Proposing to your wife, that you would like to have an open marriage, is a shocking bit of news, according to Newt Gingrich’s second ex-wife. But surprisingly, one place where such concepts are definitely old news is in the Holy Bible.
In the laws of the Old Testament, polygamy is spoken of in very matter-of-fact terms, without any hint of disrepute:
If he take himself another wife… —Exodus 21:10
If a man have two wives… —Deuteronomy 21:15
A candidate who really believed the Bible would tell us that traditional marriage is between one man and one woman…and as many other wives and concubines as the man can attract and afford.
To get a sense of how commonplace polygamy is in the Bible, the following is a list of biblical characters who carried on with more than one woman, and it reads like one of those too-boring-to-read-out-loud genealogies from First Chronicles (seriously, do not try to read 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9 at your next Bible study group!): Abijah, Abraham, Ahab, Ahasuerus, Ashur, Belshazzar, Benhadad, Caleb, David, Eliphaz, Elkanah, Esau, Ezra, Gideon, Jacob, Jehoiachin, Jehoram, Jerahmeel, Joash, Lamech, Machir, Manasseh, Mered, Moses, Nahor, Rehoboam, Saul, Shaharaim, Simeon, Solomon, and Zedekiah.
In the scriptures, polygamy originated rather humbly with Noah’s father, Lamech:
And Lemech took two wives, one named Adah and the other Zillah. —Genesis 4:19
And it culminates in the harem of King Solomon:
Solomon had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines, and his wives led him astray. — 1 Kings 11:3
A man with a reputation for wisdom couldn’t forsee any problem living with 1,000 women?
In the New Testament, or as Rev. Lovejoy calls it, “somewhere towards the back” of the Bible, polygamy is definitely downplayed, though it was evidently accepted enough to work its way into one of Jesus’ parables:
Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. —Matthew 25:1
Throughout most of the Bible, multiple wives pointed to a king’s increased social status. Perhaps a similar urge affected Gingrich and the most recent batch of America’s polyamorous politicians from both major parties, including John Edwards, John Ensign, Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, and David Vitter to name but a few.
Officially, it should be stated, Gingrich has denied calling for an open marriage, but his admission of the affair and his shoot-the-messenger reaction to the story has left some unconvinced of his innocence.
The Bible clearly treats polygamy as an allowable practice, and nowhere is it unequivocally forbidden by God. As the practice became socially unacceptable in the U.S., the religions that wanted to stay in business decided to go along with public sentiment, just like they did with other biblically supported issues like slavery, the killing of witches, and the prohibition of tattoos.
In making his open marriage request, maybe the old Newt was making a point that the newly devout Newt would appreciate: it’s not adultery if we can all just agree to call her a concubine. Sadly for him, even those who interpret the Bible literally are unlikely to follow what the Bible says on this issue.
Michael Morris is the author of Bible Funmentionables: A Lighthearted Look at the Wildest Verses You’ve NEVER Been Told!, which features all of the shocking and hilarious verses that your minister, rabbi, or charismatic cult leader is afraid to preach.