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July 18, 2012


The Bible and Polygamy in Tanzania

by Admin

Rev. Mote Magomba, Tanzania, reflects on “ordinary readers” versus Academic Interpretations of Scripture in Interpreting the Bible in a Context of Polygamy in Tanzania


This article presents a scriptural interpretative conflict between ordinary readers of the Bible and academic readers of the Bible.  Using a case study from the Anglican Diocese of Ruaha, Iringa, Tanzania, the writer suggests constructive theological ways to resolve the conflict.  Through his case study and the discussions therein, the writer implicitly attempts to develop a theory to deal with other issues of biblical interpretative conflicts emerging locally and globally in the Anglican Communion.  Academic interpreters of the Bible, if they are to be relevant to their respective contexts and people, have to consciously take into account the resources and strategies of ordinary readers of the Bible.  By “readers” of the Bible, we mean those who have the habit of reading the Bible and interpreting it to their daily ordinary lives.  In this article the term “readers” has been put into invented commas because throughout this paper it is used both literally and metaphorically.  That is, some readers of the Bible can literally read the Bible.

Other “readers” are practically or technically illiterate, but they read through hearing and remembering their Bible texts.  They ‘listen to, retell and remake the Bible’.[1] Another significant term, which explicitly defines the aforesaid “readers”, is “ordinary”.  This adjective denotes the type of these “readers” of the Bible.  They are “ordinary readers”; that is all those, poor and rich, employed and unemployed, farmers and business people, peasantry and pastoralists, villagers and urban dwellers, prisoners and free people, who read the Bible ‘pre-critically’.[2]  The use of the phrase, “ordinary readers” in this paper does not, in anyway, intend to undermine or under-grade their “reading”, but instead to recognize it as another way of reading the Bible, and that the academic reading is no longer the norm, as we shall see in the following case study.

A Case Study

Sosopi Kapulwa is a Masai Lepayani, meaning elder, at Mkulula Village, Iringa, Tanzania.  Sosopi had three wives and many children before he decided to join an Anglican Church at Mkulula village in the Diocese of Ruaha.  After over ten years of attending Mkulula Anglican church, he started asking for baptism.  The pastor asked Sosopi to divorce all other wives and remain with one, then he would be baptised.  Sosopi said that he could not leave them because they are his wives, they have children and he has an obligation to take care of them.  Also, he argued that he had read that in the Bible there were people who had many wives, but still God accepted them as His own people.  The Pastor took the issue to the Bishop who gathered Canons and sent them to offer Pastoral advice to Sosopi so that he could remain with one wife.  Sosopi again referred to such Bible texts about Lamech and his wives Adah and Zillah; Abraham and his wives Sarah and Hagar; Jacob and his wives Leah, Rachel, Bilha and Zilpa; Esau and his wives; Elikana and his wives Hannah and Peninnah, as well as Gideon who had many wives and seventy children. Thus, Sosopi argued that he was not prepared to leave his other wives and remain with one.  The canons reported to the Bishop and the Bishop took the issue to the Diocesan council which also agreed to the Bishop’s decision not to minister baptism to Sosopi.

When Sosopi was informed about the decision of the Diocesan Council he decided to go to another denomination to seek baptism; there, he was baptised and afterwards confirmed by a pastor.  After a few months, Sosopi returned to Mkulula Anglican Church, but he was refused to partake of the Holy Communion, in the first place, though later after some pastoral consultations he was welcomed to the Holy Communion table.

This story of Sosopi Kapulwa poses an interpretative conflict between ordinary readers versus academic interpretation of Scripture.  Considering the biblical references that Sosopi put against the rejection of his baptism, one may asked why do ordinary readers of the Bible read the Bible the way they do.  What tools do they have that facilitate their reading of scripture? Can their tools and/or methods, if any, have some contribution to the way the academic read the scripture? If we are to arrive at constructive solutions to the questions posed there is a vital need to listen to the ordinary readers of the scripture as they read their Bible in their daily lives and struggles, as they read their Bible silently on the pews.

