Bible Question:

What biblical evidence is there for God allowing polygamy in the OT and specifically what scripture is there for when it was considered not permissible?

Bible Answer:

Polygamy was a common practice in Old Testament times, even among some who believed in God. Yet, it is interesting to note that some of the oldest saints in the Old Testament such as Job had only one wife (Job 2:9-10). God called him “My Servant” (Job 1:8). Noah, the man who believed God (Hebrews 11:1) and built an ark in order to escape the worldwide flood, also had only one wife (Genesis 6:18, 8:16). Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, had only one wife, Rebekah (Genesis 49:31). We also discover that Moses had only one wife at a time (Exodus 2:21). God spoke with Moses and Moses knew God personally (Deuteronomy 34:10). These are just a few examples. It is not true that polygamy was practiced by everyone in the Old Testament. Some of the most notable saints did not have multiple wives.

Polygamy Practiced

The first man recorded in scripture that had more than one wife was Lamech. His wives were called Adah and Zillah (Genesis 4:19). Jacob also had two wives: Rachel and Leah (Gen. 29:30). Esau had three wives: Mahalath (Gen. 28:9), Basemath (Genesis 36:13), and Oholibamah (Genesis 36:14). The most famous Old Testament men to have multiple wives were King Saul (2 Samuel 12:7-8), King David (2 Samuel 5:13) and King Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-3). King Solomon had 1,000 wives and concubines. Is polygamy approved by God, and should we consider it an optional lifestyle?

It is important to realize that even though polygamous relationships occurred in Old Testament times and are recorded in the pages of the Bible, this does not mean that God approved of polygamy. Surely, God did not approve of the rape of Tamar by Amnon (2 Samuel 13). Yet, it is recorded in the Old Testament. It is important to remember that the Bible records many acts of both sin and righteousness. God also tells us how we should live our lives.

Polygamy Forbidden

Polygamy was forbidden by God. Polygamists sometimes claim that Deuteronomy 17:15-17 does not prohibit polygamy by claiming that God was and is opposed to a man having too many wives. That is, God approves of a small number of wives. The passage is written to Israel’s future kings. Here is the prohibition,

He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself. (NASB) Deuteronomy 17:17

The actual Hebrew states, “And not shall he multiply to himself wives . . .” It is important to note that the same word “multiply” is used in the preceding verse to refer to not acquiring many horses. At first, verse 16 would appear to support the idea of acquiring horses, but not very many. But the Jewish commentary on Deuteronomy from “The JPS Torah Commentary” makes this conclusion about the horses,

In the king’s personal entourage these represent royal self-aggrandizement . . . [the king] may acquire only enough horses for military needs, but none for personal use or grandeur.[1]

It is important to note that the prohibition started in Deuteronomy 17:14 and that it is directed against the king. King Solomon violated both prohibitions. The Jewish commentary asserts that the prohibition does not allow the king to have an entourage for personal self-aggrandizement. If this is not the correct interpretation of the passage, then how could Israel ever defend itself against its enemies? It is important to note that later God encouraged the Israelites to use horses in battle (1 Samuel 8:11). It is clear that Deuteronomy 17:16 did not prohibit military usage of horses. It appears that God was prohibiting something else.

Does Deuteronomy 17:17 prohibit kings from having multiple wives? If the king could have more than one, then how many? Two, three, ten, twenty, one hundred, or one thousand wives? The truth is, if God intended for one man to be married to one woman, then more than one spouse qualifies as “too many” in God’s eyes. This is the interpretation of the vast number of biblical scholars.

When we come to the New Testament era, we discover that polygamy was not practiced by Christians. In fact, Jesus indicated that God’s standard for marriage was that one man was married to one woman when He said the following,

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? (NASB) Matthew 19:4-5

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (NASB) Matthew 19:9

In the first passage, it is important to notice that Jesus’ illustration was about two people (male and female) becoming one flesh. Jesus never referred to three or more becoming one flesh. For a man to marry another woman in addition to his current wife was not permitted. Adultery was committed when a man married a woman while he was still biblically married to another.

Those who claim that 1 Corinthians 5:1 is an example of polygamy have missed the meaning of the verse,

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. (NASB) 1 Corinthians 5:1

While it is true that the phrase “father’s wife” refers to a woman who is not his mother, it is an error to conclude that the two were married. It is important to realize that the apostle Paul condemns their conduct and orders the Corinthians to remove the man from among them (1 Corinthians 5:2). Would the apostle have done this if polygamy was an acceptable practice and they were married? These two individuals were having sex with each other just as many have done throughout history and today without being married. It is also important to notice in 1 Corinthians 5:7-13 that the apostle calls the situation immoral and concludes with this comment,

. . . REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. (NASB) 1 Corinthians 5:13

Then later in 1 Cor. 7:2 the apostle Paul tells us that each man and woman is to have one spouse.

But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. (NASB) 1 Corinthians 7:2

The Greek is very specific here. The Greek reveals that the husband has his own wife and the wife is to have her own husband. They own one another. This is contrary to the current culture. Today, most women and men believe that they are in control of themselves; but biblically speaking, that is not true. The husband owns the wife and the wife owns her husband. This should not be understood as a liberty to abuse one another. It should be understood as an obligation to one another.

Then in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6, we are told that overseers or church leaders, who are the spiritual models for the church congregation, are to have only one wife.

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife . . . (NASB) 1 Timothy 3:2

They are to be “one-woman-men.” This is consistent with God’s original desire as recorded in Genesis 2:23-24.

The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (NASB) Genesis 2:23-24

It is impossible for a man and woman to become one flesh when one of them is married to more than one spouse.

Conclusion:

While polygamous marriages are recorded in the Bible, one should not conclude that God approved of them. The Bible records deeds of wickedness as well as righteousness. At no time does God give approval for multiple spouses. In fact, from the beginning God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman. In the Old Testament, God prohibited kings from having multiple wives, and in the New Testament He prohibited church leaders from having multiple wives. One should not conclude that God approves of multiple husbands either. Kings and elders are to be examples for others to follow (Deuteronomy 17:15-17; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 5:3). God’s pattern for the family is monogamous marriages.

References:

Jeffrey Tigay. Deuteronomy, The JPS Torah Commentary. Jewish Publication Society. 1996. p. 167.

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