Have you ever wondered why so many of the “good guys” of the faith – like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon – had multiple wives, but today, Christians consider polygamy to be a sin? I was wondering about that recently, so I asked my friend, Pastor Gabe Hughes of When We Understand the Text (WWUTT), and he was kind enough to answer my question on his podcast. WWUTT is a ministry I highly recommend, from Gabe’s daily Bible study podcast (also available on iTunes) to WWUTT videos to Pastor Gabe’s blog. Be sure to check it out!
Listen here, starting at the 10:30 mark.
(Or, do yourself a favor and listen to the whole episode!)
Here’s the transcript of my question and Gabe’s answer:
We know from Gen. 2:18-25 that God’s plan for marriage is one man/one woman. It would seem that this concept is transcendent, or timeless, since God made this pronouncement in the Garden prior to the giving of the Law.
Genesis 2:24 sounds like imperative language. Is it a command, in that, taking multiple wives is a sin? If so, were men like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon sinning by having more than one wife? If they were sinning, why don’t we ever see God calling them to repentance for the act of polygamy? (the act itself, not just its consequences- Deut. 17:17, 1 Kings 11:3-4)
Could 2 Samuel 12:8 be understood as God approving of polygamy?
Do Deut. 17:17 and 1 Tim. 3:2,12/Titus 1:6 allow for the idea that polygamy is not OK for those in leadership positions, but is OK for non-leaders?
If God did not consider polygamy to be a sin in the OT, but does consider it to be a sin in the NT (if that’s a correct way of viewing it), how does that fit with His immutability (Num. 23:19/Heb. 13:8)?
We tend to lump polygamy in with sexual immorality, but the Bible doesn’t. When you go through lists of sins that will keep someone from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, etc.), notice that polygamy is never listed. That’s because sexual immorality is any sexual activity outside of the covenant of marriage, and polygamy is still sex within a marriage. So it is not in the same category as sexual immorality. It’s still sin because it’s against the law of God. It’s just not as grave a sin.
Polygamy is never directly confronted in the Old or New Testament, except to say that marriage is to be between one husband and one wife until death (Matthew 19:5, 1 Corinthians 7:39, 1 Timothy 3:2, etc.). In the requirements for an overseer of the church, the pastor or the elder is to be a husband of one wife. He is a mature Christian, and is to be an example for the saints under his care. Therefore, we know this is what Christ expects of his followers: for those who are married, it is to be one man and one woman for life.
So why is polygamy never directly confronted, in the Old Testament or New? This is conjecture on my part, but I believe the reason is so no one would be led to believe they need to divorce all their wives but their first. In Bible times (both Old and New), a woman who had sex — whether she had been married and divorced, or even raped and forced into sex against her will — was considered no good (hence the laws in Deuteronomy 22). Had a woman who was wife number 3 in a marriage been divorced because her husband had an attack of conscience, she would be forced into a situation that would leave her destitute, resulting in either slavery or prostitution (consider 2 Samuel 13:20).
Now, despite the fact that we often single out characters like Abraham and Jacob, David and Solomon, polygamy was not a common practice (and polyamory was practically non-existent). If it was practiced at all, it was among the rich. And it was either a sign of wealth, or it was considered a benevolent act. For example, David married Abigail when her bonehead of a husband died. Abigail would not have inherited Nabal’s household, as we think of in an American context — she would either have gone to live with family or become destitute. David took her as his wife to show appreciation for her kindness. In the case of Solomon, his wives were his possession, and his interests were divided between the God of his father and the gods of his pagan wives (as in 1 Timothy 6:
In Malachi’s rebuke against Israel, he said, “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:16). For those Israelites who had married pagan wives, they broke the law of God, but they weren’t to divorce their wives. Likewise, those who had taken multiple wives had broken the law of God, but weren’t to divorce their extra wives. Rather, they needed to remain faithful to their covenant vow, and teach their children what God intended marriage to be so not to repeat the sins of their fathers.
In countries today where polygamy is practiced, missionaries tell these husbands not to divorce their wives, lest their wives become destitute and their children fatherless. But they should teach their children that when they grow up and get married, they are to only have one spouse. The Bible explicitly says how God designed a marriage is to be, and that is sufficient.