Polygamy in the Bible

Question: Although the Church insists on the biblical teaching of marriage, many of our critics point out that the Bible reports polygamy is a widespread practice that is not condemned by God or the prophets, and thus even the Bible sets aside what we call God’s plan for marriage. How should I answer this?

Mary Carter, Washington, D.C.

Answer: That something is reported in Scripture should not necessarily be seen as approval. Murder, incest and theft are reported, but this is not condoning what God elsewhere condemns. It is clear that many of the patriarchs, including those highly favored and praised by God, did practice polygamy. How widespread the practice was in ancient Israel is unclear, but it seems unlikely that most Jewish men would have had enough money to support more than one wife.

It is notable that there are not strong denunciations of polygamy from God and his prophets. Although reporting polygamy rather neutrally, the Scriptures do not neglect to report the many problems that emerge as well. The problems occurred not so much among the wives, but between the sons of the different wives. At stake were inheritance rights and other significant blessings.

The memorable story of Joseph and the way his brothers conspired first to kill him and then later to sell him into slavery emerges from the jealousies of brothers by Jacob’s different wives and the perception that Jacob favored Joseph.

King David’s house was wracked by internecine conflicts related especially to a rivalry between Absalom and Solomon. Horrifying bloodshed also occurred in the household of Gideon.

By the time of Jesus, the practice seems to have all but disappeared. Jesus also makes it clear that whatever provisions Moses and the patriarchs may have allowed in the reign of sin, in the reign of the Kingdom of God, God’s original plan was going to be observed. That plan was announced in Genesis 2 and clearly states that God’s vision for marriage is one man for one woman in a stable, lifelong relationship bearing the fruit of children.

This has been, and remains, the Church’s constant teaching.

Valid confession?

Question: In my last confession, the priest used words of absolution that were not what I’m used to hearing. They weren’t even close, and I did not hear the word “absolve.” Was the sacrament valid?

Name withheld, Minneapolis

Answer: It is doubtful. The matter (in this case the imposition of hands) and form (in this case proper words of absolution) make up a sacrament. It is not possible to affirm that a sacrament took place when one or both of these is significantly violated. It is of course hard to imagine God holding you responsible for the sinful or inept actions of a priest, since you approached the sacrament in good faith; hence, you need not fear the judgment of God regarding any serious sins you might have confessed in the botched confession.

However, it is advisable for you to consult another priest in the sacrament of confession and review with him any serious sins since the last good (valid) confession you had. You might also seek his advice on reporting the incident to local Church authorities. I am sorry this happened.

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 msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.