Polygamy in the Bible

Can Christians practice polygamy, since it is in the bible? While polygamy was allowed in the Bible in the Old Testament, with some restrictions, in the New Covenant, men are told to have one wife (1 Tim 2:3), mimicking Christ’s relationship with the one church (body of Christ).

Polygamy was allowed in the Old Testament because there was only one group of covenant people (the Israelites) and their goal was to preserve until the Messiah came. In the old covenant, it was expected that everyone gets married because of the command to be fruitful and multiply in Gen 1:28 and Gen 9:1. In the old covenant, more covenant people are made by making more physical humans through reproduction (because this covenant is built on blood relation to Abraham, and one way to ensure that your line carried on was to have more than one wife. Castration (or injury to male genitals) is recognized as a type of uncleanness that got a person cut off from the community according to Deut 23:1, this is how important it was to make babies. In the New Covenant, people can choose to be eunuchs (Matt 19:11-12), so castration is not considered uncleanness. This is because in the New Covenant, making more covenant people happen by sharing the gospel so that people are “born-again” (John 3:1-8) in the spirit, so polygamy is not necessary or valid in fulfilling the great commission. After all, monogamy is the original framework set up in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 and this is how Jesus defined marriage in Matt 19:4-6.

Biblical polygamy is polygyny, which means a man can have multiple wives. Polyandry, which is a relationship between one woman with multiple husbands, is not a valid marriage. This is because of the “be fruitful and multiply” command. Sexual reproduction can happen more quickly and efficiently when there are more females than males because one male can impregnate multiple females at once. So polygyny was legitimate since it was more efficient at keeping that command. One reason for polygamy is that a man with a barren wife can get another wife that will give him an heir to inherit his land. Land inheritance was an important part of Israelite culture because they were supposed to make sure that each non-Levite tribe preserved their land allotments in order to keep in accordance with the Jubilee rules regarding the return of sold (more like rented) land after each set of 50 years (Lev 25:8-13, Numb 36:1-12). In addition, the time left before the next Jubilee year governed the price of land (Lev 25:14-28). Under the principle of “be fruitful and multiply”, it was necessary to make sure everyone was able to make as many babies as possible to preserve the nation and each tribe’s land allotments until the Messiah comes. Males were more expendable which is why the men went to war and did more riskier tasks, therefore polygyny makes sense since there were likely to be fewer men than women. Even in the price of livestock, female animals cost more because the males are expendable.

In the Old Testament, polygamy has some restrictions (Deut 17:17, Lev 18:17-18). The Bible reveals to us that polygamy can be hazardous since having multiple wives can cause jealousy and family strife like the sibling rivalry between Jacob’s wives married in Genesis, as well as lead to idolatry when dealing with gentile women like in the case of King Solomon. This is why there are other restrictions on polygamy like marrying sisters or a mother and daughter pair (Lev 18:17-18), which would be considered incestuous because of the relational conflicts. The very first mention of polygamy is through Cain’s descendant Lamach in Gen 4:19-24. In these verses, Lamech brags about murdering people and believes God will reward him with Cain’s mark to protect him. He essentially started what I like to call the “Murder Olympics” which leads to the mass violence that God is grieved about in Gen 6:11 because everyone thinks they will get protection for committing murder based on Lamach’s rumors. What Lamach does is in contrast to being fruitful and multiplying. In addition, his act of marrying two wives instead of one goes against the original setup of Gen 2:24 which says a man shall leave his parents and cleave unto his wife. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this murderer is also the first polygamous man mentioned in the text. There seems to be an implication about the character of the kind of man who wants to link himself to more than one woman. Lamach is clearly a man who lacks discipline and is selfish and greedy. 

Jacob married the sisters Rachel and Leah and that caused a lot of drama. He only wanted Rachel, so he favored her over her sister Leah. When Rachel couldn’t get pregnant she started using her maid and then Leah did the same (Genesis 30:1-24). This was partially his father-in-law’s fault for tricking him into taking the one he didn’t want, but Jacob reaped what he sowed for tricking his brother Esau into giving up his birthright. Normally, children of concubines don’t have full inheritance rights, however, in Jacob’s case, it seems God allowed his concubines to count as wives since all 12 sons can inherit the promised land. In addition, Jacob scolded Reuben (his oldest son) for sleeping with one of the concubines (Gen 35:22) and even denied him his birthright as the firstborn (Gen 49:3-4), so it seems Jacob viewed them with the same value as he would any wife. Back then people just did what seemed right to themselves, because of human sin nature, and God allowed this concubine sex in the context of polygamy.

