All the languages of the world are not sufficient to express the filth of polygamy. It makes of man a beast, of woman, a trembling slave. It destroys the fireside, makes virtue an outcast, takes from human speech its sweetest words, and leaves the heart a den, where crawl and hiss the slimy serpents of most loathsome lust. … The marriage of the one man to the one woman is the citadel and fortress of civilization. Without this, woman becomes the prey and slave of lust and power, and man goes back to savagery and crime.
So proclaims the great agnostic orator of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, in his meditation Some Mistakes of Moses.
But did Moses really make a mistake? Does the Bible allow polygamy?
Did you know that the Bible allow you to sell your daughter? Exodus 21:7-11 sets out the conditions:
If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed [bought back]. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
Although God promises prosperity to those who obey him, sometimes an Israelite would become so poor that he would have to sell his children. (Side question: What do you make of that? Do you think people are poor because they are bad?) Anyway, such dire circumstances did arise and Exodus 21 gives God’s instructions.
Paul Copan, whose book, Is God a Moral Monster?, has been the subject of the last several posts, is quick to point out that this passage only says, “If a man sells his daughter….” It is a law for how to deal with “specific examples that don’t necessarily present best-case scenarios.” That’s true: the passage does not command anyone to sell his daughter, nor does it come out and endorse the idea of doing so. However, it does endorse (even command) how the transaction is to go down given that it has been decided. Those of us who take moral objection to the Bible should not complain about the “if” situation, but we have every right to object to the “then” part that follows.
So what “then” is in store for the daughter in this passage? Are we talking servant-with-benefits — a sort of prostitution with the cover of another job — or an honorable state of matrimony?
If your husband were to accuse you of cheating on him, would you be willing to rely on this test to reveal the truth?
The priest shall bring [the suspected adulteress] and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband … may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell….”
Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
…[The priest] is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, … her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children. (Abridged from Numbers 5:11-31)