Why Did God Allow Polygamy in the Bible?
- Seth L. Scott Columbia International University
- 2021 20 Aug
Throughout the Old Testament, we read of a practice in intimate relationships - polygamy. Polygamy is defined as having more than one wife or husband at the same time. If may be surprised reading through the Bible stories of Abraham, Jacob, and other well-known patriarchs, and seeing polygamy as common. Did God condone it? What do we do with Scriptures that address polygamous relationships and concubines? Let's take a look at what Jesus says.
Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, the religious leaders asked Jesus questions and challenged him, seeking to find a way to discredit or trap him (Mark 12:13). In Matthew 19, Pharisees attempted to position Jesus in the middle of a rabbinical disagreement over what was considered legitimate grounds for divorce, in which His answer, one way or the other, would put him at odds with at least one group.
The followers of Shammai believed that a man could not divorce his wife unless she was sexually unfaithful while the followers of Hillel were more lenient, believing a man could divorce his wife for just about anything. Jesus’ response wisely cut through their pursuit of exceptions and rationalizations to the meaning and intent of marriage, which is instructive for us on the issue of polygamy as well. Jesus returned to creation, saying, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So, they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:4-6).
Jesus reiterated the purpose and intent of marriage as instituted at creation with the design of one man and one woman becoming one flesh forever. Polygamy ignores and disrupts this one-plus-one equals one creational design by marrying more than one spouse at the same time. Gamy means to marry, pitting poly- (many) against mono- (one) in the distinctions of meaning and design. If God’s creational intent for marriage is monogamy, why did God allow polygamy?
Examples of Polygamy Happening in the Bible
As noted, Genesis 1:27-28 explains, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” The expanded narrative is provided in Genesis 2, amplifying this creation mandate and man’s role. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it… Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Gen. 2:15, 18).
So, God created woman from man, establishing His plan and purpose in our creative and relational imaging of Him as man and woman, becoming one flesh, naked and unashamed (Gen. 2:24-25). While polygamy is quick to the narrative with Lamech taking two wives by Genesis 4, to understand the cause of polygamy and answer why God allowed it, we must begin with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
The crux of the Fall rests on the beginning of the serpent’s statement to Eve, “Did God actually say, …” (Gen. 3:1). At contest in the Fall to sin is the question of dependence on God and His provision in all things, including the determinant of good and evil, or perceived independence and the ability to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Adam and Eve chose independence from God, resulting in the loss of innocence and purity that came in His protection and design, having their eyes opened to their own nakedness and shame (Gen. 3:7).
Polygamy begins with this choice of independence versus dependence because polygamy is the result of self-dependence/independence and the need or desire to control our lives, outcomes, choices, and in pursuit of personal glory. Lamech acted in defiance of God’s plan, seeming to take pride in following and aligning with the bad example of his ancestor, Cain, boasting in his retributive violence (Gen. 4:23) and claiming greater capacity for vengeance than God and assuming the role of God in enacting his own vengeance (Gen 4:24). While Lamech serves as an obviously unrighteous example and easy target to discredit polygamy, other Old Testament characters confound our understanding of God’s allowance of polygamy, mixing faithfulness, righteousness, and obedience to God with polygamous behavior.
Each of the Patriarchs engaged in polygamy, with Abram and Sarai demonstrating fear or distrust in God’s promise of an heir, taking matters into their own hands through Hagar and the birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16). Isaac did not practice polygamy, but his sons Jacob and Esau both did (Gen. 26:34; 29:30). Throughout the Old Testament, key characters demonstrated faithfulness to God in some areas, but often faltered with this issue of polygamy. The kings of Israel had many wives, beginning with Saul, David, and Solomon. For the wealthy and royal families, marriage was used to form alliances, demonstrate power and wealth, and promote influence. While the Bible includes these narratives, what is the message of the Bible about polygamy and how do we understand and explain the question, “Why did God allow polygamy?”
What Does the Bible Say about Polygamy and What Does Polygamy Say about Us?
In seeking to understand how the Bible addresses specific issues or topics, it is important to apply the hermeneutical principle of literary genre. The Bible consists of 66 books written by around 40 authors over a period of 1,500 years, all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The typical genres in the Bible include narrative, poetry, prophecy, law, wisdom literature, history, epistles or letters, and apocalyptic literature. Around sixty percent of the Bible is classified as narrative or history with many of the sections describing polygamy falling into this category. This distinction is important to identify what the Bible is describing in the narrative as occurring and what God specifically intends or directs for His purposes.
