Biblical polygyny is a hot topic — and by that I mean, people tend to get passionate about it on either side of the debate. If you’d like to share what you think about it, come join our freshly launched (May 2020) polygyny forum!
When you think of polygamy, what do you think of? The Mormons? Islam or Muhammad? Maybe you think of Big Love or the Yearning for Zion Ranch?
If you are a Christian, though, I want to give you something else to think of when the subject of polygamy comes up. You see, a Christian’s mind shouldn’t instinctively be drawn to the world, other faiths, or entertainment.
Instead, the Christian’s thoughts should gravitate to the Scriptures, to those men throughout the history of Judeo-christianity who lived out their lives with multiple wives, some with two or three, others with wives numbering in the hundreds.
I want to introduce you to these men.
For simplicity, I’ll present this list alphabetically. Also, I will from now on be referring to these men with the more specific term polygynist. Polygyny is the practice of one man having multiple wives; it is a type of polygamy.
Alphabetically, we start our list with a man, Abdon, who isn’t explicitly said to be a polygynist. However, due to the large number of children he is said to have had, it is possible that multiple wives bore these children to him. If that is a correct assumption, then it is also worth noting that no negative remarks regarding Abdon’s relationships are made.
You should read the rest of chapter thirteen to get the full picture of Abijah; when you do, you’ll come away with the distinct impression that God was on his side.
You’ll find out that while Abijah was ruling over the kingdom of Judah, Jeroboam and the kingdom of Israel rose up against them. Jeroboam and his men stood under the careful, watchful protection of their golden calves and idols; Abijah and his men rose up under the watch, care, and protection of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And what happened? “…God smote Jeroboam and all Israel before Abijah and Judah” (v. 15).
Despite all that we’re told about Abijah, it is telling that we’re never given a hint of disapproval regarding his having multiple wives.
Abram / Abraham
The ESV Study Bible says of Genesis 16:3, “While the OT records occasions when particular individuals have more than one wife, such instances are almost always fraught with complications and difficulty. The taking of multiple wives is never encouraged in the Bible and usually arises out of peculiar circumstances.”
I wonder if the authors of that note have paid much attention to marriage in general: even monogamy is “almost always fraught with complications and difficulty.” That’s just the nature of human relationships!
Did any of those polygamist unions found in the Scriptures end in divorce? What about today’s monogamous marriages? I’m willing to bet that monogamous societies have a much higher rate of divorce than do polygynous ones. Why that would be, I cannot say for certain.
In any event, Abraham had at least three wives — two of which for certain were concurrent. An additional curiosity of this family was that Abraham’s taking of a second wife the idea of Sarai, his first wife.
That is a curiosity because it shows a great lack of self-centeredness on the part of Sarai; she knew the promise that Abraham would have children despite his age, and feeling as though the promise could not be fulfilled in her, she arranged for her own servant to be Abraham’s second wife, so that the promise could be fulfilled through her.
The study Bible notes that polygamy is never encouraged; notice here, though, that the angel of the Lord intervenes to mend the relationship between Hagar and Sarai but in no way expresses any sort of disapproval at the polygynous unions between Abraham and the two women (vv. 9–12)!
We aren’t given details regarding these marriages, just that they exist: Ahab, king of Israel, had multiple wives, and a disapproving word from the prophets or God himself cannot be found.
Ahasuerus’ situation, like Abdon‘s, is a bit speculative. Were all the women wives of Ahasuerus? Or were they handmaidens of the king? Or concubines?
In any event, we know that Ahasuerus was married to Vashti, and that later, she would lose her royal position to Esther (ch. 2). Were both women concurrent wives of Ahasuerus?
Whatever the situation, at the very least we can be certain that no disapproving words regarding polygynous marriages are spoken by God or his prophets in this situation.
Appearing in a much longer list of the descendants of Judah, we are told simply that Ashur had two wives. No disapproval. No stated need for repentance.
I admit that Belshazzar isn’t the best possible example, but he is a “biblical polygynist” nonetheless.
We are told of his drunkenness, of his idolatry — things which elsewhere are revealed to be against the Law of God.
