Polygamy and the Bible


     Many today are in a state of confusion as to what the Bible teaches, does not teach, or is silent on pertaining to the practice of polygamy. Polygamy is simply defined as, "The practice or condition of having many or several spouses, especially wives, at one time" (Random House College Dictionary, pg. 1628). "Polygamy" is a general term that can and does embrace a number of specific forms of multiple spouses; such as, polyandry (one woman and two or more men) and polygyny (one man and two or more women). A number of American Indian tribes and nineteenth Century Mormons practiced sororal polygamy (one man marrying sisters). The Bible mentions and contains instances of polygamy or, more precisely, polygyny (one man marrying women, cp. Isa. 4: 1).

     Polygamy is not a mute or dead issue or one limited to a relatively few Mormon fundamentalists. In fact, some sociologists believe that we shall shortly observe a resurgence in polygamous practices. Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote an article titled "Globally, Polygamy Is Commonplace" from which I shall now quote:

     "Polygamy may be abhorrent to most Americans, but in the global community it is common, normal and accepted. ‘Although the percentage of men in the world who have more than one wife is relatively small, as many as a third of the world's population belongs to a community that allows it,’ says Israeli anthropologist Joseph Ginat.  ‘There are many plural marriages in Africa, the Middle East and in Asia,’ said Ginat, professor of social and culture anthropology at the University of Haifa….." (Salt Lake Tribune, September 20, 1998).

     There are prevailing mind-sets today that are preparing the way for the legal, moral, and social toleration and even approval of polygamy. Such should not be surprising in view of a forerunner movement, same sex marriage.

     "With the sweetly titled HBO series ‘Big Love,’ polygamy comes out of the closet. Under the headline ‘Polygamists, Unite!’ Newsweek informs us of ‘polygamy activists emerging in the wake of the gay-marriage movement.’ Says one evangelical Christian big lover: ‘Polygamy rights is the next civil-rights battle,’" one author writes. He continues, "Polygamy used to be stereotyped as the province of secretive Mormons, primitive Africans and profligate Arabs. With ‘Big Love’ it moves to suburbia as a mere alternative lifestyle. As Newsweek notes, these stirrings for the mainstreaming of polygamy (or, more accurately, polygyny) have their roots in the increasing legitimization of gay marriage."

     In fact, as I prepare this manuscript for publication, I have observed a rather large number already uniting in an effort to contend that polygamy is biblically acceptable today. Consider the following in defense of polygamy:

     "We believe that the idea of multiple sexual partners is in no way prohibited by the teachings of the Hebrew or Christian scriptures.

     The ancient Hebrews, as portrayed in the Old Testament, clearly believed in multiple partnerships and this practice is nowhere condemned by God.

     When the New Testament scriptures are viewed as a whole, taking into account the cultural context in which they were written, it is clear that neither Jesus nor the writers of the New Testament condemned such practice, although it appears that polygamy had, for non-religious reasons, substantially declined within Jewish culture by the time of Christ.

     Despite this biblical evidence, the Christian church has persistently opposed polygamous relationships and has, at times, actively persecuted families which chose to practice this lifestyle. The church has also used twisted interpretations of various scriptures in defense of its opposition to this lifestyle."

     More are now aggressively teaching that the Bible sanctions polygamous practices today and some even say that polygamy is "God’s ideal state." If you consult Nave’s Topical Bible, you will find one section under "Polygamy" titled, "Authorized…2 Samuel 12: 8." If God ever "authorized" polygamy, how could it have ever been immoral? Let us briefly consider the passage adduced to prove the "authorization" of polygamy.

     "7: And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; 8: And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things" (2 Sam. 12).

     It is understood by some that the expression, "And I gave thee thy master’s…wives into thy bosom…" means that God was pleased with one man and multiple women. I agree that if there were not any other statement or teaching in the Bible, one might conclude the acceptance of the practice of multiple wives. However, could not the student also simply understand the statement to mean in general that God had given to David all that appertained to Saul and that the reference to Saul’s women was the ultimate proof, especially if we find sound evidence that God was not pleased with polygamy? (Saul appears to have had only one wife and one concubine, I Sam. 14: 15; I Sam. 3: 7.)

     There are indications that from early on, pagan nations freely practiced polygamy. Notwithstanding, we continue to read of men in the Bible who were manifestly monogamous (one wife only). It is evident that Adam, Noah, Job, Isaac, and Joseph (Jesus’step-father) to name some, were monogamous. After mentioning the reality of monogamy in a general milieu of pagan polygamy, I must also concede the existence of more than one wife among God’s people. Lemech, Abraham, Esau, Jacob, and Gideon all had more than one wife (Gen. 4: 19; Gen. 16; Gen. 26: 34, 28: 9; Gen. 29: 30; Judges 8: 30). (See addendum.)

