Studies in Sonship, part 5: Marriage, Polygamy, Concubinage
To reiterate a premise of this study: When the Bible talks about sons, we need to understand it in the context of the very high value that ancient societies placed on sons. In the Scriptures, the primary, pre-eminent and paramount image of a son has to do with perpetuating life…the life of the father and thereby, the life of the family of which the father was the head.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” That opening line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities certainly seems to apply to America today.
On the one hand, we seem to be so blessed. We have such material abundance, such an amazingly high standard of living, so many modern conveniences—from central air and heat, not only in our homes, but in our automobiles. Our rapid modes of transportation has made it possible for families to live great distances from each other and yet still be within a day’s travel by airliner.
But we are paying a great cost as well, to which many people seem to be oblivious. It is the breakdown of the family unit. Indeed, even the word “family” is being re-defined, as is the word “marriage.” Next week voters in my state of North Carolina will say “yea” or “nay” to a state constitutional amendment defining “marriage” as meaning the union of one man and one woman. And North Carolina is far from the first state addressing the definition of “marriage.” Over 35 other states have already passed such amendments.
Also symptomatic of the breakdown of the family is the fact that in this “enlightened” 21st century, having children no longer seems as important to younger people as it was in the days of our forefathers of even a half-century ago.
In the days of our ancient biblical forefathers, the life of the father was seen as continuing on in a son. A man could accumulate great wealth and great power, but yet still feel a great vacancy in his life if he had no son. Hence, for a woman to be barren was considered to be a great curse. Every man had as one of his primary goals to have a son to perpetuate his lineage. It was a type of immortality through the family’s descendants. Consider this:
Genesis 15:2 And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? [NOTICE: steward = ben; son, offspring]
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4 And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
As I look at my generation and the offspring of my generation, it almost makes me want to weep. So many of us in this generation—and many more in the young adult generation have no idea and no conception of the importance of family and perpetuating the lineage. It is a great loss. I believe it will take a rather chaotic jolt to our whole society before men and women once again realize its importance.
In ancient biblical times, there were several customs and practices which became institutionalized in their societies for this very purpose of perpetuating the lineage, or the “name,” as it were, the name of the father. In addition to the traditional husband, wife, and children of the so-called “nuclear” family; there were also the options of polygamy and concubinage, Levirate marriage, surrogate motherhood and adoption.
Let me hasten to add that I do not think polygamy is a very good idea. I am not saying that it is a sin, because I do not find anywhere that it is a violation of God’s law, but given the society we live in, including the fact that it is a violation of civil law, practicing polygamy creates a host of problems. As the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign heats up, notice how both the Obama team and the Romney team are trying to gain political advantage by pointing out the alleged polygamy in the other’s family tree.
We know about the examples of polygamy in the Bible: Jacob, David, Solomon and others. Remember that Jacob was tricked into polygamy. Nevertheless, he did take the two handmaids as his concubines. As for Abraham, I find no evidence that Abraham was polygamous. He obviously had sexual relations with Hagar, but perhaps it was only for the purpose of bringing forth a son, Ishmael. If that were the case, then it was not a case of polygamy, but rather of surrogate motherhood.
So we know what polygamy is; we know what surrogate motherhood is, and we understand what adoption is, at least in modern terms. But how many of us have ever even heard of the term “Levirate marriage?” There are a couple of examples of this in the Bible. (To be continued.)