The definition of marriage has become one of the most debated topics in our culture during the last few years. Most Christians will say that biblical marriage is defined as being between one man and one woman. However, one of the most common challenges to this idea is the charge that the Bible endorses polygamy (one man married to multiple wives) as a form of marriage. On the surface, there appears to be some plausibility to this charge. Polygamy isn’t explicitly condemned in the Bible; several prominent figures in the Old Testament practiced it; even the Mosaic law in a few instances seems to make allowances for it. How, then, are Christians supposed to address this subject?
What does the Bible really say about polygamy?
The first thing Christians need to do is learn what the Bible really does or does not say about polygamy.
First, polygamy is neither explicitly endorsed or condemned in the Bible as an institution. However, that doesn’t mean that God’s attitude toward the subject cannot be clearly deduced. It is prohibited for kings (Deuteronomy 17:17) and forbidden for leaders in the Christian church (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). Another case can be made against polygamy from 1 Corinthians 7:2, which says, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” The fact that it says each man or woman should have his/her own wife/husband seems to indicate a monogamous relationship. All of this should be taken into consideration into God’s general attitude towards the subject.
Yet the fact still stands that polygamy is not explicitly called out and condemned. But does this pose a problem? No, for the simple reason that all sins are not explicitly called out and condemned in Scripture. Several other sins are not explicitly called out by name in the Bible either, but their morality can be deduced from the entirety of God’s Word as a whole. Slavery, for example, is also not unequivocally condemned in Scripture, but through a proper understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image, of what true liberty is, etc, we can deduce (as many abolitionists did in the 1800s) that God would condemn the institution of slavery. Suicide is another example. Nowhere in Scripture is it plainly stated, “Thou shalt not commit suicide,” but we can deduce it to be a sin from the many Scriptures where God talks about the sanctity of life and the purpose He gives to each individual.
Second, polygamy was indeed practiced by several Old Testament patriarchs including Jacob (Genesis 29:30), David (2 Samuel 3:2-5), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-8). This fact doesn’t make the practice legitimate. On the contrary, in almost every instance where polygamy is mentioned to have been practiced by those patriarchs, it is recorded to have had negative consequences. Whether it was foreign wives leading their husband’s hearts astray after foreign gods (as in the case of Solomon – 1 Kings 11:4-8) or simply causing turmoil in the family with favoritism (as was the case with Jacob – Genesis 29:30-30:26), the consequences are always described to be negative.
Lastly, whenever marriage or doctrines concerning marriage are discussed directly, it is always assumed to take the form of the one-man-one-woman model (See Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:14-16, Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7-8, 1 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 5:31, etc.). This would, by definition, exclude polygamy as an acceptable model for marriage.
So let the facts be clear. Yes, it is true that polygamy is not explicitly condemned and that it was practiced by many well-known figures in the Bible, but neither of these facts provides legitimacy for the institution or reveal God’s attitude toward the subject. When you take into consideration the entirety of Scripture including direct and indirect references to polygamy and marriage, God’s attitude can be clearly seen to disapprove of the practice of polygamy.
Troublesome Old Testament Laws Regarding Polygamy
Next, I will address a few Old Testament laws that seem to accept polygamy. There are a few Scriptures in the Mosaic Law that critics might use to say that polygamy was acceptable under Old Testament law (for example Exodus 21:10-11 and Deuteronomy 21:15-17). But such laws do not condone the practice of polygamy, but simply state that if polygamy occurs, certain things must be done to protect the second wife or her children from being denied the same rights that the first wife and her children are entitled to.
The only other Scripture in the Mosaic law that I can find relating to this is Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which institutes levirate marriage, or the practice of marrying your brother’s widow if she had no children. This was done for the purpose of raising a child to inherit the dead brother’s name and property as well as provide materially for the widow since women were pretty much dependent on their husbands and sons to provide for them. In such a scenario, it is theoretically possible that if a brother died, his brother could potentially already be married. Would he then be forced to enter into polygamy to uphold this law? Commentaries are mostly silent on this, but the few that address it boil this dilemma down to two possibilities.
- The brother who took the widow had to be unmarried.
- Polygamy would be acceptable in this limited circumstance in order to perpetuate the name of the brother and provide materially for the widow.
I find the first position to be the most convincing based on the evidence. This seemed to be the most strongly supported position among the commentaries and in Scripture itself. There are 2 examples of levirate marriage given in the Bible. The first is with Judah’s son Er and daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38). The second is with Ruth and Boaz (See Ruth 2-4).
