Christian Polygamy? (Part 4 – The Polygamists)

The topic of Christian polygamy is controversial. Throughout this series I have been examining the arguments put forth by those who accept polygamy and have so far come to the conclusion that it is not ok for Christian men to take more than one wife. Jesus and Paul teach against it, and the arguments that use the Old Testament Law do not support polygamy as strongly as usually assumed. There is another part of this debate that needs to be studied – the issue concerning all those polygamists throughout the Old Testament.

The topic is set up in the following way: if polygamy is wrong than why didn’t God condemn the polygamists? This is a good question, but in my opinion, it is not as strong as many would like it to be. These men include Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, some of the kings of Israel (besides David), Gideon, and others that are mentioned here and there. David is even said to have been “given” multiple wives by God, and is even called a man after God’s own heart. In this article, I will first look at some common arguments used against polygamy and how the pro-polygamy side responds to them. Topics will include the book of Genesis (creation, Lamech, the issue of family problems, Abraham and Jacob), Moses, passages that seem to suggest that God is polygamous, the “wife of your youth,” Isaiah 4:1, and finally David and my conclusions about the topic as a whole.

Genesis and the Polygamists

The book of Genesis contains quite a bit of information concerning our topic so I believe that this is a good starting point. The general argument put forth by the anti-polygamy crowd is that Genesis 1-2 seems to set up monogamy as the norm for humanity.[1] Considering the fact that God created only one woman for Adam is pretty significant. Scholar Gordon Wenham summarizes very well the view of many anti-polygamists:

“First it is striking that the LORD God created only one Eve for Adam. Polygamy was an accepted feature of life in ancient Israel especially among the leaders of society, yet Adam is provided with just one wife. This is not meanness on God’s part, for the rest of the story shows him keen to supply Adam’s every need, and Adam’s shout of greeting when he meets Eve shows he is perfectly satisfied with just one wife. The rest of Genesis seems to confirm monogamy as the most desirable situation, as all the polygamous marriages it describes are marred by strife. Finally, had Adam been supplied with several wives, he could have been fruitful and multiplied even quicker! The creation of one Eve thus shows that monogamy is more important than rapid multiplication.”[2]

Not only in the Creation account, but also when Paul speaks about marriage (1 Corinthians 7) there seems to be a consistent use of the singular of wife (and husband) and not the plural (wives or husbands).[3]

After mankind’s fall into sin we do not have to get very far into Scripture before the first bigamist is mentioned. Considering that Lamech is the very first man in history to be mentioned as having more than one wife naturally makes him a topic to be discussed.[4] The debate rages about whether or not his bigamy is subtly condemned by Moses. It can be argued that Lamech’s two wives are placed within a parallel structure with murder and revenge. Thus it is believed that Moses is putting these three sins together to show mankind’s degenerative state shortly after the Fall. It should be briefly noted that Lamech is the seventh in line from Adam and is the opposite of Enoch, also seventh in line. Note that nothing is mentioned about Enoch having more than one wife. This begs the question: why mention Lamech’s wives at all? Is Moses deliberately bringing up (in parallel structure) the two wives to make a point?

The pro-polygamists object to this. William Luck says that to use Lamech as an argument against polygamy is nothing more than guilt-by association.[5] He argues that this kind of logic would condemn monogamy as well since those who had only one wife also sinned. He also says that “Cain killed his brother—and was evil. But the text does not mention more than one wife for him. Should his evil taint his monogamy? Clearly not.”[6] It is argued that Genesis 4 also presents other firsts for mankind such as musical instruments, metal working, etc. If Lamech is condemned for being the first recorded bigamist than these other firsts must be condemned as well.[7]

Although I do understand these points, I do believe that there are some problems with this reasoning. First, those who believe that polygamy is wrong are not saying that Lamech’s bigamy is sinful because he was also a murderer and full of revenge. It is the fact that bigamy is even mentioned, associated, and placed into parallelism with murder and revenge that it is believed to be a sin. We must remember that one of the major themes in Genesis after the Fall is mankind’s descent into a state that is completely the opposite of what God intended. Why then did Moses deliberately place the two wives parallel with two other grievous sins? One could argue that the two wives were only Lamech’s audience, as he was speaking to them, but I’m personally not convinced by this. Moses could have easily put them into the narrative outside the parallel structure.

