PM3116: Matthew 19:9 and Polygamy

Some claim that in Matthew 19:9 Jesus implicitly prohibits polygamy. The verse says (KJV): And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. A few comments: "fornication" is actually Greek porneia; "sexual immorality" is a more accurate translation. "Wife" here is literally "woman". Some manuscripts lack the final clause and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery; hence many newer translations (e.g. NIV) omit that clause.

Many focus on the meaning of the clause except it be for fornication, in the context of whether, and in what circumstances, divorce is permissible. However, that is not going to be my focus here. Let us just agree, that Jesus' point is that, many putative divorces are invalid, although maybe not all; since our topic is polygamy, we don't need to address the question of which divorces are valid and which are invalid, just that at least some are invalid.

My own translation: Yet I am saying to you all, that whoever sends away his woman (if not for sexual immorality) and marries another, is committing adultery, and the one having been sent away, whoever marries her is committing adultery.

Now, some make the following argument (Glenn Miller, Polygamy in the NT period):
The key thing to note here is that this argument fails if polygamy is acceptable! Jesus' point is that improper divorce does not nullify a marriage, and if the first marriage still stands, then a "second" marriage is adultery--and NOT simply 'polygamy'! This is very clear.
So the argument is basically this:
  1. Jesus says, the man who invalidly divorces his wife, then marries another, commits adultery
  2. Because the divorce is invalid, the man is still married to his first wife when he marries the second
  3. For the second marriage to be an act of adultery, it must be invalid
  4. If polygamy is prohibited, then the second marriage is invalid, since the man already has a valid existing one
  5. If polygamy is permitted, then the second marriage is valid; the man's existing marriage is irrelevant
  6. Hence, Jesus' words can only be true if polygamy is prohibited
  7. Thus, Jesus implicitly teaches that polygamy is prohibited
Is that logic sound? If not, where is the weakness?

May I suggest the invalidity may be in premise (5): If polygamy is permitted, then the second marriage is valid; the man's existing marriage is irrelevant. This assumes too much. How? Well, if polygamy is allowed, then the mere fact that a man already has a wife is not in itself reason he cannot marry another at the same time. However, that does not mean that he has an unfettered right to marry another; polygamy could well be permissible in some circumstances and not others.

A proposed principle: A man is only permitted to take another wife if he cares for his existing wife/wives, and will treat the new wife and the existing wife/wives equally with one another/each other (the Islamic teaching on polygamy involves a similar principle)

Now, following on from this principle. The man has invalidly divorced his first wife. He has putatively divorced her, put on a show, an act, an appearance, an attempt, of divorcing her, even though the divorce is a legal and moral nullity. In such circumstances, if he marries another woman, is he caring for all his wives equally? By invalidly, illegally and immorally divorcing her, he has not cared for his first wife properly, so he is not permitted to take another; thus any subsequent marriages of his are not valid marriages, and his consumation of them is adulterous. Having illegally divorced his first wife, he cannot marry any further wives, until he sets things right with his first wife (e.g. rescinds the illegal divorce). So, under this proposal, Jesus' words are compatible with polygamy after all.

Is this principle biblical? Assuming, arguendo, that the Bible at least allows polygamy, it seems it would then be entirely compatible with the spirit of the Bible, even if we cannot find it stated explicitly anywhere. I would, not, however, exclude the possibility that some more specific argument for it might be able to be made, based on the interpretation one or more specific biblical passages.

Another reasonable principle, which will produce similar results (and could well operate in conjunction with the one already mentioned): A man may not marry another wife without the consent of all his existing wives. This will produce similar results, since if the first wife was unjustly divorced, she is unlikely in practice to consent to the man marrying a second wife, especially while the unjust divorce continues. Jesus' statement could be assuming this great likelihood.

In terms of the justification of this second principle, one specific passage which is possibly relevant is Lev. 18:18: Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex [her], to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life [time]. Most commonly taken as a prohibition on marrying two sisters (either simultaneously or sequentially). However, to quote Wikipedia's "Polygny" article (version of 10:35, 10 July 2011):
Karaites interpret Leviticus 18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent[ref: Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp.96—97] and Karaites interpret Exodus 21:10 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if he is capable of maintaining the same level of marital duties due to his first wife: namely, food, clothing, and sexual gratification.
 If we accept the Karaite interpretation of Lev. 18:18, then we have a biblical warrant for the second principle; and in Exodus 21:10 warrant for the first also. Actually, Exodus 21:10 provides very clear warrant for the first principle: If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.