What Does Jacob 2:30 Say About Polygamy? Is the Church’s Traditional Interpretation Wrong?

One of the many conundrums related to the controversial past practice of polygamy is the Book of Mormon’s stance on the issue. In Jacob 2, the prophet Jacob condemns the practice of polygamy among the Nephites, while apparently leaving the door open for the polygamy to be commanded by the Lord by way of exception. At least that’s how Latter-day Saints have traditionally interpreted Jacob 2:30. That verse follows Jacob’s condemnation of the immorality that is beginning to spread among his people, with the men justifying multiple wives based on the bad examples of David and Solomon, whose “many wives and concubines” was said to be abominable before the Lord (Jacob 2:23-24). Then comes a declaration that includes Jacob 2:30:

25 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.

26 Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.

27 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;

28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.

29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

30 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 sensitive prophet, Jacob, the brother of Nephi (as depicted to the right  in a scene from a Church video about his sermon in Jacob 2), grew up in a highly challenging environment with rebellious and sometimes violent, abusive older brothers. Chris Conkling observes that the deep compassion and sensitivity that Jacob displays throughout his writings may reflect his response to what he suffered while young (Chris Conkling, “The Gentle Power of Jacob,” Ensign, Feb. 1992). Conkling notes that Jacob sometimes uses words in ways that are different from other writers and often uses imagery and concepts that reveal his gentle, sensitive side. This is especially true in Jacob 2 as Jacob tackles the controversial issue of polygamy with great concern for the women affected by men violating the Lord’s commandments. His distaste for the consequences of selfish polygamy as he saw it being practiced resonates with our views today. But if he detested it, how could he leave the door open in vs. 30 for polygamy as something that God might theoretically command? Is it possible that our traditional reading of Jacob 2:30 is wrong and that Jacob meant something else entirely? This is what some Latter-day Saints are proposing.

The “traditional” interpretation of that verse is that people should hearken to the command to have only one wife unless God commands otherwise.  For example, the Church Newsroom offers this interpretation in their essay, “Polygamy: Latter-day Saints and the Practice of Plural Marriage”:

The standard doctrine of the Church is monogamy, as it always has been, as indicated in the Book of Mormon (Jacob chapter 2): “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 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.”

In other words, the standard of the Lord’s people is monogamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise. Latter-day Saints believe the season the Church practiced polygamy was one of these exceptions.

This interpretation is again found in the modern heading added to the Official Declaration 1 near the end of the Doctrine and Covenants:

The Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise (see 2 Samuel 12:7–8 and Jacob 2:27, 30). Following a revelation to Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage was instituted among Church members in the early 1840s (see section 132). From the 1860s to the 1880s, the United States government passed laws to make this religious practice illegal. These laws were eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. After receiving revelation, President Wilford Woodruff issued the following Manifesto, which was accepted by the Church as authoritative and binding on October 6, 1890. This led to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church.

It is also found in other places such as the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual. All of these were presumably prepared with oversight of the leaders of the Church, especially the explanatory language for the Official Declaration 1. But were they wrong?

A Latter-day Saint woman on the West Coast recently called my attention to a post by Steve Reed, “A Proposed Reinterpretation of Jacob 2:30,” OneClimbs (blog), Jan. 5, 2017. She felt that Steve had clearly demonstrated that the Church was wrong in citing this verse to justify Joseph Smith’s misbehavior. It’s true that we acknowledge the mortal fallibility of our prophets. But fallibility is not a unique trait of prophets, and should not be our default assumption on every matter that doesn’t fit our existing views. I can personally attest that fallibility is an even more prominent characteristic of bloggers. So before we turn the daggers on Joseph and the Church by rejecting the Church’s reading of Jacob 2:30 in favor of Steve Reed’s interesting proposal, thereby dismissing the very possibility that polygamy was a temporary exception that God could have commanded, we should first look more closely at Reed’s proposal to see if it is reasonable.

Reed proposes a more correct reading of Jacob 2:30 would be something like this:

For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph (Jacob 2:25), I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto the precepts of men (2 Nephi 28:31) and I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction.

In other words, God commands His people to be righteous and practice monogamy as the way to raise up seed unto Him, and if they don’t obey the commandment of monogamy, then the “otherwise” part of this verse is that they will hearken unto the wicked precepts of men and be cursed. With this reading, Jacob 2:30 is a harsh warning against polygamy in any form and evidence that Joseph and the Church were acting wickedly during that fraught era.

Reed argues that the grammar of Jacob 2:30 has been wrongly interpreted. Appealing to dictionaries, he argues that we the use of “otherwise” as an adverb (more specifically, a “conjunctive adverb”) makes the first part of the verse an expression of a command or suggestion, and the part that follows then must be a depiction of a negative outcome that results from failing to follow the command or suggestion. He also argues that the Book of Mormon’s use of “otherwise” is consistent with his view.

Here is the crux of Reed’s grammatical argument, one that appears to have gone unchallenged by his readers since 2017:

One official source from the Church newsroom sums up Jacob 2:30 this way:

The standard doctrine of the Church is monogamy, as it always has been, as indicated in the Book of Mormon (Jacob chapter 2): “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 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.” 

In other words, the standard of the Lord’s people is monogamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise.

Here’s the problem, the Church newsroom uses the word otherwise here as an ordinary adverb in their explanation, but in Jacob 2:30, the word otherwise is being used as a conjunctive adverb.