Second, the text does not mention Cain’s wife in association to his sin. Nowhere in the context does the murder of Abel even connect with Cain’s marital life. However, with Lamech the text does place bigamy with Lamech’s other sins. This is the same with metal working and musical instruments; they have no connection someone’s marital status.

Next we come to the Patriarchs – Abraham[8] and Jacob. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, were childless into old age and eventually Sarah would give Abraham her maidservant Hagar as a wife to bear children. Although this is viewed as positive evidence for polygamy by some[9], it is interesting to note that God never calls Hagar a wife of Abraham.[10] Could it be possible that Moses is subtly suggesting that God did not approve of the second marriage?[11] Although one could argue that this wouldn’t condemn polygamy in general, it does show that Abraham’s marriage to Hagar should not be used as evidence for Christian polygamy.

We find a similar situation with Jacob. The account of Jacob, his wives, and their children are well known. Jacob falls in love with Rachel, but through deceit and jealously he comes to have four different women. However, an interesting detail emerges in Genesis 46. In this chapter, Moses calls Rachel Jacob’s wife (46:19), but he does not call Leah (15), Zilpah (18), and Bilhah (25) the wives of Jacob.[12] Like the case with Abraham, Moses deliberately chooses to make the point that Sarah and Rachel are the true wives, not the other women.

Whether or not a narrator is condoning or condemning something can be difficult. Sometimes he does, sometimes he does so subtly, and at times he just records an event in the overall story and moves on (even though the event may be sinful). The very fact that God and Moses do not view the extra wives as wives of Abraham and Jacob is interesting and shows that these men should not be used as proof that God was ok with their polygamy. I also find it interesting that Lamech’s two wives are coupled with two other sins and the fact that Scripture tends to use singular words for marriage is very telling in my opinion (especially in light of everything else in this series).

Family Problems

Another aspect of polygamy in the book of Genesis (and in other places in Scripture) is that polygamy is often placed within the context of family problems and various sins.[13] A common objection to this is: “Though it is not to be denied that polygyny contributes to such problems, it must be added that peace among the children of monogamy is never ensured either, as the children of Adam and Eve, Rebekah and Isaac, etc. well illustrate.”[14] I understand the point that Luck is making, however, monogamy is never placed in the negative light that polygamy is. It becomes clear that one of the primary reasons that Jacob, and others, have all of their family problems was because of polygamy.

“Remember, Moses Wrote It”

It is also argued that Moses was a bigamist (the heading above is an actual copyrighted phrase by polygamists) and it is thought that since he was a bigamist and the author of God’s Law then polygamy must be a good thing.[15] Personally I believe that there are very reasonable answers to the supposed bigamy of Moses.

Exodus tells us that Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro. However, in Numbers 12:1 Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ wife and they refer to her as a Cushite. The problem here is that Cush is a name for an ancient nation in Ethiopia while Zipporah was from Midian, in the northwestern part of Arabia. She was not a Cushite (at least not the Ethiopian kind of Cushite). The argument then is that Moses must have had two wives – Zipporah and the Cushite.

Although it is possible that Zipporah died and Moses remarried the text does not actually say this so one must be careful about using this argument. However, there is another reasonable possibility – Zipporah and the Cushite woman are one and the same. Is it possible that I and others are trying a little too hard to erase his second wife? I don’t think so.

