Does the Bible Permit Polygamy?

By Elias Ayala (M.A.T. & Mdiv)

In the Old Testament we read of the practice of having many wives. Indeed it was common to the cultures of the ancient near east to have more than one wife. Furthermore, we read in the Old Testament of people who were greatly used by God who had multiple wives. King David comes to mind; for he had at least seven wives:

Wives of David:

  1. Ahinoam of Jezreel
  2. Abigail the Carmel
  3. Maachah the daughter of King Talmai of Geshur
  4. Haggith
  5. Abital
  6. Eglah
  7. Bath-shua (Bathsheba) the daughter of Ammiel

Ironically, David’s son Solomon had much more wives than his father. 1 Kings 11:1-3 indicates that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of which came from lands which God forbade Israel to intermarry with. Yet in the case of both David and Solomon, God used both of these men to accomplish great things. David amidst his colorful career was said to be a man after God’s own heart and his son Solomon was said to be the wisest man to ever live; for in being asked by God that he could ask for anything and receive it, Solomon asked for wisdom. Does this mean that God approved of the practice of having many wives?

The answer is no. In Genesis 2:24 we are given God’s ideal picture of what marriage should be:
“For this reason man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Jesus in addressing the issue of divorce utilizes this Genesis passage to emphasize that both the male and female would become one flesh upon unifying within the context of marriage. When asked as to why then did Moses command that a man should give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away (Matthew 19:7), Jesus responds in an interesting way, he said:
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another women commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8, 9)

Let’s take a look at what Jesus says a bit more closely. If a man divorces his wife and marries another, it is adultery. But, if man was permitted to have more than one wife to begin with, why would he be forbidden to take another wife other than the one he divorced. So he divorces one, meets another woman and desires to marry her, and include her amongst his other wives; why would this be considered adultery in this case? Perhaps, this passage is intending to convey that if a man divorces one of his wives for a reason other than martial unfaithfulness, and then marries another, then this is considered adultery. This does not seem to be what this passage is saying. It may be that Jesus is implicitly presupposing a situation where one man is divorcing one woman for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness and then marrying another thus committing adultery. At any rate, there are good reasons to think that Jesus is in fact presupposing that marriage is ideally between one man and one women. Consider an Old Testament passage which undoubtedly Jesus would have been familiar with:
“He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Deuteronomy 17:17).

This command was in the context of what the King of Israel should not do. Taking many wives was forbidden for the King of Israel to do, yet both King David and King Solomon were guilty of doing just these things. Now the fact that God blessed them in many ways is not to say that God condoned their practices of taking for themselves many wives; for God clearly forbade such a practice. Rather, God blessed them in spite of their erroneous practices.
God’s dislike for the practice of polygamy can be seen most clearly in the consequences it often brought about. Such was the situation with Solomon. His many wives (especially one’s from foreign nations) led him down a road of disobedience towards God. Because of the enticement of his many wives, he built altars to their false gods to please his wives, yet Solomon was the King of Israel, a servant of the One true God who had granted him the priceless gift of wisdom. He failed to exercise wisdom in regards to his multiple marriages.

Lastly, the New Testament in laying down the criteria for elders and deacons are commanded to be “the husband of one wife”. The idea of marriage being between one man and one woman is God’s ideal picture for what marriage should be. Especially for a person who is to be a leader in the house of God. For the scriptures clearly teach “that if a man cannot properly treat his wife then how can he lead a church? We are also told that a husband must love his wife as Christ loves the church. As men we are to love and be faithful to one woman in the same manner that Christ is faithful to one bride-the church”.

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