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Why did God permit polygamy for some of the patriarchs of the faith?

Today’s question looks back to the Old Testament and asks why did God permit polygamy for some of the patriarchs of the faith? Is polygamy God’s will? Let’s take a look at what the Bible says about this question.

Let’s start with the beginning at the creation of the first man and woman. What we notice in the first two chapters of Genesis is a picture of the perfect standard of the Creator—one man with one woman following their Creator God in the garden of Eden. Everything was perfect—in biblical terms God looked at the finished creation and said it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). These words should tell us that everything was just as the Creator designed it to be for all creation—including Adam and Eve. Of course, Genesis chapter 3 tells us that the disobedience of our first parents in sinning against their Creator plunged them, and the whole of the human race, into a fallen world full of fallen people—enter the first murder in Genesis 4—and a whole world full of wickedness in Genesis 6. The story that unfolds from this point on throughout the Bible involves the Creator calling people—sinful people—to follow Him in faith.

We should note that because of the sinfulness of the people, the culture becomes corrupted by wickedness. The decisions and values of the culture become increasingly sinful and end up perverting the good things of God—in our case, marriage between one man and one woman. Combine this with the low social status of women in the ancient near east and you can see how this twisted practice would spread. This is the environment that the patriarchs were born into and eventually called out of by God.

Speaking specifically to our question, the practice of polygamy seems to have started with the descendants of Cain named in Genesis chapter 4 with Lamech in verse 19, “Then Lamech took for himself two wives” (Genesis 4:19). The practice of having multiple wives carried over after the flood with patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. To be fair, although these notable people of the Bible had multiple wives, it worked out badly for them. In the case of Abraham it led to bitterness and anger between Sarah and Abraham, Jacob’s wives had epic jealousy between each other, David’s multiple wives led to a family situation that included rape and murder, and King Solomon’s wives “turned away his heart” from the Lord. In each case polygamy brought the painful fruit of not modeling the created design.

If the created design is to be followed, then where does the Bible speak against polygamy? There are a few commands in the Law about having multiple wives—having one wife after another dies (Leviticus 18:18; Deuteronomy 21:15), or the direct command not to have multiple wives to the King of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:17). The early patriarchs of the Old Testament seem to have been highly influenced by the culture around them in adopting this practice. There is a point in time about when the prophets became prevalent that the practice of having multiple wives fell out of use. By the time Jesus comes on the scene in first century Israel, the polygamy has vanished from the Jewish culture. Although polygamy was not prevalent in Israel at the time, Jesus still confirmed teaching of one man and one woman in the marriage relationship (Matt. 19:8; Mark 10:6). Also, the apostle Paul preaching to Gentiles through the known world would often likewise endorse the original design of the Creator in Genesis of the marriage relationship between one man with one woman in his epistles (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6; 1 Cor. 7:1-16; Eph. 5:33).            

What is the answer to our question concerning multiple wives by the patriarchs in the Bible? We can say that God calls sinners into relationship with Himself and that those sinners, at times, can struggle and stumble in various ways. The choices made by some of the stalwarts of the faith to have multiple wives proved to be a great hindrance and stumbling block to their obedience to the Lord. May we learn how to follow the Lord without giving in to the cultural morals around us today.    

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