Christian Polygamy? (Part 2 – OT Law)

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview, Culture Wars/Popular Culture 369 25

In the first article[1] in this series, I discussed if the teachings of Jesus and Paul had any insight to the issue of polygamy. In my opinion, they did, and it was a huge contribution because both seem to condemn it. However, supporters of Christian polygamy look mostly to the Old Testament for their support. Texts in the Old Testament Law include Leviticus 18:18 and various passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy. There is, of course, the fact that there are some very faithful men in this part of the Scriptures that were polygamists as well. In this article, and in the next, I will be examining the different points of view for the Old Testament Law. In this particular article, I will look at Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17. I will then return to other passages in the Law in part 3 and conclude it with a look at the Old Testament Law in general.

  • Leviticus 18:18

Leviticus 18:18 is an excellent place to begin our look at the Torah (law). This verse states, “Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.” This verse seems to be saying that a man should never have relations with his wife’s sister (his sister-in-law) while his wife is alive. The argument is fairly straight forward: the verse is in a section of Scripture (Leviticus 18:7-18) that is prohibiting sexual relations with near of kin, that is, “incest.” Although technically, the “incest” in this section of Scripture does not only deal with those whom one is biologically related to but also includes close relatives by marriage (for example, a sister-in-law).

The website (hereafter just believes that it is clear that this verse “is speaking in terms of the man being married to them [the wife and the sister-in-law] at the same time. The fact that this verse is even instructed actually PROVES that polygamy is otherwise a valid marriage possibility! After all, if polygamy was really a sin anyway, it would be completely irrelevant and unnecessary to specify a prohibition against marrying sisters anyway! That is, if it was truthfully a sin for a man to marry more than one wife anyway, then OBVIOUSLY he would not be able to marry two sisters beside each other in their lifetime!”[2]

This verse does seem to be proof that polygamy is ok in the eyes of God.[3] However, the anti-polygamy side of the debate has another view concerning this verse that is not widely known, and it argues that Leviticus 18:18 actually condemns polygamy. How can this be? Let’s take a look.

The meaning of the word “sister”

This interpretation views the word “sister” in this verse differently than the traditional one. Verse 18 contains the phrase “a woman to her sister.” Those who advocate that this verse actually condemns polygamy simply ask the question, “Does the word ‘sister’ mean biological sister, or can it mean something else?” This may seem strange to most, but bear with me.

The masculine equivalent to this phrase, “a man to his brother” appears twelve times[4] in the Old Testament and the feminine phrase, “a woman to her sister,” which appears eight times.[5] The masculine phrase was used to refer to Joseph’s brothers (in Genesis), to fellow-Israelites and other people(s), and to cherubim. The feminine phrase referred to curtains, clasps, and boards in the Tent of Meeting, and wings of cherubim.[6] The phrase, whether it was referring to people or inanimate objects, was used for the meaning of “one in addition to another.”[7]

Scholar Angelo Tosato, in his article on Leviticus 18:18, says that the phrase seems to have the meaning of a “fellow-citizen,” a “sister [or brother] in religion,” etc. Basically, according to Tosato, the phrase has the meaning of a man or woman belonging to the same people or religious community. Think of the way Christians use “my brother or sister in Christ.”[8]

Another writer on this topic, Richard Davidson, makes an interesting remark when he notes that Moses could have easily have written the expression as “woman and her sister” to avoid any ambiguity. In fact, he does this in the preceding verse (17) with “a woman and her daughter” where a literal mother-daughter relationship is described. “The fact that this available expression for literal relationship within the nuclear family was not employed lends further contextual support for retaining the distributive sense of the expression [a woman to her sister], as is found everywhere else in the [Old Testament].”[9]

Some may argue that “sister” in 18:18 must refer to a literal, biological sister because that is its meaning elsewhere in the chapter (for example, see verses 9 and 11-13). However, in the other verses the word “sister” is clearly defined in the context to refer to a literal sister. Verse 11, for example, specifically says that the sister “is the daughter of your father’s wife, born to your father. She is your sister.” The context makes it crystal clear that the word “sister” refers to a biological sister. No such terminology is used in verse 18. We must always keep context in mind.[10]

This is an interesting detail about Leviticus 18:18. The word “sister” here does not have to mean a literal biological sister. However, I will admit that this does not by itself prove the anti-polygamy stance. The possibility that a word or phrase can have different meanings (its semantic range) does not prove one meaning over another. More evidence must be presented. (Although I do believe that understanding a word’s semantic range will help us determine a word’s meaning.)

