I received a question this week in my inbox. Actually, they asked a few questions over multiple emails. I answered the ones I could and deferred this one for a post, because I felt it was fairly involved and I hadn’t yet tackled it on the blog in any great depth. Here’s an excerpt of their emails (with their permission):
Why is it that the men of the old testament including the heroes of the Christian faith -Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, David, Solomon etc etc all could have multiple wives, concubines, sex slaves of the beautiful captives (Deuteronomy) and with some of these guys they with their wives permission could have sex with others. (Abraham and Jacob.) God even tells David he would have given him more wives if he asked … It is so confusing to us this big change in the bible. Is not Jesus the same yesterday today and forever?
Where is the change? We can’t find one direct command from Jesus or Paul that the men should stop having all these wives. They say don’t commit adultery or fornication. It just seems so confusing because none of those guys were ever rebuked or condemned by God for having all those women. You just could not have sex with virgins or other men’s wives. Other than that all was okay.
Why did they have, why could they have, why were they never rebuked for having many women- wives and concubines, why did God offer David even more if he would have asked, why could the men take sex slaves of the captives, why did Paul and Jesus never address the Jewish men of their time and tell them to stop having concubines etc, why did Jacobs wive give him permission to have sex with his concubine and God never condemn him or her for it? How does that all relate to today …. I just want the truth.
I decided to answer this one in a post also because I think Christianity tends to gloss over details like this. They try to easily explain it away with “oh, that was the Old Testament”, as if the Old Testament doesn’t matter. They say things like “Jesus changed everything”, and yes, while Jesus died to save us, and that’s monumental, really, Jesus didn’t change anything while here. He clarified, He modeled, He explained, but He Himself even said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. – Matthew 5:17-18
Last I checked, the Earth has not disappeared, and so, the Old Testament is still valid, we just have a better explanation from Jesus on how they apply. We now know that works will not save us, that the law is there to teach us that we need Christ. The law is still valid, in that it still shows us, daily, that we need Christ, and daily we need to bear our cross and die to self so that Christ can live in us.
So, if all this is still valid, what do we do with the Old Testament and the issue of polygamy, of having multiple wives? I know my Mormon brothers and sisters will probably disagree with this entire post as they have a different understanding of polygamy, but for the rest of Christianity, I offer this as my perspective on how to understand God’s intent in all of this.
From the beginning
For me, I find the easiest way to get a clear understanding of God’s original intent is from the first 2 chapters of Genesis. The world is new, it’s perfect, it’s untainted. We haven’t fallen yet, we don’t have sinful natures, and so nothing from God is a concession, or a mitigation. It’s simply His perfect will.
In Genesis 2 get a more detailed view of the events that happened in Genesis 1. We see God noticing that creation is not yet complete.
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” – Genesis 2:18
Now, I could point out that God says “I will make him a helper…”, a helper, not helpers. Singular. Like I said, I could point that out, but it’s a weak argument. We can also take verse 24:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24
Here God clearly states that a man should be joined to his wife (singular) to become one flesh. So, the model seems to be 1 man + 1 wife = 1 marriage. I think this makes the argument a little stronger, but if we jump back to Genesis 1, after the man and his wife are created, we see this:
Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. – Genesis 1:31
God saw everything, including the man and the woman, together, as one. And it was very good. A man and a woman together is very good. Apparently God didn’t see a need for a second or third wife. This pattern of one man for one woman continues for a few generations.
The first record of polygamy in the Bible
The first time polygamy (or bigamy anyways) occurs is in Genesis 4:
Then Lamech took for himself two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah. – Genesis 4:19
This Lamech (there are two, the other is the father of Noah) was the son of Methusael, who was the son of Mehujael, who was the son of Irad, the son of Enoch who was the son of Cain. In other words, this was a disgraced offshoot of God’s people, no longer in a relationship with God. From Lamech’s words later on it seems that the habit of killing had continued in this family, and, as we see in the rest of the Bible, when a group splits off from God’s people, they tend to go wayward in many aspects of their life. So, this account of polygamy certainly can’t be used as justification.
But, in God’s people, monogamy continues for nearly 20 generations in God’s people, until we reach Abram.
