Throughout the Old Testament record, we find instances wherein the men married more than one wife, usually referred to as polygamy. The word "polygamy" actually refers to multiple spouses, whereas "polygyny" would be one man with multiple wives, while "polyandry" refers to one woman with multiple husbands ("Bigamy" can also be used of having more than one spouse). Abraham, Jacob, King David, King Solomon, and several others engaged in polygamy, marrying more than one wife - to which the skeptic raises the objection, "this shows that God condones polygamy." But does God actually condone it? Was there a purpose for specific instances in the Old Testament, and what can we learn from it all? (Photo credit: VP; Joseph Smith's family - Utah Quarterly Journal 73(3): 212)
Understand that none of these: polygamy, bigamy, polyandry, and polygyny - were part of God's original design for marriage. God's original design is revealed in Genesis 2:24, "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 many]." When Jesus is asked about marriage, He confirms this understanding of the original plan in Mark 10:1-12, along with Matthew 19:1-12. Speaking on divorce, Jesus noted that it was not part of the plan for marriage, but because of the hardness of man's heart. It appears evident that God promoted monogamy, not polygamy. Simply because we find polygamous relationships in Scripture does not mean that God condones it or agrees with it. In fact, we find recorded cases of lying, murder, as well as rape, but God certainly does not condone those (For more information on killing in the Old Testament, see entry: "God In The Old Testament: A Harsh God?").
The first recorded instance of polygamy is found in Genesis 4:19, "Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah." Lamech was great, great, great, great grandson of Adam and Eve, and part of Cain's bloodline. Lamech, in Genesis 4:23-24, brags to his wives that he had killed someone, and neither the murder he committed nor his polygamous relationship is condoned by God. Polygamy was practiced by many, it was legislated in the Mosaic Law, and was practiced until the the Captivity, after which we find no recorded instances. Consider King Solomon, for example. 1st Kings 11:1-3 says, "King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter - Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, 'You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.' Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray."
To note, skeptics often claim that it is unlikely that Solomon could have a thousand wives. Yet Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III is known to have accumulated more than a thousand wives in his harem. Having this understanding that it was rare to have that many wives but not limited to King Solomon, and the understanding that God had warned against it, why did Solomon marry so many wives? Solomon married so many wives because when someone of royalty married with royalty from another empire, the two would become linked, and alliances would be formed. In doing this, Solomon secured his empire, sealing many treaties and engaging in many political alliances. However, by doing this, Solomon engaged in disobedience toward the direct commands of our Creator, worshiping false idols and violating God's plan of monogamy, favoring instead polygamy.
In fact, in Deuteronomy 17:17, the kings were commanded not to "take many wives": "He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold." Solomon violated both of these commands, the results of which are seen in 1st Kings 11:4-9, "As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father has been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice."
As we read on, we find that God tells Solomon that due to his continued sins, the kingdom would be taken away from him and given to his subordinates, but for David's sake, he would not do it in Solomon's lifetime, but in his son's - and not the whole kingdom, but that one tribe would be given for his kingdom. In Ecclesiastes 2:8 we find, "I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well - the delights of a man's heart." Ecclesiastes is usually attributed to Solomon (this will be explored in a later entry), and he goes on to say in Ecclesiastes 2:17, "So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." Ecclesiastes was the results of a lifetime spent trying to obtain happiness apart from God, with no luck. Solomon notes that "I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees" (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6). Yet apart from God, even having so many wives, to Solomon "life was meaningless" (without God).
God had distinctly commanded that polygamous relationships among the kings were not condoned, why would He condone these relationships for anyone else? "Many Jewish leaders and patriarchs, including kings, were recorded to have polygamous relationships. However, these relationships brought about judgment and hardship. David was punished for his relationship with Bathsheba; Abraham's relationship with Hagar brought strife into the family; and other examples would also bear out this point. Some may argue that Jacob's polygamous lifestyle was blessed by God, but just because God used a sinful relationship to fulfill His plan does not mean that that action was right. Likewise, Jesus' lineage can be traced back to Bathsheba." This bears out what we read in Romans 8:28, "...in all things God works for the good of those who love him..." and Proverbs 16:4, "The LORD works out everything to its proper end."