Why This Particular Conflict is Arising

The conflict in interpretation of scripture as envisaged in the case study from Mkulula village, in Iringa, Tanzania, has historical and cultural background.  Among the Masai community from which Sosopi Kapulwa comes, polygamy is culturally acceptable. The Lepayani are the leading group of the Maasai community.  Also, the one who has many wives and children, and he has many cows that he can use to help the needy Maasai; this kind of man is considered to be powerful and holds a vital leadership position among his own people.  Healey and Sybertz tell a story about a missionary who went to preach the Gospel to the Maasai people in a remote area in northern Tanzania. When the missionary finished speaking in one occasion, an old Maasai stood up and said to the missionary:

‘You have spoken well, but I want to learn more about this great person Jesus Christ.  I have three questions about him: First, did he ever kill a lion? Second, how many cows did he have? Third, how many wives and children did he have?’[3]

This story shows the Maasai perspective of wealth, greatness and power which involves more cows, many wives and children. From time immemorial, the Masai, and other ethnic groups of Tanzania have accepted polygamy as a common practice.  In the aforesaid community of Mkulula Village, there are different perspectives among the denomination as to how polygamists seeking baptism should be handled; thus threatening the unity in the mission of the church.

How the Community Works through the Conflict

The church community uses Bible teaching, Bible studies and consultation with the polygamists seeking baptism as well as meetings to resolve the conflict.

The Biblical and theological position of the church in the area is monogamous; and that one seeking baptism should abide to one-wife norm.  This position appears to be in conflict with the cultural and historical practice of the larger community.  A polygamist is considered economically better off, and this brings about respect in all aspects in their community.

The Outcome of the Conflict

The whole process of consultation and meetings eventually was a failure in that the polygamist left for another denomination to seek baptism.  The departure of the polygamist to another denomination jeopardised the unity in the mission of the church; and more it discouraged other people from polygamous background to join the church.

What We Learn from the Story

As we go out in mission we have to bear in mind that there are different tools, approaches and ways in which ordinary people in the churches and academic readers read and interpret the Bible. There is a need for a listening process across the two different ways of interpreting scriptures.

Theological Discussion

There are biblical, historical, theological, pastoral, cultural and missiological instances of how the people of God in scripture and history of the church responded to the issues of differences of scriptural interpretation regarding polygamy.

Biblically, there are instances of polygamous practice among the people of God in the Old Testament, as briefly referred to in the case study.  Lamech’a marriage to two women Adah and Zillah is the first Biblical incident of polygamy (Gen 4:19-24).  The case of Abram, Sarah and Hangar is presented in the Bible as polygamy: ‘Sarah his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hangar and gave her to her husband to be his wife’ Gen 16:3).  Sarah’s action was driven by the desire for a male child to inherit his father’s fortune.  Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, after being tricked by his father-in-law (Gen 29:15-29).  Because Rachel was barren she gave her maidservant, Bilhah to Jacob in order to have children through her.  Leah gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob for the purpose of having even more children to compete with her Rachel.  According to the Ancient culture, the maidservants became Jacob’s concubines, the practice which is difficult to understand in most Tanzanian context.[4]  Also, Jacob’s brother, Esau, had many wives (Gen 36).  Elikana, Samuel’s father, had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah (1Sam 1:2, 5).  During the time of the Judges, Gideon was polygamous and had seventy children (Judge 8:30).  Abdon had ‘forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys’ (Judges 12:14).  Of course, Abdon had many daughters and granddaughters as well who are not mentioned here.  As Phiri comments, ‘a larger number of wives and sons displayed wealth and political power.  This held true even during the time of Kings.  David married eight different women, mostly for political reasons (1Chr 3:1-9)’.[5]  Solomon, son of David, and King of Israel, married ‘seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.  But as Solomon grew old his wives turned him astray (1Kings 11:3-4).  Still, most polygamous marriages in the Old Testament were full of jealousy and competition, and others ended in turmoil.  Although the Hebrews had laws to accommodate polygamy (Deut 25:5-10; 22:29; Ruth 5:5-10), polygamy itself, right from the first biblical incident of Lamech, seems to be a diversion from God’s original plan (Gen 2:18-24).

