[This is part three of a four part series. Links to the other article can be found here.]
In part 2 of this series, I examined the teachings of Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17. In the first part, I looked at what Jesus and Paul said about the subject of polygamy. In this article, I will continue my study of the Old Testament Law by looking at various passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Do these verses support polygamy? Let’s take a look.
- Exodus 21:7-11
The first of these passages to examine is Exodus 21:7-11. It says, “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and martial rights. If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.”
The situation in these verses is that a father has made a contract for his daughter to be an indentured servant for a man and to be his wife. The most common view of this passage is that it allows polygamy. The man decides to marry another woman (verse 10) in addition to the servant girl (verse 7). This passage allows polygamy because it does not prohibit the taking of a second wife and it protects the rights of the first wife. Since it protects the rights of the first girl then polygamy must be acceptable. Another detail brought in to support polygamy is that the first girl’s food, clothing, and marital rights (verse 10) are protected. Why would any of these things be protected if polygamy was wrong in the first place? Wouldn’t it be easier to just condemn polygamy?
The Anti-polygamy view
Those who disagree with polygamy have their own interpretation of this passage, and it begins with the translation of verse 8. Many English translations translate this verse as “If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself…” This translation follows the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament – also known as the LXX). The Masoretic Text (MT), the canonical Hebrew Text of the Old Testament, does not have “for himself”, but has “not.” It is argued that the textual evidence is not strong for the LXX reading, but it is for the MT. This could mean that the best translation is “master so that he does not choose her.” The MT text says that the man decides that he does not like her and does not marry her.
The usual interpretation of verse 10 is that the man marries another woman in addition to the servant girl. The Hebrew word translated here is aheret, which is often taken to mean “another in addition to” which would mean that he has taken an additional wife. This word appears 12 times outside of Exodus 21. Five of these times it means “another in addition to,” and the other seven it is used to denote something “different and distinct from.” So we have a word that could honestly be interpreted to support both sides of the debate. If the MT translation of verse 8 is correct and the man does not marry the girl, then verse would not have the meaning of “another, in addition to.” This would carry the meaning that he takes another woman instead of the servant girl.
This brings us to another aspect of Exodus 21 – the “marital rights” in verse 10. Does this not prove that the passage is about polygamy? There has been a lot of confusion concerning the Hebrew word for “marital rights” (‘onah). The problem with the translation of “marital rights” is that it is, as one scholar has said, “a stab in the dark with a term used only once in the Old Testament.” There have been many different studies suggesting many different translations including: a “dowry,” “ointments,” and the familiar “marital rights.” “Dowry” and the more famous “marital rights” have no linguistic support, and “ointments” comes from a study concerning the three basic items of food, clothing, and oil found in Sumerian and Akkadian texts (which also has no linguistic support.
However, some scholars have come to the conclusion that ‘onah is rooted in the Hebrew for habitation and dwelling (ma’on, me’onah). This is the only suggestion of the Hebrew word that has any philological and etymological support. The verse is saying that the servant girl must be given food, clothing, and shelter if the man does not marry her.
Some may find this strange. Doesn’t this fact imply some kind of rivalry between the girl and the new wife, and doesn’t this mean that the servant girl is still a wife? Not necessarily. We must remember that she was also under contract to be an indentured servant. This law is providing protection for a girl who was under contract to be a wife and an indentured servant. She was rejected as a wife, but was, for some reason, not redeemed. The law is put in place just in case some kind of hatred or jealousy against her came up. But wouldn’t she have those rights under the contract if she was still an indentured servant? Yes, the law is simply reaffirming that here (see below for my thoughts about the verse being redundant).
To be completely honest, I understand both sides of the debate concerning this. The interpretation of the passage is based mostly on how we are to translate verse 8. This, in effect, will determine the meaning of verse 10. When it comes to the issue concerning the meaning of ‘onah I do think that “marital rights” is not the correct translation.
However, William Luck believes that there is a major problem with the alternate interpretation. He says, “If [this view] is correct about this being a woman in the place of rather than a woman in addition to, what is the sense of mentioning the addition anyway? … The problem with this correction [‘if he marries another woman instead of her’] is that it is redundant. If she were selected for himself, she is to be redeemed. If she was selected for his son, she is to be treated as a daughter. Daughters received all the benefits of the household. What need is there to specify further?”
