What about the polygamy of the Patriarchs?

Question: In the Old Testament, we read that many men had multiple wives and even concubines. Why was this allowed then, but is sin now? And why was having concubines not adultery (since they were not actually wives)?

Answer: The Lord Protector of the English Commonwealth, the Puritan statesman, Oliver Cromwell, insisted that when a portrait was made of him, his face be painted “warts and all.” Likewise, when the Bible narrates the history of the patriarchs, it mentions both their virtues and their vices. Scripture does not shy away from recording the shortcomings of God’s people. The Bible is refreshingly honest in this respect. The failings of even the choicest of God’s saints are recorded for all to see: Eli’s failure as a father (1 Sam. 3:13; cf. 2:12-17, 27-34); David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11); Peter’s denial of Christ (Matt. 26:69-75); etc.

One of the prominent shortcomings of some of the patriarchs was the sin (yes, sin) of polygamy. Some people have mistakenly assumed that what the Bible records concerning the lives of the patriarchs, it approves. But there is a big difference between merely recording the fact that a Bible character acted in a given way, and approving of his acting in that way. The fact that many men in the Old Testament had multiple wives and concubines does not mean that it was right for them to do so. The Bible is simply being honest about their misdeeds. It doesn’t attempt to whitewash their wrongdoing, simply because they belonged to God.

It is true that several otherwise godly men practiced polygamy—Abraham, Jacob, and David, for example. But this is not true of all. Noah, Isaac, and Moses each had one wife.

Neither polygamy nor its cousin concubinary, were ever a part of God’s original intention for marriage. Every indication suggests just the opposite.

At creation God made one man for one woman; and ever since there has been nearly an equal number of men and women who come to marriageable age.

Second, polygamy is first mentioned in Genesis 4:19 as something out of the ordinary. It apparently originated with a man by the name of Lamech, from the ungodly line of Cain.

Third, when God flooded the world, he spared righteous Noah who, along with his three sons, each had only one wife—suggesting that they strictly observed creation law with respect to marriage.

Fourth, God explicitly forbade the kings of Israel from multiplying wives in Deuteronomy 17:17, a law that obviously applied to all the men of Israel.

Fifth, in the Laws authorizing and protecting marriage, monogamy is consistently assumed.

Those of God’s saints who took more than one wife (or took a concubine) did so for different reasons. Abraham took a concubine because Sarah his wife was barren. This was a common way to deal with a wife’s infertility, and Abraham only did so at Sarah’s insistence.

Jacob took a second wife because unbeknownst to him, the woman he intended to marry was withheld from him, and her sister was secretly substituted in her place. The wedding took place at night and she was heavily veiled, and he may have been a bit tipsy, and he didn’t know that it was Leah instead of Rachel until the next morning. What could he do? He had already slept with her before he found out it was not who he had bargained for. Given the opinions of the day, no other man would now marry her. He tried to do right by her. He tried to make the best of a bad situation.

Under the Law of Moses God sanctioned the taking of a second wife, only under one condition, and that was the case of a man whose married brother died childless. In this case, he was to marry his brother’s widow in order to have children by her for his brother’s sake, so that his brother’s name would not be extinguished. This was called Levirate marriage.

David clearly was in the wrong by taking more than one wife, when there were no extenuating circumstances that might otherwise mitigate his guilt for doing so (as in the case of Abraham or of Jacob; or in the case of Levirate marriage).

Solomon, of course, was certainly over the top: 700 wives and 300 concubines. Most of these unions were probably contracted for political purposes, as a way of cementing relations with the kings of other nations, as was customary; but he was clearly in the wrong for making use of this custom.

We read of a number of other men in the OT who practiced polygamy, as well. But it was never God’s intention in creating the institution of marriage that a man have more than one wife (or that a woman have more than one husband). This is a blot on the character of some of the OT saints, a blot we wish was not there, and shows how even good men can fall into grievous sins, demonstrating our need of humility and constant prayer to God for grace to live godly lives.

It would perhaps be appropriate at this point to quote Robert Lewis Dabney. He made an insightful comparison that puts the polygamy of the patriarchs in perspective. He said,

“The man who, misled by the opinion of his day, entered into a regular marriage with a second and a third wife, during the life of the first, was wrong. But he was less wrong than the fornicator and far less guilty than the adulterer of our day. He, at least, attempted to extend to the accomplices of his sin all the protection and permanent rights of a wife, a home, a subsistence, a reputable social status. He aimed to confer upon the progeny of these wives all the rights of legitimacy, a regular home, an education, a name and an inheritance. He acted with a misguided humanity and justice, compared with which the customary conduct of the modern adulterer appears a monstrous inhumanity; for he leaves the accomplice of his illicit desires, often without a home or subsistence and always without any legalized title to them, without name and without character. He visits, too, the same curse upon his innocent progeny” (R.L. Dabney, The Practical Philosophy, [Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications (1897)1984], p. 358).


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