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Polygamy

Introduction

Although Scripture clearly condemns polyandry (a woman having more than one husband, Romans 7:2-3), it does not condemn polygyny (a man having more than one wife). Yet, in today's false Christian culture (2 Timothy 3:1-5; 4:3; 2 Peter 2:1-3) this kind of polygamy (i.e. polygyny) is typically viewed as evil, even though the Word of God never teaches any such thing (Proverbs 4:27). Popular Bible teacher John MacArthur exemplifies this presumption. In his Study Bible MacArthur writes,

8:30,31 many wives. Gideon fell severely into the sin of polygamy, an iniquity tolerated by many but which never was God's blueprint for marriage (Gen. 2:24). Abimelech, a son by yet another illicit relationship, grew up to be the wretched king in Judg. 9. Polygamy always resulted in trouble. (The MacArthur Study Bible, p.348, copyright 1997, Word Publishing)

MacArthur calls polygamy an "iniquity," faults Gideon for "the sin of polygamy," and calls polygamy and concubinage (Abimelech was the son of Gideon's concubine, Judges 8:31) "illicit" relationships. On page 37 of this same Study Bible MacArthur calls bigamy (having two wives) "open rebellion against God" and a "violation of marriage law" (see MacArthur's footnote for Genesis 4:19). The problem with this is, Scripture nowhere says any such thing (Proverbs 30:5-6). When MacArthur maintains such heresy, he blasphemes (2 Timothy 3:2) godly men (e.g. Abraham, Caleb, Gideon, David, even Josiah, see MacArthur's footnote for 2 Kings 23:25), and teaches as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:8-9) and demons (1 Timothy 4:1-3 "forbidding to marry").

I. Polygamy Was Not Uncommon

As often as polygamy is recorded in Scripture, it is quite evident the Lord never condemns the practice. Both wicked men and righteous men were polygamous, and the Lord called neither to repent of it.

Lamech practiced polygyny (Genesis 4:19). Abraham likewise had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6 "concubines"). Nahor, Abraham's brother, had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29; 22:20-24). Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30), yet later he received two additional wives making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9). Esau took on a third wife hoping it might please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9). Ashur the father of Tekoa had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5). Michael, Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them "had many wives" (1 Chronicles 7:3-4). Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which he "sent away" (1 Chronicles 8:8-11). Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48). Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30). Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of which was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10). David, a man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22), had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23; 20:3). Solomon, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6). Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21), and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23). Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21). Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7). Jehoram had wives who were taken captive (2 Chronicles 21:17). Jehoiada the priest gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3), and Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15). Polygamy is mentioned several times over in the Bible and never once is polygyny condemned.

II. Polygamy Was Governed

Not only is polygyny not forbidden, but God actually gave laws concerning its practice. For example, in Deuteronomy 21 the Lord gave Moses a law regarding a man who had two wives.

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they have borne him children, both the loved and the unloved, and if the firstborn son is of her who is unloved, then it shall be, on the day he bequeaths his possessions to his sons, that he must not bestow firstborn status on the son of the loved wife in preference to the son of the unloved, the true firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

This law does not condemn the man who has two wives. It simply governs how he deals with the offspring.

Immediately before this passage, we find Deuteronomy 21:10-14.

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the cloths of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.

Here the Lord makes no mention as to whether "you" are already married or not. He simply gives the Israelites the permission to marry a captive girl and how to deal with her. This law applies to either a single man or a married man, and in its application of a married man, the Lord is giving permission for polygamy. In fact, this passage rests in that very context, because the very next statement after verse 14 is, "If a man has two wives, . . ." (Deuteronomy 21:15).

Another interesting law in the light of polygamy is found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband's brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. But if the man does not want to take his brother's wife, then let his brother's wife go up to the gate to the elders, and say, "My husband's brother refuses to raise up a name to his brother in Israel; he will not perform the duty of my husband's brother." Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him. But if he stands firm and says, "I do not want to take her," then his brother's wife shall come to him in the presence of the elders, remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face, and answer and say, "So shall it be done to the man who will not build up his brother's house." And his name shall be called in Israel, "The house of him who had his sandal removed."

This passage requires the living brother to marry his brother's wife, and there is absolutely no statement whatsoever in regards to the living brother's marital status. He could be single, or he could already be married. The passage says nothing either way. All that is said is,

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband's brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother to her.