The Literary Structure

Leviticus 18:7-23 is divided into two major sections: verses 7-17 regarding incest (remember the definition of incest that I gave earlier), and 19-23 concerning more general sexual laws (except verse 21). Notice that verse 18 lies right in between. The most common interpretation is that verse 18 belongs to the first section. This is logical if the verse is about a man marrying two literal sisters since that would qualify as a close-kin relationship. What do other scholars say about this? Well, they have reasons to believe that the verse in question actually belongs to the latter section.

But first, let’s take a look at exactly what Leviticus 18 teaches. Verses 7-17 include laws that condemn close-kin relationships. You are not to have sexual relations with your mother (verse 7), your father’s wife, i.e., a step mother (8), sister (9), niece (10), half-sister (11), aunt (12-14), daughter-in-law (15), sister-in-law (16), and both a woman and her daughter, or her granddaughter (17).

Verses 19-23 teach that you should not have sexual relations with a woman who is on her period (19), your neighbor’s wife (20), not to sacrifice your child to the ancient god Molech (21), not to have homosexual relations (22), and not to have sexual relations with an animal.

As I have already noted verse 18 is generally believed to be a part of the section of laws on incest, thus bringing about a conclusion that it allows polygamy (as long as it is not between biological sisters). However, there is good evidence that shows that verse 18 does not belong to the section on incest, but to the second set of laws.

Each verse in 7-17 begins with the Hebrew noun erwat which means the “nakedness of,” and each of these verses also end with the command “you shall not uncover” (Hebrew lo tegalleh). It is interesting that the second set of laws, verses 19-23, and verse 18, do not use this literary structure. Instead, all six of these verses (18 included) begin with the waw conjunctive (the Hebrew word like our word “and”) and some other Hebrew word besides “nakedness of.” They also conclude with the negative particle lo, “plus the imperfect of some other verb than [‘uncover’].”[11]

Quite clearly, Moses wrote the two sets of laws to be their own separate units.[12] If verse 18 was supposed to belong to the set of laws about incest wouldn’t he have worded it the same as all of those other verses? Why word it completely different and like the next unit of sexual laws which do not deal with close of kin relationships?


There is another detail about 18:18 that needs to be considered. The verse says that a man should not take the wife’s sister to be a rival wife. William Luck, a writer and defender of polygamy, says, “Note here that rivalry is admitted, but not prohibited except where the rivals are sisters.”[13] I disagree with this statement.

Davidson makes a good point concerning the detail of rivalry when he says,  “Accordingly, if the motive for this prohibition was to avoid vexation to one’s wife, there is little reason for limiting its prohibition to a literal sister; both the Bible and anthropology provide ample testimony to the unpleasant reality of contention among co-wives, whether sisters or not.” Tosato adds, “In addition, the harm which the law wants avoided is such (rivalry, enmity) that any woman (and not necessarily a sister of the first wife) is capable of causing it…”[14]

In my honest opinion, I believe that the argument that Leviticus 18:18 is stronger. That is, the verse is not referring to a literal, biological sister. It is referring to any other woman (a “sister” in the sense of a member of the community of Israel). Verse 18 is also linked with the second set of laws which are concerned with bonds outside of kinship. To add to these arguments is the point about rivalry, it makes no sense to have a law only against rivalry when it is a literal sister when rivalry is caused by others as well. This is the major strength of the argument in my personal opinion. Leviticus 18:18 does not condone polygamy, it condemns it.

  • Deuteronomy 17:17

This is another important verse in the polygamy debate. Deuteronomy 17:17 says, “He [the king of Israel] must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” Verse 16 also prohibits the king from acquiring many horses.

