Is Polygamy condoned in the Old Testament? Critics of the Old and New Testaments often point to certain behaviors described in the Bible as evidence that God is not good. In fact, some of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament are also the most morally flawed. Doesn’t this show that God rewards immoral behavior?
The Example Of King David
King David is one example of this. During his reign as king, David was guilty of some pretty awful behavior. He married several women. On top of his wives, he also kept concubines. At the height of his power, he sent his friend into battle knowing he would be killed so David could make off with his wife.
Not a great track record for someone chosen by God to lead his people. It seems from the most basic reading that David was a deeply flawed individual by modern standards. How could God condone such behavior?
Prescribed Vs. Described Behavior
One of the key elements in understanding the Old Testament is drawing the distinction between prescribed and described behavior. Prescribed behavior would be the things that God commanded of His people. Described behaviors are simply acts that were recorded, but not necessarily commanded by God.
I realize that many people take issue with the prescribed behaviors as well. We’ve written several articles dealing with the prescribed behaviors in the Old Testament. But for the purposes of this article, I’m simply focusing on behaviors that are described.
How Is Marriage Described In The Old Testament?
The model for marriage is laid out early in Scripture. Genesis 2:24 sets the standard:
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
It should be noted that in other societies in the area, polygamy was not only legal, but accepted. If a woman in a marriage was unable to produce children, it was common practice to take a second wife or concubine. One Eastern tradition, known as the Code of Hammurabi, allowed female slaves to become free upon their master’s death if they bore him a child.
Many of the Patriarchs aside from David had multiple wives. This described polygamy is not a command issued by God. In fact, every time polygamy is described in the Bible, it always has negative consequences. Far from condoning the behavior, the Bible gives many examples of the perils of engaging in multiple partner marriages. After David’s Son Solomon took this practice to the extreme, amassing over 700 wives and concubines, God issued a warning in Deuteronomy 17:17:
Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself.
The Examples of Abraham and Jacob
Abraham is another example of how destructive polygamy can be. God had told Abraham that he and Sarah would conceive a child. Rather than trusting and waiting for God to provide them the child, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
At Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham took Sarah’s maid servant Hagar and had a child with her. In the same way as David, this union was not commanded by God. In fact, it was in direct opposition to God’s promise. Predictably, this didn’t go well for anyone involved. Sarah became jealous of Hagar and wanted her banished. Hagar and her son Ishmael were in constant conflict with Sarah and Isaac.
Through trickery, Jacob wound up marrying both Leah and Racheal. The ensuing competition of producing children strained the relationships between the sisters, their children and Jacob. Again, far from condoning the behavior, the disastrous consequences of such unions are shown.
What About Deuteronomy 21:15-17?
There are portions of the Bible in which God does give commands on how to treat a second wife (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). But when we look at this passage, we see that God is trying to make the best out of a bad situation.
Much of the law describes what to do when people do not follow God’s commands.
Think of it this way. There are sections in the Bible that describe what should be done if one man strikes another. One might ask, “Well, why didn’t God just tell them not to strike each other?”. The problem is, God DOES tell us not to strike each other. The law is given precisely because God knows we won’t follow His commands.
The same principle applies to the sections that describe what should happen with multiple wives. God lays out the ideal in Genesis 2:24. Recognizing that men will not follow His commands, God tells them how to handle the situation once the ideal is not adhered to. So no, God does not endorse polygamy. He clearly commands the structure of the family. But in His wisdom, also explains what to do when we mess up what is clearly commanded.