Occasionally I am asked about polygamy. We see this practiced by some of the characters of the Bible. This sometimes gets Christians scratching their heads. Recently, someone who wanted my help thinking through this topic said, “Polygamy is in the Bible…and I don’t recall polygamy being directly addressed in the Bible as a sin (10 commandments, etc.)
Sometimes Christians are confused when they see examples of important Bible characters such as Abraham or David involved in polygamous relationships. Unbelievers and skeptics will use an issue like this to “prove” that the Bible is antiquated, irrelevant, and even immoral when viewed in a modern context. The presence of polygamy in the Bible fuels the notion that the Scriptures are anti-woman and chauvinistic. Others see an inconsistency in the Christian’s stance on marriage being between one man and one woman in light of the instances of Old Testament polygamy. Still others have responded with believing that God actually does or at one time endorsed polygamy. The heretical Mormon religion, in it’s earliest years, believed that polygamous practice was acceptable. While Mormon authorities eventually declared that polygamy must end among it’s members, we find that today, certain Mormon influenced groups continue to engage in this practice.
How are we to respond to this issue?
As Bible believing Christians, we must recognize that a very important principle of biblical interpretation is to recognize the difference between what the Bible “describes” and what it “prescribes.” Those two things are not always one and the same. For example, when Judas hangs himself, we are not given a prescription on how Christians should deal with their guilty conscience. The text is simply giving a description of what happened.
There are many passages in the Bible that are clearly prescriptive. That is, they are telling you what to do as one of God’s people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us not to worry, to be peacemakers, to pray for our enemies, and so on. The New Testament epistles are filled with prescriptions, instructions for the church in how we are to live towards God, one another, and the world.
On the other hand, there are also many passages in the Bible that are descriptive. That is, they give an historically accurate description of events that have taken place. But just because they are descriptive doesn’t mean we can’t learn from these passages. Indeed, the apostle Paul, writing about the Old Testament revelation, says,
…whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction… (Romans 15:4)
And when commenting on the Old Testament narratives featuring Israel’s many moral blunders in the wilderness, Paul writes,
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. (1 Corinthians 10:6)
So, on the one hand, we are meant to learn truths from these stories, but on the other hand, we have to be a little more careful and discerning with historical narratives as it describes everything…the good, the bad, and the ugly!
So as we come to this topic of polygamy, we see that the Bible describes a number of polygamous situations. How are we to view this? And how is this to shape our understanding of biblical marriage?
I think the first place we should turn to shape our theology of marriage is not to polygamous David but to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. When He was asked a question about marriage, Jesus’ answer is quite informative. Jesus said,
“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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
Jesus’ standard for marriage is ONE man and ONE woman, indivisible, for life. Period.
Now, I suppose one might say, “Well sure, but Jesus said that hundreds of years after David and Abraham. So maybe Jesus’ teaching was something new that hadn’t been heard before.” But that isn’t true.
Actually, Jesus says absolutely nothing new. In fact, Jesus’ response is, “Have you not read?” In the parallel account in Mark 10:3, Jesus asks, “What did Moses command you?” Jesus wants to take his questioners back to the Scriptures, to the writings of Moses. When He says, “Have you not read?” it’s His way of saying, “Folks, read your Bibles! God has already spoken about marriage and I don’t have anything to add!”
And so Jesus takes them back to the writings of Moses. Way back. All the way to the beginning of the Bible and He quotes Genesis chapter 2 which says, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’
Again- ONE man. ONE woman. For LIFE. Period.
While many people hold that polygamy isn’t directly addressed in the Bible, we actually see that the Bible’s most clear and powerful word against polygamy is a word in the Bible’s opening pages that tells us what marriage really is and how God designed it from the beginning. What’s more, as we keep reading Genesis we also see that a departure from God’s good design for marriage and sex is associated with disobedience and reaps painful consequences.
