Conversely, Community of Christ has used the same book to show that polygamy is always wrong. However, for the LDS, this same book suggests that polygamy can be appropriate – if commanded by God.
Which interpretation is correct? Let us follow the example of Nephi and ponder the scriptures.
The verse that the Mormons use to defend polygamy is as follows:
“For if I will, saith the Lord of hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people: otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things.” –Jacob 2:39 (LDS 2:30)
The Mormons interpret this verse as follows:
“If I wish to increase the population of a community or of the church, I will command them (to be polygamous)”
On the subject of polygamy, the Book of Jacob offers the following statements:
“…the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old, desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son” –Jacob 1:15 (LDS 1:15)
“Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives, and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord” –Jacob 2:33 (LDS 2:24)
“For they have not forgotten the commandments of the Lord, which were given unto our fathers, that they should have, save it were one wife: and concubines they should have none; and there should not be whoredoms committed among them.” –Jacob 2:55 (LDS 3:5)
The Book of Ether also offers a statement:
“And it came to pass that Riplakish did not do that which was right in the sight of the Lord, for he did have many wives and concubines…” –Ether 4:48 (LDS 10:5)
From these scriptures, it would seem that the Lord looks very disfavorably upon polygamy. Some Mormons, when responding to these verses, focus on the word “many”, saying that its ok for men to have more than wife at the same time (if God commands it), as long as he does not have too many of them.
But of course, the third example makes it clear that a man should only have 1 wife. The only way the Mormons can get around this statement is to suggest that it is OK for a man to have more than one wife if God commands it.
And the only way that Mormons can defend the notion that God might command a man to have more than one wife when there are clear statements made about how wrong it is, is to quote Jacob 2:39.
However, the Mormon interpretation of that verse is not valid.
To properly understand what the verse in question means, we need to look more deeply into what Jacob said.
The first chapter and the start of the second chapter indicate that Jacob was reviewing various sins being committed by the Nephites.
When he prepares to talk about polygamy, he states:
30 And were it not that I must speak unto you concerning a grosser crime, my heart would rejoice exceedingly, because of you.
31 But the word of God burthens me because of your grosser crimes.
32 For behold, thus saith the Lord, This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures: for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. (LDS 2:22,23)
So, here we see polygamy being described as a crime, and more serious than the ones that Jacob had discussed previously.
He continues with the following:
33 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives, and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord,
34 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph. (LDS 2:24,25)
I referenced verse 33 previously, and it teaches us that the conduct of David and Solomon was regarded by God to be abominable.
But what is really interesting here is verse 34. In this verse, we learn that this gross and abominable crime of polygamy was a major reason why God commanded Lehi and Nephi to lead their people out of Jerusalem, into the wilderness, and across the ocean in the first place.
In fact, verse 34 seems to suggest that it was the only reason. And maybe it was. The First Book of Nephi tells us that the people of Jerusalem were sinful, and God, through Lehi, beseeched them to repent. However, that did not happen, and God eventually removed Lehi and his family from the city, and through them, preserved a righteous remnant of that population in a new land.
But what was the cause of all this sinful nature? No doubt there were many other crimes being committed, but it seems that at the heart of it, based on what the Lord reveals to the Nephites through Jacob, is the sin of polygamy.
So verse 34 tells us that the people who became the Nephites were lead out of Jerusalem for two reasons:
1. To get away from the polygamous city.
2. To become a righteous branch of the people they left behind.
This all supports the notion that God is forever displeased by polygamy.
Remember, this whole discourse by Jacob is to point out that the Nephites were doing something wicked…being polygamous.
Yet, Jacob is of the first generation of Nephites. So, his story is found quite close to the very commencement of the Nephite saga. He was born in the wilderness, and sailed with his people across the ocean, and helped Nephi and Sam and those who were loyal to them to build a new home.
There were very few of them. Lehi and his wife had died. Laman and Lemuel and some of the children of Ishmael had driven Nephi and his followers away. Ishmael had died long before.
Those loyal to God consisted of Nephi, Sam, Jacob, Joseph and Zoram, and their wives, and their children, and Nephi’s sisters – and “all those who would go with me” – which may have included some of the children of Ishmael.
A very small group of people to commence a civilization. If God was ever going to command polygamy, that would have made more sense than any other time I can think of off the top of my head.
Remember, he wanted to build a new civilization. He wanted to preserve a righteous branch of the House of Israel. He delivered them from the destruction of Jerusalem. He guided them in the wilderness. He ensured Nephi was not harmed by his older brothers. He guided them across the ocean, after telling them how to build a ship for that purpose. And in the new world, he eventually separated Nephi from his elder brethren, all for the purpose of ensuring that this extremely tiny band of people could sire a new civilization.
So, if there were ever to be a time when polygamy would seem to make logistical sense, it was then. Yet, He did not command it.
A skeptic might suggest “but perhaps there were no extra women to go around”. Maybe there was one man for each women, so polygamy then was not needed.
But of course, we know that is not the case, because the people began to flirt with polygamy on their own, for which God rebuked them. That is of course the point of what Jacob was rebuking them for.
The people wanted polygamy, yet, during a time when it might have made logistical sense, God did not command it, and in fact rebuked them for wanting it. It was described as a gross crime, and something abominable to God. And they were reminded that they were delivered out of Jerusalem in the first place to get away from polygamy!
In my opinion, all the thoughts expressed above should serve to sufficiently prove that God has not, and never will command His people to be polygamous.
But they don’t directly prove that the LDS interpretation of verse 39 is wrong. A little more commentary is needed for that purpose.
It becomes helpful to look at verses 35 to 38.
35 Wherefore, I, the Lord God, will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.
36 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none: For I, the Lord God, delighteth in the chastity of women.
37 And whoredoms are an abomination before me: thus saith the Lord of hosts.
38 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes. (LDS 2:26-29)
Note that in verse 38, God says that the people are to keep his commandments, or the land will be cursed. This is what happened in Jerusalem. God gave Moses the Law, His 613 commandments, which in time, the people abandoned. And look what happened.
Yet, as we saw in verse 34, God delivers a remnant of the House of Israel, taken out of Jerusalem to escape polygamy (and it’s ultimate fate).
So, when we read verse 39:
“For if I will, saith the Lord of hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people: otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things.”
The interpretation of this is not “If I want to increase your population, I will command you to be polygamous”
When we read all the verses around verse 39 and understand the context, then the correct interpretation becomes clear:
“If I desire to establish a righteous community, I will command you – i.e., I will give you commandments – the Law. And if I do not, you will succumb to temptation to do the things which I have described as wrong”
This is the real meaning of verse 39.
The word “command” does not mean “I will command you to be polygamous (to increase your numbers)”
It means “I will be in charge. I will give you directives to live by (the Law, the 613 commandments of the Torah), so that you have a chance to be a holy people, otherwise, you’ll flounder in sin”.
Understanding now what the correct interpretation of this verse is, we then know that there is no scriptural basis for suggesting that polygamy is normally wrong, but can be permissible if God commands it.