Is Polygamy a Sin in the Bible?

Is  polygamy regarded as sin in the Bible? Does polygamy violate God’s design of marriage?

If you have read many posts on this blog – you will know that I believe based on the Word of God(the whole Bible, not just the New Testament) that God never regulates or authorizes something he believes to be sinful, and therefore polygamy was not(and I would still argue today it is still not sinful when practiced Biblically).

Ever since I was a young man I have always been fascinated by three subjects – theology, history and human nature.  Specifically I wanted to understand what parts of our human nature(and even more specifically our male and female natures) are by the design of God, and which ones come from our sin nature corrupting of the God’s original design.

So question that needs answering is – “Is man’s natural instinct to be drawn to multiple women a corruption of his nature or part of his original design by God? ”

Most Pastors and theologians since the time Augustine(who brought Christian asceticism into the Church) have promoted a belief that this is part of man’s sinful nature, and not the nature he was originally designed with in the garden of Eden.  They argue that man was originally made by God with a monogamous nature, and only because of sin did polygamy enter the picture.

I have held this position on Biblical polygamy for 20 years(and no I am not a practicing polygamist) .  It always bothered me when I was a young man growing up in Baptist Churches(which I still love and attend ) when the Pastor would come to a passage about polygamy and say something like “This was a sin God overlooked in ancient times, but he finally got rid of it in the New Testament”.  This just bugged me! Since when does the God of the Bible regulate and authorize a behavior he believes to be sinful?  I have always believed that the God of the Bible can never authorize or regulate sinful behavior and I always will.

Recently I had a little debate about this issue in another forum with a Christian woman when we were discussing the subject of men looking at women.  Her name was Lucy.  This is part of the conversation where switch to the topic of polygamy:

Lucy started by quoting a statement I am made:

“men are naturally polygynous as God designed them.” Can you please provide verse and chapter for us? It seems to me that if that were true, anything but polygamy would be cruel for men and that decans, pastors, etc, should not have to be the husband of only one wife.”

This was my response:

Lucy – I would be happy to respond with Bible passages that support the concept that men are naturally polygynous as designed by God.

God allows and regulates polygamy in Moses law

If a man takes a second wife, he cannot deny the first wife food, clothing or sex. He must continue being a husband to her as well, even if he has more romantic attachment to his second wife.

“If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” – Exodus 21:10-11

A man could not take his wife’s sister as a rival wife while his wife lived:
“Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.” – Leviticus 18:18

If a man had two wives, and he did was not romantically attracted to or did not get along with one as good as the other, he still had to acknowledge the rights of her son if he was firstborn:

“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.” – Deuteronomy 21:15-17

Leah was blessed by God for giving her husband one of her hand maids as a wife:

“9 When Leah saw that she had left bearing, she took Zilpah her maid, and gave her Jacob to wife…17 And God hearkened unto Leah, and she conceived, and bare Jacob the fifth son.

18 And Leah said, God hath given me my hire, because I have given my maiden to my husband: and she called his name Issachar.
Genesis 30:9 & 17-18

Lucy – many Christians because this does not meet with their preconceived notion that God always intended for men to be in monogamous marriages will say that that God only “allowed polygamy, but it was still sinful”.

The God of the Bible does NOT all sin – EVER. What he allows, he approves of – to say anything less is to question the holiness of God.

Now does God sometimes change his laws?

Yes. For instance God allowed the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve to marry(what we would call incest) and this practice was not condemned until later in the Mosaic law.

There was no sin Jacob marrying two sisters(Leah and Rachel) even though he was tricked. God had not yet forbid a man from marrying sisters.

God never condemned polygamy, but rather he regulated it which means he approved of it.

Some will try to point to Deuteronomy 17:15-17 where God says that a King shall not “multiply wives to himself” to say God was condemning polygamy. The problem with that interpretation is that the same man – Moses that wrote that wrote regulations on polygamy! So he certainly was not contradicting himself. Instead what he was saying is that king is not to “horde wives” – much in the way King Solomon did with having 1000 wives! King Solomon abused the concept of polygamy and his heart was indeed lead astray.

As to your point that it would be cruel then to make men have only one wife – you are right that it does make things difficult for polygynous men living a world that has now confined men to monogamous marriage.

However even in Biblical times not all men were able to marry more than one wife, and many did not have any wife at all.  This is because male slaves and servants could only have a wife if their master allowed them to. Also poor men often did not marry because fathers would not give their daughters to a man that could not pay a bride price and could not care for their daughters. This left many women that needed husbands and this is why wealthier men had many wives.

So while most men are polygynous in their nature, that does not mean all men should were able to act on that polygynous nature by taking multiple wives.

Lucy replied:

“I’m so disappointed to hear you’re back in the Old T. You have mistaken an allowance in ancient times for “men are designed that way,” but the Bible presents monogamy as God’s ideal for marriage.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife [not wives], and they will become one flesh [not fleshes]” (Genesis 2:24). While Genesis 2:24 is describing what marriage is, rather than how many people are involved, the consistent use of the singularis used.

In the New Testament, 1 Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6 give “the husband of one wife” in a list of qualifications for spiritual leadership.

While these qualifications are specifically for positions of spiritual leadership, they should apply equally to all Christians. Should not all Christians be “above reproach…temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-4)? If we are called to be holy (1 Peter 1:16), and if these standards are holy for elders and deacons, then they are holy for all.

Also, note how Ephesians 5:22-33 speaks of the relationship between husbands and wives. “Husband” is always singular. “Wife” is always singular.

In the above verse, If polygamy were allowable,the entire illustration of Christ’s relationship with His body (the church) and the husband-wife relationship falls apart.

Even going back to Adam and Eve, polygamy was not God’s original intent. God seems to have allowed polygamy to solve a problem in brutal times, but it is not the ideal. I can certainly find no proof God designed men that way.

This was my response to Lucy:

Lucy, as Christians we can sometimes be disappointed or surprised by what our fellow brethren believe. I am always disappointed when I find my Christian brethren believing God tossed the Old Testament in the garbage can when he gave us the New Testament and that is not the case at all.

You are absolutely right that Biblically speaking we are no longer under the Law, but under grace- Praise God!

“For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” – Romans 6:14 (KJV)

But what “law” is Paul speaking of? He is speaking of the cleanliness law, civil law, the sacrificial law, the priestly law that Moses gave to Israel as a theocracy.  The Scriptures tell us in Hebrews 8:13 that the old covenant has been replaced with the New – praise God!

In Galatians 3:24-25 the Apostle Paul tells us that the law (the sacrificial part of the law, the civil and the priestly law) was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ – but now that Christ is come we are no longer under that school master – again praise God!

That means we don’t have to stone people who commit adultery, or stone rebellious kids.  We don’t have to make sacrifices to cover our sins.  We don’t have to follow the cleanliness laws anymore.  We don’t have to stay away from certain meats, or practice the festivals.

But this does not mean that God’s moral law – contained with the Law of Moses is also obsolete. For instance while Moses law may prescribe death for someone committing murder – we are not required anymore to do that – as that is part of the civil laws of Israel that have been made obsolete.  But is murder still sin? Is it still a violation of God’s moral law? Yes.

Paul said this about the moral law contained in Moses Law:

“Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.” Romans 3:31(KJV)

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet…Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” – Romans 7:7 & 12

Over 350 times Jesus or his Apostles quote from the Old Testament – we don’t have New Testament without the Old Testament. We can learn many things about the character of God, as well as us as his creations through the Old Testament.  I hope and pray you and other believers will find a greater appreciation for the Old Testament as it is just as much the Word of God as the New Testament is.

Now on to the issue of polygamy – or to be more specific polygyny (a man having more than one wife).  Lucy you are absolutely right that God says they will become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).  He does not say “one fleshes” as you correctly point out. You know why? Because a man has an individual marriage with each one of his wives.  If a man and all his wives were one together that would be something called “Polyamory” where multiple live together and sleep with one another.  Wives could sleep with wives, or sleep with their husband.  In fact you could have several men, and several women in a polymorous relationship.  But that is NOT what polygyny is.

Polygyny is where a man has more than one marriage. He has several marriages.  But he has a separate and distinct relationship with each of his wives, and God points out in Exodus 21:10-11 he has a separate and distinct duty to provide food, clothing and to become ONE FLESH (have sex) with each of his wives.

Apparently God who inspired Moses to write about marriage being one flesh, and speaking of a husband and wife in the singular – saw no contradiction between that and a man having more than one wife.

Is the “husband of one wife” requirement (I Timothy 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6) for a Pastor speaking of monogamy or divorce? I would argue based the qualifications of widows who could be supported by (and became servants of) the church that Paul was speaking of a Pastor or Deacon not having been divorced from his first wife:

“Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man.” – I Timothy 5:9 (KJV)

But let’s say you were right (which I don’t think you are), that Paul was forbidding polygamy by Pastors and Deacons.  If he was, then by forbidding it to Pastors and Deacons, he was acknowledging that Christians were actively practicing polygamy.  Why when he wrote so much about marriage and divorce, and he even forbid believers from marrying non-believers, why did he not just go ahead and tell believers “you cannot marry more one wife anymore(as God had previously allowed you too)”?”

As to Ephesians 5, I love that God designed marriage to a model of his relationship with his people.  In the Old Testament he pictures himself as a husband to his wife Israel, and in the New Testament he pictures marriage as the relationship between Christ and his Church. Beautiful!

However I respectfully disagree with you that polygyny destroys this beautiful model of Christ and his Church. In the New Testament the Church is often referred to in the singular, but other times it is referred to in the plural (churches).    Just as God referred to Israel as his wife (singular), he also referred to Israel as his wives (plural) when speaking of Israel and Judah in the book of Ezekiel:

“Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother…And the names of them were Aholah the elder, and Aholibah her sister: and THEY were mine, and THEY bare sons and daughters. Thus were their names; Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah.”  – Ezekial 23:2 & 4

In the same way while Christ often refers to his Church in the singular in the New Testament, he also refers to his Church in the plural much the same way God referred to Israel and Judah when he speaks of the 7 Churches in the book of Revelation.  He speaks to all but one of their unfaithfulness in different areas.  It appears that Christ has a separate and distinct relationship with each of his churches – does this somehow hurt the concept of Christ and his Church being a model for marriage – I think not.

When Christ speaks to his Church in the singular, it is in much the same way that a man with many wives would speak to his family (including all his wives) which is also what the Church is compared to in this passage:

“But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”  – I Timothy 3:15

I say all this to say, from the OT to NT the concept of a man being married to more than one wife, and having a distinct relationship with each of his wives does not break the model of what God intended marriage to be. A man can be one flesh with each of his wives, as God is one with each of his churches.

As far as your assertion that God creating only one man and one woman (Adam and Eve) in the garden means that was his model for marriage, are you then saying that brothers and sisters marrying was his model for marriage? Because Adam and Eve’s children had to marry one another.  The fact is that God could have created two sets of couples so that incest would not have to occur just as he could have created more wives for Adam. He chose not to. But again I draw your attention to the fact that the same God who created Adam and Eve also gave Moses commands allowing men to take more than one wife – if that were a violation of his model he would not have allowed it.

I hope this helps clarify my position.

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