Why was polygamy so prevalent amongst Israelites in the Old Testament and was it condoned by God?

(Abby Narvaez) #1

Why was polygamy so prevalent amongst Israelites in the Old Testament and was it condoned by God? i e David, Salomon etc.

(SeanO) #2

@Abby That is a great question. Polygamy has never been God’s ideal. Starting in the Garden of Eden and continuing through the image of God as the husband and His people as the bride, we see that marriage between one man and one woman has always been God’s ideal. Polygamy was common among the patriarchs because it was a part of their culture that resulted from economic concerns and warfare; not because God desired it.

Here are some resources I hope you find helpful. Christ grant you wisdom :slight_smile:

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 – especially if it is the 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 command to a thoroughly chastised nation 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.”

(Timothy Loraditch) #3

I think it can be assumed that the major motivation behind polygamy then and now is a combination of male-dominated cultures and men’s sinful desires. Just as polygamy was a cultural norm in ancient times, monogamy has become a cultural norm today. Without a clear commandment against polygamy, it is easy for modern Christians to support scriptural objections to the practice just as David or Solomon likely would have justified their actions.

Solomon was warned by God not to take foreign wives because they would lead his heart away from God. Which eventually did happen, but he was never told to have just one wife. We can not assume that god approved of multiple marriages, just that He did not prevent or warn Solomon about them.

One aspect of polygamy that may have been a factor at one time was the higher mortality rate among women. Women often died in childbirth and this fact may have caused men to be less committed to one woman. I don’t have any evidence for this, it is just speculation on my part.

Also, in modern times the reason for the poor performance of polygamist families might be attributed to the fact of the practice is a violation of current social mores as much as it may greave the Holy Spirit. Again this is speculation.

I am not advocating for polygamy, just trying not to add to scripture or take anything away. As for me, I am happy with just one lovely wife of 32 years. :smiley:

(Lindsay Brandt) #5

Hello, in response to @tfloraditch, I would posit that just as the Bible does not outright talk about the Trinity (the actual word “Trinity” is no where in the Bible) or say Jesus is God, from reading the whole counsel of Scripture we can affirm these truths. In the same way, though the Bible does not directly say polygamy is wrong, Genesis and other places in the Bible make it undeniably clear that polygamy is wrong and is not God’s design for marriage.

As for your question, I don’t have much to add to what @SeanO has said, but I did have the thought that there is never really anywhere in the OT that God actually condones polygamy. Much of the OT is narrative, meaning not everything that is there is something that God has condoned or desired to happen. There are things in Scripture that are prescriptive (this is what you should do) and things that are descriptive (things that are there for our learning and observation but not necessarily things we should follow or look to as an example of how we should do and be). Sean gave a great response, and Timothy brought up a good point, so this is the only thought outside of that that I had. Hope it helps!

(Cameron Kufner) #7

Great question. I think this video will help explain it better than I ever could. I also was pondering the same thing awhile back, but this video helped answer all my questions about this topic. Hopefully, it answers all your questions too. God bless!

(LaTricia) #8

@SeanO does this also speak to cultures beyond those of the bible as well? Also, is it a disaster because of how most men and women are or because it’s (polygamy) inherently a bad thing?

Interestingly enough, these things are still a concern, especially the economic part, even in western societies. Though, over the past however many decades, polyamory has been trending. This moves the foundation of the relationship/union (for many) from more practical reasons to emotional reasons, i.e. love.

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(LaTricia) #9

@tfloraditch, can you explain what you mean by “less committed”, please? And how do we gauge the level of commitment to the individual within a polygamous relationship?

(LaTricia) #10

This is an oddity of an article that I found some time after coming to Christ. I have to fully dissect the article so, anyone feel free to do so. But, I had wondered the same. Also, too, I had never had any issues with polygamy (or polyamory in any form) as a relationship choice for myself or anyone else prior to coming to Christ, so with that in mind I needed answers. This article took on a different perspective. I wanted a different perspective in conjunction with the usual perspective.

The question is also relevant considering there are people who are in polygamous marriages/unions who come to Christ, and I wanted to know how to address those types of situations when I’m speaking to them whenever I have the opportunity. That can be sticky, so I wanted (and still desire) to know how to navigate the topic without being one dimensional and not taking into account the full ramifications. Needless to say, it’s something I’m still hashing out.


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(SeanO) #11

@LJan I think it is instructive to see how polygamy first appears in the Bible. We have Adam, who is one flesh with his wife Eve. Then we have Lamech, a violent and proud man, who has taken two wives. And then we immediately see Adam with his own wife. I do not think this contrast was unintentional. Polygamy violates that one flesh union between a man and woman and also turns sex into a devalued commodity instead of an expression of self-sacrificial love based on a commitment to the good of the other.