This is an extremely important distinction to make because it has a dramatic effect on the meaning. A conjunctive adverb is used with a semi-colon to connect two independent clauses together. To illustrate the difference, here is the word otherwise being used as a regular adverb like the Church newsroom example:

Adverb: Under the Bill of Rights, a person is presumed innocent until proved otherwise.

And a conjunctive adverb with a semi-colon the same way it is used in Jacob 2:30:

Conjunctive adverb: We must hurry; otherwise we’ll miss the train.

The Cambridge Dictionary explains that when used as a conjunction, the word otherwise is “used after an order or suggestion to show what the result will be if you do not follow that order or suggestion.”

Merriam-Webster states that otherwise can also mean “if not” and gives two examples that match the way Jacob 2:30 uses it as a conjunctive adverb: “do what I tell you, otherwise you’ll be sorry” and “Tickets can be bought in advance at a discount; otherwise they can be purchased at the door for full price.”

This means that by using the conjunctive adverb “otherwise,” the verse is indicating an intended outcome for an order given, or else there will be an undesirable outcome as the result. [emphasis original]

There are at least two noteworthy problems here that are easy for readers to miss, based on mistakes that can be easy to make.

1. Misreading the Church’s statement

Reed seems to take the use of “otherwise” in the Church’s paraphrasing of Jacob 2:30 as if it shows a misunderstanding of the grammatical role of “otherwise” in the verse being considered. This is fallacious. Yes, the same word is being used, but nothing in the statement suggests that the Church is trying to reframe the use of “otherwise” in Jacob 2:30. The statement uses “otherwise” in a natural sense in paraphrasing a natural reading of Jacob 2:30, and an equivalent paraphrase could be done with other words. Rather than “the standard of the Lord’s people is monogamy unless the Lord reveals otherwise,” the Church could just as well have said “unless the Lord reveals that polygamy should be temporarily practiced” or “unless the Lord calls for an exception.” Reed is calling the Church out on a grammatical error that was not made. Yes, their explanation employs “otherwise” as an ordinary adverb, but doing so does not give any indication of an erroneous reading of that word elsewhere in a slightly different role. Reed has misread the Church’s statement as if it were giving technical guidance on the grammar of Jacob 2:30 — his first error in improperly applying a source. There’s no error in how the Church uses “otherwise” in their statement.

2. Misreading and misapplying the dictionary

Reed then cites the Cambridge Dictionary in a way that makes it seem to require that “otherwise” as a conjunctive adverb follows an order or a suggestion to show a result, and then appeals to another dictionary to conclude that “otherwise” as a conjunctive adverb “is indicating an intended outcome for an order given, or else there will be an undesirable outcome as the result.” Based on his application of dictionary definitions, Reed then goes on to interpret the first part of Jacob 2:30 as a command from the Lord to practice monogamy, and the second part as a warning of the negative results of not following that command.

I am sorry, but this is a misreading of the dictionary. The mistakes are easy to make and no malfeasance should be assumed, but I hope Reed will be open to correcting his claims.

The Cambridge Dictionary has been subtly misquoted, or at least is easily misunderstood the way Reed uses it. It does not say or imply that “when used as a conjunction, the word otherwise is ‘used after an order or suggestion to show what the result will be if you do not follow that order or suggestion.” It would be more precise to say that “otherwise” “can be used” rather than “is used” to show such a result. But it need not perform that role. The Cambridge Dictionary also shows that as a conjunction, “otherwise” can also mean “if not; or else.” Even when a command is present or referred to in the first clause, what follows need not refer to consequences for neglect and certainly not negative outcomes only.

By way of example, a boss might say to an employee, “If the CEO comes today,  give him a tour of the factory tomorrow; otherwise, you can take the day off.” Or a mother might say to a child, “If Grandpa comes over to cook, try to eat the strange stuff he makes; otherwise, we’re going to your favorite buffet.” These are natural uses of “otherwise” as a conjunctive adverb following a conditional statement dealing with a command. There is absolutely no need to parse the clause after “otherwise” as a warning about negative outcomes for not following a command.

Reed makes much of the placement of “otherwise” after a semicolon in Jacob 2:30 (for the fluidity of adverb placement in English, see comments from a linguist below). Interestingly, of the seven examples given in definition B1 on the Cambridge Dictionary page that shows how “otherwise” can be used to show a result for a command or suggestion not followed, none of them employ a semicolon. Only two examples on the entire page do so, and neither is relevant to Reed’s argument. In fact, one of them directly contrasts with Reed’s position: “The only element specifically defined is that it includes unconsciousness; otherwise, its definition remains vague.” Here “otherwise” follows a semicolon, but does not give us a negative outcome related to the first clause. It simply describes an alternative, and here the alternative  is the general condition — vagueness — that stands in contrast to an exception in the first clause where one element was said to be defined. That’s similar to Jacob 2:30, where the first clause describes a possible exception that stands in contrast to the general condition of “hearkening to these things” or monogamy, per the traditional reading.

No, neither the Cambridge Dictionary nor the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says that when “otherwise” serves as a conjunction, then the prior clause becomes a command or suggestion and the following clause gives a negative outcome if the command or suggestion is not followed. Cambridge shows one use of otherwise involving on order or suggestion, and then Merrian-Webster shows two examples with negative outcomes, and of this, a new rule governing the conjunctive adverb is born. But in reality, even if a command is present in the first clause before a conjunctive use of “otherwise,” the outcome need not be negative, as shown above. This is a critical error that undermines Reed’s strained argument.

