Saturday, July 30, 2011

Should King David and Solomon be in Jail?

The polygamist FLDS is again in the news, although the current assault is a good deal less outrageous than the activities of the Texas child protective authorities a few years back, which I covered extensively here.

But it does occur to me that it raises a serious issue for both American Christians and Jews, at least ones who take their religion fairly literally. It is clear from the Old Testament that God's chosen people practiced extensive polygamy. It is clear from what we know of Jewish law that marriage and sex were legal at ages well below those at which they are currently illegal in most of the U.S.; a woman was a legal adult at twelve and a half, provided she had shown some sign of menarch. By those standards, nothing that Warren Jeffs is charged with, at least so far as I know—I haven't actually followed the case—should be illegal.

Yet I would be surprised if any large fraction of modern American Christians and Jews actually defended Jeffs. What is their basis for not doing so? Should King David and Solomon be in jail?


MikeGogulski said...

Death, death to the anti-Solomonites who would deprive Gh0--d's people of their chosen ... thingy.

In any case, whatever happens in west Texas is only further evidence of how decrepit America's Christiantity has become.

It's obviously nothing to you now, when you are not daily fighting the lions at the Colosseum. You feel little pain when your only possible lion(oops, "loin"!)-mates aren't dying in large numbers in eastasia.

I'd encourage each bloodthirsty American today to go out and throttle a pagan. Heck, at least gut an Indian.

Perry Metzger said...

An interesting question you pose, David, but as religious people have a strong tradition of picking and choosing which portions of their holy books to pay attention to, ignoring whatever components displease them at any given time, I don't see this as any more irrational than any other portion of religious practice.

Which is not to say that it isn't an embarrassing question to ask them. :)

49erDweet said...

Probably "Yes", or at least paid some measure of penalty if they'd violated "laws" of their nation. Which apparently both did. [Since each was King at the time other options opened]. But IMHO your question reflects a miscomprehension of the relationship believers have with G-d and his "laws".

That said, I have long believed it has been a mistake for too many legislators to have too closely based some social laws on biblical principles. Those standards are meant for believers, not dirty-rotten-pagans, et al. Obviously there are areas where the two overlap, but many times societies needs might not be the same and therefore would be better served based on secular criteria, rather than spiritual. I think in those cases biblical rules became a lazy shortcut used as a crutch in place of creative legislation.

If I may use NASCAR as an example, in certain racing classifications one's engine may be only "X" large. For an officer to cite me because my "Z" engine is much larger and more powerful as I toodle down the 101 would be stupid.

Roger said...

The way humans live with such obvious conflicts in their personal philosophies / world views is fascinating to me. I wish we understood it better.

Is it a form of Thought Suppression, a defensive mechanism? An economics trade-off balancing thinking and reason, with following the group/leader to fit in/conform?

Saw a few articles recently on Confirmation Bias. We filter information and accept that information which supports what we already believe. Almost seems confirmation bias dominates our learning, rather non-learning, process!

With more knowledge about why we accept conflicting conclusions, maybe we could filter out confirmation bias decisions and actually find what the few open minded people on a given subject are deciding based on more objective reasoning.

TJIC said...

As a fairly conservative Catholic, I'll defend the right to non-coercive polygamy, even though I'm appalled by it.

Then again, I am an anarcho-capitalist conservative Catholic, so I think it's safe to say that I don't speak for the mainstream!

jdgalt said...

In my reading of history, religion has usually been part of government. The present incomplete divorce between the two in the US is not only uncommon in the world, it is uncommon in history, at least in times when national governments had enough reach to impose a religion (thus Babylon, Rome, etc. had state faiths, but in the Dark Ages it just wasn't possible).

As for religious limits on marriage and sex, those all seem to arise out of a king's view that nobody should have a source of pleasure which he can't regulate or tax -- because like marijuana, such a thing enables ordinary people to feel good about themselves and their lives for free even if they've displeased the king. Can't have that - we might stop paying attention to him.

49erDweet said...

Unfortunately for us, IMO, to a great degree John David Galt's understanding of history coincides with mine, and to a large extent the mating of governance and worship over the centuries explains much of the problem.

The best warrior/general/leader seldom would also be the most devout archbishop/deacon/elder and thus subsequent "religious" dicta flowing from that office, particularly immediately after a cathedral had been overthrown and sacked, seldom was able to withstand close comparison to scripture. Millimeter by millimeter theological elements were adjusted by humans - usually with the best of intents - in directions they at the time thought best. Not much could go wrong with that.

Jeff Green said...

Christians say that the old testament is old and that the new came to replace it. That they dabble into the old from time to time undermines their authority on these matters, or so you'd think! But their excuse is that God's Word is god's word regardless.