In Genesis 2 God designs the standard for marriage. In Genesis 3 sin is introduced into the human race. In Genesis 4 we see the devastating outworking of sin in the human race and we meet the first polygamist, who is Lamech, a descendent of the evil Cain. Godless Lamech follows in Cain’s violent footsteps, singing a boastful, ego-centric song to his two wives of his murderous vengeance upon another man. Genesis 4 should be read in the backdrop of Genesis 2, which sets the standard of marriage. Genesis 4 is also better understood next to Genesis 5. The former chronicles the lives and lifestyle of a wicked family, the latter follows the line of the godly. Lamech the 7th from Adam in Cain’s family, is depicted as the climax of the evil in Cain’s family, and he’s shown to be a proud, boastful, polygamous murderer who has rejected the Lord (Gen 4:19-24). Enoch, the 7th from Adam in Seth’s family, is depicted as the climax of the godliness of Seth’s family. He “walks with God” (Gen 5:24), following in the footsteps of a godly heritage that began to “call upon the name of the Lord.” (Gen 4:26)
Moving along, in Genesis 16, we see that Abram’s taking on of a second wife, Hagar, was clearly done due to Abram’s and Sarai’s lack of trust in God. On the one hand, God had promised Abram offspring. On the other hand, Abram was old and Sarai was infertile. In an attempt to “help God out”, Sarai suggested Abram take a younger woman to have a child by, and that child could become Sarai’s.
So the driving factor behind this polygamous union was a lack of faith. What’s more, we
are given the details of the conflict that arises in Abram’s home when his two wives clash. As you read the story, it becomes obvious that Abram’s polygamous departure from the Genesis 2 design for marriage brought some unpleasant and painful circumstances into their family. You reap what you sow.
The next polygamous character we see in Genesis is Esau. Esau, of course, is hardly the model of godliness. He was a violent and sinfully impulsive man, unspiritual and totally disregarding of God. The book of Hebrews describes him as unholy and sexually immoral. So whereas in Genesis 16 polygamy is associated with a lack of faith in God, in Genesis 26, polygamy is associated with the ungodliness of Esau. Indeed, he took two wives and these women made life bitter for the family. (Gen 26:34-35)
The next character who engages in polygamy is Esau’s brother, Jacob, a man who is of dubious moral character. We are introduced to Jacob in Genesis 25, and we see a man who for many years relied on his own wits more than God’s wisdom, hardly better than Esau. It is not until halfway through Genesis 32 that Jacob appears to turn a corner spiritually. Until then, he makes a lot of mistakes and learns some hard lessons. Among those was the marrying of multiple wives. You can read Jacob’s story yourself but even a cursory reading makes it clear that much heartache, pain, family dysfunction, and a proliferation of further sin sprang forth due to Jacob’s deviation from God’s design for marriage and sex.
It must be noted that polygamy, while typically legal in ancient near east cultures, was usually only practiced by those who were wealthy. It takes much resources to sustain multiple wives and all the children that come with such a situation. The last few instances of polygamy I just mentioned were all people from Abraham’s very wealthy family. We should not believe that all men in the ancient near east had more than one wife.
Regardless, there is not a single instance in Genesis where polygamy is depicted as something wonderful and desirable. Indeed, we see in Genesis many examples of the damage caused by a rejection of God’s plan for marriage and sex. Homosexuality, rape, prostitution, selfishness in marriage, etc. All these practices are associated with godlessness, heartache, and strife. If only we had the wisdom to follow God’s wisdom! If only we would base our view of marriage on what the Designer of marriage says about it!
Genesis 2 is God’s clear, unambiguous word against any perversion of God’s design, including polygamy, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book. However, Genesis is not the only book that informs our thinking about polygamy.
Because polygamy was typically a temptation for the wealthy and powerful, those who were most vulnerable to this sin were rulers and kings.
The Bible is aware of this, and speaks directly to it. God knew that one day Israel would have kings, and God, through Moses, gives special instructions for those who would one day rule Israel. In Deuteronomy 17 God specifically says the king must not acquire many wives for himself. (17:17) This doesn’t mean that non-kings can go ahead and acquire many wives! Genesis 2 applies to everyone, whether princes or paupers. But in Deuteronomy, God is specifically dealing with kings, the ones who will be in the best position to violate Genesis 2. What’s more, the kings of Israel were to be “God’s Anointed” or God’s “Messiah”, who would represent God to the people and who would represent the people to God. In Deuteronomy 17:17, God specifically warns that the accumulation of wives will turn the king’s heart away from God.