As an aside, one might ask why turn to modern dictionaries at all on this matter? There are several ways to consider the choice of “otherwise” in the Jacob 2:30. It may reflect Joseph’s dialect and usage; it may reflect KJV language; and, in light of extensive data about the syntax of the Book of Mormon from Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen, it may reflect non-KJV Early Modern English. In any case, if insight is the goal, why turn to modern dictionaries and modern principles of punctuation for a text that was dictated in 1829 without punctuation? Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary might be more useful. Like other dictionaries I’ve seen, it says nothing about “conjunctive adverbs,” but gives a few simple definitions of “otherwise” as an adverb (“In a different manner”; “By other causes”; and “In other respects”). Much can be learned also by considering uses of “otherwise” in Joseph Smith’s other writings, in the KJV, and in Early Modern English, but these lines of inquiry are not really required for the task at hand. But if one is going to rely on a dictionary, I might recommend the Oxford English Dictionary, which can not only show how words are used today, but also gives some examples of how they were used in the past. Again, there is no mention of “conjunctive adverbs” (which is also not a universally accepted term in works on grammar), but definitions are provided for otherwise as a noun, an adverb, an adjective, and an attributive. We can see examples of its role as an adverb even before the Early Modern English era. One example from about AD 1400 (documented around AD 1500) slightly predates Early Modern English: “Ye schall dwell with yor broder here And soiorne with yor trew fere, All his yores thoff hit were more; Oderwyse skyft wyll not wee Bot at yor wyll schall hit bee.” ChatGPT 4 with suitable plugins (Metaphor and Web Pilot) translates this as “You shall dwell with your brother here and sojourn with your true companion, all his years though it were more; otherwise, we will not divide but at your will shall it be.” This can be taken as a suggestion, and the contrary result is afterwards indicated, but is not necessarily negative and possibly positive.

Does the Book of Mormon support Reed’s interpretation?

Reed insists that the traditional interpretation of Jacob 2:30 defies logic since it would clash with the use of “otherwise” elsewhere in the Book of Mormon:

Of the 13 times that the word otherwise appears in the text of the Book of Mormon, 9 of them are conjunctive adverbs, and in every single case, they follow this pattern:

“[intended outcome]; otherwise, [undesirable outcome].”

The big question here is why would the word otherwise be set in Jacob 2:30 as a conjunctive adverb and mysteriously not follow the same grammatical rules as all the others.

This means that the second half of Jacob 2:30 which states: “they shall hearken unto these things” must be referencing an undesirable outcome and not another desirable outcome such as: “until then, they should follow my commandment to have just one wife.”

Reed has explained that the “intended outcome” in his interpretation of the use of conjunctive adverbs should be a command or suggestion, and in Jacob 2:30 he makes it a universal command, followed by a negative outcome if the command or suggestion is not followed. He insists that every use of otherwise as a conjunctive adverb in the Book of Mormon follows this pattern. I disagree.

Alma 44:8 has Zemnarihah and his army surrendering to Captain Moroni, but refusing to take an oath to cease their rebellion. The defiant Zemnarihah hands Moroni his weapons, saying:

Behold, here are our weapons of war; we will deliver them up unto you, but we will not suffer ourselves to take an oath unto you, which we know that we shall break, and also our children; but take our weapons of war, and suffer that we may depart into the wilderness; otherwise we will retain our swords, and we will perish or conquer.

He issues a command to Moroni: “take our weapons of war, and suffer that we may depart” and then comes a semicolon + “otherwise,” followed by “we will retain our swords, and we will perish or conquer.” The alternative to the command is that the army will keep their weapons and fight. The negative outcome they wish to avoid is losing the ability to fight for their cause by making an oath of peace. To have a chance to conquer or perish is, to them, a better outcome, not worse, than departing in peace. I believe Reed sees the alternative as negative since they are more likely to perish than conquer if their imperative is not accepted, but it’s certainly not a negative outcome to Moroni, the one being being addressed. Alma 44:8 does not fit the pattern proposed by Reed.

Another conjunctive example of “otherwise” occurs in Alma 27:10:

But the king said unto him: Inquire of the Lord, and if he saith unto us go, we will go; otherwise we will perish in the land.

This was a life-and-death decision for the Anti-Nephi-Lehites about where to live, and the goal was to do the Lord’s will. If the Lord willed that they should leave their own lands go live in the foreign lands of the Nephites, they would do so. Otherwise, or in the contrary case, they would obey the Lord’s will and persist with the default situation of remaining where they were, even though that would likely mean being slaughtered. This can be rephrased as: If the Lord commands us to emigrate, we will do so; otherwise (or “but if that is not the case”), we will stay where we are and perish.

This is very similar to Jacob 2:30 (the meaning of Alma 27:10 would not be drastically changed if it also began with “For if…”). Here it seems improper to designate the first clause as the “intended outcome.” The “if” makes it clear that we are looking at a possible condition, not a blanket commandment. If the Lord wills that they should go live with the Nephites, they will go. Otherwise they will stay and face death, as they already have done with great courage, and for which they were praised and blessed with eternal salvation. In either case, they are seeking to do the Lord’s will, and will be blessed, whether they die soon or later. The temporal outcome of death is never one we seek, but Alma 27:10 is not consistent with framing it as a commanded intended outcome contrasted with a negative consequence if not obeyed. It’s all faithful obedience in either case. As with Jacob 2:30, there is a conditional possibility that is contrasted with the default position (here, staying where they are).