Deut 17:17 (NLT) says, “a king should not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the Lord. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself.” Yet almost all of the kings of Israel and Judah had multiple wives, even David who kept it together (for the most part) because his many wives didn’t worship idols. Although he did commit murder and adultery when it came to Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). In Solomon’s case, the warning of Deut 17:17 comes true, because Solomon’s heart was turned away from God and he allowed idolatry in the land because of the foreign Gentile women involved. The issue of Deut 17:17 is that these kings are getting greedy and lustful and allowing their appetites to give in to foreign influences over their culture. Solomon’s first wife was the daughter of a Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1), and he kept accumulating foreign wives for peace treaties and business deals with Gentile nations. In fact, his business deals with Egypt violated Deut 17:16. In exchange, these foreign women brought idolatry to Israel and bought the loyalty of the people to foreign nations. The kings after Solomon, continued this trend, particularly idolatry, and that led to the conquest of Israel by Assyria and the conquest of Judah by Babylon.

Other Examples of the consequences of polygamous relationships can be seen in characters like Gideon who saved Israel from the Midianites, but then created an idol introducing Baal worship to the Israelites. He had multiple wives and concubines, his 70 children of his various wives were murdered by Abimelech a son of his concubine, over their inheritance and rulership of the nation (Judges ch. 9). Another example is Elkanah, one of his wives bullies the other for being barren (1 Sam ch.1). This is similar to how Hagar shamed Sarah after Abraham got her pregnant with Ishmael. In many Abrahamic religious communities, polygamy is limited to four wives since Jacob had only four wives but this limitation is not explicitly written in the Old Testament. However, to reiterate, in a culture where the goal was to preserve a nation, polygamy can be used by a man with a barren wife to ensure he has an heir to inherit his land which was very important for reasons stated earlier. This would have been the main reason God allowed it. Abraham had the option of taking another wife but he never did, this shows that he truly loved Sarah, and only waited until after she died to take a second wife Keturah. Hagar, the servant of Sarah, wasn’t even a true concubine, since she was received as a slave. Slaves are not concubines, concubines are like exclusive prostitutes that join a harem, and they don’t have to do manual work for a living. Slaves are in debt and do manual labor so they are not equivalent. For the Israelite culture, slaves and concubines can be made free women if they become wives (Ex 21:9). If Abraham wanted a harem of concubines he would have already built one. When we are introduced to him at age 75 he is still married to only one woman, this shows he didn’t want that. Hagar’s son Ishmael was not considered a true heir of promise by God (Gen 17:18-21) because the covenant God made with Abraham only included Sarah, but he would receive a blessing for being one of the 8 sons of Abraham.

Throughout the old testament, the prophets use the analogy of marriage to represent Israel’s covenant relationship with God. Often times it’s used to compare idolatry to adultery. Worshiping idols was cheating on God because they made a covenant with him and him alone. Like Ezekiel 23, where Ezekiel compares Israel and Judah to two adulterous sisters. One notable book that does this is Hosea. In Hosea 1-3, Hosea becomes a living metaphor who marries a promiscuous woman that abandons him for other men. However, instead of divorcing her or having her killed for catching her in adultery, he takes her back and forgives her at God’s request. Then God says just like this he is going to take back Israel after the exile, forgiving them of their idolatry and restoring them as his “wife”. This is where the New Testament picks up the analogy referring to the church (the body of believers in Christ) as the bride of Christ, and Paul says for husbands to love their wives like God loves his “wife” (the church). While wives are to love and follow their husbands like the church follows God (Ep 5:21-33, Col 3:18-19). Christ gave his entire being to the church. In Ep 4:4-6, Paul says the Body of Christ is one body untied by one spirit, to serve one God, so if the analogy is to work then, one woman is to be dedicated to one man and vice versa like it says in Gen 2:24. A man can’t truly give himself 100% to a bunch of different women, because his loyalty will always be divided. This is why in 1 Corinthians 7:4 Paul says that a man gives authority of his body to his wife and the wife gives her body to her husband. There can be no equal exchange of authority over each other’s bodies in polygamy. This is why Jesus points us back to Gen 2:24 in Matt 19 confirming monogamy as the true and best marriage framework.

