How a novel about polygamy helped me understand the patriarchs & the Bible better

Every once in a while, I read a decidedly-unchristian book that makes me think about the Bible in a different way, something that makes me say, “Maybe that’s why so-and-so acted that way!” It doesn’t have to talk about the Bible or have biblical allusions; but it reveals a truth about human character and relationships through fiction in a way that, for me, scholarly works don’t.

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff, was like that. Yes, you read that correctly: the 19th wife.

As in, there are eighteen other women cast in the role of wife to one husband.

As in, a 19-to-1 ratio of wives-to-husband.

As in, polygamy.

It’s part modern-day murder mystery and part historical tale of one of the many wives of Brigham Young.

As the dual timeline unfolds, we read about Jordan, a young gay man who has been cast out from the “Firsts”, a secluded group of polygamists living in Utah under the control of a Warren Jeffs-like leader. (The “Firsts” are First Church of the Latter Day Saints, which split from the official Mormon church a long time ago.) He returns when his mother, the 19th wife of his father, is accused of murdering her husband. She convinces him that she’s innocent; reluctantly, he, a new lover, and another stray ex-First teen begin investigating the murder.

Mixed into the story is the fictionalized true story of Ann Eliza Young, the most famous of Young’s wives; she escaped Young, tried to sue for alimony, and toured the country speaking about the evils of polygamy. (She is a controversial figure in the LDS church and was/is considered an apostate.) Through her efforts and her memoirs, she helped convince national leaders that they couldn’t turn a blind eye to the issue of multiple wives. Previously, there had been a “what happens in Utah, stays in Utah” mentality, but Young’s scathing memoirs showed them that the practice of polygamy actually hurts the people involved.

Which is where my ah-ha! moment occurred.

I’ve read the Bible through multiple times in my life, and while I always understood that the patriarchs’ polygamy wasn’t good and led to big-time problems in their lives, I didn’t quite understand the family dynamics.

Why couldn’t Sarah and Hagar get along?  Why’d Ishmael have it out for Isaac? And Rachel and Leah, fighting over Jacob and who got to have sex with him and who got pregnant by him the most times? C’mon, ladies, couldn’t you just get along? You’re both in the same situation, dealing with the same guy!

Now I understood.

Ann Eliza Young calls polygamy “soulless”; it destroys the souls of those involved. Her own father took multiple wives and paid for it, both literally (the wives and children drained his finances) and figuratively (he despises his own lustful weaknesses and how his relationship with his first, beloved wife is destroyed by the competing demands of wives numbers two through five).

Jordan tells about his sisters and half-sisters and other girls, how they were abused by fathers and married off to men many years older. He tells about the boys and young men who were often cast out from the Firsts because they were a threat to the older men: they were competition as sexual partners for the girls.

(That’s why he was expelled from the community: he was caught holding the hand of his half-sister, not as a sexual or romantic gesture but as an expression of companionship.)

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The wives form factions: some follow one dominant wife, others follow another. They’re jealous; they bicker; they despise whoever is the wife after them and are ignored by the previous wives. Ones who have more children tend to have more clout; others are considered lesser. The childless wives might be divorced.

Was this the dynamic in Jacob’s household?

2 wives+ 2 concubines + 1 husband = 13+ children.

No wonder Rachel and Leah bargained over who got to sleep with Jacob.

The “Firsts” husbands keep charts (Jordan calls them f*** charts) to keep track of how much time they spend with each wife and what each wife likes during their “intimate” moments. (How intimate it can be when she has to share her sex partner with many other women?) She’s become an object of sexual lust, a possession that he may or may not like; she’s little more than an unpaid prostitute.

I had to wonder about King David and his many wives. When he got Bathsheba pregnant and then killed her husband, I can’t imagine that she was overjoyed at getting to be part of the royal harem.

To go from the wife of one man, Uriah the Hittite, to being just one of David’s many wives was hardly moving up the social ladder. She wouldn’t be the chief wife, she would be resented by the other wives, and most importantly, she lost an honorable husband who loved her and, from what I can tell, loved only her. She lost the intimacy that is only possible between two people. I doubt that she wanted any of this to happen. Yet she had no power to stop the king from taking what he wanted: her. 

The Bible doesn’t tell us all of these emotional details. Sometimes it’s easy to skim over a familiar text or approach it in an emotionless way that doesn’t imagine the depth of human emotions. But doing that makes us lose the human aspect of these stories.

That’s why I appreciated Ebershoff’s book so much. It wasn’t just a well-written novel. It pointed things out about human nature (and in particular, the nature of relationships when polygamy is allowed) that I could relate to the people of the Bible. It wasn’t spiritually inspired by any means, but it illuminated an area that I hadn’t quite understood before.

How about you? Have you ever had a novel or short story that revealed something about human nature to you?    