Most phrases after “otherwise” show negative outcomes for commands not followed, but not all. Reed’s characterization of the Book of Mormon is not quite accurate. The Book of Mormon does not establish the rule that Reed sees, nor do examples of “otherwise” used in Joseph Smith’s day, our day, and in much older English. The traditional interpretation of Jacob 2:30 is actually based on a reasonable and natural reading of the meaning of “otherwise.”

Further problems with the new reading of Jacob 2:30 — and a linguist weighs in

Recognizing the misreadings that are behind Reed’s interpretation of Jacob 2:30, we can now better address his reading more fully. Reed sees the first clause a commandment, but in fact, it’s a conditional statement, not a direct command to be contrasted with a negative outcome. Reed sees it as a command to practice monogamy, but this is also strained reading.

Is there any command in the scriptures that employs the formula Reed sees here? How many known commandments in the scriptures begin with anything like “if I will”? Do we see “If I will, thou shalt not steal” or “If I will, thou shalt not commit adultery?” The clause that “otherwise” follows is not a command, but a conditional clause indicating a possible situation where the Lord may command something in response. Following that clause with “otherwise” is not describing the negative consequences of not following that conditional command, but what applies if the conditional situation does not occur.

But there is a reference to a command. Is it the command to practice monogamy? Again, in the context of a conditional phrase, this would make no sense. Jacob has just explained the command to have only one wife. It surely applies to the “these things” that are the default principles to follow. The conditional clause raises the possibilities of another circumstance. If that were monogamy, why would the Lord preface it with an “if’? And if negative outcome is intended after “otherwise,” why use the mostly affirmative verb “hearken” (usually referring to hearkening to the Lord or the prophets)?

For further guidance, I turned to an outstanding linguist that I met and knew well while living in Shanghai and who now also lives in Wisconsin, Dr. Steve Bonta, with a PhD in linguistics from Cornell University. I asked him for his additional input on Reed’s parsing of Jacob 2:30. He sent me the following, and has kindly given me permission to quote him.

In reading Steve Reed’s lengthy essay “A Proposed Reinterpretation of Jacob 2:30,” it is difficult to escape the impression that the author is trying to force a conclusion that many modern Latter-Day Saints would like to believe, namely, that plural marriage was some sort of aberration, an embarrassment to the restored church that is not really supported by Latter-day Saint scripture. In consideration of the fundamental purpose of modern prophets—to reveal God’s will and to clarify doctrine and the meaning of scripture, which is not, ultimately, of private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20)—we should observe, first of all, that plural marriage is clearly authorized in D&C 132 (although, no doubt, there are efforts afoot to undermine the authority of that text as well). Moreover, we should note that, although the source that Reed cites for the official church interpretation of Jacob 2:30 is the Church Newsroom, those exact words are also found in the introduction to Official Declaration 1, along with a reference to Jacob 2:30. In other words, this interpretation has been canonized as part of the standard works, and we may suppose that, as such, it has been approved by Church leadership, including the First Presidency. Claiming otherwise is not merely to attribute error to the Church Newsroom, but to the Brethren themselves, in their united capacity as prophets, seers, revelators, and the only body of men authorized to declare a scripture canonical or standard. Nevertheless, Reed does presume to claim otherwise, despite his modest disavowals of any scholarly or other credentials:

 I don’t speak for the Church, I am not a scholar, and nobody should feel any obligation to believe anything I say…. 

If the verse is actually saying something different, how would you know? What could it be possibly saying other than the official interpretation? Who am I to say that the official interpretation is wrong after people have seen it that way for likely over a century?…

The official interpretation is incorrect and I believe that this can be objectively proven.

But aside from the external evidence that, as the traditional interpretation of Jacob 2:30 holds, the Lord reserves the right to authorize plural marriage when it suits his purposes, with monogamy being the ordinary and general form for marriage, there is the verse itself.

Reed’s entire thesis rests on an alternative reading of “otherwise,” calling it a “conjunctive” adverb as opposed to an “ordinary” adverb. As evidence he notes that the church’s interpretive text has “otherwise” in clause-final position (i.e., an “ordinary” adverb), whereas Jacob 2:30 has it in clause-initial position. But this distinction is nebulous at best. Various dictionaries define “otherwise” as both adverb and conjunction (dictionary.com, e.g.) or as just an adverb (Collins English dictionary). The reason for the confusion has to do with the nature of adverbs (and not only in English, but across languages), namely: adverbs are notorious for their flexibility of word position, unlike all other word categories. Languages tend to have pretty rigid orderings for adjectives with respect to nouns (in English, A-N), for adpositions (in English, they are almost always prepositions, whereas in Tamil almost always postpositions), and for the general ordering of major clausal constituents Subject, Verb, Direct Object (in English SVO, in Hindi SOV, in Malagasy and Biblical Hebrew, VSO, etc.). But adverbs are an exception to this; instead of having a canonical position, they can typically occur clause-initially, clause-finally, or in various positions within a clause, without doing violence to the meaning. Thus, e.g.: Otherwise, you need to come with me/You need to come with me otherwise; You need otherwise to come with me/You otherwise need to come with me; Often, I go/I often go/I go often.