First off, she does not have to be redeemed. That is an available option but nothing in the text requires it. As I mentioned earlier, there is the possibility she is still to fulfill the indentured servant part of the contract. Secondly, even it was “redundant” what would that matter? Scripture tends to repeat itself a lot. The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Pentateuch (Exodus 20 1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). Leviticus 19:11 says not to steal, yet the Ten Commandments already say not to do that. Also, Lev. 19:35 says not to use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight, and quantity, and verse 13 says not to rob from your neighbor. Are these not stealing as well? Verse 29 of the same chapter condemns prostitution as wickedness and Deuteronomy 23:17 says that an Israelite cannot become a shrine prostitute. Yet the next verse (23:18) says that the earnings of these same prostitutes cannot be brought to the House of the Lord. Why bother saying that if prostitution was wicked anyways? What about the Bible recording the history of the Judean kings in both Kings and Chronicles? Isn’t that redundant? I personally don’t think so. Just because something it very repetitive to the modern reader means nothing.
- Other Passages in the Law
There is a small-hand full of other laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy that may imply that polygamy was acceptable during the Old Testament period. First, Deuteronomy 21: 15 – “If a man has two wives…” This is, of course, a passage that for many confirms that polygamy is ok. As biblicalpolygamy.com said it, “If polygamy was a sin, then it would not be possible for a ‘man to have two wives’ in the Law.” It is possible that the man may have two wives in other instances such as divorce or the death of his first wife. More than likely this case law is thinking of any instance where a man would want to show favoritism towards the firstborn of a favored wife over the true firstborn of another wife. This would have also included polygamy.
Two other passages are Exodus 22:16-17 and Deuteronomy 22:28-29. The former says, “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.” The latter says, “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
Luck notes that “the law does not add, ‘and the father must refuse if the seducer is already married,’ nor does it say that the man should marry her unless he is already married. Nor does it say that if he is married both he and she should be executed.” Anthony adds, “There is nothing in this text that supports the idea that only single men are to marry in this instance…This also protected the woman from the reproach of not being able to find another man to be her husband because she was no longer a virgin and, furthermore the reproach of possibly never being able to have children. The man, single or married, needed to be responsible for his fornication and the woman needed to be protected.”
The last passage is Deuteronomy 25: 5-10. It teaches that “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill his duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”
Luck teaches the pro-polygamy interpretation of this passage clearly, “But what would happen if the brother or near kinsman was already married…If you read the law carefully, you will see that the curse that was placed upon him also rested upon his house…There is no provision in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for a marital exemption. Had God considered polygyny immoral and against His ‘Creation Ordinances,’ He surely would have included such an exception in the text itself.”
I understand these arguments and I concede that it is likely that there were times when polygamy would have occurred. However, I do not believe any of this would force Christians to accept polygamy.
Christians and the Old Testament Law
In this and the last article I have examined the passages in the Old Testament Law that relate to polygamy. A few of them definitely imply polygamy, while a couple do, I believe, have reasonable alternative interpretations (like Leviticus 18:18 and Exodus 21:7-11). However, what if I am wrong? Does this really matter? I believe that it does not. Here’s why.
All of these laws are found in the Mosaic Covenant (the old covenant). Christians, however, are no longer under the old covenant, but are under the new. The OT Law is not binding for believers under the new covenant. It was a law for the Israelites in the Promised Land, and it looked forward to the new covenant.
Please understand that I do believe that the Law is still God’s Word. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
This brings to my next point: the old covenant is fulfilled by Jesus. The entire thing points to him, and he is the sole authoritative interpreter for the text. The Old Covenant must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament and through Jesus. It does not function for us as Christians as a covenant.
Now I have a feeling that many readers are accusing me of blasphemy or total disrespect for God. I am not doing either. As I mentioned above I do think that the OT Law is still God’s Word and I do believe that “all of Scripture is applicable to the New Testament believer.” As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Yes, Jesus did not abolish the law, but instead he fulfilled it. Sometime the New Testament reaffirms something (like murder or adultery), and sometimes it completely removes it from the Christian life (sacrifices, etc.). Jesus intensified some of the law (consider murder and adultery) in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-30), and he taught about understanding the intended meaning behind the law (Matthew 12:1-8).
Think about Leviticus 19:19 for a moment. It says, “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Are Christians supposed to apply this directly and literally to their lives? I don’t think so. This was a law for Israel in their land. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a reason for God giving that law. I do believe that we can understand the point of the law and then apply that principle to our lives (that includes all of the Law).
What does this have to do with polygamy? Everything! As I wrote about in part 1 of this series, Jesus does in fact condemn polygamy. He actually calls it adultery. Yes, the OT does not go that far, but as I just noted Jesus is the main interpreter of the Law. He intensified and looked at the principle meaning behind the law. He didn’t always apply it woodenly.
