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!
It has been nearly two months since I wrote the first part of a slow-growing series, Men of the Bible with Multiple Wives. A full-time preacher from Down Under, Armen, brought some interesting conversation to the response thread, but it hasn’t seen much activity as of late. Today, though, Armen posted a series of points on his blog meant as a reply to my pro-polygyny position. Below you’ll find my responses. I confess they are not as thorough as some may like, but there are ample resources online for further research into the subject of biblical polygyny.
1. God’s order in Creation reveals the divine principle
God created a perfect world in six literal days. On the sixth day, He created man, and then woman out of the man to be a help for him.
God’s thoughts on all this? “Very good”.
With God revealling His desire that man should be fruitful and multiply, He could have speeded things up considerably by giving Adam more than one wife.
But, He didn’t.
God’s creation of Adam & Eve ensured that we are all one human race. We are the offspring of one pair of original parents. Within Adam’s life time, there was at least one man — Lamech — who had multiple wives. No one rebuked him for it. Why?
The Scriptures never say anything to the effect of Adam & Eve’s monogamy being binding upon all marital couples. If you want to reach into the lives of our first parents and apply things to your life that the Scriptures do not, then I hope you are consistent and restrict your work to tending your garden and multiplying. You cannot pick and choose some of the principles laid down for Adam & Eve. The Scriptures apply only a few of the principles to others. Regarding marriage, we are simply told by Jesus that divorce is a sin because a husband should cleave to His wife. That does not preclude multiple wives, as exhibited throughout the Scriptures.
2. It’s God’s way to aid raising a godly offspring
In Malachi 2:15 we read, “And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed.”
What’s the prophet recording? I’ll paraphrase it like this, ‘Didn’t God make one? Yet He had power to create more. So why one? For the purpose of raising children who fear and love God’.
Read the passage surrounding the verse for further clarity.
The passage in Malachi 2 has in view divorce, not polygamy of any variety. I’ll quote the entire passage here:
And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord‘s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” The Book of Malachi 2:13–16
I’ve heard this passage used against polygyny before, and I just don’t buy it. The passage is speaking of divorce: a man should not divorce his wife because they are in a covenant together, with God as a witness to it. The husband and the wife are made one, bound with “a portion of the Spirit,” for the purpose of raising godly offspring.
None of that precludes polygyny as the rest of the Bible attests repeatedly that a man may have — and thus be “one” with — multiple wives. That is what a wife is in the Scriptures.
3. The Mosaic Law does not sanction it
One of the arguments used by those who may argue in defense of polygamy, is that it is not condemned anywhere in the Mosaic Law.
This appears to be true. But, neither is it sanctioned.
However, it is regulated, which, I confess, is rather interesting.
It is indeed regulated, which isn’t a negative thing against it. Drinking wine is regulated too, in the sense that drunkenness is a sin, but the drinking of wine itself is not a sin. Likewise, monogamous unions have regulations as well (see the Malachi passage above for the biggie).
But does the Law sanction polygynous unions? Yes! Indeed, the Law requires them under certain circumstances! Behold, the Law of the Husband’s Brother (or as it is properly called, levirate law):
“If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate of the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’ The Book of Deuteronomy 25:5–10
In the close-knit society of ancient Israel, it was important for the strengthening of the family to keep a family together. This meant that if there were more than one brother, if one died, the other would be responsible for taking his brother’s widow as a wife. Note well that there is no exception clause for living brothers who already have a wife. Note also that refusing to follow through with levirate marriage carries with it a degree of shame.
If polygyny were a sin, and a brother refused to take his brother’s widow as a wife on the grounds that he already had a wife, why would there be shame involved? The simplest answer is that there is nothing wrong with polygyny and that a brother’s refusal to take his brother’s widow as a wife is a slap in the face to his deceased brother.
4. The marriage can be efficiently conducted with one wife
A man has no need for multiple wives. If man needed more than one, God, who was to give Adam a “help meet”, would have made him more than one wife.
The reasons for marriage can all be properly satisfied with one wife.