Theologically, Old Testament instances among the people of God do not provide suffient theological grounds on resolving scriptural interpretative conflicts regarding divisive issues of the life of the Church in Tanzania.  Theological arguments for or against divisive issues need to start from the centre of faith, Jesus Christ and his teachings as portrayed in the Gospels and further elaborated in the Epistles.  Polygamy is not directly addressed in the New Testament, but Jesus when addressing the issue of divorce, refers to one man and one woman as God’s ideal for marriage (Mark 10:1-12).

In the Early Church, elders and deacons were required to be monogamous (1Tim 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).  Although the Greeks were generally monogamous, Paul’s discussion of the qualifications for elders and deacons suggests that polygamy might have existed at that time.[6]

However, in the history of the church down through the centuries, it has been a norm to abide to monogamy.  Since the early induction of the Gospel in Tanzania, then Tanganyika, in 1844; and later in 1876, with the arrival of first missionaries in Mpwapwa, it has been a requirement for new converts to practice monogamy.

Culturally, Tanzanians practised polygamy long before the arrival of the Gospel.  Thus, the conflicting worldviews between the Tanzanians and the early missionaries brought about different ways of interpreting scripture on various issues regarding the life of the church in Tanzania.

Pastorally, there have been different approaches to the various conflicting matters affecting the life and mission of the Church in Tanzania.  Our pastoral experiences over the issue of polygamy has been that for some Anglican Dioceses a polygamist cannot be baptised unless he leaves all wives but one.  Other Dioceses would baptise a polygamist and all his wives and then continue with pastoral care.  The former experience reflects the general position of the Anglican churches in Tanzania whereas the latter reflects a new interpretative approach as an influence from the ordinary readers of the Bible in their daily lives, in homes and as they sit on the church pews.

Like Jews, Tanzanians associate marriage with children, and if one does not have children with one wife, he is led to have second wife.  In the Masai culture of Sosopi, as it was in the Hebrew culture, having many wives and children is a sign of wealth, status and political power.  In the Bible God does not explicitly condemn a person for polygamy, though it is obvious that most polygamous marriages did not work well.  But how do we interpret the Bible in such cultural context in which the ordinary “readers” of the Bible seem to come with an understanding of scripture which challenges our accepted position of the church on marriage? One could pose a similar question regarding women’s ordination, or even human sexuality, etc. Are doctrinal statements, covenants, conference resolutions, normally done by trained and/or academic readers of the Bible, sufficient to respond to ordinary “readers” interpretations of the scripture as manifested in their lives?  A tendency to dominate Scriptural interpretation, explicitly or implicitly, by trained and/or academic interpreters of the Bible over the ordinary “readers” may not bring about a constructive resolution.

‘A dominance model’ versus a ‘complimentary model’

Struggle for dominance is not an idiosyncrasy of the Tanzanian Anglican context; it can be found in other African contexts as well.  Justin Ukpong identifies this struggle as ‘the dominance model’.  It is the situation whereby the ordinary and the trained readers and their readings of the Bible seek to establish power over one another.[7]  Each side sees the other as a threat to the truth of the Word of God and ‘tries to save’ it by ‘suppressing the other’s interpretation’.[8]  Ukpong also identifies an ‘exclusive model’ in his analysis of the interpretation between the ordinary and the trained readers.[9]  The exclusive model is a situation whereby each side tries to exclude the readings of the other as irrelevant.[10]  In the Tanzanian context, it is normally trained readers who tend to ignore the readings of the ordinary readers.

