There has been a lot of talk about marriage lately. Most of the discussion (or shouting) has been directed to the possibility of gays getting married to someone of the same sex. I don’t hear nearly as much about the Biblical precedent for polygamy. Yet, it’s all over scripture.
I know that Genesis 2 talks about one man and one woman. Adam and Eve. But as quickly as Genesis 4, we’re reading about multiple wives: “Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.” No commentary. No judgment. It’s simply stated as fact.
Lamech was first (according to Genesis 9 , his line of descendents died out in the flood). But it seems that many of the heroes of the faith tried to juggle more than one woman. It’s hard to tell exactly, because women aren’t mentioned very often in the genealogies.
We do know that Abraham was married to both Sarah and Haggar. Of course, the relationship with Haggar didn’t turn out so well. But he also married Keturah—and kept concubines (plural)—and we hear no complaints from Sarah (see Genesis 25). The important issue was who’s son would inherit Abraham’s wealth (and God’s covenant), as Haggar’s son Ishmael was the older than Sarah’s son Isaac. The presence of other wives, concubines and children seems not to matter at all.
Isaac only married Rebekah, but their two sons had multiple wives. Jacob ended up with both Leah and Rachel, his cousins, and their servants Bilhah and Zilpah, while Esau married two pagan Hittite women, Judith and Basemath, and later added Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael.
Moses was married to Zipporah and a Cushite woman. King David had at least eight wives and ten concubines. His son, Solomon, outdid everyone, but unfortunately married foreign women and succumbed to their idolatry. So much for being the wisest man ever.
Basically, in the culture of that day it was just assumed that men of authority and resources—those who could afford it—would have lots of wives. And while the Bible documents the expected family squabbles you would expect from such complicated relationships, nowhere could I find any word telling us that polygamy (and even the idea of concubines) was wrong! This was not what I was expecting.
So, what about the New Testament? It’s a bit more plain here, but still not really clear. Try reading without our cultural glasses on.
In Mark 10 Jesus quotes Genesis, then defined divorce and remarriage as adultery (something the church now tends to ignore). But he doesn’t mention anything about how many wives one man can have.
Other passages, such as Luke 14:26, 1 Corinthians 7:33, and 1 Corinthians 9:5 mention “wife” (singular). But does that reflect the Jewish society at that time, or is it God’s rule for every generation?
I thought that surely Ephesians 5 would address the issue. Isn’t that whole passage about wives and husbands? Well, Paul talks about the way that women and men should relate in marriage, and that it’s a mirror of Christ and the church. But again, you could easily apply it to a polygamous situation, just taking one wife at a time. Try reading it and see. In fact, I realized that we have one groom—Jesus—but the church is comprised of many brides! So this doesn’t prohibit polygamy either.
The only place where monogamy is specified is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, where he writes that both overseers and deacons should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2,12, NASB and NKJ). The NIV translates the Greek as, “faithful to his wife.” These are supposedly higher standards for church leaders, but shouldn’t we all aspire to be better Christians?
What have I learned from all this? Mostly, that I view my world through the lens of being an Evangelical Christian in the United States in the 21st century. I think I know what the Bible says, but others may see the same words and come to very different conclusions.
And if Pete ever comes home with another wife, he’s got a lot of explaining to do!
What do you think? Am I totally nuts, or is this a valid way to look at scripture? What other verses should I look at? Would you live in a polygamous family?