In 1882, the Edmunds Acts effectively outlawed polygamy in the United States and other federal territories. However, with the recent redefinition of marriage to include same sex unions, the practice of polygamy is seeing a resurgence. Such a rebirth was both inevitable and predictable. In fact, Chief Justice Roberts anticipated the eventual legalization of polygamy throughout the US in his minority dissent in the Obergefell ruling (2015). If marriage is now defined only by mutual consent, then there is no consistent philosophical ground to object to polyamory. As if prophetically, Utah effectively decriminalized the practice a few years later, which is not all that surprising given the historic Mormon position on it.
But this isn’t just a concern in the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Rather, the question is being raised in even evangelical churches. In fact, last year a Congolese pastor married four women on the same day (and you thought your wedding was hard to plan). Just in the past few months, I’ve personally had multiple conversations with Christians who are legitimately confused about what the Bible says about polygamy. These aren’t men who are desperate to add to their harem, but are simply faithful brothers with legitimate questions.
Those questions arise because of the following facts:
- The Bible nowhere explicitly condemns polygamy.
- Many of the patriarchs of the faith practiced polygamy.
- Certain passages seem to suggest that God even endorsed polygamy in the OT
Each of those are true. On the surface, they can be quite intimidating to the historic position of the Church. So what are we to make of this? Do these three lines of defense provide a daunting challenge to the historic Christian prohibition of polygamy? I don’t think so. Rather, I think a compelling case can be made that polygamy was never God’s original design for mankind.
But first, let’s define our terms:
What is polygamy? Polygamy is the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time. The gender-neutral term polygamy can be further divided into polygyny (having more than one wife at the same time) and polyandry (having more than one husband at the same time). In addition to these terms, readers should also be familiar with polyamory which refers to an arrangement in which there are multiple consensual romantic partners whether married or not.
While polygyny has been found in myriad cultures (including ancient Judaism), polyandry is much less common (though a few societies seem to have practiced such). So why should we conclude that neither is biblically permissible?
Consider the following:
- The Bible consistently portrays marriage as a “one flesh” relationship involving husband and wife. Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. This passage speaks of “a man” and “his wife” not “men” or “his wives.” When Jesus comments on the passage He says even more specifically, “the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). In fact, this seems to be the primary and controlling passage to help define marriage given that both Jesus and Paul quote it when discussing the matter. If you want to understand the original design and meaning of marriage, you must understand Genesis 2:24.
- Jesus specifies that divorce and subsequent remarriage is adulterous (Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 16). If divorcing a wife and marrying another is adulterous, why would we expect taking another while still married to the first would be judged less than that? The point of the passage is that any sexual union subsequent to marriage is to be considered adultery. Calling that subsequent union another “marriage” doesn’t change the fact that it is actually an adulterous union whether that second “marriage” is through unbiblical divorce and remarriage or polygamy.
- The first example of polygamy in the biblical text was in reference to Lamech, the godless murderer (Genesis 4:19-24). In addition, every biblical narrative that mentions polygamy is saturated with strife, jealousy, favoritism, and abuse. Consider the enmity between Rachel and Leah, the conflict between the various children of Jacob, the outcome of Solomon’s life, the struggle between Sarah and Hagar, It is as if Scripture is screaming, “Can’t you see this overwhelming pattern when polygamy is pursued?” Though Scripture doesn’t use those words, we are able to infer God’s thoughts on the matter considering the way that polygamy is consistently portrayed. The fact that it constantly introduces tension, strife, and discord into the marital relationship points to how unstable it is in the first place.
- The Bible explicitly condemns the taking of many wives by the kings (Deuteronomy 17:17). This is especially relevant given that the polygamy of David and Solomon (both of whom were kings) are two of the most common examples used to argue that polygamy is condoned. As the kings were expected to be ideal representatives of the people, the command about increasing wives seems to be a pattern that Israel was expected to emulate.
- In Isaiah 4:1 polygyny is pictured as a judgment upon Israel. And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.” (Isaiah 4:1) This passage fits within the context of judgment in which God removes “support and supply” from Israel in Isaiah 3. God cuts off the men of Israel in war such that multiple women are forced to marry the limited supply of men in order to perpetuate the nation. Again, the fact that this is “judgment” upon Israel supports the conclusion that it was inappropriate. This was a same pattern seen elsewhere as when God said that He would judge His people by raising up women or children to lead them (given that men were expected to carry the mantle of leadership). God would often judge His people by giving them what they wanted, though what they wanted was neither good nor healthy. The fact that God judges His people by means of polygamy is a strong indication that polygamy was not righteous.
- The New Testament forbids leaders in the church from practicing polygamy (“husband of one wife” 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). This is particularly instructive when considering that elders and deacons were to live as examples for the church to mirror. With the exception of the requirement that elders be able to teach, none of the other qualifications for elders or deacons are more than general marks of maturity. If all Christians are expected to be above reproach, dignified, sober-minded, self-controlled, not given to drunkenness, etc., then it stands to reason that they are also expected to be a one woman man (as the phrase literally reads in Greek) or a one man woman.
