Question: The Old Testament mentions that many of the patriarchs, like David, had numerous wives. The Lord even says to David through Nathan: “I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own” (2 Sm 12:8). How are we to understand the permission of polygamy, and when did God forbid it?
— Teresa Thompson, Des Moines, Iowa
Answer: When God first established marriage, it is clear that his vision was that: a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh (see Gn 2:24). Hence there is one man, with one wife, and the two are stably united by “clinging” to one another as the text says. Hence divorce and multiple wives were not part of God’s design of marriage.
However, on account of human sinfulness, and out of fear that men would kill their wives to be free to marry another, Moses allowed divorce.
It is also clear that the customs of the ancient Near East also infected Israel’s notion of marriage and that many, at least wealthier men and patriarchs, did often take more than one wife. Thus, we see that sin corrupted what God intended and that, for a time, God overlooked this sinful behavior.
However, we ought not equate the mere reporting of sinful behavior with approval of it. For, while the polygamy of the patriarchs is reported, so is all the trouble it caused wherein brothers of different mothers contended and even killed one another.
For example, there are terrible stories told of the sons of Gideon, and also the sons of Jacob, to mention but two. The well-known story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers emerges from the internecine conflicts of brothers of different mothers. Hence while reporting polygamy, the Bible also teaches of the evil it brings forth.
Gradually God led the ancient Jews from approving of polygamy such that, by the time of Jesus, it was rare.
As for Nathan saying that God gave David his many wives, this can be understood as the ancient tendency to stress God as the primary cause of all things.
It does not necessarily mean that God actively wanted and approved of polygamy, only that he is the first cause of everything that exists and happens.
Adam and Eve origin
Question: Original sin is based on the belief that Adam and Eve are the parents of all mankind. Where and when did they live?
— Rex Gogerty, Hubbard, Iowa
Answer: The nature of your question asks the Genesis account to be what it really is not, namely, a scientific and strictly historical account of creation. It proposes to be neither of these. Rather it is more of a poetical account of God’s creative act. Hence the chronological dating of Adam and Eve to, say, 6,000 B.C., based on Genesis is not possible.
The account does seem to locate the Garden in Mesopotamia, but here too we need not presume this is meant as a precise map but could be more allegorical.
What we must hold is that God created everything out of nothing and guided all the stages of creation, even unto this day. Catholic teaching does prefer to see Adam and Eve as directly created by God and as actual, historical people.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.