Was Moses a Polygamist? (D&C 132)

(NOTE: This is a rewrite of one my first posts.  I was never really happy with it, so I decided to give it another pass. The previous entry has been deleted.)

In the Latter-Day Saint canon, there is perhaps no document more controversial than D&C 132.  While the Book of Abraham is believed to be a translation, D&C 132 is a revelation directly to Joseph Smith. The origins and history of 132 are, at best, complicated.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into it here, but if you are interested in a more in-depth discussion of authorship, please click here.

According to official church sources, 132 was revealed on July 12, 1843. After the Saints arrived in the Great Basin in 1847, the revelation was still unknown to the majority of the Church, even though many of the men in leadership positions were already vigorously engaged in the practice, euphemistically called “the principle.” It wasn’t until 1852, nine years later, that Orson Pratt publicly declared the doctrine and revelation in a sermon titled, “Celestial Marriage.”  Pratt’s reasoning for polygamy is rooted in the idea of LDS superiority and supremacy, based in part on Abraham 3 description the “noble spirits.” These spirits, held in reserve for the “last days,” need to be born into LDS families,

“They are to be sent to that people that are the most righteous of any other people upon the earth; there to be trained up properly, according to their nobility and intelligence, and according to the laws which the Lord ordained before they were born. This is the reason why the Lord is sending them here, brethren and sisters; they are appointed to come and take their bodies here, that in their generations they may be raised up among the righteous. The Lord has not kept them in store for five or six thousand years past, and kept them waiting for their bodies all this time to send them among the Hottentots, the African negroes, the idolatrous Hindoos, or any other of the fallen nations that dwell upon the face of this earth. They are not kept in reserve in order to come forth to receive such a degraded parentage upon the earth no, the Lord is not such a being; His justice, goodness, and mercy will be magnified towards those who were chosen before they were born; and they long to come, and they will come among the Saints of the living God; this would be their highest pleasure and joy, to know that they could have the privilege of being born of such noble parentage. 

“Then is it not reasonable, and consistent that the Lord should say unto His faithful and chosen servants, that had proved themselves before Him all the day long; that had been ready and willing to do whatsoever His will required them to perform—take unto yourselves more wives, like unto the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of old—like those who lived in ancient times, who walked in my footsteps, and kept my commands? Why should they not do this? Suppose the Lord should answer this question, would He not say, I have here in reserve noble spirits, that have been waiting for thousands of years, to come forth in the fulness of times, and which I designed should come forth through these my faithful and chosen servants, for I knew they will do my will, and they will teach their children after them to do it. Would not this be the substance of the language, if the Lord should give us an answer upon this subject?”

Pratt then explains that men taking additional wives as the patriarchs of old, presumably when and whom, was the sole purview of Brigham Young,

“So in these days; let me announce to this congregation, that there is but one man in all the world, at the same time, who can hold the keys of this matter; but one man has power to turn the key to inquire of the Lord, and to say whether I, or these my brethren, or any of the rest of this congregation, or the Saints upon the face of the whole earth, may have this blessing of Abraham conferred upon them; he holds the keys of these matters now, the same as Nathan, in his day.”

But, says one, how have you obtained this information? By new revelation. When was it given, and to whom? It was given to our Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, Joseph Smith, on the 12th day of July 1843; only about eleven months before he was martyred for the testimony of Jesus.”

Brigham Young, speaking later in the day, said,

“The principle spoken upon by Brother Pratt, this morning, we believe in. And I tell you– for I know it–it will sail over and over and ride triumphantly above all prejudice and priestcraft of the day [it didn’t]. It will be fostered and believed in by the more intelligent portions of the world [it wasn’t], as one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed to any people [it’s caused nothing but harm and heartache]. Your hearts need not beat; you need not think that a mob is coming here to tread upon the sacred liberty which the Constitution of our country guarantees unto us, for it will not be. [the mob didn’t come, but the Feds did.]”

THE TEXT 

A lot of digital ink has been dedicated to writing about D&C 132.  As mentioned in the beginning, the question of authorship, to me, remains unsettled.  I do lean towards an original revelation by Joseph Smith that was later revised or embellished by Brigham Young.  RLDS Elder Evan Fry wrote an interesting article on the subject.  Enid S. Debarth’s Bibliography on Joseph Smith II contains an in-depth study on the language of 132.  She concludes the revelation contains some very distinct “Brighamisms” we find in Brigham’s Salt Lake City sermons.   Ultimately, I don’t think authorship is especially important.  I don’t have any vested interest in upholding Joseph Smith or Brigham Young as prophets.  I believe the text is king, not the author.  Something is not necessarily true or false because Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young for that matter, wrote it.  The man is irrelevant.  As I often say, “measure the doctrine, not the man.” If we let focus on the text alone, it’s exceptionally easy to prove 132 a false revelation.  And it only takes the first verse.  I’ve italicized the two major problems,

“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.”

The first issue is that there’s no textual evidence Isaac was a polygamist.  The second issue is Moses’ alleged polygamy. Polygamy advocates, both inside and outside of Mormonism, have often cited Moses (and Abraham) 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.  Despite the obvious logical fallacy of that viewpoint, FAIR makes the same argument regarding Joseph Smith’s alleged polygamous unions,

“…when the Lords commands it, polygamy is acceptable. If Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, then you have to accept that God told him to bring the principle into practice. After all, this dispensation is the restoration of all things, therefore, the principle of plural marriage was restored.