- Marriage is a picture of the gospel and should thus properly portray the relationship between Christ and His Church. In light of this reality, any distortion of marriage suggests a distortion of the gospel. For instance, homosexuality vividly portrays idolatry (Romans 1:18-27). As homosexuality involves a man united to a man (or woman to woman), it signifies a creature being united to another creature rather than Creator. Likewise, physical adultery symbolizes spiritual adultery. A man having sex with someone other than his wife demonstrates a picture of a man worshiping something other than His God. So what does polygamy display? Well, it portrays polytheism. As man has multiple wives, so man has multiple gods. Only a marriage between one man and one woman properly pictures Christ’s unique and distinct love for His bride.
So, if Scripture implicitly condemns polygamy, why isn’t it more explicit?
A helpful analogy might be divorce. Like polygamy, divorce is never explicitly condemned in the Old Testament and there are even passages that would seem to endorse it as God’s design (as in the book of Ezra when the men of Israel divorce their foreign wives). And yet, the New Testament clarifies that divorce isn’t (and wasn’t) God’s desire or design. Jesus is clear that the separation of husband and wife is against the will of God in all cases except when “porneia” is involved (Matthew 19:1-12). In fact, He explicitly states that God’s provision of divorce was not because He approved of it, but rather because of man’s “hardness of heart.”
The Old Testament describes and regulates divorce, it does not endorse it. The same seems to be the case with polygamy. The Old Testament describes it, but such description should not be inferred to endorse or prescribe the practice. Like divorce, polygamy in the Old Testament tells us less about God’s heart and more about the heart of man. As Jesus says, “from the beginning it was not so.” Rather, from the beginning, God’s design was one man and one woman joined in lifelong monogamy.
As John Frame states, “We may infer that the Old Testament tolerance of polygamy, like its tolerance for divorce, was because of the ‘hardness of heart’ of the people.”
That said, there is one particular passage that is often used to argue that God doesn’t just describe polygamy, but actually endorses it.
And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. (2 Samuel 12:8)
This passage declares that the LORD gave the wives of Saul to David. Many therefore conclude that this is an explicit endorsement of polygamy. However, that isn’t actually the case when studying the passage more carefully.
Consider the following:
- Scholars are divided over how to translate the phrase the ESV renders “into your arms.” For example, the NASB has the following: I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these! (2 Samuel 12:8, NASB). Notice the difference between the wives being delivered into David’s arms vs. into his care. The first translation connotes a potential sexual element that isn’t really in the underlying Hebrew.
- There is no historical or biblical evidence of David taking any of Saul’s wives in marriage or engaging in sexual activity with any of them.
- David had already married Saul’s daughter (Michal). To take a man’s daughter and also his wives in marriage would surely be unethical.
At that time in near eastern culture, it was common for a king to either appropriate the wives of a previous king or, if they were older (as Saul’s would have probably been), put them to death along with any of their children so that no rival claim to the throne could be made. However, David had sworn an oath to take care of Saul’s family. Therefore, rather than put them to death, David took responsibility to protect and provide for them.
In other words, a compelling case can be made that 2 Samuel 12 isn’t referring to God’s gift of Saul’s wives as wives for David, but rather that He gave them to David to protect and provide for as he did with Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:11-13). At that time in history, the transfer of power from one king to another involved the official transfer of the royal harem. By listing the various “possessions” of the king (household, harem, kingdoms), the LORD is highlighting the absolute nature of David’s rule. He did not inherit a divided kingdom of only part of what was Saul’s, but indeed was given everything that belonged to the former ruler. In other words, the purpose of the passage is to show the all-encompassing provision of YHWH. There was no aspect of the kingdom that was withheld, but the LORD had faithfully given David all that was Saul’s.
While this verse is difficult, when placed in its proper cultural context, it shouldn’t be used to dispute God’s displeasure with polygamy. What is clear is that God gave Saul’s wives to David. But it is definitely not clear that God gave them to David for the purpose of his own marriage. That would be one potential interpretation, but far from a certain one at that.
Why therefore did God bless the patriarchs who practiced polygamy? Some would perhaps conclude that God’s blessing implies His acceptance of the practice, but this is a dangerous argument. The patriarchs were not perfect and were blessed despite their imperfections. For example, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all deceivers and yet God blessed them. Does this indicate that God condones lies and deceit? God blesses His children because He is gracious, not because we are obedient.
Ultimately, marriage is intended to mirror the faithful relationship between Christ and His Church. But polygamy obscures that image and implies polytheism by suggesting that we can distribute our covenantal affections toward a plurality of lovers. We are to be faithful to one spouse as we are to be faithful to one God. Like all other sexual sin, polygamy perverts this picture and thus distorts our view of the nature and character of God.
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4–5)