In the New Testament, Paul is clear on marriage. 1st Timothy 3:2 and 12 as well as Titus 1:6 record that church leaders must be the "husband on one wife" - not many. This is not to say that if their wife passes away and they remarry that it is unbiblical, but that they can only be married to one wife at a time. In 1st Corinthians 7:1-16, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about marriage, within the context of the passage, Paul utilized a pattern of a single husband and wife - this is echoed by other New Testament writers. Paul also explains the relationship between Christ and the Church in Ephesians 5:25-33, referring back to Genesis 2:24. In Ephesians 5:33, Paul writes, "However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." Evidently, if polygamy were permissible, the analogy of the relationship between Jesus and the Church falls apart - Paul was speaking in the singular, not the plural.
The "positive" aspect of polygamy regarding Biblical times would be that polygamy would allow for the husband to provide a home and food for the wives, essentially providing and protecting for those women. That does not, however, make polygamy part of God's original plan. Today, in most cultures, women are able to provide and protect themselves, thus eliminating the "positive" aspect of polygamous relationships. In fact, most countries have outlawed polygamy, and as Romans 13:1-7 demonstrates, we are to submit to our authorities - unless it disagrees with God's Word (see Acts 5:29). God allowed for polygamy in certain instances, but there is no record of God commanding polygamy. God's design of "one flesh" in marriage - one man and one woman, not polygamy, is vividly clear.
In cases where Abraham and others were allowed to engage in such relationships, we find the results were strife, turmoil, jealousy, problems. David's inner turmoil can be seen in specific Psalms as well as in books such as 2nd Samuel. We find polygamy permitted, however, in many other religions - yet not all. Consider Sura 4:3 in the Qu'ran, "And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course." From a reading of Sura 33, we also find that Muhammad was allowed many wives, and indeed history provides that he was married to several women. Modern Muslims (though not all) do sometimes practice polygamy.
Polygamy was also heavily practiced by the early Mormon church (established by Joseph Smith in the early 1800's), the founder included.The Book of Mormon had originally, in Jacob 2:23-28 and 3:5-8, condemned polygamy. In Doctrine and Covenants 42:22, also written by Joseph Smith, we find that it is stated that a man should only have one wife. However, later writings of Smith - such as Doctrine and Covenants 132:51-66 provide that a man can have more than one wife. Polygamy was practiced by the Mormon church in secret from the 1830's to the 1850's, when the church publicly announced its practice, despite many previous denials.
|Members of Joseph Smith's family|
"Eventually, they were pressured into denouncing polygamy after it was vigorously prosecuted by the federal government. From the 1870s on, many LDS leaders encouraged rebellion against the laws, but in 1890, LDS president Wilford Woodruff encouraged members to obey the laws. This caused a large split in the church, and new organizations were formed by those who continued the practice of polygamy and considered themselves as faithfully adhering to the commands of God over man’s laws. Some secretly practiced polygamy while others abstained. What has become the mainline LDS Church currently denounces polygamy and claims that anyone who practices it is not a true Mormon."
Though polygamy was prominent in many religions and cultures, but it was not condoned by God, nor was it commanded. Though it was allowed, it was not commanded, and indeed the various consequences of these polygamous relationships can be seen with Abraham, King Solomon, King David, Jacob, and others. Though God works out everything to its proper end even when we cannot understand how, polygamy is not part of God's design for marriage - monogamy, or "one flesh." Simply because the Jewish people of the Old Testament tolerated polygamy does not mean that God condones it. Murder was allowed throughout history, but it does not mean it should be legal, especially since the 6th Commandment forbids murder (not killing in self-defense). Despite the fact that the Qu'ran and the Book of Mormon claim to be additional revelations from God, the Bible is clear when it speaks of marriage. With a Biblical worldview, we can understand this, and it is evident that God's plan for Adam and Eve was to be followed through the ages - one man and one woman (see entry: "How Do We Know The 66 Books Are The Right Books?" and "Is The Bible Reliable? Has It Been Altered?" for more information).
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 Patterson, Roger. "What About Polygamy in the Bible?." Answers In Genesis. Answers In Genesis, 24 May 2011. Web. 3 Aug 2011. < http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2011/05/24/polygamy-in-the-bible >.
 Ken Ham, et al. Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions. 2nd ed. 1. Green Forest, Arkansas: Master Books, 2011. 75-76. Print.
 Ibid, .