Alice C. Linsley
Does the two-wife pattern found among Abraham's people justify the practice of polygamy? This is a concern expressed fairly regularly about the marriage pattern of the Horites. The short answer is no.
Polygamy refers to multiple spouses and is a general term. The anthropological term for multiple wives is "polygyny" and more accurately describes the Horite marriage practice.
The pattern of two wives pertained only to the Horites, a royal caste whose kings are listed in Genesis 4, 5, 10 and 11. Unless you are a Horite man, you cannot justify having multiple wives.
Today when a man takes a second wife, it is usually motivated by desire for higher social status. Originally, only rulers had two wives. Ascendancy to the throne and undisputed succession led to different rules for kings. Archaeological evidence reveals, however, that the commoner had only one wife. The average neolithic residence was constructed for a nuclear family, not with separate compartments for different wives.
The royal couple William and Kate are going to have a baby very soon. There is much ado about the birth of this royal baby. The birth of children to royal houses is not like the birth of children to common folk. It never has been.
In Abraham's time, the two wives lived in separate settlements on a north-south axis. Sarah resided in Hebron and Keturah lived in the region of Beersheba to the south. The wives' settlements marked the northern and southern boundaries of the ruler's territory. The heir could not ascend to the throne of his father until he had taken a second wife. The first wife was the bride of the man's youth, but the second wife was taken much later. This explains Abraham's urgency, as he approached his death, to fetch a second wife for Isaac (Gen. 24). Rebecca was Isaac's patrilineal cousin wife. This suggests that Isaac had a first wife, a half-sister, living in Beersheba.
Two wives insured that there was a proper heir (by the sister wife) and a strong political connection between the ruler's line and that of his second wife, a patrilineal cousin. Patrilineage means that the ruler and his cousin wife are descended from a common male ancestor through male forebears. Abraham and Keturah are both descendants of the great ruler Arpachshad who is named in Genesis 10:22 and Genesis 11:10. Keturah's father was Joktan (Yaqtan) of the line of Joktan who fathered Sheba (Gen. 10:27). Abraham's father was Terah of the line of Peleg (Gen. 11:16). Joktan and Peleg were brothers, the sons of Eber (Gen. 10:25).
In the Horite marriage and ascendancy pattern, the ruler's heir was the firstborn son of his half-sister wife. This means that Isaac was Abraham's proper heir. Abraham's yearning to have a proper heir is expressed in his complaint to God: "O my Lord, what would you give me seeing that I am going to die accursed [Hebrew ariri], and the one to inherit my household is Dam-Mesek [son of Mesek]" (Gen. 15:2).
The Horite marriage and ascendancy pattern points to Jesus. In providing a son, according to the divine promise, God overthrows the curse. Behold the pattern! Heirs to the throne are listed in the oldest extant king lists, reflecting the Proto-Saharan kingdom builders who united the Upper and Lower Nile at the dawn of the Bronze Age. It was from their lines that the "Seed" of God was expected to be born (Gen. 3:15). They were awaiting a righteous king who would lead the people to immortality.
The son of the patrilineal cousin ruled in the territory of his maternal grandfather. This means that Abraham's firstborn son Joktan ruled as a sort of prime minister in the territory of his maternal grandfather, after whom he was named.
For a long time Abraham was not able to have a proper heir because Sarah was barren. He already had sons by his cousin wife, but Keturah's first born son was not Abraham's proper heir. Joktan/Yaqtan belonged to the house of Keturah's father, after whom he was named.
The cousin wives named their firstborn sons after their fathers, a pattern that makes it possible to trace their lines from Genesis to Jesus Christ. As Levi-Strauss noted in 1949, in a patrilineal system the mother and son do not belong to the same clan. In Genesis we have evidence that the first born son of the cousin bride belonged to the bride's father's house, not to her husband's house.
Related reading: The Horite Ancestry of Jesus Christ; Who Were the Horites?; Sister Wives and Cousin Wives; The Genesis King Lists; Abraham's First Born Son; Cousin Brides and Their Ruler Sons; Kushite Kings and the Kingdom of God; Royal Babies; "Christian" Polygamy (Say What?)