What About Polygamy in the Bible?

August 17, 2018

The difference between prescription and description stands as one of the most important distinctions the student of the Bible must learn. Prescription means the Bible offered a command, an imperative for belief or action the Christian possesses an obligation to follow. A text containing description relates what happened at a certain time and place, including who had involvement in the event. Prescription dictates what should happen; description says what did happen. For example, in Acts 15:36-41, Barnabas and Paul go their separate ways due to a dispute over John Mark’s continued involvement in their evangelistic endeavors. John Mark (author of The Gospel of Mark) had abandoned them in Acts 13:13-14. In his writing, Luke only states John Mark left Paul and Barnabas, the two disagreed over his continuing with them in other evangelistic efforts, and that they parted ways over the matter. He does not tell the readers if Barnabas should have listened to Paul or the other way around. He tells us it did happen. 


Not every relation of an event endorses the event; to think every event occurring within the pages of Scripture receives a commendation from God would be like thinking a traffic reporter celebrates car accidents because she has to report one during morning rush hour.


So what about the various polygamous men in the Bible? How do we think about them?


I write about the subject because I came across this post from the popular blog, Friendly Atheist, earlier this week. 


Oh my. 


Friends, Romans, monogamists, we have here an excellent example of how not to talk about polygamy as it appears in Scripture. The gentleman strongly implies the immorality of multiple wives, but around the 1:13 mark in the short audio recording, he explains Solomon’s polygamy  received a sanction from God. I’m assuming the gentleman uses 1 Kings 11 as his reference point, and 1 Kings 11 provides no such information. Why this individual thought he needed to defend Solomon remains a mystery to me. The notion of God temporarily suspending the morals surrounding a creation ordinance like marriage cuts against the grain of the entirety of Scripture’s teaching on God as well. 


So, friends, do not do this.


The Problem


First, let’s address the difficulty of polygamy in Scripture. The question of its morality tripped up even Martin Luther and two other major figures in the Reformation, Philip Melanchthon and Martin Bucer. These three men condoned the bigamy (the practice of having two wives simultaneously) of a prince and supporter of theirs because they did not find it forbidden in Scripture. Their error on the matter led to a loss of moral authority among the people of Europe.[1] The New Testament holds up Abraham as an example of great faith, and he had a wife and concubines. Jacob, his grandson, also famously married two sisters, Rachael and Leah. These men bookend the list of names, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when Moses references the God who sent him to rescue the children of Israel from slavery. The Bible does not present and inconsistency, which I will explain below, but let’s admit the difficulty, shall we? These men, Abraham especially, mainly represent pictures of faith for the student of the Bible, but they also had long-term and deliberate participation in a sin we find reprehensible and socially unacceptable (for now). Glossing the issue only leads to shallow thinking, and shallow thinking begets flimsy faith.




In Genesis 4:17-26, we find the first example of plural wives in history. A man from the line of Cain, Lamech, marries two wives. He presents us a picture of the increasing degeneration of God’s good creation due to the introduction of sin. God created one wife for Adam, Cain had one wife, but Cain’s descendant, Lamech, took for himself two women, Adah and Zillah. How do we know Lamech’s bigamy represents degradation of morality rather than receiving God’s approval when the text does not add, “And you know, Lamech really should not have done that sort of thing.”? The text records only of a few of the man’s words, but the Holy Spirit desired us to know these from Genesis 4:23-24:


     Adah and Zillah,

     Listen to my voice,

     You wives of Lamech,

     Give heed to my speech,

     For I have killed a man for wounding me; 

     And a boy for striking me;

     If Cain is avenged sevenfold,

     Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.


Lamech sees the sign of Cain (Genesis 4:15) as a sort of symbol of pride rather than God’s mercy on a willful sinner. The criminal celebrates his crime; Lamech presumes upon the mercy of God.[2] We see the practice of marrying more than one woman introduced into human civilization by an unrepentant murderer. If the two  things we know the man did in his life are made up of 50% murder, we probably do not need to read the text and understand him to be a sort of mixed bag of bad murder and good plural marriage.


Abraham and Jacob


As the narrative of Scripture moves forward, we see other instances of forms of polygamy. In Genesis 16, Abraham does not marry Hagar, but takes her as a sort of concubine, a non-wife whose serves the intent of producing legitimate children. Later, Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, but in Genesis 30, he also took (at the women’s behest) Bilhah and Zilpah into a concubine relationship with him. Neither of these specific circumstances serve the man’s interest of peace at home. Abraham’s wife, Sarah comes into conflict with Hagar, and God tells Abraham the blessing of promise will not come through his son by Hagar, but through his wife, Sarah. This indicates God’s disapproval of Abraham’s functional polygamy. The same chapter depicting Jacob as taking Rachel and Leah’s servants as sexual partners also reveals jealousy between the two sisters over children born to Leah but not Rachel. Later, Genesis 37 relates Jacob’s favoritism of Rachel’s son, Joseph, over his others, leading to further conflict and Joseph’s sale into slavery. Scripture depicts these people as flawed men of faith, not completely morally righteous exemplars. At no point does the narrative insinuate the practice of fathering children through multiple women as a good thing for one’s home.


Other Old Testament examples merit discussion, but space does not permit here. Suffice to say, King David’s home life also does not show us an example we would emulate. Solomon’s downfall comes because of his hundreds of wives and concubines. The Old Testament narrative describe what happened: these men took more than one woman as a wife for themselves. The narrative likewise describes the resulting traumas.


The New Testament


In the New Testament, the practice seems to have died down (perhaps because the people had observed the mistakes of their forefathers). However, both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 decree an elder must only have one wife. 1 Timothy 3:12 commands the same for deacons. Generally, in the contemporary West, we (rightly) use these Scriptures to discuss whether or not men who became divorced and subsequently married again to a different woman can serve as pastors or deacons. However, the wording Paul uses in both letters has an intentional broadness to it: husband of one wife. We may discuss how this applies to divorce and remarriage; however, these texts clearly rule out polygamy. We often forget this fact due to the practice falling out of favor in the West long ago. However, were we to teach these texts in other parts of the world right now, the hearers would probably not think along the lines of divorce and remarriage, but rather plural marriage. Nothing in

1 Timothy or Titus leads us to believe the character qualifications of church leadership need only adherence from these leaders, a subset of super-Christians. No, the entire church benefits if everyone follows these moral directions.


So does the Bible condone polygamy? No, it does not. Does the Bible describe instances where men practiced it? Yes, it does. Does it also relate the familial consequences of polygamy? Also, yes. 


Was Solomon granted some sort of exception to the moral rule by God? Certainly not, and nothing in Scripture ever describes a moment where God decrees a person not responsible for the sins they commit. The gentleman’s interpretation we discussed at the beginning proves totally erroneous and completely unwarranted. HIs interpretation communicates ethical pragmatism, not Scriptural morality.


As often discussed on this blog, Scripture presents us with many challenges, but if we will read it, search it, and query it, we will often find our answers in its pages. We will not find them in wild speculations.



[1]Justo L. González, The Reformation to the Present Day, vol. 2 of The Story of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 89.


[2]Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A of The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, eds. E. Ray Clendenen, et. al. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 289-290.

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