If the living brother was already married, then we have here a command from God for a man to have a polygamous relationship. If the living brother was already married, in order to obey the Lord, the man would be required to have more than one wife. If he refused to do so, he would be spit in the face and bear reproach (Deuteronomy 25:9-10).

Similarly, if a married man were to have sex with a virgin who was not betrothed, he would be required to marry her, and thus end up with another wife.

If a man entices a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the bride-price of virgins. (Exodus 22:16-17; see also Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

Here again there is no specification on whether the man is married or not. Therefore, this law would apply to both a single or married man.

Another law regarding polygamy can be found in Leviticus 18:18. Here the Lord forbids, not polygamy, but rather the taking on of a rival sister while the other is still alive.

Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.

In other words, the Lord forbid a man to have both a woman and her sister.

The Lord also did not allow a man to marry a woman and her mother.

If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. (Leviticus 20:14)

These laws (Leviticus 18:18 & 20:14) do not prohibit polygamy, but rather they ban certain acts of polygyny.

Finally, there is one passage in Deuteronomy that some may think condemns polygamy, but, the truth of the matter is, it actually allows it. For the king, Deuteronomy 17:14-17 places a very general limit to the practice of polygyny.

When you come to the land which the Lord your God is giving you, and possess it and dwell in it, and say, "I will set a king over me like all the nations that are around me," you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses; one from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not set a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. But he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the Lord has said to you, "You shall not return that way again." Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself.

This law is given for the king of the land. There is no such law concerning the common Israelite. In other words, if a rich Israelite were to multiply wives for himself, he would not be breaching this law or any other command from God, because no such command exists. This law does not apply to everyone. It only applies to the king.

Now, does the law say the king cannot have more than one wife? No, it does not. In fact, please note there are three other things the king is not to "multiply for himself," horses, silver, and gold. Could he have a few horses? Certainly, David had at least 100 horses (2 Samuel 8:4), and in this, he did not disobey God (1 Kings 15:5). Could a king have some silver and gold? Indeed, David had silver and gold (2 Samuel 12:30; 24:24), and he did not disobey God (1 Kings 15:5). Likewise, could a king have a few wives? Yes he could. David had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (2 Samuel 3:14; 15:16; 1 Chronicles 3:1-9), and was not disobedient against the Lord in doing so; as 1 Kings 15:5 says,

David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

As for a king who breached Deuteronomy 17:17, Solomon is the classic example. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Yet, even though Solomon obviously multiplied wives to himself, the Lord condemns Solomon, in particular, for his marriage of foreign women (1 Kings 11:1-2; Deuteronomy 7:1-4) and the resultant idolatry (1 Kings 11:4). God mentions Solomon's multiple wives (1 Kings 11:3), but the focus of God's anger is upon Solomon allowing himself to be seduced by his wives (1 Kings 11:9-10). The focus is not upon how many wives he possessed, but rather upon the marriage of foreign women and how they seduced him into idolatry.

Interesting to note in this polygamous context is the statement about David in 1 Kings 11:6.

Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David.

Even though David had at least 8 wives and ten concubines, David fully followed the Lord.

Polygamy was the pattern of David's life. He practiced it unrepentantly. Those who claim David sinned by practicing polygamy (e.g. MacArthur and company) unwittingly proclaim David was of the devil, because 1 John 3:8 says, "He who sins is of the devil."

III. Polygamy Included Concubinage

Some today may think that concubinage in the Bible was a form of an immoral sexual relationship similar to having a personal mistress. Webster's Third New International Dictionary gives this kind of a definition for "concubine" as one possible meaning.

concubine . . . b: a woman who cohabits with a man without being his wife: MISTRESS (p. 472, copyright 1986, unabridged)

The Hebrew word for concubine is pilegesh, and it is used for an illicit sexual relationship, but only once.

For she lusted for her paramours, whose flesh is like the flesh of donkeys, and whose issue is like the issue of horses. (Ezekiel 23:20)

Here in Ezekiel 23:20, the Hebrew word for concubine is translated "paramours." A paramour is an illicit sexual lover indeed, and the context of this passage supports this translation. It is speaking of a woman with her male immoral partners (paramours). The "concubines," so to speak, are male here, not female, and this is the only time this word is used for males.

