Guest post by Jessica F.
My favorite book of scripture is the Old Testament. While I love the rest of the Mormon cannon and world scripture, I find my heart in the Old Testament. I find comfort in the complex characters, the history, the connections, and the weirdness. One of my dreams is to teach the OT in gospel doctrine, but so far no luck. In my religious studies program, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to explore a large range of religious and social topics. I am often reluctant to speak and write about the more doctrinal issues for fear of repercussion, but I think that topics need to be discussed because the lack of dialogue is more damaging than the silence.
This is a brief except from a longer journal article that I am currently writing on Old Testament Plural Marriage. Confusion abounds in the church because we neglect to study the Bible and specifically the Old Testament. Mormon theology and doctrine draws heavily on an appeal to the ancient patriarchs and ordinances. While I find this beautiful and one of my favorite aspects of the church, there is danger in assuming connection and parallels when they do not exist. Individually and as a faith community, we need to learn to double check assumptions with primary sources and continued archeological scholarly research. In consideration of word count, this blog post will only address Abraham.
According to D&C 132:34:
God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.
Verse 34 is interesting when compared account in the Book of Genesis:
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. (Genesis 16:1-3)
The two passages are in conflict over the acting agent; the Bible says it was Sarah (Sarai) and the Doctrine and Covenants says that it was God through Abraham. The Genesis account is void of God’s interference and lacking any form of commandment. The biblical text does not even present evidence that God commanded Abraham to marry even Sarah. And although the birth of Ishmael did result in the birth of a nation, Ishmael and Hagar’s lives were far from blessed by the choices of Abraham and Sarah. An angel had to intervene to protect their lives in the wilderness.
As we move into the text of the New Testament there are number of commentaries on the Patriarchs. In Galatians, Paul expands on the union of Abraham and Hagar (Agar). It reads as follows-
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law; do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. (Galatian 4:21-31)
Paul was very well acquainted with the text of the Old Testament and saw the birth of Ishmael from the flesh and not from God. Paul and early apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ did not look upon the union of Abraham and Hagar as divine, but from human hands.
The doctrine and covenants continues with the narrative of Abraham:
Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law; as Isaac also and Jacob did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.” (132:37)
And in Genesis 25:6 it is recorded;
But unto the sons of the concubines, which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country.
The assumption in the Doctrine and Covenants is that Abraham was given children as a blessing and expanded posterity, but the historical record shows that Abraham sent his sons away from Isaac. The act of Abraham sending his children to the East seems counterintuitive. It is also interesting to note that traveling to the “east” in the OT was not seen as a positive thing. Cain was exiled to the east for killing Cain, Lot went east to Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Israelites were exiled to the East in Babylon. Although it is a conjecture, the symbolic nature of sending his other sons east was not a positive or righteous act; it was one that was only tempered by gift giving. The family structure that is suggested in the Doctrine and Covenants is not reflected in OT culture, one of nomadic herders, but rather a later paradigm of understanding of family based on the agricultural ideal of a large centralized home.
The assumption that the “law” of plural marriage began with Abraham (or in the Bible) is flawed. There is no “Law of Abraham” recorded in the Bible as described in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The biblical interpretation in section 132 is very creative, but not in alignment with the historical record. This pattern continues for the rest of the patriarchs listed in section 132. The appeal to biblical authority in the practice of plural marriage strengthened the validity of section 132 as eternal principle, but the attractiveness of drawing on ancient parallels quickly breaks down. The teachings of plural marriage create a mortality that is unbalanced and an afterlife that is unequal for all eternity. We should be diligent in examining our understanding of the scriptures and our personal beliefs especially when it reflects on the nature of God.
Even as a child I loved studying the Old Testament, but studying it from a feminist perspective has changed the way I view God. For a very long time I felt that God loved me less than he loved men. I never thought that God hated me, but that I was however inferior. The practice of polygamy made not only mortal life unequal but also eternity. My mind could grasp with the inequality of a fallen world but not an imperfect heaven. My understanding of the practice and doctrine of plural marriage is very complex, but knowing that the foundational assumptions are not as clear cut as I thought they were have led me to a path of greater understanding of God’s true nature and abounding equal love for me.
3 Responses to “studying abraham”
This is very well done. You put into words what I have thought for a long time.
I appreciate the honest attempt to reconcile yourself to a practice you apparently find abhorrent. However, I’m struggling to understand your perspective here. It sounds like you’re saying you prefer polygamy when it’s the woman’s idea rather than God’s through a woman’s husband.
I find that confusing, especially given Section 121 that stipulates that priesthood is only exercised righteously through persuasion, etc. meaning Abraham would have had to confer with Sarai and decide with her, not for her. In fact, the only implication that Abraham did any commanding is yours.
I am also confused at your preference of the Old Testament over the Doctrine and Covenants, given the history of translation and revision in the OT vs. direct revelation in the D&C.
Not trying to be harsh but I do want to think critically about your arguments so I can better understand them.
I am not saying that at all. I am saying the GOD never commanded polygamy. That the way section 132 uses the OT is not honest and is not historically or textually accurate. This is not a translation or transmission issue it is a case that there is no evidence that God ever commanded Abraham to be polygamous, but rather god was silent and culture was supreme.
Hagar would have had no choice she was a slave this was not a choice based on anything other than Sarah seeing no way that she would have children and technically she could have a child through her slave.
If anything Sarah was intervening with the divine in her attempts to fulfill prophesy and I see God as having to clean up the mess, especially when saving Ishmael and Hagar from dying in the wilderness when Sarah banished them.
If you don’t believe me go have an orthodox jew read section 132 they will be very puzzled and often seem to find it entertaining in its absurd use of the Torah.
The OT text was not changed in these sections by JS and the text itself in hebrew is not perfect but it in no way even comes close to what liberty was taken in the D&C.