Pro-polygamists tend to make the following arguments concerning this verse:

  1. In this context, the king is also prohibited from multiplying their money and horses. Luck says, “If we were to apply the anti-polygyny logic regarding multiplying wives consistently, we would have to imagine that kings were also restricted to one horse and one shekel. On the other hand, if kings could have been true to their inspired limitations by having more than a horse or shekel, then they could have been just as moral by having more than one wife.”[15]
  2. has a few things to add to this. 1 Kings 11:3-4 says that David’s heart was perfect. “As such, there is a clear difference between multiplying and merely adding. And this can be seen as the difference between Solomon and his father David. Where Solomon had multiplied (i.e., stored-up, hoarded), David had only added his 18+ wives.” The website adds, “(In Genesis 25:1, ‘Then AGAIN Abraham took a wife… Keturah.’ The word, “AGAIN”, there translates to add –or “augment”– in the Hebrew. And, indeed, Abraham was adding his third wife Keturah to himself.) So, Solomon’s sin was multiplying wives (which turned his heart away from God) while his father David had simply added wives. Hence, adding more than one wife is biblically acceptable (just as David did), whereas multiplying wives (just as Solomon did) is what was prohibited in Deuteronomy 17:14, 17.”[16]

With just about everything else in life there are at least two sides to every story. The anti-polygamists argue that this verse may not condone polygamy (or is at least not condone it as strongly as some think it does). Let’s start with the phrase “And he [the king] must not acquire many wives for himself…” The Hebrew for “many” is yarbeh which is one of the forms of the Hebrew word raba.[17] Raba has the meaning of “increase, multiply.”

It is argued that the meaning of raba implies that the king of Israel can have more than one wife, but that he cannot abuse the law by having an excessive amount of wives. Yarbeh is not only used for wives, but for horses and money as well. This form of the word literally means, “to cause to increase.” The context will naturally determine the exact extent of the increase (whether it is only a small increase or a massive one that most think it means in this verse).

One thing that should be noted is that the expression “shall not increase wives for himself” “was chosen not to facilitate some more modest level of polygyny, but to achieve an artful parallelism between the three characteristic sins of Canaanite (and Israelite) kingship.”[18]

The anti-polygamy side notes that it is interesting that in verses 16 and 17 yarbeh is used with no adverbial modifier in regards to horses and wives, but is used with the intensifying adverb meod, “greatly multiply,” in relationship to wealth. Thus, the only one out of these three where an excessive increase is meant is with money, and not horses or wives. It is thus reasonable to conclude that a king could have no increase in horses and wives, and have no excessive increase in wealth.[19] Those who promote a Christian form of polygamy tend to think that since the word raba has the meaning of excess in other parts of Scripture then must here as well. It is a fallacy to think that a word always has to carry its technical meaning at all times. The very fact that the word is not modified with horses or wives does tend to support the idea that it is not referring to an excessive increase.

This makes sense considering what we learned above with Leviticus 18:18. The king of Israel would have been bound to that law as well. He was to be the model for all Israelites. He was, in fact, a brother in Israel (17:15), and was “essentially equal to other Israelites.”[20] He was to study and follow the Torah (Deuteronomy 17:19) as was every Israelite (6:7; 8:1; 11:1). The same warning that was given to the king about exalting himself (17:20) was given to the whole nation (8:14), and the same caution about turning away from God was given to the King and all of Israel (17:20; 5:32; 11:28; 28:14).[21] Davidson says it well, “Thus the law prohibiting royal polygamy in [Deuteronomy] 17:17 serves to uphold and further emphasize the similar prohibition given to all Israel in [Leviticus] 18:18.”[22]

This may sound strange to many for one main reason. How could a king not have any kind of increase in horses? The fact is that the idea of having no multiplication of horses is found in other places in Scripture. Isaiah 31:1 says, “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord.” Psalm 33:17 adds, “A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save.” It is interesting to note that the mule was the animal used for the coronation ceremonies of the king (2 Samuel 18:9; 1 Kings 1:33, 38, 44).[23]

We find the idea of relying on God and not horses in the book of Joshua. Joshua 11:1-15 records the event when the Israelites, commanded by Joshua, defeated a coalition of Canaanite kings who had amassed a great army in order to destroy Israel. 11:4 tells us, “They came out with all their troops and a large number of horses and chariots – a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashores.” Notice that the Canaanite kings had many horses, including chariots. The Israelites had no such thing. Yet, the Israelites won the day. Why, because they had faith in God, not in horses (i.e., their own strength).

Take a look at Deuteronomy 20:1 (just a few chapters after the passage in question). 20:1 says, “When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.” The verses immediately following speak about the LORD earning the victory, not the Israelites. The Canaanites have horses (one of the best weapons of war at that time and throughout most of history), but the Israelites have the LORD.

The two major points about the king of Israel not being able to increase his horses is twofold: 1) he and Israel were to depend on God only for their military victories; and 2) the Israelites were not to go back down to Egypt where they had been slaves for centuries. It is not unrealistic that the king of Israel could not own multiple horses.


