Does the Old Testament Permit Polygamy?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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It is not surprising that many people assume that God permitted polygamy in the Old Testament. There are many examples of men with multiple wives, from patriarchs to kings.

In fact, some contend that regulations in the Law of Moses endorse polygamy. Why does it seem that God allowed polygamy, when at creation He intended one man for one woman? Let’s examine what the Scriptures actually say about this.

God’s Creation of Marriage

At the time of creation, God fashioned the very first woman, Eve, from Adam’s rib, and brought her to the man (Gen. 2:18–22). Upon seeing his wife, Adam burst into a song of joy (Gen. 2:23). Then Moses, the human author of Genesis, breaks into the story, giving the divine perspective on the creation of marriage. He states, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

This verse explains the God-ordained institution of marriage. Marriage, as God intended, has several components. The first is independence. A man leaves his family home and creates a new family unit with his wife. Second, marriage must be exclusive, meaning it is between one man and one woman.

There isn’t the hint of polygamy in this text. Third, marriage is to be permanent, seen in the word “joined” (some versions use the word “cling”). The same Hebrew verb (dabaq) is used of Ruth clinging permanently to her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1:14) and referring to Hezekiah’s faithful commitment to the Lord (2 Kings 18:6). It has the idea of holding on and not letting go, showing that marriage was designed to be a permanent relationship. The fourth aspect of marriage is unity. Although some only see marital sex in the phrase “they shall become one flesh,” it actually depicts a couple that had become unified as a new family unit. Therefore, sexual union is merely an expression of the unity between a husband and wife.

The establishment of the institution of marriage as described in Genesis makes it apparent that God’s intention for marriage was that it was to be between one man and one woman for life. There was no hint of bigamy or polygamy in God’s creation plan.

Biblical Examples of Polygamy

Despite the evident expectation of monogamy in God’s establishment of marriage, Scripture gives numerous examples of men with multiple wives. These examples should not be viewed as an endorsement of bigamy or polygamy but rather as man’s rebellion against God’s prescriptive will. For example, the very first person to take multiple wives was Lamech (Gen. 4:19), yet this account is found in the midst of the rebellious line of Cain (Gen. 4:17–24).

Other cases include Abram, who succumbed to his wife’s idea of taking Hagar as a concubine. Yet, Scripture never portrays this action as a good choice. In fact, Genesis 16 uses language similar to Genesis 3, deliberately associating Sarai’s suggestion with Eve’s temptation, including the sentence “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Gen. 16:2), calling to mind Genesis 3:17: “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife . . . .” The rest of the story demonstrates the disastrous consequences of Abram’s choice.

“God always intended marriage to be monogamous.”

Certainly, the example of Jacob taking two wives while living with his pagan Uncle Laban was not intended to be understood as proper behavior (Gen. 29:1–30). Likewise, David’s marriage to multiple wives set up his ultimate failure with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11) and led to his many difficulties later in life. Solomon’s decision to marry 700 women and to maintain a harem with 300 concubines was not recorded as an example of someone obeying the Word of God. In fact, these women turned Solomon’s “heart away after other gods” (1 Kings 11:3–4). It’s plain in Scripture that although people practiced bigamy or polygamy, it was never presented as if these practices were good or obedient to God’s intention for marriage.

Alleged Evidence for Polygamy

There are only five passages that seem to support biblical approval for having more than one wife. But do they really endorse polygamy? Let’s examine them.

Exodus 21:7-11

The law of Exodus 21:7–11 has to do with a young girl being sold to a man in payment of a debt, initially to serve as a servant girl but in the future, when she comes of age, as a bride. In our culture, selling a young girl to another household to serve as an indentured servant and ultimately as a wife would be morally reprehensible, but in biblical times all fathers received a bride price for giving their daughters in marriage. This law was designed to protect the rights of a young woman sold before reaching marriageable age. The servant girl was not to be released in her seventh year, as was a male indentured servant. Instead, her master could choose to marry her or to have his son marry her. Many modern English versions follow the ancient Greek Bible (the Septuagint) in their translations and therefore misunderstand Exodus 21:8. My own literal translation is, “If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master, who does not designate her (or betroth her), then he must allow her to be redeemed (for a price). He has no right to sell her to a foreign people because of his deceit of her (in not marrying her).” It goes on to say if he does betroth her to his son, he must treat her as he would his own daughter (Ex. 21:9) and not as a servant.

The support for polygamy is often found in verse 10, it being understood that he has taken an “additional wife” (hcsb). But the word translated “wife” could just as well be translated “woman,” which fits the context. Since he has not designated this servant girl as his own wife, he chooses “another woman” as his wife. If the servant girl is not redeemed by another so she stays in his household, he may not diminish her “food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights.”

