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!
If having your traditions challenged offends you, you may wish to skip this post. If, however, you are open to an honest and biblically-based discussion on a controversial topic, you are encouraged to continue.
I posted recently about my part in the polygyny debate, and I’m glad to have finally said all that I did. I don’t know that I have a great deal of literature on the subject to look into — the internet has been an invaluable resource thus far. (You can talk about the unreliability of the internet for research if you’d like, but the brilliant thing about using it for theological research is that no matter who is doing the teaching, the standard of truth is always the same: Holy Writ. And that’s something any web page can be lined up against easily enough.)
But I did find mention of the subject in David Cloud’s Way of Life Encyclopedia of the Bible & Christianity (4th edition). Looking at the arguments, it doesn’t seem as though they hold much water, and I want to share with you all why I think that; if I get something wrong, please correct me. Further, if you have arguments which are more sound than Cloud’s, please share them with me.
Cloud begins with a bold statement (emphasis mine):
Though certain O.T. believers practiced polygamy (Ge. 25:6; 35:22; Ju. 8:31; 2 Sa. 5:13; 1 Ki. 11:3; 2 Ch. 11:21), it has always been condemned by God.
That’s a sweeping statement, one which you would expect to find ample evidence of, given the “always” qualifier. Let’s look through Cloud’s list and see how his premise holds up under scrutiny:
(1) God ordained one-woman, one-man marriage in the beginning (Ge. 2:20–24).
God certainly did ordain marriage in the beginning, but He did not specify that man would cleave necessarily unto only one wife after leaving his parents. That the original marriage had a 1:1 ratio seems circumstantial at best, much like the fact that God’s originally ordained married couple went around naked all over the place.
(2) Polygamy originated with the son of rebellious Cain (Ge. 4:16–19).
If you buy this argument, I should hope that you are consistent in your practice. Maintaining Cloud’s second point would require you to forsake the usage of any technology, medicine, entertainment, food, institution, and so on which originated with the son of a sinner.
I hope you like living in a cave, licking moss to survive.
Take a peak at Genesis 4:16–19 with me. Truly, it deserves a look-see:
Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17And Cain had relations with his wife and she conceived, and gave birth to Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city Enoch, after4 the name of his son. 18Now to Enoch was born Irad; and Irad became the father of Mehujael; and Mehujael became the father of Methushael; and Methushael became the father of Lamech. 19And Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other, Zillah. NASB
That’s pretty straightforward, no? Did you notice, though, that nowhere do we find God condemning Lamech for the practice? If first-mentions in the Bible are important, then the first mention of polygyny within the Scriptures not only goes unpunished, but God never — not even in the slightest — gives a negative word about it.
Actually, I would just about be prepared to go so far as to say that God blessed Lamech’s relationship with both his wives. Just look at the legacy they have left:
In verse 20 we learn of Lamech & Adah’s son Jabal, who “was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock” (NASB). Certainly we know that Abel was the first to keep livestock, yet Jabal pioneered the field. He invented tents — mobile dwellings whereby the shepherd may tend to his livestock wherever they may need to go. This art endured through the time of the patriarchs and is still in use today by some.
In verse 21 we learn of Jabal’s brother Jubal, who “was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (NASB). Here we have the Scripture’s first mention of music, invented by someone who was part of the supposed ungodly line of Cain. Not only do we have the first mention of music, but we have the invention of both stringed & woodwind instruments — inventions which would go on to be given an important place in the worship of God (see Psalm 150, for example).
Finally in verse 22 we hear of Lamech & Zillah’s son Tubal-cain who was “the forger of all implements of bronze and iron” (NASB). And so we have the beginnings of metal-based technology, and it has its origins in the son of a polygynous father!
What a legacy that family made for itself! We would be hard pressed to find a family that has left such a long-lasting positive affect on the world. And through all of it, never once do we hear anything negative from God or Moses (or anyone else for that matter) concerning the marriage of Lamech to two women. Never once do we hear of disharmony between Lamech and his wives or between their children.