I know that my conclusions in this article will not please anyone who has committed themselves to a pro-polygamist view of Scripture. However, I do believe that the nontraditional views of Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17 are at least reasonable. Even if one wants to completely disagree with these interpretations I still find it very difficult for someone to directly apply these verses to the life of a Christian. I’ll discuss that in part 3.

What do you think?

[1] As some readers will notice, the date of publication for this article is about a month earlier than part 1. Originally this article was to be the first, but as I was finishing the rest of this series I decided I wanted to change that. So I published my discussion of the New Testament as part 1 and changed the title of this one to part 2.

[2] “Not marry sisters.” (Emphasis in original.) adds, “It is additionally important to also note something about the previous verse (not listed here, Leviticus 18:17) and its relevance to this verse 18 here. Namely, the previous verse 17 prohibits a man from uncovering the nakedness of a mother and her daughter. That is also, by such implied instruction, clearly also meaning that it is a prohibition from marrying both mother and her daughter. That makes that also another proof that polygamy is Biblical by the fact of it even being instructed.”

[3] This is the general consensus among many. See also William Luck. “On the Morality of Biblical Polygamy.” Anthony “Polygamy is not sinful.” Christopher J. Wright. “Leviticus” in New Bible Commentary 4th Ed. ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994. 146.

[4] Genesis 37:19; 42:21, 28; Exodus 16:15; 25:20; 37:9; Numbers 14:4; 2 Kings 7:6; Jeremiah 13:14; 25:26; Ezekiel 24:23; 33:30.

[5] Exodus 26:3, 5, 6, 17; Ezekiel 1:9, 23; 3:13.

[6] There is also a similar expression, “a woman with her friend/neighbor,” which referred to the gathering of birds with their mates” and a woman teaching “each to her neighbor.” See Isaiah 34:15-16; Jeremiah 9:20 .

[7] Richard Davidson. Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007). 194. Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 113. Ronald A. G. du Preez. Polygamy in the Bible. Ph.D Dissertation (Barrien Springs: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1993). 78-79.

[8] Angelo Tosato. “The Law of Leviticus 18:18: A Reexamination.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46:2, April 1984. P. 202.

[9] Davidson 195.

[10] Du Preez 76. Davidson 196. Davidson (195) also notes, “This, however, overlooks the fact that ‘elsewhere in Leviticus 18 we find ahot and not as in v. 18 issaahotah. A simple equation between these two philologically different expressions seems to be false.’ One cannot responsibly confuse the specific idiomatic expression with straightforward references to literal sisters in earlier verses of [Leviticus] 18.”

[11] Davidson, 195-196. Tosato, 203-205. Du Preez 73. Copan, 113.

[12] Pro-polygamists argue that this interpretation of the structure of these verses is wrong for two reasons: 1) verse 9 does not fully fit into this view. Verse 9 is the only verse in 7-17 that does not conclude with a clause providing justification for why the prohibition was issued in the first place. I do not think that this is enough to throw out the entire argument that the anti-polygamists make. Verse 9 still fits very well within the overall structure with using “nakedness of” and “you shall not uncover.” 2) It is argued that verses 6-16 present a structure of vertical and horizontal relationships. I personally do not find this argument by itself convincing especially in the light of everything else that has been presented in this article. Secondly, Luck wants to place verse 19 in the incest laws. I completely disagree. How can a prohibition of having sexual relations with your wife while she is on her period be regarded as part of a unit on incest?

[13] Luck.

[14] Davidson, 196-197; Gordon Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 117. Quoted in Davidson, 197. Tosato 207.

[15] Luck. “Multiply Wives.”

[16] “Multiply Wives.”

[17] yarbeh is the hipil form of raba.

[18] Hugenberger 119, quoted in Davidson 199; also see Daniel Block. Deuteronomy. In “The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). 419

[19] Davidson 199

[20] Gordon McConville. “Deuteronomy” in New Bible Commentary 4th Ed. ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A Motyer, & G.J. Wenham (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994.) 216.

[21] Davidson, 200

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 199-200.

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25 thoughts on “Christian Polygamy? (Part 2 – OT Law)

  1. polynomore

    Hi, a quick correction, I had mentioned in passing the question about who was “Lot’s” wife but it should have read who was Cain’s wife… Thanks 🙂


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