What do Abraham, Jacob, Esau, David and Solomon all have in common? All of these great men of God had multiple wives. So the question is: Does God support polygamy?
Did God support or allow polygamy in the Old Testament? There’s actually a verse that seems to suggest that he did. And so in order to answer this question we want to take a look at three things. First of all, what are some of the reasons why he may have allowed it? Second of all, what were the results of everyone who practiced polygamy? And then finally, how is this question relevant to us today?
Number one: What were some of the reasons why men took multiple wives in the Old Testament? One of the reasons is if their wife was barren. And so in order to further the family lineage, a man would oftentimes take another wife and have a child by them. A second reason is for the protection of women. In this culture, there were a lot of men who were going off to war and they were dying leaving a disproportionate amount of men to women. And so oftentimes men would step up and take on extra wives to provide support and covering so that these women who couldn’t take care of themselves wouldn’t be forced into a life of prostitution. A third reason why men would take on extra wives in the Old Testament was for an alliance or to forge a partnership with another nation. And so oftentimes Kings would swap wives and then in doing so they formed an alliance or a partnership. The fourth reason was just straight-up greed. Some brothers like David and Solomon just took on more wives for the purpose of having more wives. But interestingly enough, even in David’s situation when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, God came to him and said why did you have to steal someone else’s wife? If the wives that I have already given you weren’t enough I would have given you more. So even though there were some reasons why men took on extra wives in the Old Testament, now we want to take a look at what were the results of every single person who practice polygamy.
Interestingly enough, each time in the Bible when a man took on an extra wife it caused problems and actually ended up oftentimes dividing his home. We can look at Abraham and his two wives, we can look at Jacob and his two wives and his two concubines, we can look at the interesting story in First Samuel between a wife named Hannah and another woman named Peninnah. So clearly each time somebody practiced polygamy in the old testament, it was some straight-up drama and did not turn out well. And so finally how is this question relevant for us today?
What actually helps us understand the proper way for how we should interpret the Word of God. There is something called the law of first mention and this is the idea that whenever we want to know more about what God thinks about a certain subject, we go back to the first time that it was mentioned in the Bible. And so if we look at the original institution of marriage it is crystal clear that it is the joining together of a man and a woman and so anything outside of that original intent cannot be considered God’s perfect will. Second of all, whenever we are interpreting the Bible be careful not to confuse God’s permissive will with his perfect will. In other words, don’t confuse certain things that are being described in the Bible as if God has prescribed it for every single Christian. In other words and to give you some examples, David cursed out many of his enemies in prayer but does that mean that we should do it? No, in the New Testament the Apostles would drink poison and not get sick, they would pick up snakes and not get bitten but just because it happened to them does it mean that we should do it? So we need to be careful not to take isolated events that occurred in the Bible and build a theology around it and say that this must be the normative experience for every single believer. A final consideration is: just like God was patient enough to use and bless men that took on extra wives, which was clearly outside of God’s will, in the same way God is patient to use us in spite of our sin. And so instead of asking the question “How can God overlook what they did and use those sinful men?”, instead we should be asking the question “How can God overlook all the things that we do everyday and still use us in spite of what we do?” So did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament for a variety of reasons? I think we can safely say that yes he did. But is polygamy God’s perfect will? I think we can safely say no it is not.