The two central ethics of Christianity are love God and love other. The Bible exalts God’s steadfast love for His people. Marriage is ultimately an expression - a picture - of that same steadfast love and faithfulness. Both polygamy and polyamory violate the one flesh union and fail to express the self-sacrificial love to which we are called.

That is not to say that every poly-amorous relationship would necessarily be filled with bickering. People may have high levels of social / emotional intelligence and find a way to navigate such relationships. But it would still fall short (miss the mark) of God’s design for sexuality and faithfulness within covenant and I think in general it would tend to cause more social unrest, which is exactly what we see in Genesis.

Genesis 2:24 - That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Genesis 4:23-26 - Lamech said to his wives,

“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
24 If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

25 Adam made love to his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh.

(Kelly) #12

I’ve always been curious how God could refer to David as a man after His own heart, when he had so many wives. Now I know David loved God, but what about his love for “others” (all of his “wives”). :woman_shrugging:

(SeanO) #13

@kelelek Do you think this passage about Michal shows that David put his love for God first - above his love for women? The point of the example is that David did indeed place God first even though he was a man rooted within a particular cultural reality.

2 Sam 6:16-23 - As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart. 17 And they brought in the ark of the Lord and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it. And David offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. 18 And when David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts 19 and distributed among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins to each one. Then all the people departed, each to his house.

20 And David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” 21 And David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord—and I will celebrate before the Lord. 22 I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” 23 And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.

(Kelly) #14


Thank you for your response!

I was unclear on how your response related, so I picked my question and your response with a local Christian friend. This friend pointed out that I was calling into question whether or not David was worthy to be called a man after God’s own heart. To which you provided an example above. She stated that David clearly repented and asked for forgiveness on issues where the law was clearly defined and asked why David participating in a “gray” area (at that time) should have an impact on how David is perceived.

So between your response and her input, this is now in perspective. Although, to be honest, how women were treated is still troublesome. In diving into the Word, I’m learning that God works with His fallen creation for good (the best good that can be accomplished within the circumstances).

Thanks, again…

(Lindsay Brandt) #15

Hello, LaTricia. I a reading through some of the document from the link you provided. Here are some initial thoughts I am having. See what you think:

Sin is the violation of the physical and spiritual law of God—sin is lawlessness. Sin is any deviation from God’s righteous laws, precepts, and principles that define how people should live and worship God.

The law reveals the standard of behavior with which all must comply, and its perfect system of justice demands the execution of all law–breakers (Rom.3:20; 6:23). The law only determines guilt or innocence; it does not have the ability to restore harmony between God and humanity.

The law of God is perfect. Its precepts, principles, and value judgments are empirical and do not depend upon human validation.

No Law, No Sin

In his letter to the saints at Rome, the apostle Paul explained, “sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom.5:12‑13 KJV).

Is there a law in the Bible that prohibits polygamy? No. There is no such law found in the Bible. And where polygamous relationships are noted, there is nothing negative said about this form of marriage. However, there are many laws noted in scripture that regulate the polygamous marriage and there are also many scriptures that clearly show that polygamy does not violate God’s law.

First, I am wondering what this is referring to as law. If it is only referring to the Mosaic law and not the Law as the first five books of the Bible, then there is already a misunderstanding here, because we don’t just look at the Mosaic law for God’s standard for how to live. The entire canon is instructive as to God’s ideal for marriage or any other matter, and so arguing that because the Mosaic law does not say it is wrong means it isn’t wrong is an argument from silence, which does not hold water. Furthermore, saying that because the law had regulations for polygamous marriages means that it is being condoned is also incorrect. In God’s Word, there are regulations for divorce, but that is not the same thing as God condoning divorce. We have the same problem when people think Paul is condoning slavery just because he gives standards/regulations for slaves to follow in their behavior. Besides slavery being a little different back then, Paul is not condoning it just because he is orienting the slave towards the gospel in how he lives out his new identity in his position. Added to this, the Mosaic law is not exhaustive, as extensive as it is.

Not only does the Bible say that marriage is to reflect Christ and the church, but Paul, in qualifying candidates for overseers, makes it clear that the man is to be the husband of one wife. Now this has been interpreted to mean something other than what is said, but it is pretty clear the husband is not to have more than one wife. Why? Because it violates God’s design for marriage, and part of His purpose for designing marriage in such a way is that it properly reflects the truth of Christ and His bride, the Church.

Speaking of sin, sin is not simply something that violates God’s law. It is something that violates God’s design and purpose. Given what has been already presented via Genesis and Paul’s teaching, polygamy is a violation of God’s design and purpose for marriage.

In order to show the validity of polygamous marriages for the elect of God under the gospel age agreement, it is necessary to review what the Bible says about its practice before the advent of Christ, during the early church era, and after Christ returns.

Polygamy in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament there are dozens of examples of men marrying and being married to more than one wife at a time. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob are examples of righteous men who had several wives in order to father male heirs.

