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Polygamy in the Bible: Is Polygamy a Sin?

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Polygamy in the Bible: The Bible stands out from other religious texts, boldly admitting to the shortcomings of its key figures. Take David, for instance, whose adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and then the murder of her husband Uriah are shockingly candid admissions – ones that come with real consequences we can learn from. And it’s not just this example: look at all the polygamy in Old Testament stories involving even some Israelite patriarchs.

Did you know that the term ‘polygamy’ is often misused? Traditionally, people use this word to refer to a man having multiple wives; however, it actually means many spouses. More accurately, polygyny is when one man has several wives, and polyandry refers to cases of one woman being married to more than one husband. Bigamy describes someone married to two people at once, while those in modern society living an open lifestyle are referred to as “polyamorous.” Ultimately none of these modern formats meet God’s original intention for marriage at creation, between only two individuals – husband and wife.

3d rendering of isolated men symbol with three women symbols with the text Polygamy in the Bible: Is it a sin and diving deep into the old and new testaments

Polygamy in the Bible: Old Testament

The First Marriage in the Bible

From the beginning of time, God had a specific plan for creating His universe. Every detail was painstakingly accounted for in Biblical texts like Genesis 1–2. Once it was all finished, He proclaimed it “very good”  (Genesis 1:31). After fashioning Adam from the dust of creation, God had Adam name the array of animals and birds. And when no helper seemed quite right for our first man’s companion, God lovingly crafted woman out of Adam’s rib.

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
    because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Genesis 2:18–25 (ESV)

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God had a clear vision for marriage when He created Adam and Eve – one man joined with one woman in an unbreakable bond. As we look at the passage, this intent is represented in several key phrases: God made “a helper” for Adam instead of multiple helpers; from just one rib, he formed his perfect counterpart, then instructed her mate to leave all others behind so they could become “one flesh.” Monogamy was established as His will right from the start!

More About Old Testament Polygamy in the Bible

Did you know that way back in Cain’s family tree, the oldest known reference to polygamy in the Bible can be found? It all dates back to Genesis 4. We read of Lamech, a descendant of Cain:

And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah.
Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
    you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for striking me.
If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
    then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.”

Genesis 4:19–25 (ESV)

It’s startling to think that before the Flood, humanity had already strayed from God’s plans for marriage. Lamech not only took a step further in his sinfulness by taking another man’s life, but he even boasted about it – prompting The Almighty to send down a great flood as punishment for humanity’s wickedness, including Lamech’s.

The Bible mentions polygamous relationships in stories featuring patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Though there’s nothing explicitly stating ‘one man should only have one wife,’ we never see these unions depicted positively; the problems associated with them are always laid out for us to show how when we stray from God’s design, problems always follow.

It’s a common misconception that God agrees with all the relationships recorded in the Bible. Just because something is written down doesn’t mean it has His blessing – such as polygamy in the Bible.

Consider the consequences revealed in Scripture regarding polygamy in the Bible.

Abraham’s decision had severe repercussions, leading to bitterness between Sarah and her maid Hagar and eventually the departure of both. Unfortunately, Jacob didn’t fare much better as his choices led Rachel to be jealous of Leah, and, of course, Joseph was betrayed by his own brothers and sold into slavery. 

David had a story of tragedy as one of his sons took advantage of and raped his half-sister, Tamar. Then, as grievous consequences followed, revenge was taken by her brother Absalom against Amnon in murder for what he did to their sister. 

Solomon’s tale shows us that even with wisdom and great power, it can all be forfeited when our hearts turn away from God towards things not divinely ordained – such as polygamy, which turned him astray into worshipping false gods (1 Kings 11:1–8). What this teaches is clear; no matter who we may be or how much knowledge we possess, obedience to God should always come first if lasting peace is desired.

Rather than a general ban on polygamy, the rulers of ancient Israel were warned not to take too many wives. In addition, Moses set up regulations for polygamous relationships so that all involved had their best interests at heart. It’s an intriguing piece of biblical history!