David Friedman said...

"Those standards are meant for believers"

That would explain why legal standards might be looser than religious standards, but this is a case where they are tighter—where behavior that the religious law endorses is forbidden by secular law.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but this is an easy one for a Christian. I'm not sure, but likely for a Jew as well. Humans are sinners. Always have been, always will be, since Adam ate of the fruit.

King David and Solomon are held up as an example, yes, but A) not entirely a positive example, and B) certainly not in every respect. If anything, they were both clear examples of human frailty tempered by God.

The challenge as a Christian is to first know the will of God, and second, to obey. Neither is easy, and we have only one example in all history of someone who succeeded in all respects - Jesus.

God's been working for a very long time to teach us what we should do, and to help our will to actually do what we know we should. And nevertheless our only hope is in his forgiveness for our failings. This is as true of those humans in the Bible as it is of us today.

"It is clear from the Old Testament that God's chosen people practiced extensive polygamy" - it's also clear that they practiced extensive slavery, worship of idols at times, both just and unjust wars. God didn't choose them because they were saints; he chose them in order to set their path in the right direction. If they were already what they should be, then God wouldn't have had to choose them; they'd have chosen him.

Unknown said...

Wow, a TJIC sighting! It's like we're back in 2009. Hope you're well.

As for the question at hand, it's posed somewhat more sloppily than the norm for this blog: David and Solomon shouldn't be in jail for polygamy any more than George Washington should be in jail for slavery. You generally can't prosecute someone for doing something that was legal when they did it. David did plenty that should have put him in jail, but polygamy isn't on the list.

The question you're really asking isn't a legal one, it's a moral one. And as Anonymous says, it's not really a hard one. The Old Testament records multiple cases of polygamy, but none of them are positive or exemplary. In most cases it's specifically mentioned as sinful.

There's no double standard here. I don't know any Christians who think it was morally acceptable for David to have multiple wives.

David Tomlin said...

The very existence of the twelve tribes of the Chosen People depended on Jacob/Israel having two wives and two concubines.

My understanding is that the Jews have an out similar to that of the Christians. Much of the Mosaic code revolves around the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed and could not be rebuilt, this was taken as a sign from Yahveh that the Mosaic code was no longer fully operative. Hence came the development of Rabbinic Judaism and the Talmud, which re-interpreted the Torah for the new times.

David Tomlin said...


'In most cases it's specifically mentioned as sinful.'


The OT treats polygyny as a fact of like, which it was. Most ancient Mediterranean civilizations were polygynous. The Greeks and Romans are the only exceptions I know of. The Jews seem to have embraced monogamy by NT times, but that probably reflects Hellenization in the Seleucid period.

OT prophets denounced many of the customary practices of compatriots, but polygny was not among them.

David Tomlin said...

'[I]t's also clear that they practiced extensive slavery, worship of idols at times . . .'

Polygny and slavery were permitted by Mosaic law. Idolatry was forbidden.

(In my last comment, I meant to say 'their compatriots'. I guess the meaning is clear, but the dropped word makes it read a bit awkwardly.)

Anonymous said...

And Jesus practiced medicine without a license.

Anonymous said...

There is a principle in Jewish law: dina d'malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law. There are limits -- if the law of the land calls for everybody to bow down to Ba'al you don't do that -- but if local law is more restrictive than halacha, you follow local law. So, in the US, polygamy would not be in accordance with Jewish law.

There was a 1000-year ban on polygamy for Ashkenazi Jews that recently expired. I don't know the details of why it was enacted, but I surmise that it was a case where polygamy was ok under local laws but they still felt it was important not to go there. Though the ban expired a few years ago I'm not aware of anybody arguing that it's now ok.

Solomon and David followed the laws of their time.

David Tomlin said...

I just remembered that there is a passage in the C.S. Lewis novel That Hideous Strength that deals with this directly. One of the characters, Ransom I think, says something about the world constantly undergoing a process of spiritual change, so that laws appropriate to one age are not in another age. He specifically mentions OT polygamy. The other example, relevant to the story, is that certain kinds of magic are 'utterly unlawful' in the modern world, but were acceptable in earlier times.

David Friedman said...

"The Old Testament records multiple cases of polygamy, but none of them are positive or exemplary. In most cases it's specifically mentioned as sinful."

Could you be more specific? I'm far from an expert on the Old Testament, but my impression was that polygamy was simply taken for granted, not seen as either especially sinful or especially virtuous.

David Friedman said...