Okay, so polygyny originated with the son of rebellious Cain. So what? Monogamy originated with the world’s first sinners!
If God wanted to condemn Lamech, He would have; since He did not, we should not lest we be guilty of wresting the words of Scripture to suit our beliefs.
(3) Concerning David and other O.T. saints who had plural wives: (a) It resulted in much heartache and trouble (Ge. 16:1–6; 1 Sa. 1:2–8; 1 Ki. 11:1–8).
Let’s take this one sub-point at a time. Cloud makes the assertion that David and other Old Testament saints were caused heartache and trouble because of their taking multiple wives. I’ll not tarry long on each of these — and you are more than encouraged to look each of the verses up yourself — but here is hopefully a little more insight into the cited passages:
- Genesis 16:1–6 — Abraham is not condemned for having multiple wives — if he is, I’m not seeing it. Abraham was enticed by his wife Sarai to take Hagar as a wife so that she may bare Abraham a child. Sarai did not believe she was capable of having kids, and wanted Abraham to have the promised child — her cause, at least, was noble. She believed that God’s promise in Abraham would be fulfilled, even if she had to see it be done via Hagar. Whatever problems arose were not due to Abraham’s polygyny (which was merely circumstantial), but rather stemmed from a lack of faith that God’s promise would be fulfilled.
- 1 Samuel 1:2–8 — Elkanah had two wives, but they could not get along. The sin here is not polygyny — it’s a failure to love one another. I’m not entirely sure what the relationship between two wives of one man would be — would it be sisterly? Whatever the case, there should at least be a familial love shared between the women. A house divided against itself cannot stand; that is the sin of this passage. “Well, doesn’t that prove that polygynous relationships are unhealthy because it gives occasions for the wives to not get along?” If you want to take that route, I hope you are consistent and apply it to monogamous relationships as well — does the skyrocketed divorce rate suggest that something is inherently screwed up with monogamy as well?
- 1 Kings 11:1–8 — Solomon marries a great many women — and has more still as concubines. These women led to his worshiping other gods. Was the sin polygyny? Not according to the Bible! Solomon was guilty of taking foreign wives — a violation of what the Lord had commanded. Israelites were to marry Israelites. Don’t insert into the text that polygyny was the sin; God has already spelled out what the sin was for us.
It’s amazing what one discovers when dealing with the biblical texts. Moving on…
(b) God had forbidden kings to multiply wives (De. 17:14,17). David, Solomon, and other kings who had multiple wives were living contrary to God’s word.
Before I even touch what Cloud has said here, I want to ask you, are you a king of Israel? No? Then this does not apply to you. Now, if you do happen to be a king of Israel, let’s see what the Lord has spoken concerning your marital rights:
“When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ … Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.” Deuteronomy 17:14, 17, NASB
John Gill in his commentary notes that it was a common notion that a Jewish king could have as many as eighteen wives, but no more.
Whatever the case may be, we do see here that a king was not to take unto himself many wives — nor great wealth or even horses (verse 16).
If you really want to apply this to non-royal Jews — or to Christendom — you must be consistent and make use of every biblical law concerning Jewish kings. Cloud commits a non sequituur error; it does not follow that because Jewish kings were told to abstain from having many wives, so must we.
© Most men of God even in the O.T. had only one wife. This is true for Adam (Ge. 2–4), Noah (Ge. 6:18), Isaac (Ge. 25:20–23), Joseph (Ge. 41:45), Moses (Ex. 2:21), Boaz (Ru. 4), Job (Job 1), Isaiah (Is. 8:3), and Hosea (Ho. 3:1–3).
If I may be so bold… So what? Most men of God mentioned in the Scriptures lived in Israel; must I? None of the men of God mentioned in the Scriptures ever had a pizza; must I then abstain?
Monogamy is a perfectly valid form of marriage, and so we would expect it to be exampled for us in the Scriptures.
Oh, and it seems as though Moses too was a polygynist. Perhaps his inclusion in Cloud’s list was a typographical error?
