Bible students have long pondered the practice of polygamy. Was the polygamy we read about in the Old Testament approved by God or was it morally wrong and simply tolerated by God? The Bible clearly answers this question.
Old Testament Polygamists
Abraham, father of the faithful, had more than one wife, as his wife Sarah gave to him her handmaiden, Hagar, “to be his wife” (Gen. 16:3). This fact alone does not answer our question. But in the matter of King David we have much more to consider. God Himself gave David his wives.
2 Samuel 12:8 And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
By saying this, God expressed that He accepted and condoned David’s marital situation. We know that God counted David as a man after His own heart (Acts 13:22) and that David was faithful in everything God told him to do except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite, which had nothing to do with multiple wives. In fact, after Uriah died God allowed David to take Bathsheba to add her to all the other wives God had already given him (2 Sam. 12:24).
1 Kings 15:5 Because David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.
As a polygamist, David was doing that which was right in God’s eyes. The Bible also gives us other examples of godly men who had more than one wife at a time, but these two suffice to show that God did not consider polygamy a sin and it was not just something he tolerated.
Polygamy under the Law of Moses
The Law of Moses regulated polygamy and at times may have required it.
Deuteronomy 25:5 If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her.
Note that nothing is said about whether the man already had a wife. Married or single, he was to take his dead brother’s wife.
Exodus 22:16 And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins.
Again, nothing is said about this man’s being single. He might already have been married; yet if he had sexual relations with a single woman, he was required to marry her if her father would allow it.
Deuteronomy 22:22 If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.
What is the difference? Whether the man was married or single did not matter. It is not even mentioned. A man could have more than one woman, and if the woman was single he was to marry her but if she was married he was to die. God never sanctioned polyandry (a woman’s having more than one husband), but He did sanction polygyny (a man’s having more than one wife).
Leviticus 18:18 Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.
A man could not marry his wife’s sister while his wife was still alive. This is strong evidence that he could marry another woman while his wife was still alive; otherwise, this law would make no sense.
Deuteronomy 21:15 If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated:
16 Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn:
17 But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.
Why did God regulate polygamous marriages? If polygamy was sinful, why did He not say so? God has never been shy about condemning sin. He gave specific instructions about sexual relations during menstruation, so we cannot think that He not only allowed immoral behavior but also sanctioned it by giving David his wives. We need to be careful about the charges we make against our Creator. Since God authorized polygamy, and in some cases even commanded it, we know that polygamy was not sinful (Dt. 25:5, 2 Sam. 12:8, I Kings 15:5).
Exodus 21:10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
Again, as long as a man continued to provide for his first wife, he could take a new wife. Note also:
Exodus 21:11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.
A slave who had become a man’s wife was to go out free if her husband took a new wife and diminished her food, her clothing, or her duty of marriage. Polygamy was approved and regulated by God in the Old Testament; and Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, mentioned that the “ancient practice among us to have many wives at the same time” continued in his day. (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVII, 1, § 2; if link does not work see: http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-17.htm.)
As we can see, polygamy was practiced and regulated as well as approved under the law of Moses. It was also still being engaged in when Jesus and the apostles lived.
The New Testament on Polygamy
The New Testament neither specifically sanctions nor condemns polygamy. We do, however, need to consider a couple of scriptures.
I Timothy 3:2
We know from this passage that elders and deacons must be the “husband of one wife,” but that does not necessitate that all men must be thus. It in fact necessitates that men who are not elders and deacons may be the husbands of something other than one wife; otherwise, the special qualification for elders and deacons means nothing at all. Consider the following requirement for a priest of God:
Leviticus 21:14 A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or an harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife.
Priests could not marry divorced women but were required to marry virgins. Unless that necessarily implies that other men could marry divorced women and non-virgins, the restriction on priests means absolutely nothing. The same is true of the qualification for elders and deacons.
Some will say that this simply means that elders and deacons have to be married and we know that is not required of all men. But the passage does not say they have to be married; it says they have to be the husband of one wife. We need to remember that polygamy was a fact when the New Testament was written and consider that context when we look at this qualification. We cannot assume that the requirement to have one wife has to do with morality as it could possibly be due to a man’s having no time for the duties of an elder or deacon if he has several wives.
This passage does not condemn polygamy. If it does anything at all, it leads us to believe polygamy is approved because it gives a specific qualification about an elder’s having one wife, which would lead us to believe that other men may have more than one–otherwise, why make the requirement at all? Paul knew how to say a man must be married if that is what he meant; he did not do so.