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22 thoughts on “How a novel about polygamy helped me understand the patriarchs & the Bible better

  1. I have read “The Red Tent”, but actually “Sister Wives” gave me a better understanding of the evils of Polygamy. I could see how they were so catty and manipulative towards each other. It didn’t look to me like all were one big happy family. It looked like there was way more competition than there needed to be. Thanks for this review- Looks like it would be an interesting read!

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    1. I’ve heard of both The Red Tent and Sister Wives, but haven’t gotten around to reading/watching them yet. This book was a tough read. There’s some fairly foul language that some of the more conservative reviewers on Goodreads disliked; those folks also objected to the “unnecessary” sexual elements, including Jordan’s sexuality. But I thought that those elements were necessary to conveying the problems in polygamy, otherwise the author might be white-washing the evil and readers could dismiss it as “not that bad.” The author didn’t go as far as he could’ve gone, either. Anyway, thanks for reading.

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      1. The only one I didn’t like was Saving Fish from Drowning, but The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Hundred Secret Senses – I loved all of those. I loved her autobiography, too, but I forget the name.

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      1. Laura, I’m not sure if it’s a matter of it being too familiar or if it’s more a matter of it being always presented in a predictable manner, setting and/or context. I think this may be what leads to mindless following of cultic type leaders. When they hear something said often enough in the same way, they begin to think it’s the only plausible explanation. In a much smaller way, this probably contributes to our not really seeing beyond the written page to the depths of what was going on in many Bible accounts. Getting another perspective can be helpful in this. (For my own part, I’ve watched reality shows, documentaries and exposes that really opened up the ugly aspects of polygamy for me. That, and my family lived in Arizona for awhile where we “saw” it practiced.)

        As for the Bible “patriarchs” and polygamy, of course it wasn’t the divine plan for marriage in the first place, but in David’s case, he was disobeying a direct command of God for kings of Israel – Deut. 17:15-17. I wonder how long it will take modern “Christian Patriarchy” to decide that polygamy is the way to go to pump out numerous “arrows” as fast as possible. I’ve already read three things that have given me pause to consider on that point.

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      2. Do you think that Christian patriarchy will start to condone polygamy? Yikes!

        Probably part of my ignorance has come from not watching all those documentaries/shows/exposes–we don’t have a television–and living only in the deep south. I can’t travel much, so I try to stay in touch with the rest of the world through online news, books, blogs, etc., but it’s hard not to be lulled into believing that the rest of the world shares my particular lifestyle.

        Thanks so much for weighing in on this. I appreciate everything you said!

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      3. P.S. I just remembered another source that informed my view of polygamy – My grandparents were all missionaries in East Africa over a span from the 40s-70s. I’ve heard stories from my family that dealt with this and also read missionary stories/biographies that touched upon it.

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      4. Laura, I’m sorry I didn’t answer you question sooner. I tried once and my connection failed and then I couldn’t remember your name or how I got here. I ran across an email today from WordPress for followup comments and so, here I am finally answering! 🙂

        I think that some of the Biblical Patriarchy world would not get into polygamy, but so many strange things have happened in Christendom over the course of my life that I have to say that I think some of them might. I can see how they might inform their ethics by “necessity” rather than by the word of God, and the hysteria of being “taken over” by Muslims or “the world” could drive them to it, especially if it were legalized, which seems like it could happen, all things considered. (Sorry for the run-on sentence).

        As regarding sources – all my sources are online and from books or printed things as well. We don’t have a television either, at least not one that’s being used. I watch documentaries/shows/exposes online, mostly at YouTube. I also don’t travel much at all. Reaching outside my own boxes hasn’t always come easy for me either. It’s so much less bothersome and painful to be “lulled”, as you say. 🙂 I admit that I don’t follow much to do with political type stuff. It’s much too depressing these days.

        Missionaries can be a great source of information on other cultures! 🙂

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  2. This book sounds quite interesting. I enjoyed The Red Tent and another true account of polygamy and a woman’s escape out of it (my Internet is moving slowly and I can’t remember the name — I’ll try to come back with a title), but even before reading about polygamy, I could see how emotionally draining and soul-sucking that sort of existence could be. Perhaps it’s simply my personality, but there is not a person on this earth I would share well.

    I would love to hear your take on The Red Tent (that means please read it and blog about it), because that has been the one book that has completely blown my mind as far as different people’s strong opinions. I liked it. I also recognize it as fiction BASED on characters in the Bible. I grew up in a Christian church, but my understanding of the Bible is different from many of my Christian friends’ understanding (not saying I’m right and they’re wrong; just truly interested & often feel we speak different languages.)

