Formations 04.24.2016: The Problem(s) with Polygamy

1 Kings 11:1-13

af25_2_042416_bPolygamy isn’t just an Old Testament issue. Recently, the South African acapella group Afrika Mamas released a new album that addresses this issue head on, seeking to empower African women to reject this practice that is firmly entrenched in many parts of Africa. (South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, is himself a polygamist.)

Earlier this month, Utah restored its ban on polygamy, reversing a 2013 U.S. district court decision that determined “the state violated polygamists’ right to privacy and religious freedom.” It is estimated that about 30,000 polygamists live in the state of Utah.

Many, including both Afrika Mamas and the opponents of the Utah polygamists, insist that the institution is bad for women and children. Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is currently in prison for child rape, and his sect has been accused of child labor, fraud, and discrimination.

As with many biblical characters, the ending of Solomon’s story is less than ideal. For the biblical writer, Solomon’s many foreign wives are at the heart of the problem. In the twenty-first century, one might have wished the Deuteronomist had decried Solomon’s objectification of women. It’s hard to imagine the king’s 700 wives and 300 concubines as willful enemies of God. They seem more like victims of patriarchal excess, married off to a stranger to serve their fathers’ political and diplomatic interests.

Our text, however, focuses on the toll polygamy takes on the king himself. The biblical writer frankly describes how Solomon’s wives compromise his loyalty to the God of Israel. His infatuation with the gods his wives brought to Jerusalem kindle God’s anger against him and eventually lead to the division of the united monarchy.

Whatever else might have been said about Solomon’s marital quagmire, what the biblical writer says is true. The king’s wives—and the international wheeling and dealing that brought them into his harem—distracted him from wholehearted devotion to God and kept him from being the leader he was meant to be.

“Afrika Mamas on Breaking with Polygamy Tradition,” BBC, 14 March 2016 <>.

Yanan Wang, “Utah’s Polygamy Ban Restored in Big Defeat for ‘Sister Wives,’” The Washington Post, 12 April 2016 <>.


• What forces compete for our loyalty today?
• What makes these forces seem attractive or desirable to us?
• How can we maintain our undivided loyalty to God in the face of such distractions?

Reference Shelf

The Seeds of Revolution

In addition to the accounts of trading activity, the report of Solomon’s harem, including a daughter of Pharaoh (7:8; 9:16; 11:3), and the folkloristic story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba (10:1-13) increase the sense of international atmosphere of the court of Solomon. A widely held theory…places the first written version of the Israelite epic tradition, the Yahwistic narrative, in the reign of Solomon, though a number of reservations about the theory have been expressed in recent years. The Temple functioned as a royal sanctuary, and it appears that the divine establishment and undergirding of the monarchy were celebrated in Temple liturgies from the time of Solomon.

Behind the celebration of the wealth and wisdom of Solomon in this narrative can be seen a sense of the public cost of this investment in architecture and military equipment. It is generally assumed that the seeds of the revolution of Jeroboam (11:26-40; 12:12-20), which divided the kingdom after his death, grew among those who bore the cost of these lavish royal expenditures.

Roy D. Wells Jr., “Solomon,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 842.

The Theological Verdict

The Torah verdict against Solomon is cast in a characteristic prophetic lawsuit speech (11:1-13). The editorial practice of the book of Kings is to provide a theological assessment of each king by the criterion of Torah-obedience, a criterion in which kings characteristically are not at all interested. Thus the kings are evaluated by norms that they themselves would have taken to be irrelevant.

The characteristic lawsuit speech follows a conventional pattern of indictment and threat. In this passage, the indictment against Solomon (11:1-8) is extensive and insistent. It is introduced by the presenting problem in v. 1: “Solomon loved many foreign women.” The phrase is clearly juxtaposed to the introductory formula of 3:3: “Solomon loved the Lord.” According to editorial arrangement, we are meant to conclude that the change from Solomon’s first love to his later, decadent love is a matter of the aging process: “When Solomon was old.” (11:4). We have, however, seen enough to know that Solomon, all along, kept these two loves alive. This evaluative account indicates that Solomon, by marriage, was related to hosts of other countries and other regimes, so that the total, according to this negative assessment, is 700 wives and 300 concubines. One could conclude from this data that the king is completely preoccupied by sexuality. It is more likely the case, however, that the many women in his court reflect endless political arrangements that are sealed and made visible by political marriages. And since we have seen that Solomon in his exhibitionism must operate on a vast scale in order to impress, it does not surprise us that Solomon (or the narrator) must offer an enormous number of women to match the vastly exaggerated scale of everything else in Jerusalem.

In any case, the theological evaluation of Solomon does not linger over marriages to foreign women per se. Rather the affront is that along with the foreign wives came the gods they worshiped in their own countries. This connection between wife and god can be taken on a personal basis, so that the newly wed princess brings her religion with her (see Ps 45:12-15 on such a royal marriage). More likely, the intermarriages bespeak not simply a personal attachment to other gods, but a broad cultural exchange in which values, symbols, and practices are interchanged, so that the clarity and singularity of Yahwism is lost in the shuffle.

Either way, as an intimate personal or as a broad cultural development, inter- marriage that leads to interreligious contact is viewed in this assessment as a sorry departure from Yahwism. The Torah prohibition quoted in v. 2 apparently cites Deuteronomy 7:3-4:

Do not intermarry with them, giving our daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.

Thus the key issue is that the heart of the king was diverted from Yahweh so that he no longer had the “discerning heart” requested in 3:9. That is, the splendid establishment of Solomon that we have seen described and celebrated in detail was no longer reflective of Yahwistic loyalty, neither in terms of its actual cultic practices nor in terms of its social policies that had little contact with the neighborly covenantalism of Moses.

The essential indictment against Solomon is stated in v. 4: the king has departed from Yahweh and from Torah obedience. Verses 5-8 only supply the particularities with reference to Astarte, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech. It is important to note that this catalogue does not fully correspond to the list of foreign wives in v. 1; missing is the name of any god associated with Pharaoh’s daughter or with the Hittites. Such a difference suggests that the list of foreign gods is not precise or particular, but is a conventional list of the primary and recurring threats to Yahwism. In sum, Solomon has violated the first commandment of Sinai (Exod 20:3) from which all else in Yahwism derives. The love of Yahweh assures well-being (3:3); the love of many foreign wives brings massive trouble on the regime of Solomon and upon the long-term prospects of the Jerusalem establishment.

Walter Brueggemann, 1–2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 141–3.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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