A Christian apologist wrestles with the fact that many of the Bible’s good men were polygamists. How could God do this? Things make more sense if you consider that the Bible thought polygamy was fine.

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Polygamy in the Bible embarrasses today’s Christian apologist. If it’s wrong today, how could it have been moral in Old Testament times? Or is it not wrong today?

The problem with polygamy

A recent article (“Polygamy in the Bible is Not Prescriptive”) from Robby Lashua of Stand to Reason agrees:

The ugly truth is that many of the heroes in the Old Testament were polygamists. Jacob had two wives and Esau had three. King David, the man after God’s own heart, had at least eight wives. Solomon, not to be outdone, had a staggering seven hundred wives.

Right from the beginning, the moral evaluation of various pieces of the argument are made clear. (1) Polygamy is “ugly,” bad, embarrassing. And (2) the Bible makes plain that many Old Testament heroes were polygamists, and that’s awkward. Lashua’s goal is soon clear: we must find a way to acknowledge polygamy in the Bible while salvaging the moral positions of God and the Bible. The reputations of the patriarchs are expendable, and they can be thrown under the bus as necessary.

Our goal is to understand how polygamy is really presented in the Bible. We’ll follow along with Lashua’s argument, taking it as a representative Christian response to polygamy. Along the way, we’ll see how not to make a defense of the Bible.

There’s no more disgrace in “Patriarch X had two wives” than in “Patriarch Y had a hundred sheep.”

Prescriptive, proscriptive, or descriptive?

How is polygamy treated in the Bible? Is it good, bad, or just a trait of society with no more moral value than where the utensils go on a dining table?

Lashua gives a Bible example.

The first mention of polygamy in Scripture says, “Lamech took to himself two wives” (Gen. 4:19). We are then told that Lamech, a descendant of Cain, boasted to his wives about murdering a boy (Gen. 4:23). Lamech was a bad man, and polygamy is something he practiced.

Huh? I agree that murdering someone is morally wrong, but what’s that got to do with polygamy? Where is the cause and effect in “Lamech was a bad man, and polygamy is something he practiced”? Was Lamech bad because he practiced polygamy? The Bible doesn’t say this, and Lashua has done nothing to make this connection.

His article suggests we get our terms straight, and finally there’s something to agree on.

  • A prescriptive norm is something we should do. It might be a law, like paying taxes. Or maybe just shared wisdom, like the importance of brushing your teeth regularly.
  • A proscriptive norm is the opposite—it’s something we shouldn’t do. For example, drinking and driving is proscribed.
  • Finally, a custom can simply be described.

In the Bible, God’s commandments are prescriptive if they’re demands to do something (animal sacrifice, for example). Or commandments can be proscriptive when they prohibit or condemn something (the rules in Leviticus about who not to have sex with, for example). Finally, the Bible is simply descriptive when it documents society’s customs without giving a moral critique—clothing, housing, herding livestock, commerce, and so on … and polygamy.

How does the Bible see polygamy?

Let’s put this new vocabulary to use. Lashua says,

Are these passages about polygamy prescriptive or descriptive? Are they prescribing how we are supposed to live, or are they describing events from the past?

Many passages in Scripture describe events God doesn’t condone. Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and having sex with him comes to mind (Gen. 19:32–36). But many passages of Scripture prescribe how we are to live as followers of God, such as when Jesus prescribes loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37).

Is polygamy prescriptive? The short answer is no.

Is polygamy in the Bible made mandatory? No. But this is the wrong question. We must ask if the Bible proscribes polygamy—that is, prohibits it. It doesn’t.

In lieu of an actual argument, the article gives more guilt-by-association tales of polygamists with no indication that polygamy causes anything.

Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben, by his first wife Leah, had sex with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and was then killed by Tamar’s full brother Absalom (2 Sam. 13). Absalom then tried to usurp the throne from his father David and had sex with David’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:22). Solomon “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away” (1 Kings 11:3). These descriptions are sad reminders that polygamy is sin and has destructive consequences.

Rape, adultery, treason, and murder? I’m not sure polygamy is the worst thing here. Anyway, this list of polygamists behaving badly does absolutely nothing to show that polygamy caused anything bad.

I gotta tell ya, bro—you’re doing all the lifting and the Bible isn’t helping. Maybe you should reconsider if it deserves all this effort.

Examples of polygamy

Polygamy was just what some people in Bible stories did. There are plenty of examples, and never do we see any divine condemnation of the institution—condemnation of polygamists, yes, but not of polygamy. The Bible mentions Gideon’s many wives without criticism (Judges 8:30). And that Elkanah had two wives (1 Samuel 1:1–2), as did Ashhur (1 Chron. 4:5). Mered had multiple wives (1 Chron. 4:17), and “Rehoboam … had eighteen wives and sixty concubines” (2 Chron. 11:21). And there are more. None of these examples are stated with complaint. There’s no more disgrace in “Patriarch X had two wives” than in “Patriarch Y had a hundred sheep.”

God has no trouble pointing out and punishing moral errors. When David sleeps with Bathsheba, another man’s wife, God makes his disapproval known, and the son they produced quickly dies. No confusion—God disapproves of adultery.

Show this clear disapproval of polygamy in the Bible.

Concluded in part 2.

Learn from the mistakes of others.
You can’t live long enough
to make them all yourself.
— Eleanor Roosevelt

CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...