The Patriarchs and Polygamy
Abram (later called Abraham) was a man destined to father a nation. God gave him this promise in Genesis 13:
And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him: “Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered. Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you.” Genesis 13:14-17
But after years of waiting, Abram gets impatient for God’s promises to come to fruition.
But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” – Genesis 15:2-5
God reiterates His promise, saying that Abram will not have to adopt an heir.
Ten years pass and now Sarai, Abram’s wife, becomes impatient with God. After all, Abraham is 85 years old now. So she comes up with a scheme to hurry God’s plans. After all, God had said that Abram’s descendants would come from Abram’s seed…but didn’t mention Sarai. So, she hatches a plan:
So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. 3 Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. – Genesis 16:2-3
This is the first act of Polygamy in God’s people, and it’s done out of a lack of faith in God, an impatience to have His promises fulfilled. And this act of defiance has ramifications even today. Hagar bears a son, Ishmael who goes on to start a nation: the Ishmaelites who made war with God’s people for generations, and continue to do so this day, but now they are called Muslims (Islam teaches that Ishmael was the ancestor of Mohammed, the last prophet). To this very day, this case of polygamy is causing strife in the world, people continue to die daily because of it.
There’s a lot more to this story, and I suggest you read about it for yourself. After reading it, I don’t think anyone can hold this up as an example for God allowing to happen. It’s a clear defiance and contrary to God’s will. But, nevertheless, God does protect Hagar and Ishmael. After all, He had made a covenant, and unconditional promise, with Abram, to protect His descendants. I understand some may misunderstand this as being permissive or allowing it to happen, but the way I read it, it’s God continuing to stay faithful to His people, despite their straying.
Jacob, Rachel and Leah
The story of Jacob can be found in Genesis 29. Jacob has just run away from home having tricked his brother into giving away his birthright, and tricked his father into bestowing it on him. Another example of this family’s difficulty in waiting for God to fulfill His promises. Jacob goes to live with his uncle, Laban, and there meets Rachel, whom he absolutely falls in love with. After a month of working for free, he strikes a bargain with Laban: 7 years of work in exchange for Rachel as a wife. They agree, and Jacob happily works the next 7 years. He was so excited to have Rachel as his wife that the Bible says it seemed as only a few days.
But, Laban swaps Rachel for Leah, his eldest daughter, on the wedding day and Jacob doesn’t notice until morning. In a rage, Jacob confronts Laban who cites some custom about the eldest daughter needing to be wed before the younger and offers Rachel as a second wife, after a week long honeymoon with Leah, if Jacob will work another 7 years afterwards.
Jacob accepts, but I’d argue it was not a rational decision. He had just been duped into marrying the wrong girl. He was angry and hurt. I don’t think you can use this as a point for polygamy. Particularly when you see what happens to the family.
Rachel and Leah spend the next few years fighting over Jacob. Rachel has his love, but Leah bears his children. So, Rachel offers him another wife: her maid. Leah counters by offering him another wife: her maid. And here’s Jacob, caught in a war between his two wives with two others as collateral damage.
Nothing in this story leads me to believe that polygamy is a good thing or that God wanted it this way. Does God continue to bless Jacob? Yes, but He had made that promise earlier as well. Jacob would be renamed as Israel, the father of the Israelites. God used this unfortunate family circumstance to further His Kingdom. As Paul says:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28
It doesn’t mean God makes everything bad happen, but that God can turn even the worst situation into a positive one, eventually. From this lamentable story in the history of God’s people, God grew a nation, a people, without whom, Christians wouldn’t exist. But, I have no doubt He wishes it would have happened without all this nonsense. That’s the problem with creating beings in God’s image: they have free-will.
Gideon and his wives
You read the story of Gideon starting at Judges 6. Gideon was the son of a weak family of a weak clan of a weak tribe in Israel. His story is one of God showing His power. God used the weakest of the weak, with a ridiculously small army to conquer an enemy that was harassing them constantly. But, unfortunately, Gideon falls into some bad habits once the enemies are defeated. He sets up an idol in Judges 8 and Israel begins to worship it.
Then Gideon made it into an ephod and set it up in his city, Ophrah. And all Israel played the harlot with it there. It became a snare to Gideon and to his house. – Judges 8:27
This was all done when Gideon was quite young. After things have settled, Israel lives in peace for 40 years (during which they unfortunately start to depart from God again), and Gideon starts collecting wives.
