As you read through the Bible you immediately become aware that this is a book from another time period. Practices, rituals, and customs seem foreign to us, especially in the first books, because they are separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years from what we experience today. Yet what we read from the very beginning was intended, by God and the authors of Scripture, for guidance to all later generations who want to follow God.
So what are we to make of the constant examples of something outdated and offensive like polygamy? Why did God not end this practice immediately? Here a few observations about polygamy in the Bible that will help you make sense of what you are reading.
1. From the beginning of the Bible, God’s design for marriage is clear.
Marriage gets major emphasis right at the beginning of Genesis, where God teaches us so much about what it means to be human. Genesis 2:24 sets the tone for monogamy: “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.”
In four key marriage passages, the New Testament confirms that the math of marriage is 1+1=1. When Matt. 19:5-6, Mark 10:8, 1 Cor. 6:16 and Ephesians 5:31 refer to this passage, it reads “the two shall become one flesh.”
Though the Bible is clear for us, there are two important things to consider when reading about polygamous relationships, particular in Genesis:
1) Jacob and Lamech, for example, did not have access to the Bible. The very first parts of the Bible were written much later – how much Jacob could have known about what God considers righteous?
2) It was common in the cultures that surrounded Israel to have polygamy. If you are offended and disgusted at the sexual practices in ancient culture, good! But realize that the feeling would be mutual. Think about your culture and your own ideas for a moment. Many of our practices and thoughts are sinful. God is gracious and helps us to grow out of them. He is patient with our slow development, rarely addressing every sin all at once.
2. The Bible teaches us through both narrative AND proposition.
Forms of slavery and warfare, child sacrifice, idol worship, and polygamy are examples of common practices in the Ancient Near East that should alarm us when we see them in Scripture. At times, God gave laws addressing them specifically. Polygamy, however, does not get a direct prohibition – and that can leave the modern reader wondering, why not a law against polygamy?
Instead what we have are many examples of how polygamy ruined families and made life difficult. Lamech, the first polygamist in Scripture, is part of the unrighteous line of Cain (as opposed to the righteous line through Seth). There is no specific condemnation of his practice, but Lamech is the opposite of an example to follow. In Genesis 26 and 27, Esau’s two wives make life “bitter” for Isaac and Rebekah.
Jacob’s family never recovered from the bitterness and strife resulting from the polygamous arrangement (Genesis 29:31-30:23). In fact, the favoritism among Jacob, Leah, and Rachel spilled over into the next generation when Rachel’s son Joseph is sold into slavery because he was Daddy’s favorite.
David and Solomon had many wives, but part of the downfall of their kingdom came as a result of their polyamorous lifestyle. David’s family is dysfunctional and the rivalries in the next generation led to a civil war in Israel. 1 Kings 11:1-4 mentions Solomon’s numerous wives as the main reason why he did not stay true to God. This was the beginning of the end of the majestic Israelite monarchy.
Though there are no laws specifically forbidding it, story after story in the Old Testament shows why it is a bad idea. Even the original Israelite audience would have cringed at the unfortunate circumstance that Deuteronomy 21:15-17 describes. Laws made similar concessions about divorce, which the rest of Scripture clearly states is something that is against God’s heart (Malachi 2:10-16). Not everything that was permitted was beneficial.
3. The Bible does not prescribe everything it describes.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when reading the Old Testament is this: things described in its stories are not necessarily good. In fact, the Old Testament is mainly the story of a broken people who sin constantly, but God is merciful and patient with them anyway. This has become harder for us today, because we sometimes make heroes out of Bible characters. God is the only complete hero of the Old Testament … and maybe Moses and Elijah are pretty cool, too.
This can be confusing when you first read the Bible. Jacob fathers the 12 tribes of Israel through 4 women. David is called “a man after God’s own heart.” Solomon is considered one of the wisest men in history. But a consistent theme of the Old Testament is that the kings, judges, and patriarchs were not the saviors that Israel needed. Not everything they did is exemplary.
Following any of their examples will only leave you short of the life God intended for us. Moses murdered a man; David did too; Solomon sank the monarchy; Jacob is a thief, a liar, and would never win any “father of the year” awards. The more you read your Old Testament, the more you will appreciate how often God used broken people and sinful circumstances to bring about his ultimate redemption. Just take a look at Jesus’ genealogy sometime and see how much corruption there was in his line.
The fact that God grew the Israelite nation through polygamy is not an indication that he condones it. He may have conceded it for a time when women had few other desirable choices in life, and being a wife meant being cared for and treated with respect. We cannot be certain why, but we can be certain of who God is when we see the whole story. God shows us his glorious mercy and power in this way: he still gets his purposes accomplished despite how thoroughly his chosen people try to derail his plan of salvation. And his purpose is to love his people out of their sinful patterns.
Article by Eric Stortz with research help from Bradley Johnson and the Docent Research group.