In D&C 132 we read,
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines.”
There is plenty of controversy over Section 132, but I won’t address that here. I want to drill down on the issue of Moses’ presumed polygamous marriages/unions in the Hebrew Bible. Polygamy advocates have often cited Moses as an example of God-sponsored polygamy. If God called Moses to be a prophet, and Moses was a polygamist, then God must condone it. Or so goes the reasoning. Well, it’s not so cut and dried. When we examine the text and understand the composition of the Bible, a different answer emerges.
THE DOCUMENTARY HYPOTHESIS
Some familiarity with the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) is important in understanding this question. If you’re not familiar with the DH, I recommend this presentation by John Hamer from the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) and this NOVA documentary narrated by Liev Schreiber. The Cliff Notes version of the DH posits that rather than unified Mosaic authorship, the books that constitute the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) are comprised of multiple documents from multiple sources. (Competing theories are the “Supplementary Hypothesis” and the “Fragmentary Hypothesis.”) The four main sources are The Elohist (“E”), The Yahwest (“J”), The Deuteronomist (“D”), and The Priestly Source (“P”). These don’t include the multiple editors and redactors who helped shape and form the Hebrew Bible we have today. (I don’t like to call the Hebrew Bible “The Old Testament.” That’s a later Christian attribution.) Only the most conservative of scholars, Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals hold to unified Mosaic authorship.
How do we know we have different sources? For one, Hebrew, like all languages, evolves. Just like English from Shakespeare’s day differs from our day, Hebrew from the Second Temple period is different from the Hebrew of David’s day. We have evidence of earlier and later Hebrew in the original text. The problem is that these differences disappear when translated into English. Secondly, we have numerous instances of what are called “doublets.” (There are many other linguistic and theological evidence that support multiple authors, but we’ll focus on the doublets). The most well-known set of doublets are the flood accounts. Without reaching for your Bible, answer these questions: Did Noah bring two sets of every animal on the ark or seven sets of every clean animal? Did the waters last 40 days and nights or 150? Did Noah send out a dove or a raven? These are all found in the flood accounts.
The Yale Divinity school notes,
“…there is something notable about the narrative problems of the Flood story: they all come in binary pairs. Two repetitions, two birds, two origins of the waters, two calendrical systems. And when the opposing pairs are separated, it turns out that two perfectly good narratives emerge, each with distinctive and consistent narrative claims about what happened, when, how, and why.“
In short, what we have are two separate flood narratives by different authors woven into one. Yale is correct. You can separate the flood account into two complete, independent narratives. I’ve done it.
Again, without reaching for your Bible, did Moses scale Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb? Was Moses’ father-in-law named Jethro (Numbers 10:29, ESV), Reuel (Exodus 2:3, ESV)? As you guessed, we have separate traditions. One writer refers to Moses’ father-in-law as “Reuel” and the other as “Jethro.”
There are some 30 doublets in the Torah alone. Its compelling evidence for multiple authors contributing to what we know as “The Torah.”
In an essay titled “Polygamy: What Latter-Day Saints Really Believe,” we read,
“Another side that the Church looked into is the fact that Polygamy was practiced by many known Biblical figures like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David.”
We’ll let the fact that there’s no textual evidence for Isaac’s “polygamy” slide for the time being, but it’s additional evidence 132 is not inspired. Latter-Day Saints, unfortunately, are not unique in their belief that Moses was a polygamist. There are websites out there for those who care to look. (I think promoters of this idea are more or less seeking to justify their own carnal desires). For now, we’re going to turn our attention to the texts used by the Church and others:
1) “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:16-22, ESV.)
2) “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.” (Numbers 12:1, ESV)
Zipporah was a Midianite, while the second, unnamed wife is Cushite. It’s also odd that if Moses wrote the Torah he would refer to himself in the third person and write about his own death. So, what’s happening here? Is this evidence that Moses a polygamist as described in D&C 132?
The short answer: No.
The next question to ask ourselves is who are the authors Exodus 2 and Numbers 12? I found this chart that has the authorship of the Torah color-coded. (I also recommend the paperback version Richard Eliot Friedman’s “The Bible with Sources.“) Here’s what we learn:
The author of Exodus 2:16-22 is the Yahwist, or “J.” J uses Reuel and Sinai.
The author of Numbers 12:1 is the Elohist, or “E.” E uses Jethro and Horeb.
“J” lived and wrote from the southern kingdom of Judah and referred to God by the personal name “YHWH,” or Jehovah. “E” lived and wrote from the northern kingdom of Israel and referred to God by the noun “Elohim.” (Jehovah and Elohim are the same being–Jesus Christ. “Elohim,” when referring to the Hebrew god is always singular, without exception.) So, rather than evidence for Moses’ supposed polygamy, what we have are two independent Moses traditions preserved in the text, just as we have two creation accounts, two flood accounts, two accounts of Joseph being sold into slavery, etc.
“In the year 722 BCE, the Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. J and E were no longer separated by a border. These two versions of the people’s history now existed side by side in the kingdom of Judah. In the years that followed, someone assembled a history that used both J and E as sources. The editor/historian who combined J and E into a single work is known as the redactor of JE, or RJE for short.” (The Bible with Sources,” page 4.)
Sometime even later, a post-Exilic combined J, E, D P, RJE into the final five-book work we call the Torah. Does this mean these Abrham, Isaaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses are literary inventions? I don’t believe so. I believe Moses was a real person. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe he wasn’t. The Nephites believed he existed, for what that’s worth. We have to remember, however, that J and E were writing sometime around the beginning of the Davidic dynasty, meaning they’re relating stories that were then many centuries old. It would be like us writing history about the 1300s-1600s. That’s a very long time. It’s possible they were drawing from some extant written sources, but I suspect these were mostly oral traditions passed down over the centuries (I don’t know how the brass plates fit into this); and like a game a telephone, certain details inevitably get fuzzy, misheard, changed or reinterpreted. Don’t let it worry you. Hebrew writers weren’t necessarily documenting objective “history” in the way we think of it. Their purpose was didactic.
There’s no textual evidence Isaac and Moses were polygamists. (Curiously, Jacob only mentions the wickedness of David and Solomon.) This presents one of many challenges to the authenticity of D&C 132. Whether its author was Joseph Smith or Brigham Young is ultimately irrelevant. (Neither would have known about the Documentary Hypothesis. Joseph, for his part, was a biblical literalist.) It’s a fraudulent revelation used to justify sin, serial adultery and fornication euphemized as “Mormon Polygamy” from 1853-1910 (and even today among fundamentalist groups). It should be decanonized from LDS scripture and relegated to the dust bin of history. Forever. And ever. Amen.