Cellio argues, I believe correctly, that under Rabbinic law Jews are expected to obey secular law, with some exceptions. But the puzzle I was raising was not why a believing Jew or Christian would feel obligated to obey modern laws restricting marriage and sex but why he would approve of them—approve so strongly as to regard it as perfectly obvious that doing things permitted under religious law deserved to be locked up for doing them. It is, as another poster pointed out, a moral question not a legal question. It parallels one I raised in an earlier post—how a politician such as Obama, who has admitted past drug use, can support locking up other people for doing what he did without feeling obligated to arrange for his own incarceration.

And it isn't limited to believing Christians and Jews. American conservatism is full of references to the "Judeo-Christian" culture on which ours is said to be built. If that culture approved of marital sex with thirteen year olds, as we know it did, what are the grounds for viewing it as an obviously outrageous crime that nobody should be permitted to commit?

Milhouse said...

There is a principle in Jewish law: dina d'malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law.

Sorry, Monica, but that's irrelevant. Those who imagine that this often-quoted line means the entire corpus of local, state, and federal laws is incorporated by reference into the Shulchan Aruch are deluding themselves. Dina means "judgement"; a din imposes neither an obligation nor a prohibition on any person; it calls neither for action nor inaction, but merely makes a statement about who prevailed in a court case, or who is the lawful owner of some piece of property, or whether a document is valid, etc. Dina demalchuta dina merely recognises that such pronoucements by the kingdom's courts are recognised by Jewish courts as facially valid; it's like the "full faith and credit" clause of the USA constitution.

Milhouse said...

David, why go back that far in history? Our own great-grandparents were married at 13-15, or could have done so without raising an eyebrow in society. How can what was moral then be immoral now? Has God descended on a new Mount Sinai while I was asleep, and given a new moral code?! It should be obvious that anyone who accepts traditional Biblical morality should have no problem with the FLDS.

Oh, and the Ashkenazi ban on polygyny expired at the end of the fifth millennium, i.e. 771 years ago. It was never accepted by any Jewish community outside Christendom, and quite a few polygynous households immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and were legally recognised as married.

Alexandra Thorn said...

People in general seem to be pretty comfortable with the idea that things that were okay in the past are not okay today.

A famous study addressed this question by asking modern research subjects about norms for flogging on ships (Kelly et al. 2007 cited in Sousa et al. 2009):
"(1) Mr. Adams is an officer on a large modern American
cargo ship in 2004. One night, while at sea, he finds a
sailor drunk at a time when the sailor should have been
monitoring the radar screen. After the sailor sobers up,
Adams punishes the sailor by giving him 5 lashes with a
Question: Is it OK for Mr. Adams to whip the sailor? YES
(2) Three hundred years ago, whipping was a common
practice in most navies and on cargo ships. There were
no laws against it, and almost everyone thought that
whipping was an appropriate way to discipline sailors
who disobeyed orders or were drunk on duty.
Mr. Williams was an officer on a cargo ship 300 years
ago. One night, while at sea, he found a sailor drunk
at a time when the sailor should have been on watch.
After the sailor sobered up, Williams punished the sailor
by giving him 5 lashes with a whip.
Question: Is it OK for Mr. Williams to whip the sailor?

Sousa et al. (2009) go on to describe the results of the study: " the generality pair, only 10% said OK to the first scenario question, while 51% said OK to the second."

I don't have the time to dig up unlocked links to these articles, but the citation information below should be sufficient for anybody who wants to follow up.

Kelly, D., Stich, S., Haley, K., Eng, S., & Fessler, D. (2007). Harm, affect, and the moral/conventional distinction. Mind and Language, 22, 117–131.

Sousa, P., Holbrook, C., & Piazza J. (2009). The morality of harm. Cognition, 113, 80-92.

sconzey said...

Erm, not sure anyone's mentioned this yet, but in Christianity and Judaism, followers are required to obey both God's laws, and the laws of the secular authority where they don't conflict.

So even if God says it's okay to marry five twelve-year-olds, God also says it's not okay to do that in a country where you'll get into trouble and give Christians a bad name.

It goes further than that in fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about how he obeys not just the laws, but the customs of the area in which he's residing. Even though Christians are permitted to eat pork, he does not when staying with Jews.

Anonymous said...

My question is why it has ever been acceptable to have sex with 12 to 18 year old girls? In any country or religion?

It is way too young from what we know of child development and when nutrition was not as good as it is today.

Jim Babka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Babka said...

I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.
– II Samuel 12:8
{Emphasis added}

John T. Kennedy said...

The enlightenment has to a large extent neutered Christianity and Judaism, as was intended. Most of their their adherents no longer take their scripture seriously. FLDS is in a way a younger and more vibrant religion that does believe it's scriptures to a greater degree. Plus they've been socially isolated since they've been made a black market religion.

Bluntly, few christians and jews believe in David and Solomon as more than characters in fables of limited practical application.