The point is that arguing for a particular meaning based on the position of an adverb is often pointless. In the case of our phrase, we could write it as “They shall hearken unto these things otherwise” just as easily as “Otherwise they shall hearken unto these things,” and the same ambiguity arises, i.e., does it mean “lest they shall hearken unto these things” (as Reed argues) or “Unless the Lord tells them differently, they shall hearken unto these things” (the Church’s official interpretation). Reed argues that “otherwise” in the Book of Mormon in such contexts always has a negative or undesired consequence in the following clause; but one could as easily argue that the word “hearken” almost always in the Book of Mormon refers to listening to the Lord or his representatives, and not to the devil or those who do his bidding (as indeed it does; I did a quick count, and out of 55 total occurrences of this word, all but three referred to listening to the Lord or to righteous men).

It just happens to be the case that “otherwise” usually introduces a “negative consequence”-type of word in Book of Mormon (as well as biblical) contexts, which more often than not are monitory in nature. But if you check all the occurrences of “otherwise” in the standard works, you will find a few (mostly in the D&C) where “otherwise” has a more neutral sense, because the context is not monitory. For example, in D&C 66:6, we have “Tarry not many days in this place; go not up unto the land of Zion as yet; but inasmuch as you can send, send; otherwise, think not of thy property.”

In the case of Jacob 2:30, while the preceding verses, up to verse 29, all clearly monitory in tone, verse 30 appears to be clarificatory, i.e., serving to clarify the material from verses 22-29, including the confusion that had arisen regarding the many wives and concubines of David and Solomon. And for this, we must look carefully at what Jacob says in the broader context of the entire corpus of revealed standard works. When Jacob says, in verse 24, “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord,” he is technically saying that the general fact of David and Solomon having many wives and concubines is abominable to the Lord. He is not necessarily saying that all of the plural wives of David and Solomon were wrong. This might seem like sophistry, but Doctrine and Covenants 132: 38-39 clearly states that David and Solomon had many wives and concubines that were authorized by the Lord:

38 David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me.

39 David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this    power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord.

The Nephites were doubtless aware of these divinely-sanctioned plural marriages, and therefore, clarification as well as admonition was necessary.

One very misleading point that Reed introduces is the notion that “raising up seed” unto the Lord equates to “having more children,” a straw man argument that he then demolishes by claiming that polygamous relationships produce fewer children per woman than monogamous ones do. I have never heard that interpretation before; I had always understood that the purpose of plural marriage was to allow more women to marry under the covenant; indeed, that seems to be the case with the serialized plural marriage that we practice in the church to this day (President Nelson and President Oaks are both sealed to more than one woman, as are many other priesthood holders). At very least, the author seems to be making a broad assumption to prove his point. It is a conspicuous fact that those authorized to practice contemporaneous plural marriage, i.e., polygamy, have always been righteous priesthood bearers, often with exceptional stewardships; thus it could just as plausibly be argued that the Lord is saying that he authorizes plural marriages when he wants to make sure certain of his children are raised under exceptional conditions—perhaps in preparation to be exceptional leaders, etc.

But the real question is: Given the full context, what is the likely meaning of this verse? First, note again the word “hearken.” It is used only a few verses earlier to refer to “the word of the Lord” (verse 27); why would Reed assume it does not have the same referent three verses later? Second, notice that a clause of the type the author cites, using “otherwise” plus a negative or undesirable outcome, is deployed in the verse immediately before this one (verse 29)—but in that verse, the word “or” is used instead of “otherwise” (“or cursed be the land for their sakes”). Might this be for contrastive effect, to ensure that the use of the word “otherwise” in the following verse is not misconstrued? Third, returning yet again to “hearken,” why would such a word be used in this context at all? No mention has been made of “the devil” or “evil and designing men,” or other such, preaching false doctrine or whispering in people’s ears, or anything else that would suggest some personage or source of doctrine to which the people are listening or hearkening; in describing the origin of their false beliefs, the Lord merely says in verse 23 that they “seek to excuse themselves.” So the word “hearken” in verse 30 seems completely gratuitous under this novel interpretation, but perfectly logical if it means “hearken to the commandment I have just given you,” which in verse 27 was introduced by “hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord.

In sum, Reed’s arguments amount to a complication of a fairly straightforward scripture referring to doctrine that is still upheld by the restored Church, despite the renunciation of plural marriage among living participants (polygamy), pursuant to the Manifesto/Declaration 1. While confusion about plural marriage continues to vex many church members (not to mention offshoot polygamous churches and individuals), Jacob’s straightforward series of monitory and clarificatory statements on the subject, in conjunction with latter-day revelations such as D&C 132, should suffice to dispel any perceived doctrinal ambiguities.

Many thanks to Steve Bonta for that kind contribution.

For what it’s worth, I also asked ChatGPT-4 for its input (I’m using the “plus” beta edition, a paid subscription, using plugins such as Web Pilot and Metaphor that provide additional access to the Internet, when needed). While ChatGPT can be highly unreliable when asked for evidence, facts, studies, and the like, it does have a knack with language in  areas where it has been highly trained, and that’s especially true of the English language (I’ve also had good results Chinese and Spanish, but terrible results with Swahili and Hmong). So I asked it about “otherwise” in Jacob 2:30 and Reed’s proposal:

Q. One author suggests that “otherwise” in Jacob 2:30, following a semicolon, means that the prior clause must be an order or a suggestion, and that what follows “otherwise” must therefore be a negative outcome of not following the order or suggestion. Can you assess the validity of that argument?