In Tanzania, more often than not, the readings of the trained readers either dominate the “official” interpretation of the Bible, or they entirely ignore the ordinary concerns and readings of the Bible in testimonies, Bible studies, songs and hymns.  Another ‘model’, which can be recommended in a situation where trained and ordinary readers read the Bible together, is a ‘complimentary model’ – or one can call it a complimentary relationship in reading and interpretation.  This is a situation whereby both sides ‘come to acknowledge each other as equal partners in a joint enterprise and work together in reading the Bible’.[11]  It is a collaborative approach, between ordinary and trained readers, in biblical interpretation; it is an interpretative act in which ‘the resources of the people’s culture and historical life experience are used as complimentary to conventional critical tools of biblical exegeses.[12]  The aim in this call for collaborative reading of the Bible is to actualise the meaning of the text in today’s context in order to develop integration between faith and practice that can elicit commitment to personal and larger societal transformation.

If academic interpretation is to be relevant to its context, as well as enriching for the life of the whole church in Tanzania, it has to apply the ‘complementary model’.  That is, trained readers have to accept ordinary readers as equal comrades whose readings are necessary for truly Afri-centric biblical interpretation.

Reading with Ordinary Eyes

Ordinary readers of the Bible are not just recipients of academic interpretation; they are creatively appropriating biblical texts and applying them to their lives, as in the case of Sosopi.  A Tanzanian story is told: ‘A village woman used to walk around always carrying her Bible.  “Why always the Bible?’ Her neighbours asked teasingly.  “There are so many books you can read”.  The women knelt down, held the Bible above her head and said, “Yes, of course there are many books which I could read.  But there is only one book which reads me”’.[13]  The Tanzanian village woman has seen and understood the mystery of the Bible, that it is not just the object of our study and interpretation; it is the subject who understands us better than we do ourselves.

Trained readers should not assume that they “read the Bible for” the ordinary readers because they need to be taught what the Bible means.  The approach should now be to “read the Bible with” the ordinary readers, and to “interpret it with” them.[14]  Although there is a tendency to overlook, and even exclude, ordinary readers and their context, no one interprets the Bible in a vacuum.  ‘There is no innocent interpretation, no innocent interpreter, [and] no innocent text’.[15]  All interpretation is contextual, and in this contextuality ordinary readers’ interpretative resources and practices do play a significant role.

Ordinary people’s interpretations of the Bible are contextual; the Bible is interpreted according to the people’s socio-cultural contexts.  As we have seen in the case of Sosopi, there are contextual factors that make ordinary people read the Bible the way they do.  They do not come to the Bible empty-handed.  They have rich African indigenous resources that facilitate their appropriation of the Scripture.[16] There is a lot that the academic reader can learn from the ordinary reader.

Towards Integration of Readings

Readings of the Bible which can sustain the lives of the poor masses of Tanzania who live under constant threats of poverty and disease need an integrated hermeneutic strategy; they need an “integration” of resources, tools and modes of interpretation.

Returning to the Tanzanian village woman who walks around carrying her Bible, telling her neighbours that the Bible is not just a Book we can read, it also reads us and speaks to us: she interprets her Bible intuitively.  This intuitive interpretation of Word of God by a village woman may require an explicit place in our Bible interpretation in Tanzania.  ‘Our obligation…is to create a context for biblical interpretation, where her popular and our academic experiences can meet and interact in mutual respect…[17]

In fulfilling this obligation in the Anglican Church of Tanzania, and elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, ordinary readers’ interpretations, with their resources and practices, will require an explicit place as doctrinal statements and covenants are written, and as conference resolutions are met. Ordinary readers’ voices are vitally significant, and need to be heard, for our unity in the mission of the Church.