     Even in circumstances of recorded polygamy or polygyny, we can read of domestic disturbance due to competitiveness and resentment among the women (cp. Gen. 29: 30-34, Deut. 21: 15-17, 2 Chroni. 11: 21). In fact, most of the unrest in the Middle East today that is having global effects can be traced back to polygamy and the resulting rivalry (Abraham, Sarai and Hagar, Gen. 16).

     An expressed prohibition against polygamy. Those who contend that the Bible never negatively treats polygamy are wrong. Consider the warning given to prospective and actual kings of Israel:

     "16: But he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way. 17: Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold" (Deut. 17).

     Notice the three "shall nots," multiply horses, multiply wives, multiply silver and gold. Solomon is often sited as proof for the practice of polygamy being right, but Solomon was wrong in all three areas. Solomon had a vast number of horses; he had riches unparallel; and seven hundred wives (I Kgs. 4: 26; Eccl. 1-10; I Kgs. 11: 3). Hence, to use the example of Solomon and his seven hundred wives to argue for polygamy is an example of how simplistically a subject can be approached and dialectically presented.

     The ideal marriage, according to God. The very first marriage, Adam and Eve, in many ways serves as a prototype, if you will. Notice that God knew that it was not good that Adam be alone and God provided for Adam a "help meet" (counter part that was a complement to Adam, Gen. 2: 18). Observe how God did not simply provide another man, but for Adam God made woman, the "glory of the man" (Gen. 2: 18ff., I Cor. 11: 7ff.). Hence, same sex marriage is not part of God’s arrangement for the marriage bond (see Rom. 1: 22ff.). Moreover, appreciate the fact that when God instituted marriage, it was one man and one woman (Gen. 2). If polygamy is the "ideal," as some are teaching, why, then, did not God create Eve, Sue, Jane, etc. for Adam?

     Some of the most beautiful teaching relative to the intimacy and duration of marriage resides in Malachi 2:

     "14: Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. 15: And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth."

     Notice how the practice of many wives just does not fit into the passage. However, how about all the references to polygamy in the Bible?

     Just because the Bible mentions a trait or act of an individual, even a godly person, does not necessarily mean that the Bible endorsed such. The mentioning of Noah becoming drunk and disgracing himself is mentioned, but certainly not condoned (Gen. 9: 20ff.). I submit that God was not pleased with polygamy, an aberrant from the monogamous marriage God put in place, but that he did two things: (1). God tolerated polygamy during the maturation of his people and (2) he sought to regulate the evil practice.

     We know that God intended for one man, one woman and that this relationship was to be for the duration (Matt. 19: 4ff., the only allowable cause for divorce is fornication). Yet, we also read of a divorce provision for a cause other than fornication (Deut. 24: 1-4). This divorce concession was not given for the pleasure of flippant husbands, but was actually for the protection of the women. Thus it was relative to polygamy. God put in place monogamous marriage, but man within a short time became dissatisfied with one woman (Gen. 4: 19). Hence, God then sought to regulate the polygamous practice (Ex. 21: 10). Notwithstanding, God was never pleased with polygamy or divorce for a cause other than fornication (cp. Mal. 3: 16).

     Polygamy is expressly denounced pertaining to the leaders of God’s people.

     "2: A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach," "6: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly" (I Tim. 3; Tit. 1).

     The expression "husband of one wife" (andra mias gunaikos) was provided by the Holy Spirit and must be respected. The Holy Spirit could have worded this requirement a number of ways. This construction requires marriage (present marriage) but forbids polygamy.

     Thus in the case of the Hebrew leaders (the kings) and in the case of the rulers of God’s people today (cp. Heb. 13: 17), having more than one wife is expressly forbidden. Why would one think such would not also follow regarding those under these men?

     In closing, we must realize that emotionalism and popularity do not establish God’s norm. I am aware that one of the world’s largest religions (Islam) has in place in its teaching (Koran) that in certain circumstances, a man may have more than one wife (Mohamed had ten wives). Some believe that today there are up to sixty thousand Mormon polygamists in Utah. As seen, polygamy is practiced even legally in many places in one third of the world’s population and that there is a movement underway to legalize multiple wives in America. However, God’s teaching remains one man, one woman (Matt. 19: 4ff., I Cor. 7, Rom. 7: 3, 4, Eph. 5: 22ff.). "God no longer "winks at ignorance, but now commandeth all men every where to repent" (Acts 17: 30).  (For more study on the subject of polygamy, visit "An Exchange on Polygamy"). 

     Addendum: We can historically establish the existence of polygamy among the Hebrews from Lamech, six generations from Adam, to about the time of the Babylonian exile. From the time of the exile, history is silent regarding the presence of polygamy among the Jews. By the time of the New Testament, polygamy appears to have been the exception and monogamy the norm even among the Gentiles and Romans.