In many, if not all, of the polygamous marriages narrated throughout Scripture, favoritism and jealousy were common problems. While Sarai initiated the marriage of Abram and Hagar as a means to contribute an heir outside God’s plan, as soon as Hagar conceived, “she looked on [Sarai] with contempt” and “Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her” (Gen. 16:4, 6). Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Gen. 29:30), created hatred and competition between Rachel and Leah for his affection and drawing Bilhah and Zilpah, the servants of Rachel and Leah, into the competitive fray and tension as well (Gen. 30).
The narrative quickly demonstrates that expanding the marital union of one flesh beyond one husband and one wife creates jealousy, favoritism, and bitterness that perpetuates generations beyond its initiation. While the law included statutes to restrict the consequences of favoritism and promote equality and fairness, Jesus indicated that it was not God’s intention, but a provision in reaction to our own sinfulness (Matt. 19:8).
The narrative of the Old Testament demonstrates the damage created by living in defiance and independent of God’s purpose and plan with the New Testament reaffirming through Paul’s specific instruction to the churches that marriage is designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ (the bridegroom) and the church (the bride) (Eph. 5:32). Recognizing this intentional, creational design for marriage as an illustration and example from the beginning establishes a clarifying lens to the issue of polygamy and God’s response throughout all of Scripture.
Throughout the Old Testament and especially in the major and minor prophets, Israel’s relationship with God is illustrated as a marriage. This is not incidental but, as Paul explains in Ephesians 5, is part of the intentional design of our relational image bearing of God to the world. As Israel disobeyed God and pursued the beliefs and practices of other cultures, the judges and prophets preached against the unfaithfulness of the people, vividly calling their idolatry adultery and infidelity. God used the life and ministry of Hosea to graphically illustrate this behavior, calling him to marry a prostitute and have children to demonstrate “the great whoredom [of the people] by forsaking the Lord” (Hosea 1:2).
In the same way that husbands ended up favoring one spouse over another because polygamy divided their attention and capacity in relationship, Jesus explained to us that we cannot serve two masters (Lk. 16:13). In our fallen and sinful state, our desires are distorted, and we seek self-gratification and personal glory in independence from God (Gal. 5:17-21) in place of dependence on God, death to our sinful self, and glory to God (Gal. 5:22-25).
Why Did God Allow Polygamy?
While the theme and intention of this article is this question of “Why did God allow polygamy?”, the real question that encompasses this issue is actually much broader. Polygamy is a sin, a distortion of God’s intention and design for us as His image-bearers and for the demonstration of His intended relationship with us as His people. In the same way that Genesis explained that a man and a woman become one flesh in marriage, the people of God are united with Christ through His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:5), awaiting the celebration of this glorious union at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-8).
So, the real question is, “Why does God allow sin to continue?” God tolerates sin, and polygamy, to continue because God is patient in His love for us, just as He was patient with Israel, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). As Jonah acknowledged, God is a “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2). God’s steadfast love for the people of Israel, and the church through the new covenant, is again illustrated through marriage in Hosea’s promise of the new covenant. “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20).
The problems and consequences of polygamy and idolatry demonstrated both the continued consequences for sin and the Fall but serve as a foil and spark in hope for the fulfillment of our sanctification and glorification in perfect union with Christ (Rev. 21:2-4). Polygamy is the rejection of God in His intention and design, both for us here and now in relationship with one another, and in our representation of intended relationship with Him through Christ. We are the Bride of Christ and although we persist in infidelity and divided affection, Christ loves us with an undivided and faithful love (Eph. 5:25-27).
The Psalmists and the prophets frequently struggled to understand God’s timing and plan, frustrated with the seeming success of the wicked (Ps. 73) and persistence of injustice (Hab. 1:2-4), but God is patient and loving, demonstrating the importance of His plan and timing by waiting even for us, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). Like Jonah, we want God to act now and intervene within this sinful world to prevent injustice and pain, failing to recognize that He did through His Son, providing a means for salvation, sanctification, justification, and glorification according to His timing and purposes, calling us to strengthen our hope as we wait with patience for the culmination of His plan (Isa. 30:18; Rom. 8:18-25).
Throughout all of Scripture, marriage provides an illustration for God’s relationship with us and our tendency toward infidelity and independence from His provision, plan, and love. The choices of departure from God’s plan and promises by the Patriarchs seem obvious to us today as the consequences of their choices and the resulting splits and tension in relationships across generations perpetuate to today.
However, if we apply God’s intention for marital fidelity to our relationship with Him and expectation for holding fast as one flesh, united as one as the Body of Christ to Christ as our Groom, how divided are our affections and devotions? Polygamy pitted spouse against spouse, child against child, competing for the attention and affections of their groom. May we love Christ with an undivided loyalty and devotion as He loves us (Eph. 5:29).
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Joaquin Corbalan
Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.