In many countries including the United States, polygamy has gained much attention in recent years due to polygamist families being portrayed in mainstream media. It is often argued by polygamists that the Bible supports their lifestyle, but this is inaccurate and a misrepresentation of Scripture. The concept of polygamy is confusing for some because there are examples in the Bible of men who had multiple wives. It is important to note, however, that just because the Bible records examples of polygamy, this does not mean that it encourages polygamy.
When reading Scripture in its full context, it is evident that God disapproves of anything other than one man and one woman in marriage. Scripture, as a whole, says that polygamy is not in line with God’s ideal for marriage.
This is perhaps the clearest example in Scripture where polygamy is forbidden. The command is directed toward Israel’s king, since kings would often marry a woman from a foreign nation to create an alliance. The Bible warns that such a polygamous marriage would bring the king and the entire nation of Israel in close contact with the gods of the other nations. Taking the logic of divided interests more generally that lead to disloyalty of the heart, one may be able to apply this command for kings not to marry multiple wives to his subjects as well.
The term here that speaks of Hannah’s “adversary” (ṣārāh) comes from the same root as that which speaks of a “rival wife” in Leviticus 18:18. Elkanah’s marriage to two women, one who bore children and the other who didn’t, led to strife and division, both among the wives and among Elkanah’s relation with his wives: “But unto Hannah he gave a worthy [or double] portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb” (1 Samuel 1:5).
Overall, polygamy in the Bible is seen as a danger and snare to the heart, leading to sin.
Although the Bible does not speak directly to the amount of wives a man can have, the Bible speaks to the big picture of God’s design for marriage, which is for one man and one woman.
When God created the world, he created one man and one woman. They were his image bearers and were to populate and subdue the earth. The picture of marriage God gave to us is that of one man and one woman. Further, the text speaks “one flesh” (ʾeḥāḏ bāśār), which speaks to a significant spiritual unification that is distinct from any other relationship. When choosing to marry, these words establish that which is both normative and prescriptive.
It is important to remember how the original audience of Genesis would have understood the significance of this passage. The Isrealite community, having just seen the works of God to deliver them from slavery in Egypt, would have understood this idea of “one flesh” to be a contrast to the ideals of marriage held by the nations by which they were surrounded by, ideals which would have included polygamy.
Indeed, the very idea that God created man and woman as distinct but equal, both created in the very same image of God (Genesis 1:27), would have been, to some degree, counterintuitive to their understanding of relationship standards between males and females held by the majority of the ancient world.
When Paul gave a list of attributes that should belong to church leaders, he specifically mentions that those who aspire to the office of elder must be the husband of “one wife.” This verse suggests that God desires His people to be committed to one spouse, and he requires such a commitment for leaders in the church.
Paul also encourages the Corinthians to avoid sexual sin by having their “own” spouse. Once again, this passage implies that a husband should only have one wife.
There are no places where the Bible explicitly condones polygamy. In the Old Testament, however, there is at least one occasion where polygamy was perhaps accepted, though it is only implied. In Deuteronomy 25, the brother of a man who died without children is told to marry the widow, so as to carry on the family name of the deceased brother. This is commonly called levirate marriage.
In addition to carrying on the name of the deceased brother, it could be argued that such a law protected women who had no children to care for them in old age and who had already left their father’s house for marriage (see, for example, the book of Ruth). Apart from levirate marriage and the intentionality under which such a law was given, the Bible never condones polygamy or suggests that it is part of God’s plan for his people.
As it pertains to widows in the New Testament, we see God command us to care for widows in a different way, one that does not condone polygamy.
Paul, understanding that the church was made up of both Jews (familiar with levirate marriage) and gentiles, allows for a widow to remarry whomever she chooses, only that she should marry a man who is a believer.
This passage shows that the Christian Church was stepping in to care for and feed the widows, rather than relying on the widow’s husband’s family.
While the Bible does not specifically call polygamy a sin, the overarching imagery of marriage is that a Christian should be married to one spouse. Polygamy is outside the bounds of God’s ideal marriage and as such is a sin.
Even though polygamy was common in the ancient world (moreso among the powerful who could afford to provide for a large family), the effects of a polygamous marriage often led to sin as a result of a man having multiple wives. For example, when Abraham added Hagar to his marriage with Sarah, his choice threatened to circumvent the promises of God. Solomon’s marrying of foreign wives who served other gods led both him and the people of Israel to abandon the Lord in exchange for worshiping idols.
Before entering into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, the Lord reminded Israel of his covenant with them, the rules of the covenant, and the blessings and curses belonging to the covenant. One of the Lord’s rules was that, when Israel set up a king for themselves, the king was not to have many wives. The reason for this, given in the text, was so that his heart did not turn away from following God, which would in turn cause the people to follow other gods as well. The command is given directly to kings because of the normality with which kings would marry multiple wives in foriegn alliances.
Unfortunately in the history of Israel, even the best kings were known to have taken multiple wives (David and Solomon, for example). It didn’t take long before the dangers mentioned in Deuteronomy 17:17 became reality. According to 1 Kings 11:31-33, the other tribes of Israel followed the heart of the king, worshiping other gods. The nation’s abandonment of the Lord ultimately led to their being exiled from the land given to them by God.
In the New Testament, Jesus quotes from Genesis 2:24 to make it clear that God made one man and one woman in the original marriage, and that the logic and intent of the original creation still applies: the two become one.
In the event that a woman who lives near her brother-in-law becomes a widow, the brother was to take her as a wife. This was to ensure that she was provided for and that she had children to continue in the lineage of her husband’s name. Although the text does not specifically say that the brother is already married, it doesn’t specifically say that he is unmarried either. Some interpreters have taken this to be perhaps the only instance in Scripture where polygamy is permitted, though it is admittedly based on an argument from silence.
Even in this instance, however, the brother was not required to fulfill such a command and could get out of the arrangement if he desired. However, in failing to bring honor to his brother’s name and his brother’s widow, he would in turn bring shame on his family (Deuteronomy 25:9-10).
In the New Testament, Paul restructured this command so that a widow is allowed to marry someone other than husband’s relative (1 Corinthians 7:39) and the Christian community began to care for the widows.
The Bible teaches that marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church. As such, mutual commitment and faithfulness are defining characteristics, something not easily shared between a man and multiple wives. Furthermore, just as a marriage results in a union of “one flesh,” so too do believers’ union with Christ result in a single body, the Church. Polygamy, on the other hand, compromises the fundamentals of fidelity, leading to divided interest and divided loyalty, rivalries and dissension, and does little justice to the biblical picture of a “one flesh” union.
Jesus himself interprets marriage “from the beginning” as being between one man and one woman. The realities of marriage, mysterious though they may be (Ephesians 5:31-32), point to something greater than the desires between a man and a woman to be together. Though made up of many parts (that is, many people), the Church in the New Testament is called the singular Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7). The image, then, is of a singular groom and a singular bride. Ultimately, then, marriage is intended to be a picture of God’s commitment to his Bride, the Church.