How Should We Respond to Old Testament Polygamy?

In the middle of ongoing cultural convulsions over the definition of marriage, I have found one question increasingly on the minds of many people: “Didn’t God in the Old Testament allow for polygamy? If that is true, then how can you say that marriage is defined as being only between one man and one woman?”

The truth is that the story of polygamy in the Old Testament is, well, a problem. There is no purchase in hiding the truth. Although monogamy was clearly God’s intent from the beginning, the picture blurs pretty quickly after Adam and Eve’s first sin and expulsion from the Garden. Accommodations were made.  By Genesis 4, you have Cain’s son Lamech taking two wives. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob themselves had multiple wives and concubines. Technically, the practice was polygyny. In other words, men could have more than one wife, but not the other way around (polyandry).

Moses had two wives as well. The Mosaic Law likewise accommodated the practice of marrying more than one wife, including captured prisoners from foreign conquests (Deut. 21:1-17). It also made provisions for continuing the family line by marrying a brother’s wife if he died without producing heirs (Deut. 25:5-12). And the stories keep keep coming: Gideon, one of Israel’s champions, had many wives; Elkanah, a presumably godly man and the father of Samuel, had two wives.  In sum, during the Old Testament times, polygamy was not only permitted, it was sanctioned.

Other “love stories” in the Bible are similarly plagued. Queen Esther was undoubtedly part of a harem.  And what of Ruth?  Boaz most likely had another wife, but was obligated to marry Ruth out of his legal obligation to his relative’s family.

The picture gets even dicier when one considers the practice of the kings of Israel. King David, the “man after God’s own heart,” had eight wives. God not only seemed to “permit” this activity, but in one instance at least, actually took responsibility for it. In 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba, we read: “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I have given you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your bosom . . . and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah, and as if this wasn’t enough, I would have given you even more.”  David’s son, Solomon, however, went overboard, flouting a stipulation in Deuteronomy 17 that kings not accumulate “too many” wives. For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

How does one respond to this situation? The answer begins by seeing that God always points his creation back to the primacy and perfection of the original design. Next, you have to read every book to the end, and especially in its biblical context. And if you read the stories about the characters referenced above, you’ll quickly find that polygamy was an unmitigated sociological disaster that created heartbreak and sowed familial discord. By the time of the writing of Malachi, God’s desire was clear: covenantal monogamy was to be the norm.

Further, through the ministry of Jesus, we see God “reset the clock” so to speak to the original goodness of monogamous marital union – pointing forward to a new society and a new way. He also enacted new provisions to protect women and raise their standing in society. Jesus showed a world that had distorted the meaning of marriage back to the beauty of “the man being joined to his wife, and two will become one flesh.”  The nouns Jesus used are singular here, folks.  He showed that there is a way to go back to our “origin story” in the Garden – where one husband is join to one wife – a relationship Saint Augustine once called, “the basic bond of society.”

About Greg Thornbury

Gregory Alan Thornbury serves as the president of The King's College in New York City. Before going to The King's College, he served as Dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union University, where he taught philosophy and theology. He is also currently a fellow at the Wilberforce Forum (Washington, D.C.) and co-editor of Shaping a Christian Worldview: The Foundation of Christian Higher Education. Developing a Christian Worldview.
  • Hi Greg. Interesting stuff.

    Lionel Windsor posted about this recently at The Briefing: Polygamy in the Bible: A sordid tale. It’s a good companion piece to yours.

  • Steve Burdan

    Good quick survey. Could the real problem be with the earthly/physical/blood family itself? So much evil, pain and tragedy in history has come through the family. Part of Jesus’ radical message was that the heavenly family trumped the earthly family  – he came to divide families, who is his real mother, etc. So the whole concept of family we Evan. have built is really on shifting sand – it will not survive into eternity anyway – won’t be needed. I know it may seem crazy, but speaking as a life-long single, I don’t have the same dogs in the “fight.”

  • The Bible’s recording of polygamy is not an endorsement –
    quite the opposite. Tim Keller pointed out in a sermon that polygamy, when its
    consequences are presented, is uniformly shown to be detrimental. The Bible
    never portrays it in a positive light – when its consequences are displayed,
    showing how it is a detriment. From Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Solomon,
    polygamy always causes rivalry and trouble. The Bible records polygamy – but
    subverts it at every turn.

  • Appreciate this very much.  Good answers to something that could catch one off guard if they’ve never considered it.  A similar analogy could also be made for the kings of Israel as well.  God’s design was to be the true King of Israel but they complained and sought for a human king to rule them instead.  God permitted this but (as with polygamy i think) only to show them how bad things went when they tried it their way instead of His.

  • Chairm

    Leviticus 18:18 “Leviticus 18:18 And you shall not take[c] a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”

    Deuteronomy 17:17 “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.”

  • william fizer

    What a bunch of lies…..1 Corinthians 5:1…..and yes it is endorsed….by God himself….2 Samuel 12:7-9… so what you are saying is God didn’t want it to happen yet he would have blessed David with more wife’s had he not sinnned (adultery and murder) I don’t know about where u come from but where I come from a blessing is not given to those who sin!!! No where in scripture does it ever say ” no polygamy” on the contrary… Please keeping changing his word to fit your own own needs….. I’m sure he appreciates it.

  • william fizer

    God gave terms to polygamy….. you can’t give terms to things banned!!!! Please spare me….. negative light on polygamy?? How about marriage or even humans for that matter I mean you can’t even get is word right!!!!

  • Mary McReynolds Harris

    God sanctioned polygyny and never condemned it or changed his mind about it. Anywhere in scripture. To say so is misguided and subversive to the truth.

    If Jesus was against polygyny and didn’t want people to live it, why would he use it in a parable? Why would God himsel claim polygyny with Israel and Judah? On top of all that, Jesus is the husband of his bride, the church, which is made up of Jew and Gentile. It’s (polygyny) everywhere. Why can’t the truth just be the truth and why can’t we just let those who want to live Godly polygyny live it in peace instead of twisting the scriptures to say what we want to have as our truth. Accept God’s Truth. Stop making up your own. Be honest and truthful with our use of the Word.

    Also, it was underhanded to say, “Elkanah, a presumably godly man” when it is clear from his keeping of the Torah he was righteous. This wording is purposefully slanted.

    Open yourselves to The Truth and discover the FREEDOM in Christ. Ask God to show you, but you better be willing to be uncomfortable.

    Blessings and shalom!