Troublesome Topic: Why Did God Allow Polygamy?

Lesson 6 of 9

The fact that the Bible does not condemn or prohibit polygamy (someone having more than one spouse) is fairly common knowledge because it is mentioned often as a criticism of the Bible. If you are not a critic, but rather a believer in the Bible, this fact may make you squirm. Let’s look into this together.

The Old Testament narrative begins with God creating one man and one woman, not one man and several women. That should tell us something about what God considers the ideal situation. The statement in Genesis 2:24, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife,” has only singular nouns, no plural ones. This is where Christianity gets the “one man and one woman” principle. It seems to be the standard, the ideal, the goal.

In the Law given through Moses, there were no regulations that limited the number of wives a man could have. There were stipulations for what types of women a man could legally take as a wife. There were also regulations instructing how an additional wife, or a concubine (whose children got no inheritance) should be treated.

What Lessons Were Taught Through Polygamy?

1. These regulations taught the need to keep various issues of holiness in mind:

Lines of authority must be maintained

It must be the proper relationship (Is she single and an Israelite?)

Purity must be a priority (Is she a virgin?).

God’s followers always have to keep their eyes open (physically and spiritually) for anything that displeases God. Likewise, every decision we make needs to be evaluated through a grid of God’s truth (which today are the principles God has always taught, but not the method God previously used to teach them).

2. These regulations also taught compassion. How? There was compassion in these regulations because they acknowledged that, in most ancient cultures, a woman needed a man to protect her and bring in the income. Apparently more baby boys are born than baby girls, but the mortality rate among boys is higher. In ancient times many young men died in battle and many young women died in child birth, or from complications of child birth.  Infections often went uncured and many sicknesses that we can successfully treat proved lethal back then. If there were lots of wars (and there usually were), the women would outnumber the men. Whenever there were more women than men, some men would have to have more than one wife to prevent the additional women from being constantly abused and exploited. Without a father, a husband, or a close relative willing to care for her needs, she was left with the options of begging or being a prostitute. It seems that God allowed polygamy for the same general reason that He allowed divorce—to protect people (usually women) from harm.

There was compassion in these regulations because God demanded that a man care for his wives in certain ways. A wife had the “right” (to use a modern term) to food, shelter, the possibility of having children, and a guarantee that her sons would get an inheritance. A concubine was just like a wife in every way except one, her sons did not get an inheritance. He was not allowed to use them to care for his needs without also caring for their needs.

In practical terms, a man could only take an additional wife if he knew he had the means to properly support her and the children they would have, including a reasonable inheritance. In these ways God showed that He did not look kindly on someone abusing or exploiting someone else.

There were many instances in which this system was shown to work fine, without major problems. There were other times when there were indeed major problems that arose, but these problems were due to the sinful condition of man’s heart, not a broken system.

 SUMMARY: I am glad that polygamy is no longer as common as it once was. I’m glad that those who do get married usually stick with God’s original plan of one man and one woman.

However, when we look at the Old Testament and we see things that we think are strange or even wrong, we need to try to see it through the eyes of the people in those ancient cultures. We also need to try to see what God’s purpose was. Just because we can’t understand it does not make something wrong. Just because we don’t like something does not mean God was wrong to do it.

If we strive to see something from God’s perspective rather than our own, and if we do our best to get a better understanding of the ancient culture that was involved, we will usually see that God knew what He was doing.

What Did This Teach?

These regulations taught the need to keep various issues of holiness in mind, e.g. lines of authority, the type of relationship, and purity (virginity). These regulations also taught compassion because they acknowledged that, in most ancient cultures, a woman needed a man to protect her and bring in the income.

For other topics that relate to this topic, please see Marriage Is a Covenant, What Made Sexual Sins Wrong? Solomon’s Many Wives.

If you are reading the medium-length series of this study on Covenants, the next lesson is: Old Testament Motivation to Abstain from Sexual Misconduct

If you are reading the full-length version of this series, the next lesson is: What Was up with Marrying a Captive Woman?

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible? is: What Was up with Marrying a Captive Woman?