“Why doesn’t God ever condemn polygamy in the Bible? It seems like people get away with it all the time!”
I’ve heard things like this quite a few times over the years, and it’s usually from our ladies. Totally understandable. It does seem like the Bible has little to say about this issue and it’s always men who have multiple wives and not the other way around.
So what is there to say about this? Well, most of us have noticed that the Bible doesn’t read like a modern day how-to manual. What may not be so obvious is that even when it is not giving us straightforward dos and don’ts, it is still teaching us. Old Testament narrative in particular teaches us lessons implicitly rather than explicitly. It’s really quite rare in OT narrative to get anything close to a statement saying, “here’s the point of all this.”
Certainly, we would love to have a passage somewhere in the Bible that says, “Any man who has more than one wife is a jerk and deserves to die.” But just because the Bible doesn’t say that explicitly does not mean it has nothing to teach about polygamy at all. In fact, what it does teach about polygamy is quite damning – it simply teaches it implicitly, or through the storyline by showing what happens to people who engage in it.
If I were to summarize this implicit teaching and make it explicit, I would phrase it this way: “Any man who takes more than one wife has rejected God’s design for marriage, is a fool, and will pay for it.”
First, we’re all familiar with God’s creation of the man and woman in the garden. He made one man and one woman and said of them, “…a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:25). One man plus one woman equals one flesh. That’s the formula, and it’s reiterated in the New Testament (Matt 19:5; Eph 5:31). In each of these NT texts, Jesus and the apostles always refer to the husband and his wife, not the husband and his wives (e.g. Eph 5:25-33). NT teaching about divorce, remarriage, and adultery presupposes that one can only be married to one person (Matt 19:3-9; 1 Cor 7:10-16). All of this NT commentary confirms that Genesis 2 sets up a specific design for marriage – one husband and one wife. Anyone who deviates from this has rejected God’s design. When we deviate from God’s design, problems will ensue, which is exactly what we see happening as the OT storyline continues.
Which brings us to the second point – people who do this are fools who will pay for it. The first closeup example of polygamy that we see is in the life of Abraham. God promised Abraham (whose name was Abram at the time) that He would make him into a great nation with many offspring (Gen 12). In Gen 15, God reiterated this promise, making it explicit that an heir would come from Abraham’s own body.
Now, given God’s design for marriage – one man, one woman – obviously, that heir is going to be born to Abraham and Sarah. But Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting so they went outside of God’s design and added a wife, Hagar, to birth the promised son. How did that work out for everyone? Massive pain and drama. That’s the whole point. Immediately, they were all miserable. Hagar looked on Sarah with contempt (Gen16:4). Sarah hated Hagar and was angry at Abraham, cursing him even though the whole thing was her idea (16:5). Abraham gave Sarah permission to do whatever she wanted to Hagar and she did, treating her harshly (16:6). Large portions of the following narrative are dedicated to depicting the misery caused by that one foolish decision (16:7-14; 17:17-21; 21:8-21). It caused nothing but sorrow.
And God still did things His own way. In other words, their rejection of monogamy did not benefit them in the way they hoped. That God rejected Ishmael and named Abraham’s descendents through Isaac emphasized His upholding of His own design for marriage. “No, we’re not going to do things your way, Abraham. We’re going to do things My way” (Birdwell paraphrase, Gen18:9-15).
It would have been great if Abraham and his family learned this lesson, but polygamy turns into a sordid family tradition. It does skip a generation with Isaac and Rebekah, but consider all the heartache that comes from Jacob having numerous wives. There are multiple layers to that situation, including the fact that Jacob was tricked into taking Leah to be his wife, when he really wanted Rachel (Gen 29). So we might not say that Jacob took a second wife just because he was greedy for love. Yet the narrative still shows polygamy as an evil thing. Many commentators believe that Jacob’s being deceived into taking two wives was a judgment upon Jacob for his deception of his brother Esau (Gen 27). In other words, the tables had been turned – Jacob was no longer the deceiver but the deceived. It should tell us something that this messed up situation with multiple wives was a form of judgment on Jacob rather than a blessing. Here, too, strife ruled the day (Gen 30, 37). We might even say that the strife caused by competing wives in Jacob’s household led to the slavery of the nation of Israel! (Gen 37-Exo 1).
We could look at other examples, including David and Solomon. In each case, the rejection of God’s design of one husband and one wife leads to horribly painful consequences. This is one way that the Bible teaches. It doesn’t always make outright pronouncements, but sometimes shows in a big picture fashion what happens when we don’t do things God’s way. Such is the case with the Bible’s teaching on polygamy.
So does the Bible have anything to say about polygamy? Yes. Is polygamy condemned by God? No doubt. We just have to read carefully, understanding the different ways that the Bible communicates truth.