First, it is very possible that “Midianite” and “Cushite” are synonymous geographical terms. Hab. 3:7 places Medians and Cushan in synonymous parallelism. Some may reject that we would find two different designations for a single person but we do find people and places in Scripture (even in the Pentateuch) where two names are given (for example, Mt. Horeb and Mt. Sinai; Jethro and Rauel).[16] This makes the possibility that Zipporah and the Cushite woman are one and the same. Although not absolute proof, I do not believe that the evidence about Moses’ bigamy is so strong that one should copyright a phrase depicting the belief as absolute.

Other Passages

There are other points that are often brought up to support polygamy: 1) God and Jesus are presented as being polygamous; 2) the phrase “wife of your youth”; and 3) Isaiah 4:1. Let me start with “the wife of your youth” verse and Isaiah 4. Proverbs 5:18 says, “rejoice in the wife of your youth.” The implication is that if one has “a wife of their youth” then surely they have other wives.[17] I personally believe that this is taking this verse too far. If we take this quite literally then wouldn’t that mean we are not to rejoice in our other wives? What happens if I have a wife while I am young and she dies and I get remarried when I’m not in my youth? Does this mean that I am not allowed to rejoice in the wife of my elder days? It is also interesting that the verse says “wife” and not “wives.”

Isaiah 4:1 says, “In that day seven women will take hold of one man and say, ‘We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace.”[18] This verse comes at the end of a section concerning the judgement of Judah and Jerusalem. The point of the verse is that so many men are going to die that the women will outnumber the men. To get a message that condones polygamy even for Christians is pressing this verse way too far.

It is also argued that Scripture views God and Jesus as being in polygamous relationships. Jeremiah 3:6-8 speaks about God being married to both Judah and Israel. Ezekiel 23:4 also teaches that God was married to both nations. Christ is also seen as being in a polygamous relationship (Matthew 25:1-13). even says, “Jesus would never have described Himself this way in a parable if polygamy was a sin.”[19]

There are major problems with this argument. First, if we take this as woodenly as possible then that means that God is breaking his own law by marrying two sisters considering that Jeremiah and Ezekiel call Judah and Israel sisters (using the pro-polygamists interpretation of Leviticus 18:18). This destroys the argument put forth by concerning Jesus (also see below). Secondly, the New Testament speaks about Christ being married to the Church – one Church not more than one (Ephesians 5:23ff).[20] Third, it must also be noted that the maidservants in Matthew 25 were not actually married to the groomsman. As J.P. Holding has noted:

“Finally, they ironically commit the same error we recently found in the Skeptics’ Annotated Bible, apparently being unaware that in the ancient world virgins were specifically chosen to be bridesmaids — these were not the bridegroom’s prospective wives.”[21]

David – the Polygamist after God’s own heart

Now we come to King David. The circumstances surrounding King David are probably some of the most important arguments that the pro-polygamists use to support their beliefs. David is said to have his heart fully devoted to the Lord (1 Kings 11:4), be a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), and was it was said, “For David had done was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life – except in the case of Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:5). Then there is the whole issue of 2 Samuel 12:8 which says, “I gave your master’s [King Saul] house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms.” It is argued that since David was so fully devoted to the heart and his polygamy was never condemned then it must be ok for Christians to be polygamists as well.[22]

2 Samuel 12:8 is a major verse in the polygamy debate (and I cannot emphasize that enough). This verse comes in the middle of Nathan’s rebuke of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah murdered. Does this actually teach that God gave David multiple wives? A counterargument to this is that God gave Saul’s household over to David for caretaking.[23] However, the pro-polygamists strongly disagree.