A. The interpretation of “otherwise” in Jacob 2:30 as indicating a negative outcome if a preceding order or suggestion is not followed is one possible interpretation, but it’s not the only one, nor is it necessarily the most accurate one. The interpretation of “otherwise” and its implications largely depend on the context in which it’s used.

In Jacob 2:30, the verse reads: “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.”

Here, “otherwise” is used to present an alternative to the condition that if God wills to raise up seed, He will command His people. The alternative is that if God does not will to raise up seed (and thus does not command His people to practice polygamy), then His people should heed the words of Jacob and refrain from polygamy.

In this context, the “negative outcome” is not necessarily a consequence of not following an order or suggestion, but rather the result of a different condition (God not willing to raise up seed). The outcome following “otherwise” could be seen as negative or positive depending on one’s perspective: negative in the sense that the people are not being commanded to raise up seed (which could be seen as a blessing), but positive in the sense that they are being commanded to live in a way that aligns with God’s will as expressed through Jacob.

So, while the author’s interpretation is one possible way to read the verse, it’s not the only way, and it may not be the most accurate interpretation given the context. The use of “otherwise” in this verse does not necessarily imply a negative outcome of not following an order or suggestion, but rather presents an alternative condition and its corresponding outcome.

ChatGPT sees the conditional phrase as referring to the practice of polygamy, not an expression of the need to practice monogamy or else. Of course, ChatGPT is not the one to look to for best understanding matters of faith and scripture, but can be useful in parsing English and other languages.

Finally, I should note that Jacob 2:30 was not used by Joseph Smith to support the case for polygamy and is not needed for that purpose, either. Undermining Jacob 2:30 does not demolish the basis for that temporary practice. Brian C. Hales, a noted expert on polygamy in the Church, shared this with me in a conversation in March 2023 and gave me permission to quote him:

It is interesting to note that, according to all available documents, JS never referred to Jacob 2:30 to justify the restoration of PM [plural marriage]. Undoubtedly later voices have done so. It is, to me, largely a red herring since Abraham and Jacob were polygamists, which observation is found to justify the restoration of the practice in D&C 132: 1, 37 (see also 40, 45). As you know, v. 63 lists “multiple and replenish” rather than “raise up seed” to describe polygamy’s role in expanding the number of children being born.

I checked back with him today and he had an update:

I just did another search of my JS polygamy manuscripts and some other databases. No one quotes JS as referring to the BofM and Jacob 2:30 to justify his introduction of plural marriage.

It’s interesting that Jacob 2:30 is in the Book of Mormon, and it is helpful for us in understanding the possibility of polygamy as a temporary exception that could be commanded by the Lord. But re-interpreting Jacob 2:30 is not sufficient to overthrow the basis for Joseph Smith’s revelations related to marriage.

I can understand the desire to further distance ourselves from polygamy. For some, it would be convenient to just dismiss it as Joseph’s sinful mistake. Again we definitely acknowledge the fallibility of all mortals, prophets included, but I worry that for many in the Church today, the fallibility of Joseph Smith or other prophets has become a foundational article of limited faith, a standard go-to shield against all that can irritate and annoy in the Gospel, including modern teachings that don’t fit with popular opinions of the day. They will love Reed’s rendering of Jacob 2:30, but the new reading, creative as it is, is unjustified. The traditional reading of Jacob 2:30 remains reasonable, and the struggles we have to understand polygamy are not fairly resolved by assigning grave sin to Joseph and grave error in parsing scripture to the Church.



Author: Jeff Lindsay

13 thoughts on “What Does Jacob 2:30 Say About Polygamy? Is the Church’s Traditional Interpretation Wrong?

  1. Hi Jeff, we’ve had some email exchanged and I’ve replied to you on my site and your comment there. I wanted to leave a comment here as well. There is a lot of feedback I can and will provide but I really want to process everything and I need the time to revisit everything.

    I want to thank you for engaging with me on this, I have been an off and on follower of your work for quite a while and respect your take on many things. You’ve made some great points here and you’re right about several assessments of this one portion of my essay.

    The meaning of the word “otherwise” is a portion but is not central, nor the crux of my argument. I know my essay is rather lengthy and a full rebuttal would be very time consuming but I appreciate your portion of this feedback.

    I want to clarify one thing regarding this statement, “It’s interesting that Jacob 2:30 is in the Book of Mormon, and it is helpful for us in understanding the possibility of polygamy as a temporary exception that could be commanded by the Lord. But re-interpreting Jacob 2:30 is not sufficient to overthrow the basis for Joseph Smith’s revelations related to marriage.”

    I don’t suggest anywhere that “re-interpreting” Jacob 2:30 overthrows the basis for polygamy in the early church. It certainly doesn’t support the practice, but I think there are still other arguments that could be made for the practice.

    I just don’t believe we should prooftext verses and read into them meanings that cannot be supported. That’s not good for anybody no matter what their stance is and I made that clear in my essay. My purpose was not to defend or attack polygamy with what I was presenting which I don’t believe is “my” interpretation per se, but the original, accurate interpretation that is supported by the context of the sermon itself and the Book of Mormon as a whole.

    Some in the early days of the church created this interpretation and it caught on and nobody, it seems, has really questioned it since. It’s a bit of an oddly-worded verse, which I think lends to interpretation problems both correct and incorrect. I’m not even suggested that those who originally misinterpreted it did so in bad faith or ascribing evil to them.