Gideon had seventy sons who were his own offspring, for he had many wives. And his concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. – Judges 8:30-31
We don’t know how many wives, just that he had “many”, and a concubine. And then the story pretty much ends for Gideon. He dies. If you stop reading there, you might think “Oh, he did his part, and God gave him a lot of wives, and he was happy.” But, this house doesn’t have a happy ending. Abimelech grows up and decides he wants to rule. But he has 70 brothers to contend with. So, he goes to his mother’s family to raise enough money to hire people to kill all 70 of his brothers, and he becomes king.
He rules 3 years before his former supporters turn on him. He’s killed by a millstone being dropped on his head in a battle, and as soon as he dies, everyone drops what they were doing and just goes home. So ends the polygamy of Gideon.
While Gideon served God early in his life, later on, he had started to depart. He started worshiping this idol he had put up, and fell away. He rejected God’s counsel of having one wife and got many, and it ended in disaster.
David’s relationship with God
But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.” – 1 Samuel 13:14
This verse causes a lot of problems. People read it, and think “If David did something, it must be what God wanted”. But David’s life was full of sin. He’s an adulterer and a murderer among other things. What made him a “man after God’s own heart” was that he was always repentful, always tried to return, to repair his relationship with God. He felt true sorrow at what he had down. That doesn’t dismiss or condone his actions, merely his repentance.
Now our questioner above says:
God even tells David he would have given him more wives if he asked
This is not quite true, but I see where it’s coming from. The actual verse is this:
I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! 2 Samuel 12:8
The context of this verse is when David is accused by Nathan, the prophet, of murdering Uriah and taking his wife. God, through Nathan, rebukes him. But this verse doesn’t say God would give him more wives. It’s in the context of all his possessions, prestige and power. This verse doesn’t even say that David got Saul (the former King’s) wives as wives, merely that he was to keep them (provide for them). That alone would be a status symbol. The idea that God gave David multiple wives and would have given more is, I believe, flawed.
Unfortunately, David’s family seems to suffer the same sort of fate that the others do. When the head of the household sins, when he goes away from God’s plan, when he’s not modeling a good walk with God, the effects on the children are disastrous. His son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, and two years later, Absolom, Tamar’s brother, plots to kill all of David’s sons as revenge, though only ends up killing Amnon for his crime. Years later, Absolom manages to turn the kingdom away from David, becoming king himself.
Again, not a shining example of a polygamous family.
Solomon is another difficult one, because he was given wisdom, directly from God, yet had hundreds of wives and concubines. But, I want to point out a couple of things. Have you ever read Song of Solomon? It seems to be from earlier in his life. When he had one wife, his first. He was happy, carefree, full of love.
As a lily among brambles,
so is my love among the young women. – Song of Solomon 2:2
Later on, when reflecting on all the things he has done, the empire he has built, his accomplishments, his life, he says this:
Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun—all the days of futility. For that is your portion in this life and in your work at which you toil under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 9:9
Solomon, the man blessed with wisdom from God, the man with hundreds and wives and concubines, has this parting advice: Live joyfully with the wife whom you love. Not wives, not concubines. The wife. I think he longed for the days of simplicity.
In the Bible, I see a continuity, a single, continuous, clear statement about marriage from God:
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. – Genesis 2:18
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24
And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. – Deuteronomy 17:17
But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. – Malachi 2:14-15
‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. – Mark 10:7-8
Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” – 1 Corinthians 6:16
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. – 1 Corinthians 7:2
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, – 1 Timothy 3:2
The constant message in the Bible is one man, one woman. All the advice for dealing with marriages is within that context. Yes, there are a few verses to deal with edge cases, as there are with divorce, but that was never the intent of God to allow it.
So, when did it change? I propose that it didn’t. I submit that God created marriage as a monogamous relationship, and He has always supported that approach. And polygamy was never intended, and any commandments relating to it are there to mitigate the disasters that ensue after the fact, just as we have for divorce.
So take care of your one spouse, and revel in the fact that they are yours and yours alone. Yes, it may cause some struggles, but struggles are good, conflict is an opportunity for growth. Because I think having another spouse would just multiply your problems, as we see in the Bible. One relationship is hard enough. With two wives, you would have three relationships to manage…sounds like a nightmare to me. No wonder they all went homicidal.