That Belshazzar had multiple wives, though? That was a common practice among many cultures, just as it is today, and there is no sign that the practice of polygyny violated the law of God, nor is it within the context of this passage that his having multiple wives was in any way problematic to God.
We can infer that when Ben-hadad would take Ahab‘s wives, he would take them to be his own wives.
Caleb had at least two concurrent wives plus some concubines, and there is no sign that this wasn’t a normal, expected family structure.
The study Bible notes mentioned above said that polygyny was never encouraged; how is portraying something as perfectly normal not at least implied encouragement?
David is the most significant man on this list thus far; not only was he the king of Israel, he is also the penman behind hundreds of chapters of Scripture.
And he was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22).
Make no mistake that there was sin in David’s life. He committed adultery and murdered to get away with it. He was as human as the rest of us, yet he was highly favored by the lord.
And he was a polygynist.
It’s easy enough to attribute David’s problems to some sort of insatiable lust, but the Scriptures do not point us in that direction.
On the contrary, 2 Samuel 12:7–8 (quoted above) and the surrounding context show that David rebelled against the lord despite having multiple wives. The Scriptures go so far as to say that God himself gave David multiple wives and that, if they were not enough, he would give David even more!
According to the Bible, does God sin? Can iniquity be found in the him? Does God change?
Keep in mind that the ESV Study Bible said that the Scriptures never encouraged polygyny. What does it have to say about God giving multiple wives to David? “There is no other record of David marrying Saul’s wives, but he was certainly in a position to do so.”
Basically, they avoid the issue. When confronted with undeniable, incontrovertible evidence that polygyny is an acceptable practice, rather than admit such, the editors of the study Bible sidestep the issue. I hope you won’t make the same mistake when coming to your own understanding of what the Bible says regarding marriage.
We are only told the name of one of Eliphaz’s wives, but what we are not told is that God disapproved of his family structure. We should not read into the Scriptures disapproval where none in fact exists.
The ESV Study Bible actually makes sense in its handling of this passage, so I’ll defer to it: “Probably Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife, since she is named first. Presumably he married Peninnah because Hannah was barren; lack of an heir was a major problem in the ancient Near East, as in many other societies. Taking a second wife was one way to try to solve the problem (Gen. 16:2), as was levirate marriage. Elkanah’s pedigree suggests that it would be important to him to have an heir to continue the family and also that he was prosperous enough to afford a second marriage.”
If marriage was the only legitimate avenue of fulfilling the command to procreate, then how much more does polygyny allow this command to be fulfilled? We saw this sort of thing earlier in the case of Abraham; so that Abraham may have a child, his wife Sarai encouraged him to take Hagar to be his second wife.
Seems to me that polygyny is in fact an encouraged alternative to remaining childless. Curious, no?
Multiple wives with no disapproval. Are you noticing a pattern yet?
Verse 17 lists the sons of Ezrah with one wife; verse 18 details his family with his wife Jehudijah (or as some translations render it, his Judahite wife).
There are family details aplenty but not a word of divine disapproval.
This passage doesn’t mince any words: Gideon had many wives. Plain. Simple. Unpunished.
Polygamy is Biblical
What comes to your mind when you think of polygyny? If this post was successful, you’ll now think of any of a number of men from the Bible. Perhaps most significantly, you should think of David, who not only was a man after God’s own heart, but was also a man to whom God gave multiple wives with the promise of more if desired.
I fully recognize that polygyny is a foreign concept to many people today, but in the midst of a society in which I see Christians using the Bible to browbeat homosexuals or anyone else who is “alt” or “other” in their sexuality, when we view the having of multiple spouses as bigamy, a crime with real punishments, it is all the more important to understand that the Bible which so many people point to in favor of their moral high grounds isn’t at all what the multitudes assume it is.
Yeah, the Bible (extremely unfortunately) condemns homosexuality. Yes, it uses (extremely unfortunate) misogynistic language.
But it also freely allows the having of multiple wives. (Unless you’re a Christian, in which case the only reason given for you to marry is if you can’t keep your pants on, but that’s another topic for another time.)
Featured image: The Wise & Foolish Virgins by Peter von Cornelius