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The Well Clothed Emperor

Mitchell Leach | Sunday, December 9th, 2019

Reading the bible is like golf. There are those who know the mechanics of a proper swing. These golfers typically are the ones who can play the game for their whole lives and – more than just being good at the game – find joy in the game. Those who find some sticks at a garage sale, hit the driving range a few times, and develop a bad swing. I have found myself behind such men and women countless times, and I always ask myself, ‘I wonder if they’re enjoying this?’ The issue of polygamy in Christianity is one of the clearest examples of well-intentioned believers who have bad form in their biblical hermeneutic.

When golfers go wrong, there are two responses. First, they humble themselves and find a coach, or second, they invent their own game, their own version of the game that allows them to play well with their bad fundamentals.

To someone who doesn’t have a good hermeneutical background the arguments that Mark Henkel makes, seems to hold water. But as I will show, the more faithful exegete of scripture shows how God designed marriage to be beautifully monogamous. Mark Henkel makes four main points in his defense for polygamy; the grace law hypocrisy, there were many polygamists in the bible, the true meaning of “adultery” and “one flesh,” and the prohibitions of leaders.


"The Grace-Law Hypocrisy"

What he means by the grace law hypocrisy can be summed up to this. The Old Testament was – fundamentally – legalistic in nature and allowed polygamy, the New Testament is all about grace and typically allows believers to do things the Old Testament weren’t allowed to do. Mark Henkel would say, our view of marriage now is more legalistic under the law of grace than under the law of legalism.

Given that a large portion of God’s revelation is made up of OT laws[1], many evangelical scholars have divided them into three categories[2]: civil (social), ceremonial[3] covenant that God requires of his people. (religious), and moral (ethical). Christian to know which laws are applicable today. In this view, God gave the civil and ceremonial laws to ancient Israel for a fixed time (i.e., the requirement of the death penalty for those who curse their parents), while moral laws are timeless and pertain to both ancient and modern believers (i.e., statutes forbidding homosexual behavior). The reason we must make this distinction is even under the assumption that Exodus 21:10, and Deuteronomy 21:15 are actively advocating for polygamy, there is merit to use tri-partite division to interpret the Old Testament law. Some laws are timeless and need to be upheld for all times,[4] and laws that clearly are meant for a specific people during a specific time.[5]

While it is true that the New Testament modifies things that were prohibited in the Old Testament. The opposite is also true.[6] The New Testament also upholds many of the laws in the Old Testament.[7]

The idea that because a few places in the New Testament change things in the Old Testament, means that all things in the New Testament are “easier,” or “more graceful” than the Old Testament.

The bible doesn’t outright condemn polygamy

His second argument is that the bible doesn’t outright condemn polygamy in the Old or New Testament, means that it is therefore condoned. I believe this is a poor argument in general, and if I were arguing for Mr. Henkel, I would not use this because of it’s weak logical basis. He quotes Jesus in Matthew 25 in the parable of the ten virgins.

What Jesus is doing is using a parable as a literally device to make a point. Anyone who reads Matthew 25 and comes away with polygamy being the main point has missed a few principles for interpretation. In referring to what some ethicists have called the “naturalistic fallacy,” John Frame says that “from premises about what cannot deduce conclusions about what you ought to do.”[8]

This is true when understanding anything from the genre of Historical Narrative in the Old Testament. This genre told the story of what happened (what is), rather than what ought to have happened. So, when 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings talks about the kings and their polygamy, we should interpret this in that light. How Mark Henkel uses 2 Samuel 2:8 doesn’t make a claim for polygamy.

This verse is should be understood to mean, that God would give David more than Saul had. Even the word “wife” (in the ESV), should be understood as Saul’s concubine. God isn’t condoning the practice of polygamy any more than He is condoning the use of prostitution.[9]

"If You Knew the Original Language..."

The third argument Mark uses is “adultery” and “one flesh” are misinterpreted from Hebrew to English. This is a dirty trick some pastors and bible scholars use to confuse people. They say things like, “if you knew the original language you would see…” This makes people who don’t know Greek and Hebrew feel like they can’t understand scripture without having a seminary degree. He says the word for adultery in Hebrew means, “woman who breaks wedlock.” The work used in Exodus 20 is [נָאַף] vb. commit adultery — Qal (1) literally. commit adultery: a. usually of man, always with wife of another; b. of women. c. accusative. woman; elsewhere. absolute (2) figuratively. of idolatrous worship.[10]

Where the Old Testament talks about adultery as idolatrous worship, we can better understand the meaning of the word. Old Testament Israel – and believers today – are supposed to worship one God. To worship more than one is adultery, therefore to have more than one wife is go outside the design God gave us in Genesis chapter one and two.

The Prohibition of Leaders in the New Testament

The fourth and final argument is the prohibition of leaders in the New Testament. Mark says 1 Timothy 3:2 and 12 don’t apply to all Christians just leaders. But then he says it really doesn’t apply to leaders either. The argument for this is that when it says, “the husband of one wife” it should be first wife. The Greek word used here is εἶς, genitive. cardinal numeral, one; 1. one, as opp. to many:[11] So, we can conclude that here, the ESV translation committee did an excellent job of translating this word.

Mark found a tough topic in scripture, and because of bad fundamentals when approaching scripture, continued to misinterpret scripture to back up his thesis. It may have seemed for a moment that Mark had exposed something new, but it is safe to conclude that the emperor is well clothed.

[1] The Jewish rabbis of the past counted 613 specific laws in the Pentateuch, 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands. [2] For good explanations of the three-part division of the law, see The Westminster Confession of Faith (19:3-5) and Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 114–119. [3] A good example of moral law would be the Ten Commandments and the requirement to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). An example of civil law would be the Sabbatical year (Deut. 15:1). Ceremonial law is represented in legislation controlling the festivals, sacrifices, and priestly activities, such as the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16:13). [4] The command to love one’s neighbor (moral). [5] A prohibition on mixed breeding (civil; 19:18-19). [6] Matthew 5:21-32, 38-48. [7] “be holy, for I am holy,” Lev. 11:44 and NT “be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect,” Matt. 5:48. [8]John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R, 2008), 60. [9] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 201–202. [10] Richard Whitaker et al., The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: From A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles Briggs, Based on the Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906). [11] G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 134.

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