 Revd Mote P Magomba, DipTh, BA Hons, MTh

[1] West, G.O., ‘Mapping African Biblical Interpretation: A Tentative Sketch’, in Gerald O. West & Musa W. Dube, eds, The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories and Trends, Leiden, Brill, 2000, p.44
[2] West, G.O., The Academy of the Poor: Towards a Dialogical Reading of the Bible, Pietermaritzburg, Cluster Publications, 2nd ed., 2003, p.x.
[3] Healey, J. & Sybertz, D., Towards an African Narrative Theology, Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines, 1996, p. 76
[4] Cf. Phiri, Apawo Isabel, ‘The Bible and Polygamy’ in Tokunboh Adeyemo, ed., Africa Bible Commentary, Nairobi, Word Alive, 2006, p. 429
[5] Phiri, Apawo Isabel, ‘The Bible and Polygamy’ in Tokunboh Adeyemo, ed., Africa Bible Commentary, p.430.
[6] Phiri, Apawo Isabel, ‘The Bible and Polygamy’ in Tokunboh Adeyemo, ed., Africa Bible Commentary, p.430.
[7] Ukpong, J.S., ‘Contextual Hermeneutics: Challenges and Possibilities’, in Jesse N K Mugambi & Johannes A Smit, Eds, Text and Context in New Testament Hermeneutics, Nairobi, Acton, 2004, p.43; cf. Holter, K., ‘Old Testament Scholarship in Sub-Saharan Africa North of the Limpopo River’, in Gerald O West & Musa W Dube, Eds, The Bible in Africa, pp.58-59.
[8] Ukpong, J.S., ‘Contextual Hermeneutics’, in Jesse N K Mugambi & Johannes A Smit, eds, Text and Context in New Testament Hermeneutics, p.43
[9] Ukpong, J.S., ‘Contextual Hermeneutics’, in Jesse N K Mugambi & Johannes A Smit, eds, Text and Context in New Testament Hermeneutics, p.44.
[10] Ukpong, J.S., ‘Contextual Hermeneutics’, in Jesse N K Mugambi & Johannes A Smit, Eds, Text and Context in New Testament Hermeneutics, p.44.
[11] Ukpong J.S., ‘Contextual Hermeneutics’, in Jesse N K Mugambi & Johannes A Smit, Eds, Text and Context in New Testament Hermeneutics, pp.43-44.
[12] Ukpong, J.S., ‘Developments in Biblical Interpretation in Africa: Historical and Hermeneutical Directions’, in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108, pp.1-8, as quoted by West, G.O., ‘Biblical Hermeneutics and Its Relevance for Bible Translation in Africa’, p.8.  According to Holter, ‘complimentary model is ‘a model where two contexts and their interpretations acknowledge each other as equal participants – although with different contributions to make – in joint enterprise of creating an understanding of what the Word of God means for people to day’ (Holter, K., Yahweh in Africa, p.59.  In a South African context, it is a ‘collaborative Bible reading’ where academic and ordinary readers come together and read and interpret the Word (West, G.O., The Academy of the Poor, p.16).
[13] Weber, H.R., The Book That Reads Me, p.ix. Cf. Holter, K., Yahweh in Africa, p.51.
[14] West, G.O., The Academy of the Poor, pp.5-6, 16.
[15] Tracy, D., Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1987, p.79.
[16] Jesus of the Deep Forest (Accra, Asempa Publishers), by Afua Kuma, is a concrete example of how the rich African cultural context can facilitate the appropriation of the Bible in Africa.  Jesus of the Deep Forest, as ‘grassroots theology’ (Bediako, K., Jesus in Africa, Akropong-Akuapem, Ghana, Regnum Africa, 2000, p.8), or ‘a theology from the pews’, has made tremendous contribution to African theological biblical interpretation.
[17] Holter, K., Yahweh in African, p.60; cf. Gitau, S., et al, ‘Contextualized Old Testament Programmes?’ Newsletter on African Old Testament Scholarship 2 (1997), pp.1-7.
  1. johannabauby
    Aug 31 2012

    Rev. Magambe,

    God is so vast. I can imagine that He/She embraces the idea of complimentary Bible reading because it brings more souls into the Loving fold. My husband is clergy and I will be interested to hear his thoughts on your article. Thank you.

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