    Personally, I know the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s divine encounter, have a very strong witness of the Book of Mormon, and am an active member of the church today. I’m not looking to throw anyone under the bus or judge their hearts.

    I do realize that what I am proposing can be used by all types of people to promote this or that agenda. But I also realize that continuing to accept invalid prooftexting as a truth claim isn’t right. Nobody should be building an argument on a foundation of sand.

    If I am wrong, and I’m certainly open to be, it should be possible to demonstrate with valid arguments. You’ve demonstrated successfully here some areas in which I am indeed wrong and I accept those valid criticisms. But only one aspect of what I have proposed has been examined, and it isn’t even my central and strongest claim.

    I believe the most important, not the only, but the most important thing to understand regarding this verse is the meaning of the phrase “raise up seed” and I would invite the reader to examine vs. 25 of Jacob 2 and 1 Nephi 7:1 to start.

    Thanks again for reaching out. Appreciate all you do, keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Jeff!

    Sorry it took me so long, but I’ve taken your constructive criticism seriously and have examined my essay on the points that you took issue with. I agreed with your feedback and thought it was worth taking another look and seeing if I could improve my arguments and correct any inaccuracies. I believe I have done so and there are a couple links and references back here to your post so people can compare and contrast the two.

    Thanks again, Jeff for engaging with me on this, I think there is a lot more to be explored.


  3. Very interesting. To me the argument as to whether polygamy can be commanded and justified by God begins and ends with Abraham, Jacob and Moses. Jacob in particular is the father of all of the House of Israel and the crux of the entire family of God in the plan of salvation. Reading carefully through the book of Genesis it is very clear that God was well pleased with these men before, during, and after their marriages took place to their plural wives.

    Do readers of Jacob 2 who say it was preaching against polygamy realize that there would be no Book of Mormon at all without Jacob taking Leah to wife and having born the descendants from which Lehi’s own family came into being? Do these readers believe that Lehi and his sons totally missed this fact? It is interesting to note that after Lehi obtains the Brass plates, he names his very next two sons Jacob and Joseph, obviously from the knowledge he gained from the brass plates. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if one of his unknown daughters was Leah. This shows a very high level of respect and admiration for his lineage.

    Jeff, on a related note, have you done any articles addressing the modern “skin of darkness” controversy in the Book of Mormon. I’d love to hear your take on that as well. Seems crazy to me that so many LDS are now rejecting important (and very clear) doctrines and messages from our keystone pertaining to these issues.

    1. God was well pleased with Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. That is the greatest miracle anyone can experience, being favored of God in spite of being a sinner. Abraham had children with women other than Sarah because he feared her more than God. In spite of that error, God used the results to perform mighty works. Jacob had children with women other than Rachel because he was tricked into marrying Leah, and the two sisters were in competition with each other in childbearing and he heeded their request to have children through their slaves. Again, God took the results of the works of this fallibale man and raised up Israel. The evidence that Moses had more than one wife at a time is practically non-existant, it is more likely that he remarried after Zapporah died.

      Consider a modern example of this principle. Two nights before signing the U.S. Constitution, 55 delegates spent nearly $20,000 on alcohol and drank it all in one night. In spite of their copious consumption of alcohol, God used them to create a document that an Apostle recently bore testimony of. I wonder what God can do with you or I when we have received His grace and mercy? It’s marvellous to consider.

      Not only would there be no Book of Mormon if Jacob didn’t take Leah to wife. There would be no Jesus if David didn’t take Bathsheba from her husband, which I think doctrinally(?) the church considers to be the act that caused him to not receive Celestial Glory. (There’s no argument here about God potentially commanding it.)

      The Book of Mormon is vehemently anti-polygamy. If anyone picks it up, knowing nothing, and reads it cover to cover, that is the conclusion that will be reached. The argument only exists when the Book of Mormon is regarded in context with the LDS Church, its culture, and commentary from the people in it.

      1. I meant to say Rachel, not Leah. Rachel was the mother of Joseph and the line leading to the tribes of Ephraim and Manesseh and Lehi, and the Samaritans.

        It is very clear that Jacob was favored, blessed and chosen by God even after his plural relationships. There was no mistake here. See Genesis 35:9-12:
        “And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padan-aram, and blessed him.
        And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name: and he called his name Israel.
        And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins;
        And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land.”

        I think people just do not understand the gravity of Jacob’s plural marriages in the Plan of Salvation. Rachel was Jacob’s first love, whom he met at a well. Do you realize that this exact same pattern plays out in John 4 when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well? Do you realize that this chapter is symbolizing Jacob’s betrothal and marriage to Rachel? Jesus explains that just as the gospel will be taken from the Jews (Judah’s line from Leah, his first wife), it will be now given to the northern tribes (Joseph’s line from Rachel, his second wife).

        Jesus explains:
        “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.”

        In other words, the line of Judah is going to be cut off as proprietors of the gospel, and the new covenant will be taught in a new dispensation through Joseph’s line. The Samaritan woman representing both the line of Joseph AND the Bride (the church).

        So you see, Jacob’s family was pre-ordained before the foundation of the world. It turned at exactly as it was planned, and Jesus himself used it as a pivotal teaching tool in relaying his new covenant gospel.