And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

Deuteronomy 17:17 (ESV)

From the start, God’s design for marriage was not one man with multiple wives. Leviticus 18:18 makes it clear that a husband should not marry sisters, and Deuteronomy 21:15 suggests assigning an heir to someone who’d previously had two wives in succession – as opposed to at once. While many commentators believe these rules don’t actually allow polygamy in the Bible, some say they point out its negative aspects or even forbid any Israelite woman from being taken in this way. Either way, having more than one spouse just wasn’t part of God’s plan!

And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.

Leviticus 18:18 (ESV)

“If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved,

Deuteronomy 21:15 (ESV)

The Jews’ View of Polygamy 

The Roman empire brought dramatic cultural changes to much of Europe and the Middle East, one being a shift from polygamy to monogamy. While it was commonly accepted before their rule, the Romans considered polygamous relationships morally unacceptable and enforced strict policies that favored marriages between only two partners in most parts of their land. However, they did make an exception for Jewish communities located in Palestine who continued practicing plural marriage despite these laws.

Throughout history, many Jews have adapted to the culture around them – a case in point being marriage. In Jesus’ time, most had come to accept monogamy like their Roman neighbors, and polygamous marriages fell away with generations that followed. It was only until the 11th century that polygamy finally became outlawed by Jewish law itself.

Hidden in an ancient desert cave lies a mysterious bag filled with records from only one family living during the early second century. Unsurprisingly, it appears polygamy was practiced back then, as evidenced by Babatha – who married even though her future husband already had a wife. But this opens up a fascinating possibility: did she marry for love rather than financial support? After all, Babatha owned both land and business on her own accord before becoming betrothed.

Polygamy in the Bible offered a unique solution for post-war societies, helping widowed women find social and economic security and increasing the population. Unfortunately, in times of peace, it could also exacerbate inequality between men – with wealthy partners having many wives while some poor ones remained single.

Polygamy in the Bible: New Testament

Jesus stood firm on the traditional and covenantal understanding of marriage when He was asked about divorce by the Pharisees. We find this in Mark 10:1–12 and Matthew 19:1–12.) With His response, referenced from Genesis 2, Jesus confirmed that a committed relationship between one man and one woman is what God has intended since Creation. Divorce may be allowed in some cases due to mankind’s hardness of heart. Still, it doesn’t change God’s original plan for marriage – a lifelong commitment between two people meant only for each other! Even though regulations were given via Moses’ laws to address polygamy centuries later, this practice even pre-dates those rules.

When it comes to the New Testament, there’s an abundance of texts that make clear how marriage should be between one man and one woman. Paul makes this point especially evident when he outlines his vision for church leaders in Timothy 3:2-12 and Titus 1:6 – they must be “a husband of one wife.” 

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,

1 Timothy 3:2 (ESV)

 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

1 Timothy 3:12 (ESV)

if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.

Titus 1:6 (ESV)

In 1 Corinthians 7:1–16, Paul answered questions the Corinthian church posed. Throughout this passage, he referred exclusively to ‘wife’ and ‘husband,’ showing that their views on marriage were firmly focused on one-on-one unions.

God has set a beautiful example for marriage with Scripture guiding couples to emulate the intimate relationship between Christ and His Church. Paul outlined this in his letter to the Ephesians, emphasizing that it was God’s plan from The Garden of Eden — one man united with one woman!

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24 (ESV)

Paul ended his advice on marriage by stating, 

“However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Ephesians 5:33 (ESV)

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Polygamy in the New Testament

On this occasion, Jesus’ opinion diverged from most Jews, siding with Rome instead. Some religious communities in and beyond Palestine opposed polygamy so strongly that they dubbed it “the nets of the devil,” by which Pharisees tried to trap people. The Qumran sect regarded it as one of three great sins in mainstream Judaism.

Even though there wasn’t a single verse in the Old Testament explicitly against polygamy in the Bible, the Qumran community got creative. They combined two different verses—Genesis 1:27 and 7:9—both containing “male and female” to make their case! In Genesis 2, it says “two,” whereas in Genesis 7, it says “two… male and female,” so they made an inference from this that led them to conclude only two people could marry, thus naming this belief as “the foundation of creation.”

