Posted in theology

Marriage: Polygamy in the Bible

By Elizabeth Prata

Last week I’d written a short series on Marriage for wives. The essays in the series were:

Persevering in Marriage: A True Story
Culture Calls this a Dirty Word
Recommending Confidently Called Homemakers
What are the biblical qualities God desires in a woman teacher? Not the ones Beth Moore exhibits
What if my marriage is to a difficult man?
Unequally yoked (or yoked to a minimal believer) but still need to submit?

A dear sister contacted me and asked me to write about polygamy. In my series, I’d only mentioned polygamy, noting that Abraham had multiple wives. So did, David, Solomon, Elkanah, and that even the institute of marriage crumbled as early as Genesis 4:19, when we read that Lamech took two wives.

As I was writing the series I briefly considered writing more about polygamy (multiple spouses supposedly married to one person) but discarded the idea since polygamy isn’t a huge concern in the US.

I was wrong.

The sister who contacted me was raised in a denomination of Latter Day Saints that still adhered to the notion that God accepts multiple wives as a standard marital situation.

Let’s take a look at polygamy in the Bible, God’s standard for marriage, why He allowed it, and why it’s wrong. I will write on it today and again tomorrow in two parts. It is a big subject and a great question.

In Genesis 2:20-24 we read of God’s standard for marriage. He gave the woman to the man as a helper, because it was not good for man to be alone. It was one man and one woman, mated for life into one flesh, called to procreate. In Ephesians 5 we read of other standards outlined for the husband and the wife, covered in previous essays. Nowhere do we see God’s encouragement of taking more than one wife. His silence on Lamech’s taking of two wives is not acceptance, any more than his silence on any other sin would be acceptance of those sins.

We don’t know why God did not speak specifically against polygamy. He did speak much against greed, homosexuality, drunkenness, and other sins. But not the corruption of marriage. I believe that the Bible’s clear depiction of all the biblical sorrows associated with polygamy were loud and clear enough. Here’s John MacArthur:

Wherever you see bigamy, wherever you see polygamy in Scripture, it brings conflict, sin, sorrow, and devastation to families. The Bible doesn’t always make a moral comment on it, doesn’t here, it just says he [Lamech] took two wives, without comment, but doesn’t need to make a comment. All you have to know is the character of the man here. All you have to know is the standard of Genesis 2:24, and the standard of Genesis 2:24 is one man, one woman, together for life, one flesh. Whenever it’s violated anywhere in the pages of Scripture, conflict, sin, sorrow, devastation results, whether you’re talking about Abraham, whether you’re talking about Jacob, whether you’re talking about David, Solomon, or whoever. ~John MacArthur, The Origin of Society

It should be noted that the practice was that the men could take more than one wife. (polygyny). We never see wives taking on more than one husband at a time. (polyandry). The Woman at the Well seems to have been a serial bride, with 5 successive husbands.

There is an interesting passage in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. It codifies the standards for taking war brides. Normally, a woman taken as spoils of war would be raped and abandoned, or made a slave and hard used. This passage in Deuteronomy lifts the standards for the hapless women who were captured as spoils of war. They were to become married to the victor, after allowed a decent period of mourning in order to adjust to their grief and reduced circumstances. If the man decided at a later date that he wanted to put her aside, he could divorce her and let her go where she wanted as a free woman, and never sold for money.

This codification was part of the common grace of God’s mercy, not a sanction or certainly not an approval. It was a stop-gap to aid the more vulnerable of the population. Similarly, we see provisions being made for widows and also for children. The Bible consistently points back to the original design for marriage: one man and one women, becoming one flesh, for life, the man as head and the woman as helper.

When Jesus arrived and began teaching the new covenant, He also pointed to the purity and original design for marriage. By the time of Matthew 19:3, so many Pharisaical rules and laws had been added that things had become quite complicated. Like overgrown kudzu. The Pharisees asked Jesus-

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”

Jesus reminded them that it was man’s desire to divorce, not God’s.

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND HIS MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no person is to separate.” 7They said to Him, “Why, then, did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND HER AWAY?” 8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 10:4-9)

The Old Testament practice of polygamy was not accepted by God as a legitimate marital situation, but it was slightly better for women than the alternative: marginalization, slavery, or starvation. He tolerated it because of the hardness of their hearts, the way He tolerated divorce. He banned kings from marrying more than one wife, in Deuteronomy 17:17. The New Testament speaks often of the one man and one woman in the marital relationship. Here’s Answers in Genesis:

Moving to the New Testament, there are several passages that can be understood to speak against polygamous relationships. The first to come to the mind of many would be the qualifications for leaders in the church given by the Apostle Paul to Timothy and Titus. In 1 Timothy 3:2 and 12 and Titus 1:6, we are told that leaders of the church must be the “husband of one wife.” (Source- What about Polygamy in the Bible?). 

Deviating from God’s standards for anything is sin. Greed, drunkenness, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, gossip, murder…are all sins. So is having more than one spouse at a time. It’s obvious that the standard for marriage is one man and one woman, as seen in Genesis and in the New Testament. That God tolerated it is no reason to say it’s acceptable, any more than murder, gossip, or any of the other sins He observes in man are acceptable. He hates sin, but uses His sinful people, to accomplish His purposes.

Tomorrow, a look at Mormons and their history if polygamy, and on what basis they claim it’s biblical.

Resources:

The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

GotQuestions: Questions About Marriage

Author:

Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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