(4) There is no N.T. example of a godly Christian having more than one wife.
Again, so? There is no New Testament example of a great many things we do everyday. Don’t take this link as a sweeping recommendation for all that is said on the site, but according to some, polygyny is commanded by God within the pages of the New Testament. Interesting, no?
However, no mention of Christian polygynists within the New Testament is not reason enough to condemn the practice. (Indeed, were it to be condemned, God would have needed to actually condemn it for us; where there is no Law, there is no sin.)
Further, there is no New Testament example of a missionary authoring a Bible encyclopedia, sending out email newsletters, and maintaining “apostasy databases,” but guess how Mr. Cloud spends his time!
(5) Those who have more than one wife today are forbidden to hold church leadership positions (1 Ti. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6).
Titus 1:6 tells us that an elder must be “the husband of one wife, having children who believe” (NASB).
First Timothy 3:2 says likewise says that an “overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife” (NASB).
Okay, so church leadership may only have one wife. As with the passage above about the kings of Israel, if you are not what the passage is talking about, then the passage does not apply to you. It’s that simple.
Now, I have heard that Christian men should only have one wife because we can never know whether or not God will call us to the position of church elder. However, if that’s the case, then any Christian man should get married to one woman as soon as possible and start having children. Do you see that in the passage?
An elder must be married, must have children, and they themselves must be believers. If those qualifications are not
meant , then there is no truly biblical eldership. That is, after all, what the passage states — no more, no less.
Yet Paul encourages believers to remain single so that they may pursue the things of the Lord. Based on that fact, it seems pointless to claim that we should keep ourselves in a position wherein we may enter the ministry of elder at a moment’s notice. One can hardly get married, have children, and ensure that they are become Christians that quickly!
I have also heard it said that because elders are supposed to be examples to us, we should then follow their example by having only one wife.
In a sense, that is valid, but it is by no means authoritative because it is an assumption imposed upon the texts. If God had said, “husband of one wife, as an example to believing men,” that would make things a little different. The concept of elders being the quintessential or typical Christian is not to be found within the pastoral epistles themselves. We must be careful not to add unto the Scriptures.
This shows that God is against polygamy. Those who practiced this were disobeying God, even though some were godly men. David is a key example. He multiplied wives to himself in spite of God’s command against this, but his lust also brought him into terrible grief.
Thus David Cloud concludes the “Polygamy” article of his encyclopedia, prior to offering even one substantial argument against the practice which he believes “God is against.”
It’s easy to point to special cases — kings should not multiply wives, elders should be the husband of one wife — yet to search the Scriptures for a commandments against common men having multiple wives, you would come up empty.
David seems to be a favorite example of Cloud’s, and he concludes by stating David had multiple wives “in spite of God’s command against this.”
Would it surprise you then to learn that at least some of David’s wives were given to him by God Himself? We learn that through Nathan the prophet, and you can check out the passage yourself at 2 Samuel 12:8. At the very least we can conclude from that simple passage two things:
- The law against kings multiplying wives unto themselves did not forbid a plurality of wives — just as the previous verse in that passage did not forbid a plurality of horses. Rather, as the King James Version states, it was forbidden for a king to have “many” wives; yes, that is subjective, but from David’s example, we know that he had yet to cross that boundary of having many wives as God gave him multiple!
- That polygyny is not a sin. I’ve come this far in this discussion, and that is the conclusion I must settle on lest I become guilty of rejecting the Scriptures. If God does not tempt man to sin (James 1:13), and God gave wives to David, then it must be concluded that David was not being led into a sinful situation.
If all of the above offends you, I encourage you to ask yourself why it does. Is my understanding of the Scriptures in these matters wrong? If so, don’t get offended; rather, correct me in all gentleness and patience as the Scriptures encourage you to do. All I ask is what has been asked by me — and demanded of me by my belief in sola Scriptura: Remain open to what the Word of God says. The Scriptures don’t just trump traditions; they smash traditions, replacing them with wisdom that is of God.
May we continue to seek that wisdom!