Every time pilegesh is used for a female, it is used for a woman who is married to a man. Keturah is called Abraham's concubine in 1 Chronicles 1:32 (piylegesh), but in Genesis 25:1 she is called Abraham's wife ('ishâh). David's ten concubines are indeed called concubines, but they are also called his wives by the Lord Himself (2 Samuel 12:11; 16:21-22). In Judges 19 & 20 the Levite's concubine "played the harlot" (Judges 19:2) and left "her husband" (Judges 19:3). She is called a concubine in Judges 19:1, 2, 9, 24, 25, 29; 20:4 and 5, yet at the same time, her male partner, the Levite, is called "her husband" in Judges 19:3 and 20:4. Moreover, the concubine's father is called the "father-in-law" (Judges 19:4, 7, 9), and the Levite is called the "son-in-law" (Judges 19:5). Clearly, concubinage is displayed as a marital commitment.

So, what is the difference between a "wife" and a "concubine"? Wives are free, concubines are not. Scripture portrays concubinage as the marriage of a slave girl. Note Leviticus 19:20.

Whoever lies carnally with a woman who is betrothed to a man as a concubine, and who has not at all been redeemed nor given her freedom, for this there shall be scourging; but they shall not be put to death, because she was not free.

Betrothal depicts marriage (Deuteronomy 28:30), and here in Leviticus 19:20 we have the marriage (betrothal) of a slave girl to a man. Being a slave, she is called a concubine, and for this immoral act she is not killed as a free woman would be (Deuteronomy 22:23-24), "because she was not free."

In Judges the concubine's husband is twice called "her master" (Judges 19:26, 27). Other concubines are identified likewise. Bilhah, Jacob's concubine (Genesis 35:22), whom Rachel gave to him for a wife (Genesis 30:3-4), was a slave (Genesis 35:25 "maidservant"). Likewise, Zilpah was a slave-wife (Genesis 35:26; 30:9). Marrying a slave girl was not only practiced; it was legislated in the law of God as well.

And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money. (Exodus 21:7-11; see also Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Notice it does not say, "He cannot take another wife." It says, "If he takes another wife." Here we have another law concerning polygyny and it is not forbidden.

Although some today may view concubinage as an evil deed, Leah, in the Scriptures, viewed it as part of that which pleased the Lord.

And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, "God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband." So she called his name Issachar. (Genesis 30:17-18)

Leah had given Zilpah, her maidservant, to Jacob as a wife because she perceived that she had stopped bearing children (Genesis 30:9). Yet, she continued to pray for more sons. God heard her plea ("God listened to Leah"), and Leah understood this to be a reward from the Lord for giving Jacob a concubine.

IV. Polygamy Today

Some might argue that Christ has only one wife, the church, therefore, we are not to have more than one wife either. The problem with this reasoning is, Christ does not have only one wife. He has two. Indeed, the church is depicted as His wife (Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 19:7-8), but so is the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (Revelation 21:9-27).

Now, if the law of the land dictates polygamy not to be legal, then we are to submit ourselves "to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13; see also Romans 13:1-5). Polygamy, under these circumstances, should not be practiced. But, if a believer lived under a government that allowed polygyny, no one could Biblically condemn the man for having more than one wife. Scripture does not condemn him, and neither should we (Matthew 7:1-2). Yet, even though we could not judge our Christian polygamous brother as one who is sinning, we could and should judge him as one who is not qualified to oversee the church, nor be a deacon.

This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, . . . . Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, . . . (1 Timothy 3:1-2, 12; see also Titus 1:6)

One of the qualifications of a bishop (literally "overseer") and a deacon (literally "servant") is that he be the husband of one wife. If he were to have two or more, this would disqualify the man.

In the beginning the Lord indeed formed one man and one woman and the two became one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Genesis 1:31; Mark 10:6-8). Whether it be in a monogamous marriage or a polygamous marriage, the two still become one flesh. The man becomes one flesh with each of his wives. We know this by the fact that even if a man has sex with a harlot, he nonetheless becomes one flesh with her (1 Corinthians 6:16). Therefore, the two becoming one still applies to each union in a polygamous marriage.

Proverbs 18:22 says, "He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord." It's a good thing to find a wife, and who's to say it's an evil thing to find more than one? God doesn't say any such thing, and neither should we.

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