Jesus references this monogamous framework from Genesis in his speech about divorce to the Pharisees in Matthew 19:

Matt 19:4 “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Jesus replied. “They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’[Gen 1:27]” 5 And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’[Gen 2:24] 6 Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”

Lastly, in 1 Timothy 3:1-6 Paul describes the ideal candidate for church leadership. He says this person should be hospitable, sober-minded, gentle, not greedy, and a husband of one wife. So Paul seems to think we should mimic God’s relationship with us and follow the original blueprint from Genesis of one wife and one husband. In the new covenant, we now have the Holy Spirit on the inside making us living temples of God’s presence, which means we should live holy lives avoiding sexual sin (1 Corinthians 6:18-20). The Holy Spirit helps us overcome sin (Galatians 5:16, Galatians 6:7-9). In the old covenant, they did not have the holy spirit so God allowed certain practices under strict supervision by the Torah. Moses and Jeremiah said the solution to man’s inability to keep God’s law was to get our hearts “circumcised” or softened (Deut 30:6, Jer 4:4). Ezekiel told us this would happen when God poured out his spirit on us (Ez 36:25-27) and Joel reveals what this would look like in Joel 2:28-32. This event happens on Pentecost (Shavuot) 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 2:16-21, and Paul ensures us that this was the heart circumcision Moses was talking about (Rom 2:29, Col 2:11).

There is an exception to the limit of monogamy in the new covenant and a separate possible allowance based on one’s interpretation of what Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1-6. The exception is for men who are already in polygamous marriages before getting saved. That means if a man who lives in a polygamous culture becomes a Christian, he shouldn’t have to choose one wife and divorce the others, because it is not what a loving husband who “loves his wives like Jesus loves the church” would do (Ephesians 5:25). Also, we can extrapolate from the rules and conditions for divorce in the bible (Deut 24:1-4, Ex 21:10-11). In 1 Cor 7, Paul says it is more Christ-like that believers try to keep their marriages together even if one of them is an unbeliever, however, the unbeliever is allowed to leave if they wish. We can apply this logic to new believers from polygamous cultures. Based on Paul’s writing, God wouldn’t have a man divorce three of his four wives because he is a Christian now, because it would be cruel and un-Christ-like to abandon his wives. If a Christian is already poly-married in a culture that already has polygamy as a norm then it would seem reasonable to expect him to come as he is as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24. Of course, if they meet the Old Testament requirements for a legitimate divorce then they are allowed to do so as well. We can apply this logic to any new believers that live in polygamous cultures. If they are married they should stop collecting wives at however many they have, and if they are not they should seek a monogamous relationship.

The other possible exception (this one is more interpretation-based) is that 1 Timothy 3:1-6 is describing a candidate for church leadership, so that could mean only church leaders should be monogamous. One can view this as the restriction on polygamy in the old testament for Kings in Deuteronomy 17:17 and apply it to leaders of the church. Furthermore, some may view church leaders as similar to the Levitical priest in the old covenant and they had very specific marriage restrictions limited to virgins or Levite widows. Normally an Israelite man can marry any women he wants whether she is a virgin or not, even Gentile women as long as they gave up idols and converted to Judaism. However, the priests were restricted from marrying anyone that wasn’t a virgin, with the exception of a Levite widow (Lev 21:7-15, & Ez 44:22). This I feel is less powerful than the exception for a man who already has multiple wives, since it requires that one synonymizes a church leader with a king or priest so that everyone else can continue the traditions of the old testament. An easy objection to this is that Jesus is our high priest in the new covenant and we are no longer in the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews ch. 5-7), and he is our king and will reign as king of the world in the future (Rev ch. 20). This is a very loose interpretation, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to try and make this happen knowing that polygamy has so many problems. Paul says single people have more time to serve God because married people have obligations and that it is best to serve God with as few distractions as possible and polygamy would be more distracting than monogamy.

1 Cor 7:32 I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. 33 But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. 34 His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your benefit, not to place restrictions on you. I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible.