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There is a great hush-hush of Bible reading and study when it comes to the subject of plural marriages. The Bible is filled with accounts of these. They were a very common style of family life throughout Biblical times. In fact, many of God’s greatest servants were clearly presented as having multiple wives.
We have been conditioned to push these accounts of plural marriages out of our consciousness as we read through the Bible – we just overlook them.
Were these plural marriages a sin? I have asked many students of the Scriptures about this – bringing the question into a modern setting. What would they do if they were in a polygamous society, say among an African tribe? What if they were to lead a native man with many wives to trust in Christ? What would they instruct this new believer in Christ to do regarding his many wives?
Would they instruct him to divorce and abandon all his wives except for the first one, along with all their children? Would not such a requirement be absurd? Those Bible students with whom I have spoken have agreed that it would be ridiculous.
The law of God given to Moses did not forbid multiple wives. The law did regulate almost every area of life, and polygamy was no exception. If polygamy was a sin, God would have forbidden it, rather than giving a law for its practice. Be assured that God has no problem communicating His disapproval of anything!
Beyond that, God even clearly required multiple marriages in some instances which we shall consider later. In short, polygamy is a social issue, not a sin issue.
Basic Bible Examples
We will briefly see some of the basic examples of prominent Bible characters who had multiple wives.
Abraham, the first Hebrew, and ancestor of all Israel, the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11-12), had three wives, namely Sarah and her servant Hagar (Genesis 16:3), and Keturah (Genesis 25:1), as well as a number of concubines (Genesis 25:6).
Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel had Rachel and Leah, who were sisters, as his wives (Genesis 29). He was also husband to their servants Bilhah and Zilpah (Genesis 30:4, 9). These bore him the twelve tribes of Israel. Without these four wives there would be no Israel! Plural marriage is at the very foundation of God’s establishment of the nation Israel.
Moses was married to Zipporah, a Midianite (Exodus 2:21), and an unnamed Ethiopian (Numbers 12:1).
Gideon, a mighty man of God and judge of Israel, who defeated the Midianites, and whose name is now used in modern times by an organization to distribute Bibles worldwide, had 70 sons (and how many daughters?), because the Scripture says that he had “many wives” (Judges 8:30).
Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninah (I Samuel 1:2). Hannah gave birth to the prophet Samuel.
King David, a man after God’s own heart, had plenty of wives. God gave David all his wives and said if he wanted more, God clearly told him that He would have given them to him (II Samuel 12:8).
Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (I Kings 11:3). He wrote the Song of Solomon, a celebrated poem about marital love, to his 61st wife (Song of Solomon 6:8). Solomon’s problem was that he ended up marrying ungodly foreign wives who worshiped false gods, and turned his heart from the Lord; but go easy on Solomon. Some men have committed this same sin while married to only one wife!
Rehoboam had 18 wives and 60 concubines, making him another busy man (with 28 sons and 60 daughters – II Chronicles 11:21).
God Himself a Polygamist
Amazingly even God portrays Himself as being married to two sisters, Jerusalem and Samaria (Ezekiel 23:2-4; also see Jeremiah 3:6-10; 31:31-32, noting the phrase, “I was a husband unto them”).
Why would God use this analogy of multiple wives for Himself if it were sinful?
The Law regarding Polygamy
The Law had rules regulating polygamy and limiting its application under certain circumstances. For example, a man was not to marry his wife’s sister, unless he had his wife’s approval (Leviticus 18:18). Also, a man was not to marry both a woman and her mother (Leviticus 20:14). That would have presented confusing family ties.
The very fact that these specific examples are banned shows the Mosaic Law’s support of plural marriages. Exodus 21:10 tells us that if a man marries an additional wife he must not deprive his current wife of her food, clothing and sexual pleasure. In other words, a man should not take more wives than he could provide for adequately.
Just like monogamy, polygamy surely had its fair share of problems, and the law intervened to make sure the children received the inheritance to which they were entitled (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
Polygamy was practiced without criticism throughout the Old Testament. It was legal and moral, and was clearly within the blessings of God. Indeed, the practice of marrying the wife of a deceased brother in order to ensure the family line continued (Deuteronomy 25:5-6), and marrying an unengaged damsel with whom a man had had sex (Exodus 21:16) would have actually required such a man to have more than one wife, if he was already married.
An Interesting Note from History
Some of the early reformers dealt with the issue of polygamy. In fact, the three leading figures of the German reformation, Luther, Melanchthon and Bucer, signed the Wittenberg Deliberation which was mostly taken up with an examination of the biblical authority for polygamy. They jointly gave their public blessing to Philip the Magnanimous of Hesse to marry a second wife. Luther contended that polygamy is not wrong, and definitely preferable to divorce. This was a position from which he never wavered.
Clyde L. Pilkington, Jr.
Due Benevolence, Issue 2
. It is amazing to discover the gems that are concealed in those scriptural passages – or parts of those scriptural passages – that we tend to ignore because they are overshadowed by other themes which are more “important” for our momentary purposes. An example can be found in Nathan’s exposé of David’s crime of adultery and murder. With it there was an endorsement of David’s polygamy – and therefore polygamy in general.
. Thus the Scripture’s expression, “When a man hath taken a new wife …” (Deuteronomy 24:5). The word “new” here is in contrast to “old,” obviously a reference to the taking of an additional wife. The word “new” is translated “fresh” in Job 29:20 (“chadash” – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon #2319).