Marriage is more than a practical or pragmatic relationship. Also, it should be noted that this is not an argument against polygyny. Many men live happy, fulfilled lives having never been married, so would that be an effective argument against monogamy? No? Didn’t think so. And neither is the above an effective argument against polygyny.
5. No man can hold office with multiple wives
If a man takes more than one wife, he immediately disqualifies himself from ever holding office in the church. An elder is to be the husband of one wife.
The President of the United States must be a native-born American. Does that mean that every other American must be native-born?
The principles of leadership simply should not be expected to be required of the populace. Keep in mind that the biblical requirements for elders of churches requires a man not only to be a husband but to also have well-behaved kids. Does that make every single man or even married man without children somehow less of a Christian? You cannot apply one aspect of the leadership qualities to all men without being consistent in the matter.
Aside from those issues, the Greek word translated as “one” is μία (mee’-ah) which, according to Strong’s, means “one or first.” In other words, it’s quite possible the verse means that an elder must be still husband to his first wife. A man who has proven his faithfulness to his longest-term wife is a faithful man indeed.
6. The picture of Christ and the Church teaches monogamy
Lastly, the theology and teaching of Eph 5 doesn’t match with having multiple wives, if it’s properly understood.
There is one head, and one body. There is Christ, and the Church; and it’s represented in marriage with man as the head. Should he have multiple bodies?
Also, that passage tells us that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. How did Christ love the church? Sacrificially and particularly. You cannot properly sacrifice yourself to one wife, without minimising the sacrifice made to the other(s). Impossible. Neither can you love each one particularly as Christ loved the Church.
Jesus’ is able to love each of us without diminishing the love given to any other. Parents love each of their children without diminishing the love given to another. Simply because you find something to be impossible does not mean that it is so. Through Christ, all things are possible, and apart from Him is nothing godly possible, for without Him, even a faithful, committed, monogamous marriage is no better than used menstrual rags in the sight of God.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul describes his betrothing of the Corinthian believers to Christ. He described them as a “pure virgin.” Do you see that? He’s certainly betrothed to Christ as well, but the picture painted here by the Holy Spirit has the Corinthian believers separately betrothed to Christ. Does Christ have multiple betrothed “pure virgins”? Yes! Otherwise, it must be concluded that Paul had no idea about what he was talking.
I do realize that Paul was speaking figuratively in that passage, though, and was discussing his evangelization of the Corinthians in marital terms; however, if polygyny was really a sin, why would Paul do this? Imagine a preacher — an apostle, no less! — standing up at a conference and addressing the gathered assembles: “I betrothed you believers of Indiana to Christ. I betrothed you believers of Santa Barbara to Christ. I betrothed you believers of Saskatchewan to Christ. I have presented all of you churches as pure virgins to Christ. Not let me tell you how much God hates having multiple wives…”
I’m just not sure that would fly too well. There is no confusion with God. Polygyny is and always has been acceptable. From the earliest of times man has practiced it. The “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11 is nearly a third polygynists (David, Gideon, Moses, Jacob, and Abraham).
And if we count each additional marriage after a man’s first to be a count of polygyny, there are thousands of instances of polgyny recorded in the Scriptures, yet not a single word of condemnation is leveled against it. If sin is transgression of the Law and if polygyny is a sin, then would that not make for a glaring oversight in the Law?
Finally, if polygyny was a sin, we wouldn’t find God describing Himself as one in any way, shape, or form — if anyone’s above reproach, it is He! — yet He does so. Why would that be? Can God sin?
It’s a taboo and touchy subject, but I’m interested in your thoughts.
It is sad commentary regarding the state of the church today that normal, everyday aspects of the lives of biblical heroes is “taboo.” Armen’s correct on that point, though; far too much has become taboo in today’s churches. The Scriptures are explicitly sexual, vividly violent, and would be every bit deserving of a Restricted rating or worse were it ever faithfully turned into a movie. These things shock and startle us. We have become insulated by a comforting picture of a Santa Claus god or some other gross abomination. The very thought that God might have different standards for the different genders is appalling to our “enlightened” ears.
Let the Scriptures speak, friends. Let them define your values, mores, and ethics. Don’t let yourself embrace a culture-colored faith.