Q. Exodus 21:10 says: "If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights." My wife says that I can take a second wife so long as our standard of living doesn't change, and she quotes this scripture. For a long time now we've been living beyond our means and I want to live a simpler, less frivolous, less waisting, more modest and God-honoring way of life. We were both agreed on this until the question of polygamy came up. She knows that I can't afford a second wife without reducing our standard of living and so says I obviously can't afford a second wife. What should I do?
I think we have a case here of using a scripture which was desiged to prevent unscrupulous husbands under the Mosaic Covenant from reducing a first wife to poverty and degradation to blackmailing a husband into not exercising his right to enter into plural marriage. The scripture is being twisted and used to blackmail you. We here have a case of a biblical principle being abused to enslave instead of liberate, and there are many parallels to other historical abuses as, for example, the Sabbath Law.
We also need to look at the context of this passage of scripture, something I have not seen done before when this passage is cited in polygamy debates:
That this passage is sandwiched inbetween legislation on Old Covenant concubinage and slavery ought to give us reason to pause and take stock, for we are of a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22) where there is (in our view) no concubinage in the New Covenant, this covenant being of the fullness and concubines being half-wives.
"And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money" (Exodus 21:7-11, NKJV).
Throughout my married life circumstances have changed. There have, economically speaking, been relatively good times and relatively bad ones. Sometimes we have literally lived on the very edge of survival (in Western terms) by living below the poverty level and minimum wage. This has happened both when I was a monogamist and since as a polygamist. In both situations the response of love has been to 'put our shoulders together' and meet adverse circumstances bravely. As Christians/Messianics we know well the 'Rule of Self-Limitation' - the principle of self-sacrifice for the purpose of blessing others. We not only offer the other cheek but liberally help out those in worse economic conditions than ourselves, even if it means diminishing our own wants. I am sure that some of you have, for example, fasted for a day in order to save up money for a needy cause. These are things that believers do, for love's sake. The governing principles are, of course:
Where there is free will and love, a plural relationship will thrive. Where there is not, it will stagnate and possibly descend into civil war. My own family has entertained similar questions before, such as: 'Oh, we can't afford another wife'. If bringing in another wife means that you or your children are going to starve, then obviously it cannot be right. If bringing in another wife means that some luxuries have to do, then it is right if everyone agrees and the moving power is love for the new wife or sister-wife. It will certainly prove to her that she is wanted and should inspire her to make sacrifices of her own. When you love someone enough you make sacrifices for them. And if it's a formerly estranged wife returning home (who accepts her husband's authority and rule), then there really is no question at all - you bring her home no matter what, and trust Yahweh to provide, for that is your duty.
- (a) Free will; and
- (b) Love.
Of course, if it is Yahweh's will - even though the economic odds seem stacked against a family being able to cope in taking in a new wife - and the revelation is unambiguous, then you act in faith. But before you do that you had better be 100% sure it is right and get confirmation from elsewhere ... particularly your wife/wives. The wheels of a marriage will always move much more smoothly where there is unanimity. A house divided against it self cannot stand (Mark 3:24-25).
From what you have told me, you and your first wife as a couple are not yet ready for plural marriage. Her attitude is carnal and selfish. It may well be that you have been pressurising her in which case you may need to make some more room. If you haven't been pressurising her, then I would suggest that now is the time for some intense biblical education on the Christian/Messianic Way. Or there may be other issues that need addressing.
The context of the "not diminishing" passage is compulsion under the Mosaic systen involving slave-girls. There's even a hint of potential dishonesty here on the part of the man in such a situation. My own interpretation is that this Mosaic legislation is to protect first wives against rogue husbands taking slave-wives in an underhand way. Is this scripture applicable to us today? Certainly - Yah'shua (Jesus) said that all of Torah remains in force (minus the ceremonial Law and its administration through the Levitical Priesthood - Matthew 5:17-20). Because there are rogues in the New Covenant, first (and other) wives need protection. It is in such circumstances as when a dishonourable man might enter polygamy in order to shunt a first wife aside by reducing her standard of living to pay for a second one that this statute finds its modern application. Seen through the lens of New Covenant love, a man truly in Christ would ensure that the first wife is in agreement with expanding a family, that any monogamy-only vows have been freely and lawfully renegociated to allow for mutliple wives, and that the readjusted and mutually agreed economic standards that are to be when the new wife come will not cause unnecesary friction or suffering.
Looking at this further, I would interpret this passage to mean that the husband will not diminish the first wife's wardrobe, deny her of adequate shelter and warmth, deny her of an adequate diet, or conjugal relations. To maintain a basic standard he may be expected to work harder, depending on the kind of love and grace that prevail in his home. However, for a woman to expect that she should be maintained in a state of luxury when the Christian/Messianic Way requires that we live simply do so as to be in a position to bless others with our wealth (be it for extra wives or impoverished Christians/Messianics at home or abroad) testifies to me that unrighteous and carnal grounds are being promoted - such things are shameful and reprobate and ought to be exposed, in a spiritually edifying way, as such.
This would be my counsel.