Some might say that if this language (“husband of one wife”) allows men who are not elders or deacons to have multiple wives, then it also allows women to have multiple husbands–because a “widow indeed” was to have been the “wife of one man” (I Tim. 5:9). I am using this scripture about elders and deacons not to prove that other men may have multiple wives but simply to show that the scripture itself does not condemn polygamy.
But what of polyandry? We know that it was never sanctioned by God. Also, we have New Testament passages telling us that women may not have more than one husband.
Romans 7:3 So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.
1 Corinthians 7:39 The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.
We recognize from these scriptures that a woman may have only one husband. Unless her husband dies or she is divorced from him, she will be committing adultery if she takes another husband. We do not have passages such as these regarding men; and we know that God allowed, approved of, and even sometimes commanded men to have more than one wife.
I Corinthians 7:2
Someone might insist that polygamy is forbidden because according to this scripture every man is to have his own wife and every woman is to have her own husband. It is interesting to note, however, that the words Paul uses for “own” in this verse are not necessarily exclusive.
1 Corinthians 7:2 Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.
Two different but synonymous words are used for the word “own” in this scripture.
The first “own” is heautou and means “himself, herself, itself, themselves.” (If link does not work, see: http://cf.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1438&Version=kjv.) We will not discuss this word extensively, as most people agree that a man’s wife is his exclusively. However, I want to make it clear that this word, just like the word idios, which we will discuss later, can refer to both exclusive and non-exclusive nouns. No distinction, as far as I know, can be made based on the use of one word or the other. I simply have no reason to discuss this word because, as I said, we all accept that a woman may have only one husband, based on the scriptures I listed above that condemn the practice of polyandry. So I will move on to the other word for “own.”
When Paul talks about the woman having her own husband, he uses another word, idios (if link does not work, see: http://cf.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2398&Version=kjv), which means “pertaining to one’s self, one’s own, belonging to one’s self.” Please understand that something can belong to two or more people at the same time. I may have my own house but it also belongs to my husband—and maybe even the bank. And this word expresses this very thing. The word does not necessarily mean that a woman’s husband belongs only to her.
I have four children who all call me their own mother. If a friend invited one of my children to go to his house on Mother’s Day, my child might say, “No, thanks, I have to go visit my own mother.” I am his “own” mother but I am also the mother of three other children.
Another example of this is an employer’s relationship to his employees. He may have many employees but he is the boss of all of them and they would all call him their own boss. A master in the New Testament might have hundreds of slaves, but each slave would refer to him as his “own” master, although a slave could not claim the master as exclusively his.
We certainly understand this with regard to our relationship to God. He is my Lord and Master but He is not only mine. God has many servants and none of us can claim Him as our own in the sense that He is only ours.
Romans 14:4 Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own (idios) master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
We know that this servant has his own Master (God), but he is not the only servant God has. This is the only New Testament passage that even seems to imply that polygamy is not approved of God, and we need to recognize that this word does not necessarily refer to an exclusive relationship. No matter how we feel about polygamy or what our culture will accept, we need to look at scripture with an open mind and a willingness to accept what we read.
Some other scriptures where the word idios is used are:
Matthew 9:1And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. (A city belongs to more than one person.)
Matthew 22:5 But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: (The man probably had a wife to whom the farm also belonged.)
John 1:41 He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ. (I have five sisters who are my own sisters, but each sister also belongs to the others.)
Every single time the Bible mentions wives having their own husbands, the word idios is used. (I mention this not to make a distinction between heautou and idios, as no such distinction can be made. I mention it only in case we might think that, at some other time when this English terminology is used, a different and perhaps definitely exclusive word is used. It is not.) Note especially:
1 Peter 3:5 For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own (idios) husbands:
In this passage we know that some of these holy women did not have their own exclusive husband. This alone proves that Paul’s saying a woman is to have her own (idios) husband does not necessarily mean that he could not also be the husband of other women.
Does the word idios ever appear in a passage in which the relationship is exclusive? Yes, it does. I am not saying that this verse absolutely demands polygamy in the New Testament. I am saying that we cannot use the verse to condemn polygamy because the terminology does not necessitate an exclusive relationship. I repeat: I discuss this passage for one reason only, and that is to show that it does not condemn polygamy–not to try to say that it promotes it.
Most of us do not think that polygamy is God’s ideal, and in our society it is illegal. However, these considerations do not make polygamy immoral or sinful. Very few people advocate polygamy as a superior model to monogamy, but we can find no evidence in the Word of God to show that polygamy is sinful. We must remember that we have only three words to describe polygamy: marriage, fornication, or adultery. Those who think God simply allowed polygamy, even though it was sinful and not true marriage, are accusing God of allowing fornication or adultery and turning His head the other way. Who can believe it?