To express the view that polygamy was wrong, Jews outside Palestine used an inventive method – they added a word to Genesis 2:24! Instead of simply reading “a man … is united to his wife” and concluding two people should be involved in marriage, they emphasize this notion by adding the word ‘two’ before, “and those shall become one flesh.”

Across the ancient world and in multiple languages (Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and even in Samaritan), the one extra word repeatedly appeared when translating Genesis – suggesting it must have been widely acknowledged. However, no Hebrew speaker would tamper with scripture; no Hebrew Bible included this mysterious addition.

When facing questions about divorce, Jesus seized the opportunity to educate his audience on another pertinent topic; polygamy. He deftly highlighted both sides of the argument used by various Jews – drawing from Genesis 1:27 and Mark 10:6 to contrast major interpretations of marriage at “the beginning of creation.” 

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27 (ESV)

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’

Mark 10:6 (ESV)

Jesus showed His support for monogamous marriages when He endorsed two different scriptures about the matter. In particular, he quoted Genesis 2:24 with the additional word “two” added – a move that emphasized the agreement of Jews who taught against what Pharisees believed in.

Paul boldly reversed the Old Testament command that required men to marry their deceased brother’s wives. Not an easy concept to grapple with, but it made sense in the context of ancient beliefs and practices.

In Hittite law and other legal frameworks of the ancient Near East, widows risked having their freedom taken away by a forced marriage to any male relative – from someone elderly enough to be her late husband’s grandfather down to an infant nephew.

Paul believed that women should have more freedom in marriage and declared that widows could marry whomever they chose – as long as it was a fellow believer. This marked quite a shift from Moses’ law which imposed strict restrictions on who these women were allowed to wed, requiring them to marry their husband’s brother.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

1 Corinthians 7:39 (ESV)

Wrapping Up Polygamy in the Bible

Through their attempt to combat scandalous behavior, the church inadvertently created a new problem: increasing widows without husbands and support due to monogamy laws. In response, they formed a special ‘widows’ association,’ offering these women social support during difficult times.

The early Christian church spread outside Palestine with a novel solution to the problem that polygamy was not allowed. But, unfortunately, it quickly caused tension: Greek-speaking widows were outraged that their Aramaic-speaking peers were receiving preferential treatment regarding food distribution!

Now, when the number of disciples increased, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 

Acts 6:1 (ESV)

Timothy, the young leader of the church in Ephesus, faced some tricky issues with his widows. Paul stepped up and wrote a whole chapter to help him out – and the association proved more than satisfactory for everyone involved since it meant these women were no longer expected to find new husbands!

God recognized the importance of families and designed marriage to provide mutual support. With a shortage of men due to conflicts, polygamy became a solution for each family to have male heirs.

Historically, polygamy created a surplus of unmarried men as wealthy individuals could take multiple wives. To ensure God’s intentions stayed in place during these periods, the laws concerning polygamy had to be adjusted accordingly. God’s purposes are eternal, but his commands change to carry out those purposes in different situations.

We might summarize God’s purpose in the words of Psalm 68:6: 

“God settles the solitary in a home;
    he leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
    but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.”

Psalm 68:6 (ESV)

It’s easy to be proud of our society for outlawing polygamy. Still, if we look at things more closely, there are certain similarities between the Romans and us—whose moral code wasn’t exactly observed by most.

While Roman society officially condemned polygamy and other forms of extramarital sex, it was not exactly a rare occurrence. For example, Eurydice – a newlywed in the first century – received advice from Plutarch on how to keep her man happy: that an affair with someone else shouldn’t be taken as an offense because your partner is actually showing you respect by sharing their “debauchery” with another woman! 

Jesus recognized the beauty of a lifelong union between two people–a relationship so special we strive for it yet sometimes struggle to achieve. He did not condone polygamy as an alternative because he saw that it twisted and perverted this sacred bond.

You may enjoy the video about Polygamy in the Bible by Pastor Mark Driscoll.

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God’s plan for marriage is clear—one man and one woman, just like it was in the beginning. But sometimes, we face questions about polygamy in the Bible, which can seem tricky to answer. This post couldn’t cover all of them, but it reminds us that God has given us a standard – His Word! So when these challenging issues pop up, let’s turn to Scripture and prayerfully consider how best to apply its principles.

ESV – “Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”

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