    There were women in my book club who would not read the book because they suspected it was blasphemous. Again, I’m more in the love-your-neighbor-as-Jesus-loved-everyone camp, so I am the last person one should look to for biblical expertise. Most of the women in my book club identify as Christian, but we come from different parts of the country/world, and I was shocked at the strong reactions, as was my friend who happens to be a devout Catholic and recommended The Red Tent — her Master’s was in Comparative Literature, and she had read it in a class and loved it. She certainly had no intentions of offending anyone with the book. I think in the end, she got HER feelings hurt because the women who spoke out so strongly against the book refused to read it…I walked away from The Red Tent feeling just as I feel in most situations — people are complex; cultures are complex, and unless we’ve lived in those times and places we can’t possibly judge their choices. We CAN learn from them, however.

    Anyway, I love what you had to say about this book — I will add it to my to-read list. It’s great to see that you’re back blogging. 🙂

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    1. Well, I’ll definitely have to read The Red Tent! I can definitely understand your friend’s hurt feelings that people wouldn’t read the book; I don’t even know what to recommend to my conservative church friends, especially if they don’t read much or any “secular” fiction. Interestingly enough, that story reminded me of a Bible class I took at my Christian college. The prof asked us to read the entire Bible in one semester and he included portions of the Apocrypha from the Catholic Bible. One young woman refused to read anything from the Apocrypha because it wasn’t “really” the Bible. I read it and I simply didn’t understand her reaction and refusal; one doesn’t have to believe something is inspired by God in order to derive some benefit from it. Personally, I found the Apocryphal tales of martyrs and historical people to be absorbing, interesting, and inspiring, so I was glad I read it. Your story reminded me of that incident.

      And now I have another book to add to my to-read list! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

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      1. Yes! You very well put into words what I (and I’m pretty sure my friend) was feeling. I could do an entire post on this, but the other part of the bookclub story was that we agreed at the beginning to be open and read books that stretched us. My friend who recommended RT and I and a few others had gone above and beyond and read plenty that was out of our comfort zone in the form of books we very much ended up disliking and disagreeing with that the anti-RT crowd suggested. We tried to be kind and give constructive feedback, so it was upsetting when they refused to even look at the RT, not to mention that they did it in a way that felt like they were judging us for enjoying it. This bookclub actually ended up splitting (amicably, thankfully), but it made me sad that we weren’t able to continue and find common ground. Even the books that I didn’t love broadened me, and I learned SOMETHING from all of them. They helped me better understand certain friends’ perspectives, and I gained insight into their upbringing.

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      2. Wow, that’s really sad that the anti-RT folks wouldn’t honor their promise to read mind-stretching books. There are good reasons for refusing to read a book, but I don’t think they had a good reason in this case.

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      3. Laura, if you’re still looking for something to recommend to your conservative church friends regarding polygamy, you might try a documentary called “Lifting the Veil On Polygamy” from Living Hope Ministries. It is a Christian video that deals with the Mormon history of polygamy and interviews a number of people who were saved out of that lifestyle. It’s very interesting and informative. The producers have posted a low quality version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?persist_safety_mode=1&safety_mode=true&v=bjDJs7wvGLg
        You can buy it here: http://sourceflix.com/lifting-the-veil-of-polygamy/ (There may be other locations selling it as well.)

        Also there is a book called “Mormonism, Mama and Me” by Thelma “Granny” Geer who was saved out of Mormonism. You can find it on Amazon at present. It deals with many things relating to LDS history, but also goes into detail about some of her own family’s struggles relating to polygamy. She also gives some pretty shocking quotes from the old “prophets” of the LDS.

        I thought you might find these useful.

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      4. Thanks for the resources, Mary. These are much appreciated! (If you didn’t see your comment immediately, WordPress sent it into moderation mode, which it does whenever there’s more than one link in it. I guess that helps bring down spam.)

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  3. I have to chime in and recommend reading the Red Tent. My mom bought it for me years ago and I enjoyed reading it. It challenged my perception of Biblical characters even though I knew full well it was a fictional account. I may go back and reread it if I can find it. If I remember correctly the author did a lot of historical research when she wrote the book. My concern about many sanitized versions of Biblical history is that it gives people a false impression that faith in God will result in a perfect life. The failures of Biblical characters are glossed over and the heartache they caused is ignored or minimized. That is the great thing about novels, there is a freedom there to examine the failures and communicate the feelings of the characters in a way that is often not done by academic writing. I have always believed that God can use a novel or tv show to give insight into the way people think if we are open to listening. Great post!

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    1. Denise, great point about the sanitized versions of Biblical history. I felt that the movie Noah, while outrageous on certain points (the “fallen angels” reminded me of transformers!) gave me insight into the often-glossed over epilogue of his story: when he gets drunk and his son sees him. It also helped remind me of how evil and depraved the world was/is, how difficult it must’ve been to listen to the cries of dying neighbors while in the ark, and the desolation and beauty of the post-flood world. I didn’t have to accept everything as true-to-life for the movie to help me understand.

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