Whether we like it or not, God did tolerate certain sins before the coming of Christ and accommodated for them. God hated divorce (Malachi 2:16) and Jesus taught that divorce was wrong from the beginning (Matthew 19:4). Yet we do not find a condemnation of it in the OT law. God says not to take revenge but he still set up cities of refuge for the Israelites so that someone could have a place to go to get away from the avenger of blood (Deuteronomy 19:1-14). Wouldn’t it have been easier for God just to tell the Israelites that divorce and having avengers of blood were wrong and not accommodate for them? Paul seems to be thinking this way in Acts 17:30 and Romans 3:25.
The number one argument for Christian polygamy seems to “why didn’t God condemn polygamy?” Why don’t we see him just come out and say it? Why only imply it as Jesus did? Surely God would have said something directly. This argument breaks down upon close inspection. Just because God never used the words, “Do not be a polygamist” does not mean that polygamy is ok. Where does God say “slavery is evil?” He doesn’t. Does this mean that owning other people as property is ok? Doesn’t the fact that God gave laws about servants and slaves mean that it acceptable? I don’t think so. Why didn’t he condemn it in the situation that arose in Philemon? Yet many studies have shown that the Bible does teach that slavery is in fact wrong.
The pro-polygamy crowd assumes God would surely say something. This argument is no different than someone who denies that God exists based on the fact that evil exists – surely a loving God wouldn’t allow evil and suffering in the world. I am always cautious of any argument set up this way. It is assuming that God thinks and believes the exact way that we do.
Another question arises from the pro-polygamy side: If Jesus and Paul do condemn polygamy then why didn’t God come out and say it in Old Testament times? Why did he wait so long? Surely he would have said something early on. I could respond by asking why God didn’t condemn divorce in the OT Law. Jesus said that divorce was wrong since the very beginning and God pronounced that he hated divorce in Malachi, at the end of the Old Testament. Why did he wait so long? Why didn’t he say he hated it in Genesis or in Leviticus or Deuteronomy?
The arguments used to support Christian polygamy from the Law fall apart in my opinion. Just because God set up some laws that could accommodate polygamy does not mean that he accepted it. Just because the OT does not call it adultery does not mean Jesus couldn’t. He could and his teaching heavily implies it. As one can see I believe that any argument used to support polygamy from the OT Law does not stand up. But what about all those polygamists in the OT? Doesn’t that prove that polygamy was moral in the eyes of God? I’ll take a look at that in the next article in this series.
 Douglas K. Stuart. Exodus (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2006). 482. There have been studies that show that the most common type of servitude/slavery in Old Testament times was indentured servitude. See Glenn Miller’s excellent article at http://christianthinktank.com/qnoslave.html. Paul Copan, in his book, Is God a Moral Monster (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011, 124-157. J.P. Holding’s e-book Scripture and Slavery is another excellent resource. See their bibliographies for even more resources.
 Stuart, 483. William Luck. “On the Morality of Biblical Polygamy.” https://bible.org/article/morality-biblical-polygyny. BiblicalPolygamy.com “If He Take Another Wife” http://www.biblicalpolygamy.com/exegesis/if-he-take-another-wife/.
 Richard Davidson. Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007). 194. Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 192. Ronald A. G. du Preez. Polygamy in the Bible. Ph.D Dissertation (Barrien Springs: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1993). 66.
 Davidson, 192. du Preez, 67, Copan, 114.
 Du Preez, 67-68. Shalom M. Paul. “Exod. 21:10: A Threefold Maintenance Clause,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 28(1969): 48-53.
 Davidson, 192-193. Du Preez, 68-69. Copan 114-115.
 Some may want to argue that verse 8 says that “she must be redeemed.” This, however, does not require it. Verse 7 states that she is not to go free. Verse 8 simply states that she is allowed to go free (back to her family) if the man decides not to marry her.
 Bp.com http://www.biblicalpolygamy.com/exegesis/if-a-man-have-two-wives/. Also see Richard Anthony. “Polygamy is not sinful” http://www.ecclesia.org/truth/polygamy.html.
 Luck. Emphasis in original.
 J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 331-333. D.A. Carson. Matthew. In “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). 144. Copan, 59.
 Duvall and Hays, 335; Carson, 143-144.
 Duvall and Hays, 335-336; Carson, 144.
 Duvall and Hays, 331.
 See Duvall and Hays, 330.
 Copan, 59. Craig Keener The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 465. Stuart, 483.
 See footnote 1.