“On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
We live in a day when the understanding of what marriage is at a definitional level is being lost. We used to know, but as we have gradually jettisoned the cultural influence of the Christian worldview we are losing it. An example of this is the issue of polygamy.
Polygamy is interesting to people right now in a way it hasn’t been in a very long time. Most of this is due to two popular TV shows, Big Love on HBO which portrayed it about like you would expect HBO to portray it, and Sister Wives on TLC which seems to have as its goal to make anything that is culturally variant seem really interesting and appealing (including Christianity which should tell us something, but that’s another conversation). Statistically speaking the public support for polygamy is higher than it has ever been too.
The issue has gotten a bit of legal support as well…sort of. Along about the same time the Obergefell case was making its successful journey through the court system, the “family” featured on Sister Wives sued to have their definition of marriage similarly recognized and legitimized by the court. They ultimately lost, but the ruling was incredibly weak in its reasoning, arguing that marriage is just supposed to be between two people without really offering a compelling definition of the institution that would support such a claim. And indeed, as many traditionalists had argued, once you stripped the fundamental male-female complementary of marriage away from the “official” nationally accepted definition, there would be no compelling basis to keep it restricted to a union of only two.
In any event, historically speaking, many supporters of polygamy—including the Mormon Church for a significant block of its history as well as modern polygamous sects—have pointed to the Old Testament for support. There are several passages like this one that portray it as a totally normative part of the culture of the ancient Hebrews. And in no case is there a specific condemnation of it. The New Testament came along later and messed everything up by imposing what had become the accepted culture of the time on everyone else. It was just a cultural power play that took away from God’s intention for the institution.
But, just because something gets portrayed in the Old Testament without condemnation does not mean it is instead being condoned. Not only do we have the creation language of marriage in Genesis 2 to help us make this case, but we also have the fact that every single time a character in the Old Testament is portrayed as having more than one wife, the circumstances are never happy. Ever.
This story makes this case better than most. We’re not told the reason Elkanah has two wives in Peninnah and Hannah, but it’s clearly something that has been the case for some time. And it wasn’t a good situation. Peninnah has children and so was the “better” wife in the eyes of the culture, but Elkanah’s heart belonged to Hannah. Peninnah should have been the favorite wife, knew it, and bullied and harassed Hannah endlessly out of her jealousy of their husband’s affection. Hannah, for her part, seems to have been the more righteous of the two and was miserable to the point that she couldn’t eat. This was not a good situation. It never was. It never is. Because it’s not what marriage is. It wasn’t what it was created to be.
Here’s the bigger point: When we try and do life other than how God calls us to live it, things aren’t going to go well. They never do. Whether it’s marriage or anything else, our best path through life will always be found in pursuing the path laid out for us by God. Nothing else will ultimately do.