SynopsisIn this passage, Moses hands down some rules regarding the rights of any Israelite firstborn [male] child. Since this is a short passage, I’ll just quote it:
If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him. (Deuteronomy 21:15–17)
ThoughtsThis is actually as much about rules for having two wives as it is about the firstborn son; regardless of your view on whether it’s Biblical or not to have multiple wives1, there are certain difficulties with trying to be married to two people at the same time. But in the time in history which we’re discussing, it was possible for a man to marry more than one woman, so certain rules were handed down to say that if you do marry two women, you still have to give both women—and their sons—the rights that a wife should have. Especially in a society in which the women have no power, which was even more the case then than it is now, women’s rights have to be protected.
1The main problem with the debate about whether polygamy is inherently sinful is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say whether polygamy is acceptable to the LORD or not. Those who say that polygamy is not a sin—even if it is culturally unacceptable in our day and time, which would make it a sin anyway—which makes this debate entirely theoretical—will say that there are no condemnations of it in the Bible. In fact, in some places God promises people (like King David) wives as part of His blessings. They would also say that in the New Testament, the only time that polygamy is forbidden is when in reference to certain particular members of the church; e.g. “deacons” are to have “but one wife” (1 Timothy 3:12), but the New Testament doesn’t say that a “layperson” should only have one wife.
On the other side of the debate, those who say that polygamy is inherently wrong will say that even though the Old Testament doesn’t forbid it, that’s because of the culture in which the Israelites lived. They say that God is gradually revealing His will to us over time, and that although He didn’t forbid it then, He is instructing us now that it is not holy to be polygamous. They would also point to passages like 1 Timothy 3:12, and say that although this passage is specifically referring to deacons, the Bible is still indicating that polygamy is bad. Just because deacons (and elders and “overseers”) are being held to a higher accountability, it doesn’t mean that everyone else can go ahead and marry as many people as they want.
Personally, I won’t bother to indicate my view here. (Hopefully this was a balanced enough discussion that it didn’t come through…) Partially because, as mentioned, it’s an entirely theoretical debate, so it doesn’t really have any importance to me; even if it turns out that polygamy is not inherently sinful, to do so in 21st Century North America would damage my testimony as a Christian, and therefore it would be sinful anyway. And partially because I’m already married, happily, and have no desire whatsoever to try and add more wives to the equation.