Let’s look at what the Bible actually says about polygamy and how God regulates it (like another institution we’ve explored …). Our Christian apologist is still confused about critiques of polygamy vs. polygamists.
Our Christian guide to the Bible’s response to polygamy has let us down, so let’s take a look ourselves at what the Bible says.
We’ve been responding to an article by Robby Lashua of the Stand to Reason ministry (part 1). We’ll conclude with a focus on what the Bible actually says.
The Bible’s strong stand against polygamy … or not
The Bible lays out the rules for polygamy (just like it does for another awkward social institution).
- An additional wife shall not cause prior wives to be shortchanged (Exodus 21:10).
- A man’s inheritance isn’t divided based on which wife he loves most but on the birth order of his sons (Deuteronomy 21:15–17).
- “When Solomon became old, his wives shifted his allegiance to other gods; he was not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord his God, as his father David had been” (1 Kings 11:4). Again, this is no criticism of polygamy directly, just that this was a pitfall to avoid.
- A leader in the Christian church must be “faithful to his wife” or “the husband of one wife,” which suggests monogamy (1 Timothy 3:2, 3:12; Titus 1:6). While the New Testament doesn’t criticize polygamy, as is true for the Old Testament, this wasn’t much of an issue. Polygamy had been unpopular for centuries by the time of Jesus.
Lashua adds one more Bible rule:
Not only does God never command or condone polygamy, but he also condemns it. In Deuteronomy 17, God gives instructions for the future kings of Israel, and he specifically condemns taking on many wives. “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (Deut. 17:17). In other words, God wasn’t okay with David and Solomon having multiple wives, and they disobeyed his commands.
Bravo for admitting the limitation in this verse: it applies only to kings. This is no condemnation of polygamy in general.
Let’s build on our vocabulary lesson on prescriptive norms, proscriptive norms, and mere descriptions (see part 1). Lashua says, “Not only does God never command or condone polygamy, but he also condemns it.”
There’s a lot wrong here. No, God didn’t command polygamy, but neither did he condemn (proscribe) it. The Bible describes polygamy without criticism, and God lays out the rules for (prescribes) polygamy.
Lashua says, “God wasn’t okay with David and Solomon having multiple wives.”
No, God was fine with David having multiple wives. After David slept with Bathsheba and then arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed, God spoke through Nathan the prophet to criticize David’s ungratefulness: “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more” (2 Samuel 12:8). God had complaints about David, but his polygamy wasn’t one of them.
Grasping for Bible verses
Lashua is wrapping up his argument.
What does God prescribe for marriage? Monogamy. From the very beginning, God said marriage was one man and one woman becoming one flesh for one lifetime (Gen. 2:24). We can deduce this from the fact that God only gave Adam one wife, not multiple. We can also see that marriage comes with the command to be fruitful and multiply, something that only requires one male and one female.
Let’s first remember God’s stand on sex and marriage. It’s crazy—or, at least crazy when seen from a modern standpoint.
- God prohibited interracial marriage.
- He allowed marriage through rape (Deut. 22:28–9).
- He decreed that captured girls be used as sex slaves (Numbers 31:17–18).
- A male Jewish slave could be released after his term was up, but any wife given to him by his master remained the master’s property.
- Levirate marriage demanded that if a man died before having children, that man’s brother must marry his sister-in-law to create an heir for the dead man.
- Jesus overruled Moses on divorce, and Paul rejected divorce entirely (1 Cor. 7:10–11).
More: Biblical Marriage: Not a Pretty Picture
Returning to Lashua, no, “monogamy” isn’t the summation of God’s thoughts on sex and marriage. Until Christians accept all the Bible’s Iron Age rules, they have no grounds for saying about polygamy, “God said it; that settles it.” Anyway, God didn’t prohibit polygamy.
And since most Christians are fans of objective morality—morality that exists whether there’s anyone here to appreciate it or not—I’m also looking for a solid case that polygamy is objectively wrong. The only defense of objective morality I’ve ever seen is some variation of, “we can all agree that this is immoral, right?” This is no defense at all.
That Adam had only one wife in the story is hardly a proscription against polygamy. You shouldn’t be looking for a man marrying a woman; you should be looking for his not marrying a second woman. A man marrying his first wife is just the first step to polygamy.
Monogamy was also Jesus’ view.
But it wasn’t Paul’s. Paul felt that celibacy was the best path. He said, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8–9).
Hail Mary pass
We’re almost out of time, and the coach puts in Jesus as quarterback. Let’s see what he comes up with.
[Jesus said:] “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:4–6).
“Two become one” is a powerful image for marriage, but a man can become one with wife #1, then become one with wife #2, and so on. Polygamy isn’t one big group marriage but successive individual marriages.
If the Ten Commandments had room for don’t covet, it could’ve had room for no polygamy. I have higher standards for God. If he had a problem with polygamy, I’m sure he could have clearly said so.
Remember that polygamy wasn’t really a thing within Jewish culture during the time of Jesus, so we shouldn’t expect Jesus to have addressed it.
In short, polygamy is described as having devastating consequences for those who practice it and for those born as a result of it.
Nope. You’re using the Bible as a sock puppet. God gives guidelines for how to do polygamy properly, but God didn’t proscribe polygamy.
So, how should we view the patriarchs of the Old Testament who practiced polygamy? First, we must recognize that polygamy is described as something they practiced but never as something God prescribed.
God did indeed prescribe polygamy. See the list of rules at the beginning of this article, above.
Monogamy and slavery—God gave rules for each
Consider commerce, an institution with minimal moral baggage. Sure, there are plenty of ways to be an immoral merchant, but, with wise rules governing commerce, the good outweighs the bad. Look in Proverbs, and we see some of these rules: “The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him” (Proverbs 20:23). In fact, Proverbs insists on accurate weights and measures four times.
We see God setting rules—prescriptive norms—to make sure commerce runs correctly. We see the same thing with slavery—God set rules to guide slavery rather than prohibiting it. And here we see the same thing with polygamy—God created rules to guide it, and he has no problem with the institution overall.
Let’s take a step back and sift out lessons from our journey.
- If the Bible plainly says one thing, but you feel the urge to whitewash it with a nicer interpretation, think about what that means. Which alternative is more honest, and why are you not drawn to the plain interpretation? Don’t be a liar for Jesus. Let the Bible speak for itself.
- Hitler was a bad man, and he was a vegetarian. If you want to claim a cause-and-effect relationship (Hitler was bad because he was a vegetarian, for example), you need to do the work to make a compelling case. Similarly, was Lamech a murderer because he had multiple wives? You can’t just claim that; you need to show your work. I realize that this is an elementary error, but unfortunately, Lashua’s article needs this fundamental point to be made clear.
- Old Testament culture had commerce, slavery, and polygamy. We don’t get to apply today’s moral evaluation but must let the Bible speak for itself. For all three, the Bible is both prescriptive (it makes rules for how to do things properly) and descriptive (it mentions these institutions without stopping to criticize). If God wanted to prohibit any of them, I’m certain he could’ve made that clear.
Millions long for immortality
who don’t know what to do with themselves
on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
— Susan Ertz