The Polygamy Factor in Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage
Now if polygamy is not sinful or immoral, that raises the question as to why a man who puts away his wife (not for fornication) and marries another commits adultery (Mt. 19:9). The scriptures contain many cases of men’s having multiple wives and it is never called adultery. David was never rebuked for his multiple wives. As I have shown, God said He gave these wives to David. However, David was rebuked when he took Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, for himself. Look again at this verse:
1 Kings 15:5 Because David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.
In view of the fact that having multiple wives is never condemned and certainly is never called adultery, why does the man who puts away his wife (without the cause of fornication) and marries another commit adultery? Let us consider this question.
What Is It That God Condemns?
What was it that God condemned about divorce in the first place? When we look to the Old Testament the concern over divorce was the mistreatment of the wife that was put away.
Malachi 2:10 Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?
11 Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god.
12 The LORD will cut off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the LORD of hosts.
13 And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.
14 Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.
15 And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.
16 For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
Since polygamy was sanctioned, we know that it is not the marriage to the second wife that God condemned or hated but it was instead the treacherous treatment of the first wife.
An employer has a right to hire me and he has a right to hire others in addition to me. He may hire as many people as he needs to do a job. He also has a right to let me go and to let all his employees go. But if he decides to let me go when I have done nothing wrong and am fulfilling my duties to him and then he hires someone right behind me to fill the same position, I am going to be outraged. He will have insulted and humiliated me.
A woman has a right to have as many children as she desires. The first child cannot be angry because she has or takes a second or a third child. She also might, under certain circumstances, be justified in letting a child go. Perhaps the mother is mentally handicapped and was impregnated through rape. Or maybe she is twelve years old. It might be that she is dying of cancer. A mother may, for some good reasons, choose to give up her child. But what a mother should and would never do is give her own child away and then go seek a new child to take its place. We would be outraged if a woman did such a thing.
Likewise, putting away a wife without the cause of fornication for the sole purpose of taking another wife is wrong. It is insulting and degrading to the first wife, and the man has ceased to perform the duties of a husband to her. He has not simply taken a second wife. He has broken his vows and is now performing those vows for another while refusing to perform them for his first wife. He has broken wedlock. He has been unfaithful to his vows.
Adultery with the Second Wife?
Many believe that the adultery Jesus describes is with the second wife. But Mark 10:11 indicates that it is against the first wife.
Mark 10:11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.
While it is possible for men to commit adultery with married women, that is not what this word means in this instance and it is not how it is translated. Scholarship is almost unanimous that “against her” is referring to the first wife.
And why should this be adultery with the second wife? Since polygamy is not a sin, she is indeed the man’s wife. He has every right to a second wife. What he does not have a right to do is put away the first in order to obtain the second. Had the man in question continued to take care of the first wife, providing her with undiminished food, clothing, and marital relations, Jesus would have had nothing bad to say to him because he would have been complying with the Law of Moses, under which he lived—and under which Jesus lived and taught. Therefore, we can conclude that the sin that Jesus speaks of is the same sin that God condemned in Malachi, and that is the treachery against, and abandonment of, the first wife.
Ending Second Marriages
What is a man to do if he has divorced his first wife without just cause and married another woman? Some say he must divorce the second and go back to the first. If he does this is he not showing himself to be faithless again? Is he not breaking yet another covenant and failing to perform marital duties to yet another wife?
Preachers who go about the countryside insisting that men who have divorced and remarried must put away their second wives and go back to their first are telling them to do exactly what Jesus condemned—put away an innocent wife and marry another. Two wrongs do not make a right, and it is just as wrong for the man to divorce a second or third wife as it is for him to divorce the first one. Also, Moses said that if a man put away his wife and she went and became another man’s wife, it was an abomination before the Lord if the first husband took her back again (Dt. 24:4). How could something that was an abomination suddenly become a righteous act?
Jesus said that a man who looks at a woman to lust after her is committing adultery in his heart (Mt. 5:28). We know this is not having actual sexual relations of any kind, and yet it is still called adultery and is a clear failure to achieve the ideal in marriage. Thus, we can recognize that many men have failed in their marriages in some capacity even if they have not committed fornication or divorced and remarried.
I know that polygamy is contrary to our culture; but when we factor in polygamy in considering marriage, divorce, and remarriage, it can shed great light. Also, if we remember the high standard that Jesus calls upon men to have in their marriages (not even to look upon a woman to lust after her), perhaps we can realize the need for grace and forgiveness to be extended to those who fail in a more overt way and experience divorce.
God wants a man to take a woman for life, and men and women pay a high price when divorce occurs. But God is able to forgive and forget all sin through Jesus Christ.