing for polygamy. While there certainly are some who promote polygamy for evil purposes. There are others who are honestly trying to understand what the Lord wants amidst seemingly conflicting messages from the Lord.

      • Lilli says:

        Zomarah,

        To assume that ‘The Lord’ ‘authored’ or even ‘inspired’ any part of the Bible other then his teachings in the 4 Gospels, just because men back then claimed to be speaking for God, is giving far too much blind trust in men, especially men and prophets who usually didn’t even keep Christ’s commandments, so according to Christ they prove to be false or fallen prophets and thus shouldn’t be trusted or listened to anyway.

        God or Christ did not write the Bible, not even the 4 Gospels, men did, very fallible men who again probably didn’t even keep Christ’s commandments either, for very few people ever have. They also almost surely added in falsehoods or took away truths or made up things that were wrong according to their own agendas, biases, beliefs and weaknesses. Why would men back then be any different then men/leaders today?

        And Christ very clearly condemned all polygamy, by his teachings on love, the Golden Rule and especially in his teachings on marriage, where he taught that it’s adultery for any married person to marry someone else, whether or not they got a divorce, for there is no such thing as divorce to God and thus the couple is still 100% married and thus can’t marry anyone else or it’s adultery. Christ clearly taught that marriage is monogamous and eternal and nothing or no one can break that fact. So no one can remarry another once they are vowed to someone already, no matter what and so that covers all polygamy.

        Why would we believe any man, author or so called prophet who claims God condoned something like polygamy when it totally goes against Christ’s commandments and is completely contrary to the Golden Rule, which is the basis of all the laws and prophets. False or fallen prophets would of course claim that God ok’d polygamy and want to live it, for most all fallen men have a hard time being faithful to 1 woman.

        But Christ’s teachings on marriage are not well received today, even though most major Christian Church’s admit them, including the LDS, though they do not adhere to or practice them, they instead allow things like remarriage or polygamy or serial polygamy to go on, for if they didn’t then there would be very few people in their pews. For Christ’s real teachings don’t sell well.

        Christ’s teachings are only confusing if we don’t want to accept that Christ condemned all remarriage, serial and concurrent, for that is too high and hard a law for most to live and it would also mean the Church is not true, also too hard a concept for most members to consider or admit.

  3. Lilli says:

    Heber, God did not ‘tolerate’ polygyny as in ‘give it a pass’, he allowed men to make their own choices even if they were wrong. Just because men or those who claim to be prophets claim God told them it was ok to live polygamy, doesn’t mean God really did. God can’t go contrary to his laws or he would cease to be God and no righteous people would follow him. For God did not make the rules, they always existed. God himself has to follow them and just advises us to. Christ taught us to beware of anyone, past, present or future, who teaches contrary to his teachings. Which means also that ‘patriarchy’ is a false man-made philosophy that is totally contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who preached complete equality and love between men and women, neither is over the other in any way. And Polygyny does not even pass the Golden Rule test, which Christ taught is the basis of all the laws), for what man would want to live or put up with polygyny the other way around, and live alone and take care of all the kids by himself and rarely see his 1 wife who is usually busy dating or living with and being pampered by all her other husbands? The Golden Rule reveals the truth. No God who expects self-respecting righteous people to follow him would ever preach or allow such things as polygyny or patriarchy.

  4. Kai says:

    Lilli,

    I don’t know if you noticed on Pure Mormonism, but I tried to reach out to you there.

    Also,

    Thanks Zomarah for all your many wonderful posts.

    -Kai

  5. zo-ma-rah says:

    I haven’t checked there in a while. Thanks for the appreciation.

  6. Daniel says:

    On May 10, 2016 at 11:52 am Lilli wrote:

    “Christ very clearly condemned all polygamy, by his teachings on love, the Golden Rule and especially in his teachings on marriage, where he taught that it’s adultery for any married person to marry someone else, whether or not they got a divorce, for there is no such thing as divorce to God and thus the couple is still 100% married and thus can’t marry anyone else or it’s adultery.”

    Lilli, I suspect that when you say that “it’s adultery for any married person to marry someone else, whether or not they got a divorce” you are making reference to the following scripture passages:

    Matthew 5:32
    But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

    Matthew 19:9
    And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

    Mark 10:11
    And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

    Mark 10:12
    And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

    Luke 16:18
    Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

    Strictly speaking, and as far these passages have been “translated correctly”, you would be right in the case of someone “putting away his wife (or her husband)” to marry another, or in the case of a man/woman marrying a woman/man who was previously married and then divorced. However, these passages actually say nothing to condemn a man who does NOT put away his first wife, but marries a second who has NOT been previously married.

    When referring to the “Golden Rule”, I’m guessing you’re referring to the following scripture passage:

    Matthew 7:12
    Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.

    Let me emphasize that I am not pro polygyny/polygamy, and I am and very satisfied with just one wife. However, dismissing polygyny/polygamy based on this scripture is to pass a blanket judgement over all of God’s children, on the assumption that no two perfected women (or men) would ever be capable of being happy sharing a perfected husband (or wife) who loves them both equally.

    We are taught that once we become perfected in Christ we will see things as He see them, and become capable of perfect unconditional love for all mankind. But since in this mortal tabernacle we will always be hampered by the limitations of seeing things through the eyes of the “natural man,” do you really think we are in any position to pass such judgement and assumptions based on our imperfect understanding?

    It may be of interest to note that even some imperfect mortal women in polygamist marriages have stated that they enjoyed a harmonious and loving relationship with both their husband and his other wife/wives, so clearly it’s not an impossibility.

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