Sadly, despite God’s warning, we see kings violating this standard.
King David ended up with several wives and if you study his family you’ll see that a lot of strife resulted in this.
The worst offender was Solomon, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. And, once again, we see this associated with sin and rebellion. Not surprisingly, God’s ominous prediction in Deuteronomy 17:17 comes true.
For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God… (1 Kings 11:4)
Instead of being God’s Messiah to the people, leading them to God, he ends up leading the way in rebellion, sacrificing to the detestable gods of the pagans instead.
As usual, the departure from God’s standards of marriage and sex are seen to be foolish, ugly, and destructive.
In Ecclesiastes 2, Solomon looks back on his life and all of the ways he sought to content himself outside of God, including his massive harem building. And yet, at the end of it all, Solomon concludes such pursuits wastes ones life. He writes,
Then I considered all that my hands had done…and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)
Let me be quick to add that while I have been pointing out a lot of the negative familial and relational consequences that come with polygamy, I do not mean to say that we ultimately judge whether something is right or wrong by whether or not we think things are going smoothly in the wake of our action. For awhile, things were probably going quite smoothly for the wealthy, comfortable citizens of Sodom, until the fire came…
My point is simply that God has allowed us, the reader, to take a peek into the lives of these people and show us the fallout that came from trusting their own wisdom and feelings as opposed to God’s. God set the standard in Genesis 2, people violated the standard, and God gives us, the readers, a front row seat, as He allows us to see man’s futile and foolish attempts to build a life outside of Him and His ways. Such a life comes crashing down in the end.
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. (Prov 16:25)
God’s reason for designing marriage the way He did is not arbitrary. God’s not out to kill our pleasure and steal our joy. In the end, everything that God does is for the benefit and joy of His people, but everything He does is also for His glory.
There are many wonderful reasons why God created marriage, but there is an ultimate reason behind it all.
The apostle Paul describes marriage as a profound mystery that has been fully revealed in the wake of the redemptive work of Christ. He says,
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)
The reason why God created marriage the way He did in Genesis 2 is because it best reflects the image He wants to convey, which is the relationship Jesus has with His wife, the Church.
The reason why the husband is supposed to lead and self-sacrificially pour out his life for the benefit of his bride is because that is exactly what Jesus did for His Bride.
The reason why the wife is to joyfully follow the lead of her husband, respecting and submitting to him is because that is exactly how the Church responds to Christ.
The reason why adultery is wrong is because Jesus is always faithful to His Bride.
The reason why spousal abuse is wrong is because Jesus never abuses His Bride.
The reason why sex before marriage is wrong is because Jesus became united to His Bride through a covenant promise.
The reason why polygamy is wrong is because Jesus only has ONE Bride, the Church!
Every deviation from God’s design for sex and marriage tells lies about Jesus Christ and the gospel.
Unlike the failed kings of the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is the perfect Messiah, the perfect husband, and all marriages are to be patterned after His special relationship with His Bride.
As we come to grasp God’s ultimate purpose for marriage, is it not a wonderful thing to know that in Genesis 2, when God the Father brings Adam and Eve together in marriage, He is thinking about more than just Adam and Eve? He is also thinking about a damsel in distress. He is thinking about a people who are enslaved by a terrible dragon called the devil. A people in bondage to sin and death. And in such a people the Father sees a Bride for His Son.
As God officiates that first wedding between Adam and Eve, His mind already has in place a plan to send His Son into the world to win a Bride for Himself. Jesus Christ enters into creation, crushes the dragon through His victory on the cross, and purchases His Bride with His own blood. He takes this Bride, tattered and stained by sin and cleanses her, gives her new clothes, gives her a new life, and prepares a home for her. And Jesus says to us, His beloved,
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:2-3)
The Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt not commit polygamy.” It actually says much, much more.
Grace and Peace,
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