Of course, use of the words “conjugal rights” makes it seem as if the man has taken an additional wife. However, the Hebrew word translated this way only appears here in the Old Testament. It’s not clear that it even means “conjugal rights.” It is translated this way only because the ancient Greek version guessed that it was its meaning, so English versions have followed suit.

Some have suggested that it referred to her daily allotment of ointment or oil.15 Another, more likely, possibility is that the word is derived from an altogether different Hebrew root meaning “dwelling”16 and refers to her right to stay in the household even with a different wife there. If the man did not provide these three items (food, clothing, lodging), according to verse 11, the girl was to be released without paying the man a redemption price for her. Admittedly, this passage is fairly difficult to interpret, but, once translated carefully, it really specifies treatment of a servant girl and does not endorse polygamy.

Leviticus 18:18

The prohibition found in Leviticus 18:18 is that a man is not to “marry a woman in addition to her sister as a rival while she is alive, to uncover her nakedness.” Some presume that this only prohibits taking a sister-in-law as a second wife while any other woman would be permissible. In light of God’s establishment of marriage as being between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24), it seems better understood as a prohibition of a specific kind of polygamy. In addition to the general ban on multiple wives, this forbidding of marrying one’s sister-in-law would be necessary for the community of Israel to learn this in light of Jacob’s marriages to sisters Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:21–30). The people of Israel were not to consider their patriarch’s actions as a valid exception to the prohibition of polygamy and therefore, they were not to practice Jacob’s same vexing sin of marrying two sisters.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

Deuteronomy 21:15–17 describes a man having had sons with two different wives, one loved and the other unloved. If the son of the unloved wife is the firstborn, the father may not prioritize the son of the loved wife over him when making his will. It states, “he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has” (Deut. 21:16–17). The presumption of many is that this discussion demonstrates that having two wives was lawful.

“God created marriage to be between one man and one woman for life.”

Two responses must be considered. First, this law is dealing with inheritance rights, not lawful marriage. While it is dealing with a problem that might come up if someone were to break the law of monogamy, it should not be read as endorsing bigamy. Rather it is seeking to regulate the problems that ensued when God’s people disobeyed His command for monogamy.

Second, it need not be assumed that this is discussing a man having two wives at the same time. The Hebrew verb tenses are not concerned with time. Therefore, it could be understood to discuss the problems that might ensue when a man has had two wives in succession and wants to treat the son of the second wife, whom he loves, as if he were the firstborn. Regardless, this passage is certainly not an endorsement of having two wives at the same time and may not even address that issue at all.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10

In Deuteronomy 25:5–10, Moses gives the law of levirate marriage (from the Latin word levir, a husband’s brother), calling for a brother to marry his dead brother’s widow. The purpose of such a marriage was to raise a child to inherit the dead brother’s name and property, and thereby keep the inheritance in the family. Some believe that levirate marriage would be required even if the surviving brother was already married and therefore consider it God-ordained bigamy. Others do not see this as a blanket endorsement of multiple wives but a permitted exception to monogamy under these circumstances alone.

It seems better to see levirate law as requiring an unmarried brother to raise up the heir for his dead brother. The only examples of levirate marriage in Scripture involved unmarried men (Gen. 38; Ruth 3–4). But what if the brother was married? Then he would be disqualified and another unmarried relative would need to take up the role as kinsman-redeemer. This is perfectly acceptable because the Hebrew word for “brother” is elastic enough to mean “relative.” Thus, Boaz, who was only a relative and not a brother, could act as the kinsman-redeemer for Ruth (Ruth 4:6–10).

2 Samuel 12:7-8

After David committed the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, Nathan the prophet came to rebuke him. Speaking for the Lord, he recounted for David all that God had done for him, including “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” (2 Sam. 12:8). Some have taken this to mean that God gave Saul’s wives to be David’s wives, thereby showing God’s approval of polygamy.

This is unlikely because the Law of Moses prohibited kings from having multiple wives (Deut. 17:17). The verse is actually saying that the Lord gave into David’s care everything that had been Saul’s, including his household, his kingdom, and his women (a more likely translation than wives). Renowned Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser Jr. concludes that this is not saying that the Lord gave Saul’s wives to David but rather Saul’s women. These included giving David the oversight of Saul’s female domestics and courtiers, in fact “everything was placed under the control and supervision of David much as a conquering king exhibited his full victory over a subjugated nation by taking control of the defeated king’s household.”17

Final Thoughts

God created marriage to be between one man and one woman for life. He didn’t create marriage to be monogamous, only to change His mind to allow polygamy in the Law of Moses, and then change it back to monogamy in the New Testament. Rather, God always intended marriage to be monogamous.

For Further Reading:

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