In both cases, when Er and Ruth’s husband died, Tamar and Ruth were both attempted to be remarried to Er’s younger brother Onan and to Boaz respectively, both of whom were unmarried. You might ask, “If all the brothers were married, how would this get resolved?” Let’s remember that the word brother didn’t necessarily mean a brother in the sense of a brother from the immediate family. In the case of Boaz, he is referred to as a “relative” or “kindred.” So brother probably means someone in the same clan as the deceased husband. This is attested to in other laws as well (See Numbers 36:8). Surely there would be one unmarried man in the entire clan.
It is also recorded that in the case of Onan and Tamar, Onan is struck dead because he did not fulfill this duty, and so his younger brother Shelah was chosen to fulfill it. However, he was not of age to be married at that time, and so Tamar remained a widow at her father’s house until such a time that she could be married to Shelah. So it seems that even if all the men were married, the woman would remain a widow until someone else became of age to marry.
The Mosaic laws of the Old Testament did not encourage or endorse polygamy. In the few instances it is mentioned, it is mentioned for the purpose of providing security and protection for the women who would be put in that situation.
Why did so many people in the Bible practice Polygamy?
So why did so many well-known figures in the Bible practice it? There are a number of worldly and practical reasons, none of which justify polygamy.
- Wealth/Prestige/Ego: Having multiple wives and concubines was considered a sign of great wealth and prosperity. Unfortunately, women at that time in just about every culture were treated as chattel (property). The more you could marry, the greater your wealth was perceived to be. This was true to some extent because most people could not afford to pay the price of multiple “bridewealths” to the father, or the price paid to the father to give away his daughter in marriage. Prominent figures in the Bible who practiced polygamy were often kings or heads of large tribes. So in general, they could afford to pay that price more than once. But it should also be said that the vast majority of Israelites lived in monogamous marriages.
- Children: If your first wife was barren and could not give birth to children, your family line would die out. It was common for this reason to marry a second wife who could bear children, or for the wife to give one of her servants to her husband as a concubine (as was the case with Sarah and Abraham – See Genesis 16). Having lots of children meant your tribe would grow faster, you would have more potential laborers or soldiers to help you survive or thrive, and was considered to be a divine blessing. In a world where the total population is a small fraction of what it is today, the faster you could have progeny, the more power you could accumulate. If a competing tribe could have more children than your tribe, they could eventually conquer or enslave you in the long run.
- Politics: Kings like Solomon would enter into a marriage treaty with a foreign nation (See 1 Kings 3:1), where a king would marry the daughter of the king of another nation. This would help ensure peace between nations.
- Sexual/Physical: To put it plainly, the more wives you had, the more potential partners you had for sex and the more you could be taken care of in your other physical needs like food and clothing.
As I mentioned before, none of the reasons justify polygamy, and some reasons plainly point to the dehumanizing nature of it. It just goes to show how no one, including the patriarchs, is perfect. They were sinful human beings just like the rest of us.
Why did God Tolerate Polygamy?
But after knowing all this, it still doesn’t exactly answer the question, “If polygamy is wrong, why did God seem to tolerate it while punishing other sins?”
First, the point needs to be made: God tolerated a lot of sin in the Old Testament, not just polygamy. He had to constantly deal with the Israelites who seemed to love God one minute and the next minute worship Baal. God lamented in Jeremiah chapter 2,
I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown… What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless… Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water… Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the LORD your God, when he led you in the way?
The Israelites were far from perfect. They struggled with idolatry, greed, and child sacrifice, just to name a few things. Yes, there were times when God did cast immediate judgment, but there were times when God delayed judgment for several generations after giving Israel many opportunities to repent, and there are countless times when God completely overlooked sins altogether. It is not, as it is portrayed, a double standard where God always punishes one particular sin, and then always overlooks other sins. Such charges are made only with false generalizations.
Several New Testament Scriptures allude to this question. Look over the following verses:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:30-31)
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory--even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22-24)
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it--the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
What is the common thread in all of these? God “overlooked”, “endured,” and, “passed over” many of the sins in the Old Testament in order that the gospel could be fully realized, that God could show the greatest act of mercy and grace towards all mankind, not just the Jews, but to everyone. Even though God had every justification to destroy mankind for their sinfulness, He instead offers every individual the opportunity to be forgiven for their sins by placing their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
Why didn’t God explicitly condemn polygamy and just leave no questions at all about its morality? Unfortunately, I’m not too sure about that. But as I’ve alluded to earlier in this post, even though it isn’t explicitly condemned, that doesn’t mean God’s attitude towards the subject cannot be known. From the beginning in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God created us male and female, specifically one male and one female – Adam and Eve. “Therefore a man [(singular)] shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, [(singular)] and they shall become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24 with my own emphasis added). Like many other subjects, God did not directly sum up the morality of this issue in a single black or white statement, but through careful study of the Bible, we can come to a well-reasoned understanding of what marriage is and what it is not.