This is a terrifying statement.  According to FAIR I am obligated to believed God restored polygamy.  I have no choice.  Well, I don’t believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, but active members of the church are required to accept and practice something just because a man in a presumed position of authority practices it. This is insanity. If Joseph Smith said everyone should drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid (it wasn’t Kool-Aid), are believers required to do so?  Of course not. Herein lays the danger of having a testimony of a man, or as we sing in the church, “following the prophet.”

The issue with Moses’ “polygamy” is a bit more complicated, but easily explained.  To do so requires reorienting our understanding of scripture, in particular the Hebrew Bible. Tradition holds that Moses authored the first five books of the Bible, commonly referred to as “The Five Books of Moses” in English, “The Pentateuch” in Greek and “Torah,” or “instruction” in Hebrew.  We’ll use Torah. 

For the last 150 years or so, Mosaic authorship has rightly been called into question.  As I understand it, Biblical High Criticism began in Germany in the late 1800s.  Known as Quellenscheidung, it might also be termed the Historical-Critical Method.  Its purpose is not to disprove the Bible, but to closely study to the text to determine authorship and date.  It approaches the Biblical text from an historical perspective rather than one of faith.  What resulted from this scholarship was the formation of the Documentary Hypothesis, or the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, after the two men, K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen.   

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 include the “Supplementary Hypothesis” and the “Fragmentary Hypothesis.”) The four main sources identified in the text include:

  • The Elohist (“E”)
  • The Yahwist (“J”)
  • The Deuteronomist (“D”)
  • The Priestly Source (“P”)

This list doesn’t include the multiple editors and redactors who helped shape and form the Hebrew Bible we have today. Only the most conservative of scholars, Orthodox Jews, Evangelicals and Mormons 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 is 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?  We find all of these scenarios in the Genesis flood account.

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.  You can separate the flood account into two complete, independent narratives.  I’ve done it.

Again, without reaching for your Bible, which mountain did Moses scale? Sinai or Horeb? Was Moses’ father-in-law named Jethro (Numbers 10:29, ESV) or Reuel (Exodus 2:3, ESV)?  As you have certainly guessed, we have separate, distinct 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.  It’s compelling evidence for multiple authors contributing to the Bible tradition that’s been handed down to us today.   And, thankfully, these doublets also account for the Moses’s “multiple wives.”

MOSES‘ “WIVES

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.”

Again, no textual evidence to support the claim that Isaac was a polygamist.  For the sake of review, here are the passages used by polygamy promoters and apologists to support Moses’ polygamy,

“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.)

“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 in this way.  If Moses were the author, I think it’s reasonable to assume the text would read,

“And I was content to dwell the man, and he gave me his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and I called his name Gershom, for I said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

How to resolve this conundrum?  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 identified as the Yahwist, or “J.”  J uses Reuel and Sinai.

The author of Numbers 12:1 is identified 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.

Friedman explains,

“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 redactor, likely the high priest Ezra, combined J, E, D P, RJE into the final five-book work we call the Torah.  Does this mean these Abrham, Isaac, 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.  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, which is a modern discipline, in the way we think of it.  

CONCLUSION

There’s no textual evidence Isaac and Moses were polygamists.  (Curiously, Jacob 2 only mentions the wickedness of David and Solomon in desiring many wives and concubines.)  Are the stories of Abraham and Jacob alleged familial arrangements actual history?  It’s impossible to say, but I suspect they aren’t.  And if they are, it doesn’t mean God commanded it or condoned a practice that invariably leads to unhappiness and neglect in the best of cases, and abuse in the worst. 

The naming of Isaac and Moses as polygamist presents the first challenge to the authenticity of D&C 132.  Whether its author was Joseph Smith or Brigham Young is ultimately irrelevant. It’s a fraudulent revelation used to justify sin, serial adultery and fornication disguised as “Mormon Polygamy” from 1853-1910.  And make no mistake, spiritual polygamy still exists in the church. Current LDS church president, Russell M. Nelson, is sealed to two women, his first Dantzel (deceased), and his current wife Wendy.  First Counselor Dallin H. Oaks is sealed to his first wife, June (deceased), and his current wife, Kristen. How do these arrangements work out in the afterlife? Does a man have to pick which wife he perfers to spend eternity? Or does he have multiple wives?  It’s not a sarcastic question.  I’d really like to know how the church explains this issue.  

At any rate, with this evidence showing D&C 132 cannot be a true revelation, I believe the church needs to take carefully consider its position in the canon. I believe some have attempted to bring it to the church’s attention.  The correct path, I believe, is to have a series of debates, open to the public and broadcast via the internet.  D&C 132 was never presented to the church for a sustaining vote and therefore should not be binding.  It should be presented to the church for acceptance or rejection. 

On a personal note, I believe D&C 132 should be decanonized from LDS scripture, burned, and its ashes thrust into the fiery abyss from whence it came.

2 thoughts on “Was Moses a Polygamist? (D&C 132)

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: