This is an older version of a topic that has since been updated. Part one of my new series can be found here.]
When reading through the Old Testament you will probably notice that many of the God-fearing men in Israel’s history had more than one wife. Examples of polygamists in the Old Testament include Abraham, Jacob (Israel), David, Solomon, and the other kings of Israel. 1 Samuel 12:8 even seems to indicate that God gave David multiple wives. Skeptics will naturally charge that since God condones polygamy he must not be a good God. In this article, I will look at the subject of polygamy in Scripture and whether or not God condones or condemns it.
Before we look at the passages that seem to support polygamy, let me go over the evidence in the Bible that shows us that God intended monogamy to be the ideal for man.
1) God created only one wife for Adam. Jesus even used Adam and Eve for his teaching in Matthew 19:9 about marriage implying that monogamy was the ideal for marriage.
2) Leviticus 18:18 specifically forbids polygamy: “Do not take your wife’s sister [literally, ‘a woman to her sister’] as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living.” Some may argue that this verse belongs with verses 6-17 in the same chapter where incest is forbidden. This is because verse 18 refers to taking “your wife’s sister.” However, a close examination of the text points in another direction.
Scholar Paul Copan notes that there is a major break in word construction in the Hebrew language between verses 17 and 18. Verse 18 goes along with verses 19-23 which deals with sexual relations outside of kinship. Also, the key word in verse 18 is the Hebrew sarar (“to make a rival wife”). The same word occurs in 1 Samuel 1:6. It is here that we have the account of Elkanah’s two wives Peninnah and Hannah (the mother of Samuel). Interestingly, Hannah and Peninnah were not biological sisters, but two female Israelites (“sisters”). The literal wording of the Hebrew “a woman to her sister” does not indicate a biological sister. This phrase, along with its counterpart “a man to his brother,” is used twenty times in the Old Testament. They never refer to a literal biological brother or sister. They are idioms for “one in addition to another.” Leviticus 18:18 thus clearly forbids polygamy!
3) The very first time we hear about polygamy concerns a descendant of Cain (Genesis 4:19-24). Lamech son of Methushael had two wives. Interestingly, this polygamist relationship is connected to Lamech murdering someone. Even more interesting is that he is the seventh in line in the genealogy of Adam and Eve on Cain’s side, just as Enoch was the seventh in line on Seth’s side. Enoch, too, was righteous in God’s eyes and was taken directly to heaven. Enoch, in the seventh generation was righteous, while Lamech, in the same generation, was a polygamist and a murderer. Enoch behaved the way man was supposed to, while Lamech was a perfect example of sinful man.
4) God forbade the kings of Israel from taking more than one wife when he said, “And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away again” (Deuteronomy 17:17). Polygamy is here associated with worshipping false gods.
5) Those Old Testament saints who did become polygamists paid the price for these sins. For example, 1 Kings 11:1, 3 says, “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…and his wives turned away his heart.” Because King Solomon turned away from God (because of his multiple wives) the kingdom of Israel was taken away from the dynasty of David (except for Judah).
6) In the Old Testament, polygamy is usually situated in the context of sin. For example, Abraham married Hagar because of his unbelief (Genesis 16:1f). King David was nowhere near his spiritual peak when he married many of his wives. For example, he committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband Uriah, who was one of David’s close friends.
7) Living with multiple wives always caused many problems in the household with jealousy and rivalry being two prime examples. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Genesis 29:31). This caused problems with all the children of Jacob as there were twelve sons of four different mothers. Another example involved Hannah and Peninnah in 1 Samuel 1:6 (which we discussed earlier). They were considered rivals and this caused many problems. Besides Jacob having problems with his children, King David had some big problems with his children. One son raped his half-sister; another son rebelled and tried to take over the kingdom; and yet another son tried to become king when the kingship was supposed to go to Solomon.
It is clear from the above that Scripture does not look too lightly on polygamy.
What about the Passages that seem to condone Polygamy?
There are a few passages that some use to argue that polygamy was condoned by God. Let me take a look at these. The first is Exodus 21:10: “If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and martial rights.” Does not this verse condone polygamy? The simple answer is no.
This verse is part of a larger passage (21:1-11). This passage is referring to a servant girl (I do not have the time or space to write about slavery in the Bible, but for those interested on that topic see this link). It is discussing the subject that if a man does not want to marry his servant girl but marries someone else instead, he still must provide the needs for the girl.
What about “marital rights?” Does this not prove that the passage is about polygamy? Copan notes that the Hebrew word for “marital rights” (‘onah) is rooted in the Hebrew for habitation and dwelling (ma’on, me’onah). The verse is thus saying that the servant girl must be given food, clothing, and shelter if the man does not marry her.