Here again, just because something is present in a narrative does not mean that it is condoned. We would be in big trouble if we assumed everything in the biblical narratives was condoned and acceptable to God. That is not the purpose of the narrative. This is where it is really important to discern the purpose of the books and the narrative running through them, which is to follow God’s promises through His covenants and to follow the so-called royal bloodline to Abraham’s seed: Jesus. Narratives have a very different purpose than the way they are being used in this document that is attempting to present polygamy as biblicallly approved.

Something else I am seeing is the incorrect linking of Abraham’s and Jacob’s righteousness to their behavior, implying that their behavior must be righteous because they were righteous men. Abraham’s and Jacob’s righteousness had everything to do with faith and nothing at all to do with whether or not all their actions were righteous/condoned by God (Romans 15:6).

I’ll stop here as far as dissecting the document goes, because this is a lot, and it’s all I have for now. What do you think?

One last thought I had about ministering to a polygamous family that has since come to Christ, I think that one would have to err on the side of what would cause the least harm. The marriage bonds are already there, and so I think that I would not encourage someone in that situation to break that, because divorce is also wrong and would add distress.

(SeanO) #16

@kelelek Great idea to bounce this conversation off your friend. I agree that God was working within an imperfect culture to move it in a redemptive direction and bring beauty to the brokenness. And I think it is okay for us to acknowledge that the culture was broken - it was not perfect - it was not exactly how God would have wanted it in relation to this particular issue, but God was still at work.

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(Kelly) #17

@SeanO I love your statement “not exactly how God would have wanted it”. I believe that applies to many areas, even today. When you look at God’s word through the lens that God is good and man is the one in need of redemption, scripture takes on such a different meaning. I feel so much more at peace with this topic and with David’s behavior. Any study of his life will now be viewed through a new and more meaningful context. :slight_smile:

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(Tim Ramey) #18

@SeanO @kelelek
Hey you guys, I haven’t been following this thread but tonight I was working on Deuteronomy for a friend’s work here and I came across Deut 21:15-17. Maybe it has been brought up, but if, as it was mentioned that it was never intended that way, why would Deuteronomy address it as if it is expected. All of the laws that the Lord was against, He never excused. This language seems a bit of a strange way to address the problem. Any thoughts?

(SeanO) #19

@Tim_Ramey I think that this passage in Deut 21 is just a way of bringing justice into an imperfect situation. The existence of multiple wives could create a hierarchy among the women based on the man’s affections, but this passage ensures that the husband honors the wives in a more equitable manner in the way he passes property on to their children. Again - imperfect situation - but God is working within it.

Deut 21:15-17 - If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.

(SeanO) #20

@kelelek Praise the Lord! This conversation has been helpful for me as well. It is such a blessing when we have those ‘aha!’ moments and go deeper in our understanding of the Word / how God works in this broken world.

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(LaTricia) #21

Thank you @psalm151ls for taking the time to read the article, and yes it is a lot to go through and dissect, no doubt about that!

What do I think? I think that there are so very many things including the state of the world that isn’t according to God’s plan and design. I have yet to see polygamy or polyamory as inherently evil, as most of those that I have known within in those unions have had varying reasons beyond sex and lust at the heart of the union (especially when the union doesn’t include sex but rather an emotional attachment). I have seen polygamous families function in a way I’ve never seen monogamous families functions. I’ve seen co-wives have a bond deeper than that of blood sisters. I’ve seen husbands be utterly devoted to his wives and children, also. Conversely, I’ve also seen the complete opposite in poly unions as well as monogamous. I hold to the issue is with the fallen heart, lack of emotional intelligence, lack of respect for both self and others, lack of self-awareness that causes problems in any relationship no matter the structure.

I don’t know why God allowed polygamy or why it even still flourishes as a relationship option for so many people regardless of religion.

I agree with you on respecting the established marriage bonds with those who are poly and come to Christ afterwards. There are children in many instances, vows, and bonds already established. I am a respecter of that.

(Lindsay Brandt) #22

Thanks for responding, LaTricia. I considered and thought about what you said about it not being inherently evil, and though I can very much see your point, I think I have to stick with the conclusion that in the end, I don’t think it’s about what is inherently evil but what lines up with God’s design made clear in the beginning of Genesis and what does not. The reason we have Scripture is to inform us of God’s design, how we distort it, and how He deals with that distortion in love and grace. Personally, I don’t think we can honor the part in Genesis where it says the two were made to be one flesh and condone polygamy at the same time, though in our interactions with those who do choose it, we should definitely tread carefully and give grace, as God did in the OT. You’re right that that would definitely be a sticky situation, and I think I would, like you, want to see different perspectives on it before talking with families in this situation so that I could perhaps have some understanding and insight into what they may think or believe about it. I think that is wise.

LaTricia, I have to say, this made me have to really think! Thank you for your insights and thoughts and giving me the opportunity to wrestle with this. Honestly, I have never really thought about this issue too deeply because I had never really needed to before.