Christians who oppose same-sex marriage will often point to the Bible for support, stating that God intended marriage to be the union of a man and a woman. Critics will reply, “But the Bible also supported polygamy. In fact, it was even part of Torah law.” What, then, does the Bible say about polygamy?
Let’s start with Adam and Eve. They were the Bible’s first couple – not ‘throuple,’ but couple. Put another way, God did not create Adam and Eve and Evette. His intent, from the beginning, was to join one man with one woman for life.
Jesus reiterated this in Matthew when answering a question about divorce: “‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
So, the two (not the three or the four) become one, joined together by God.
In the same way, when Paul spoke of the union of a husband and wife as a mystical symbol of the union of Jesus with the Church, the imagery again was clear: one husband/Husband and one bride/Church (Ephesians).
That being said, polygamy was a common way of life in biblical times, and it was accepted under the Law of Moses.
This dates all the way back to Genesis, the first reference to a man having multiple wives, and some of the most famous figures in the Bible, including Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, had more than one wife.
Not only so, but the Torah explicitly allowed Israel’s king more than one wife. He was just forbidden from having too many wives: “And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” (Deuteronomy)
It is also possible that, in Deuteronomy 25, the Torah required a married man to marry his brother’s wife if the brother passed away without having a son, but scholars debate whether this law applied to a man who was already married.
That being said, what is very clear from the Scriptures is that polygamy is a bad practice and in contradiction to God’s ideal for humanity. It was allowed because of prevailing cultural norms and as an accommodation to the needs of procreation, since a couple without children had few or no providers in their old age. And without children, the family line could become extinct.
That’s why Abraham took Hagar as a wife in his old age, thinking that this was the only way for him to have a child, as his wife Sarah was barren.
But, to repeat, without forbidding polygamy by law – there is not one verse in the Bible that explicitly prohibits it – the Scriptures paint a decidedly negative picture of the practice.
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, clashes with Hagar.
Jacob has constant family issues because he has two wives (sisters, in fact, and not by his choosing).
Hannah, the wife of Elkanah and the mother of Samuel, was ridiculed by Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah because of her barrenness before conceiving Samuel.
King David encounters all kinds of familial infighting (including rape and murder) and political intrigues because of his multiple wives.
And King Solomon, David’s son, goes completely off the rails, taking things to an unprecedented extreme: “He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.” (Kings. Note that in Solomon’s case, his sin was compounded in that many of his wives were from non-Israelite nations, meaning idol-worshiping nations. Such unions were strictly forbidden by Israelite law).
So, to repeat, while the Bible does not explicitly prohibit polygamy, there is not one single positive example of polygamy in the Old Testament, while every example that is treated at any length is decidedly negative.
This, too, is a scriptural method of teaching morality, by example and not only by legislation.
Continuing into the New Testament, where there are no examples of polygamous unions despite their existence in the Jewish and pagan cultures, none of the apostles had more than one wife (see Corinthians) and, more importantly, church overseers, who were all male, had to be “the husband of one wife.” (Timothy)
This was of tremendous importance, since the believers in each congregation were called to emulate the example of their leaders (Hebrews) and since it was understood that a man could not ascend to church leadership if he was a polygamist.
So, just as divorce was never God’s ideal but was accommodated under biblical law because of human sin and weakness (as Jesus explained in Matthew), so also polygamy was accommodated.
In distinction, however, from divorce, which is allowed under certain circumstances in the New Testament, polygamy is never expressly permitted in the New Testament, which instead emphasizes God’s plan from the beginning: one man and one woman joined together and becoming one flesh.
That’s why early Church leaders taught against polygamy, although it was not a major focus of their writings. And that’s why, with rare exceptions, polygamy was banned in countries that adopted Christian teaching.
In Judaism, while Talmudic rabbis were not themselves polygamous, the first official legal ban on polygamy did not come until around 1,000 AD.
Those looking to the Bible in support of polygamy will not find the support they desire.
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries and is the author of 40 books. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.