A second passage is that is said to condone polygamy is 2 Samuel 12:8: “I [God] gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah.” This takes place right after David committed adultery with Bathsheba. God is reminding David of what God did for him. The “master” in 12:8 is King Saul. “The sentence indicating that God ‘gave’ Saul’s ‘house’ and ‘wives’ to David is probably a general reference to the transfer of Saul’s estate to the new monarch, David. If David took Saul’s wife Ahinoam (1 Sam. 14:50) to be his own, this would be in violation of levitical law: Ahinoam was the mother of Michal, whom Saul gave to David as a wife, and Leviticus 18:17 forbids marrying one’s mother-in-law. So this passage hardly lends support to God’s endorsement of polygamy.”
A third passage to look at is Deuteronomy 21:15-17. It begins by saying, “If a man has two wives…” This legislation was given to protect a second wife against favoritism. This is a case law. It does not necessarily endorse the practice being discussed, but is simply telling the Israelites how to handle a polygamist situation when it comes up. For example, does Exodus 22:1, which says that a man must pay for an animal that he stole, endorse stealing? Of course not! In Matthew 19:8 Jesus talks about the legislation that Moses gave the Israelites about divorce. Moses only gave the Israelites permission to divorce because of human hard-heartedness.
But this brings up another question. How could God tolerate things such as divorce or polygamy? This is an excellent question. For the rest of this article I will briefly discuss the role of the Old Testament Law (I will discuss this more in-depth in a future series).
The New Testament is clear that the Law does not save us, but shows us what sin is. God gave the Israelites the Law to point out to them their sinfulness and to lay the groundwork for Christ’s work on the cross (Romans 3:21-31; Galatians 3:24-25).
Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster? speaks about how Christians can understand the Old Testament Law in context. He points out that the Law was not meant for all generations, but only applied to the Israelites until the coming of Christ. God gave the Law in the historical context of the Ancient Near East (the term Near East is not used very much outside of academic circles; the Near East is another way of saying Middle East).
The Israelites lived in a pagan world where polygamy and other practices (worshipping false gods, among other things) were the norm. When God brought them out of Egypt using Moses and Aaron he gave them the Law to point them in the direction on how to live like a godly people. When giving this law God tolerated some Near Eastern practices such as polygamy and divorce (as mentioned above). Copan explains the reasoning behind this when he says:
“Despite the North’s victory [he is talking about the American Civil War and its effect on slavery], the Emancipation Proclamation that preceded it (January 1, 1863), and the attempt at Reconstruction in the South, many whites did not change their mind-set in regard to blacks. As a nation, we’ve found that proclamations and civil rights legislations may be law, but such legalities don’t eradicate racial prejudice from human minds. A good deal of time was required to make significant headway in the pursuit of racial justice.”
“Let’s switch gears. Imagine a Western nation or representatives from the West who think it best to export democracy to, say, Saudi Arabia. Think of the obstacles to overcome! A radical change in mind-set would be required, and simply changing laws wouldn’t alter the thinking in Saudi Arabia. In fact, you could probably imagine large-scale cultural opposition to such changes.”
The Ancient Israelites lived in a culture that was horribly broken and deeply affected by man’s fall into sin. God gave the Law to them in order to change their mind-set; to turn them into light and salt so they in turn would change the world back to God. This required a lot of patience on God’s part since the Israelites were so backward. Remember how the Israelites rebelled against God just after the Exodus and began worshipping a golden calf? And Aaron, who was with Moses the entire time during the plagues in Egypt, led the idolatrous rebellion! Think about that. God performed many miracles right in front of the Israelites, but they then almost immediately turn away from God!
God knew that the Israelites were not going to change their hearts in one day or year. He gave them a Law that would change their hearts in incremental steps. In Old Testament times, he tolerated some behavior. This is not condoning polygamy, just like it is not condoning divorce. God allowed both of these horrible practices because mankind’s heart was sinful and was always inclined to do evil all the time (Genesis 6:5).
It is clear that Scripture condemns polygamy. Polygamy always caused family problems and was associated much of the time with worshipping false gods. However, it seems that God tolerated the practice like divorce in Old Testament times. However, it was not God’s intention for polygamy to continue forever. Eventually the Israelites gave up polygamy after the Babylonian Exile. It took a devastating punishment from God for the Jews to wake up and see the horrible effects that polygamy had on society (it was often tied to idolatry and not trusting God).
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 Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). Pgs. 112-113.
 Gleason L. Archer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982). Pgs. 121-124.
 Copan, 114-115.
 Ibid., 115-116.
 Ibid., 116.
 This discussion is taken from Copan, pgs. 58-68.
 Ibid. 59.