There are some points that need to be understood concerning this verse: 1) Verse 11 of the same chapter says that God is going to give David’s wives to someone in his own household (it was Absalom, David’s own son). Does this mean that God gave Absalom his own mother and step mothers to rape and commit incest? It is likely that “give/gave” is due to God’s permissive will as in the same sense that God has allowed evil and suffering to enter his once perfect creation.[24]

2) We only know of two wives that Saul had and one of them was David’s mother-in-law. Does this mean that David married his own mother-in-law? If this verse is saying that David married his mother-in-law then David was committing incest according to Leviticus 18.[25]

Concerning the verses that speak about David’s heart being wholly devoted to the Lord, being a man after God’s heart, and doing good in the eyes of the Lord, I have a few comments. First, the phrase “had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord” should not be pushed too literally. A king of Israel was typically said to either have done good or evil in the eyes of the Lord. 2 Chronicles 14:2 says that “Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God.” Yet Asa did not fully trust the Lord when it came to the king of Aram (16:2-9) and he oppressed some of his own people (16:10). The phrases seem to be connected to the worship of idols. These kings are good because they did not worship idols.

We must be very careful in taking these phrases to mean that a particular person was perfect or committed only a few sins his entire life. Think about how David was a horrible father. His children were not the greatest and David didn’t seem to discipline them (not a good thing according to Proverbs 13:24). Also, David did not follow God’s law in Exodus 21:12-14 in which a murderer was to be put to death. Yet David allowed Absalom to live after murdering his brother Amnon. We should be careful not to take these phrases as literally as we possibly can take them.

Conclusions and Thoughts

As one can see throughout this series, I do not believe that a Christian can be a polygamist. First, Jesus and Paul’s statements make it very difficult to condone for polygamy. Second, we should be very careful in applying the Old Testament law to the lives of Christians. We must remember that God put up man’s ignorance. Remember cities of refuge, divorce, and slavery? The same can be said concerning the polygamy of Abraham, Jacob, David, and others. Also, there are very reasonable alternative interpretations and translations about some of the laws. Third, the arguments put forth about the many polygamists in Scripture do not hold up as tightly as many think.

What do you think?

[1] Gleason L. Archer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.) 122. Ronald A. G. du Preez. Polygamy in the Bible. Ph.D Dissertation (Barrien Springs: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1993). 42-49. Jonathan Sarfati. “One Man, One Woman.” Roger Patterson. “What about Polygamy in the Bible?” Hank Hanegraaff. “Does the Bible Promote Polygamy?” Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 116.

[2] Gordon J. Wenham. Story as Torah (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 31.

[3] Richard Davidson. Flame of Yahweh (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 177-178; du Preez, 44, 257; Copan, 116. Patterson.

[4] Davidson, 181; du Preez, 147-151; Archer, 122.

[5] William Luck. “On the Morality of Biblical Polygamy.”

[6] Luck. “Lamech ‘scuse.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] It has been argued that Abraham must have been a polygamist since he took a third wife, Keturah, and that he gave gifts to his concubines (plural). A couple of things must be noted here. Keturah seems to have become Abraham’s wife after the death of Sarah and after Hagar was sent away. It is also likely that the concubines were Katurah and Hagar. See “Abraham”

[9] Luck, “Abraham.”;  Richard Anthony. Polygamy is not sinful.”

[10] Davidson, 185; du Preez, 158-159.

[11] One could argue that it was due to the fact that Sarah was the one to have the child of promise and not Hagar. Even so, all God had to do was call Hagar a wife and remind Abraham that Sarah was the one that would have the child of promise.

[12] Davidson, 188; Du Preez, 170.

[13] Hanegraaff; Archer, 123-124; Davidson, 185, 187; Patterson.

[14] Luck.

[15] “Remember Moses Wrote It.”

[16] Davidson, 190-191; du Preez, 176-177.

[17] Luck; “Wife of thy Youth”

[18] “Seven Women shall take hold of One Man”

[19] Luck; Anthony; “God the Father.”;“Jesus Christ.”

[20] Archer, 122; Patterson; Sarfati.

[21] J.P. Holding. “ and Christian Polygamy”

[22] Luck; Anthony; “David”; “God said He GAVE Wives”

[23] Copan, 115.

[24] Copan, 115-116; Davidson, 205; du Preez, 190-192.

[25] Ibid.

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