        1. I just want to emphasise that when Jesus speaks of the “true worshippers”, he’s excluding them from the Jews. Who are the “true worshippers”? They are the lost ten tribes (led by Ephraim/Joseph), scattered among the Gentiles in the north countries. And that is exactly where the Apostles focused their gospel mission after the Resurrection.

          And where does this eventually lead to? It leads to Joseph Smith, whom we know is also a blood descendant of Joseph of Egypt. Joseph Smith translates The Book of Mormon, which contains the FULLNESS of the Gospel written and sealed up, again, by descendants of the house of Joseph.

          It is all about Rachel’s seed in the Latter Days. All of God’s plans lead to this point in time. All of the prophets point to this time when Joseph’s house will lead the Savior’s church in the end times, beginning in John 4 and prophesied by John the Baptist when he said that the “axe is laid a the root of the tree” of Judah. Their family tree ended holding up the old covenant, and the new covenant is now led by Jacob’s son Joseph, born through his first love, and second wife, Rachel.

          It’s all so beautiful and simple if you are in tune with the Spirit and can see how the family of God was prepared from the beginning to turn out EXACTLY as the Lord intended it. No mistakes here at all.

        2. Jacob married Rachel second to symbolize God’s second bride being Ephraim in the latter days. The gospel first went among Judah (Leah), then Joseph (Rachel). The symbolism was crucial as a type/symbol for God’s old and new covenants.

          Nephi says it here as well. The “second time” is a reference that goes all the way back to Rachel, the “second” wife.

          “But behold, there shall be many—at that day when I shall proceed to do a marvelous work among them, that I may remember my covenants which I have made unto the children of men, that I may SET MY HAND AGAIN THE SECOND TIME to recover my people, which are of the house of Israel;
          And also, that I may remember the promises which I have made unto thee, Nephi, and also unto thy father, that I would remember your seed; and that the words of your seed should proceed forth out of my mouth unto your seed; and my words shall hiss forth unto the ends of the earth, for a standard unto my people, which are of the house of Israel;”
          2 Nephi 29:1-2

          Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob understood all of this perfectly. But they require us to listen to the Spirit to understand these mysteries. We have to first exercise faith in God’s commandments and soften our hearts before we can learn these mysteries:

          “And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.”
          Alma 12:10

          1. I appreciate you sharing your insights into the story of the woman at the well, as well as your insights around Rachel’s family tree. Thank you.

            God is well pleased with any true disciple of Christ (including Jacob), yet each of them live in a degree of ignorance and commit sins. The two states are not mutually exclusive.

            Your stated opinion is that Jacob’s polygamy was preordained. I disagree. God can account for people sinning but that doesn’t mean that He commands people to sin. For example, God allows divorce, and the restored Church even has policies around divorce, but that doesn’t mean that God commands or preordains divorce. If God ever raises up a prophet who is a child of a remarried father, that doesn’t mean that his dad’s previous wife was preordained to divorce his dad.

            Jesus was born from Bathsheba’s bloodline. The Church believes that David was disqualified from Celestial glory because of his actions related to her. Do you believe that David was preordained to Telestial glory and that Christ could not have been born unless those sins were committed? The story of David and Bathsheba is at the crux of this discussion. Not only did David kill in order to marry her, but he was also already married. Jesus’ importance to God’s plan cannot be understated. Regardless of your beliefs on polygamy, I don’t think anyone believes that God commanded David to murder, yet Christ wouldn’t have been born if David and Bathsheba didn’t have children. Was David’s marriage to Bathsheba preordained? Was there any other way in which he could have taken her to be his wife?

  4. It seems that at least one of these people, possibly both, are operating under the assumption that Joseph was a polygamist. There seems to be growing evidence to the contrary, with many people writing books, offering YouTubes, blogs, etc, on the matter.

  5. Hello Jeff,

    I found this article linked from the oneclimbs site and I enjoyed your perspective. I have a question for you. How do you reconcile these two verses?

    Jacob 2:24 – “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.”

    D&C 132:38-39 (abridged) – “David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon … and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant … and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife …”

    It is not possible for these two verses to exist in harmony. Either David’s many wives and concubines were an abomination before God, or they were gifted to him by God. It cannot be both at the same time.

    Any thoughts you have regarding this matter are greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time and consideration.

    1. I think the basic answer is that David did sin in the way he had many wives and concubines, going far beyond what was authorized through Nathan. Is that reasonable in your view?

      1. Your interpretation sounds reasonable when applied to Solomon. But I don’t think your interpretation can be applied to David. Here is why I need some additional persuasion in order to agree with your premise.

        Both verses use the phrase “many wives and concubines” giving the impression that both texts are referring to the same women. It is possible that Jacob went into more (unrecorded) detail about that phrase. He may have specified that David only had some wives and concubines that were approved. However, the verses in D&C 132 strongly imply that all of David’s wives and concubines were authorized, and we have a copy of the original document those verses were recorded from.

        The phrase “in none of these things did [David] sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife” is difficult for me to interpret as meaning that he sinned by taking unauthorized wives. The only possible ways I can see this statement interpreted is either A) David sinned only when he murdered Uriah, B) David sinned only when he married Bathsheba, C) David sinned in both points.

        If you can further support your interpretation I’d appreciate it. But in doing so please don’t disregard the previously quoted religious text. If I took D&C 138:39 in a vacuum I think anyone would be hard pressed to interpret it in any other way than that David only married authorized women excepting maybe Bathsheba.

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