I recently wrote an article responding to polyamorists’ claim that “love is not a finite resource.” This got me thinking about possible objections to what I wrote. Some might ask, “If human love is a finite resource, then why did the Old Testament patriarchs have so many wives and concubines?” This is a fair question that all Christians need to be able to respond to.
The ugly truth is that many of the heroes in the Old Testament were polygamists. Jacob had two wives and Esau had three. King David, the man after God’s own heart, had at least eight wives. Solomon, not to be outdone, had a staggering seven hundred wives (1 Kings 11:3).
These examples from Scripture are perplexing because God used these men to do great things for his name and his people. Would God use men who were living in sexually sinful lifestyles to fulfill his purposes? Was polygamy permissible for these patriarchs, and if it was, is it permissible for us?
To answer these questions, we need to determine one thing. Are these passages about polygamy prescriptive or descriptive? Are they prescribing how we are supposed to live, or are they describing events from the past?
Many passages in Scripture describe events God doesn’t condone. Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and having sex with him comes to mind (Gen. 19:32–36). But many passages of Scripture prescribe how we are to live as followers of God, such as when Jesus prescribes loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37).
Is polygamy prescriptive? The short answer is no. Here’s why. God never commands or condones polygamy in Scripture. The opposite is true.
The first mention of polygamy in Scripture says, “Lamech took to himself two wives” (Gen. 4:19). We are then told that Lamech, a descendant of Cain, boasted to his wives about murdering a boy (Gen. 4:23). Lamech was a bad man, and polygamy is something he practiced.
Not only does God never command or condone polygamy, but he also condemns it. In Deuteronomy 17, God gives instructions for the future kings of Israel, and he specifically condemns taking on many wives. “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (Deut. 17:17). In other words, God wasn’t okay with David and Solomon having multiple wives, and they disobeyed his commands.
What does God prescribe for marriage? Monogamy. From the very beginning, God said marriage was one man and one woman becoming one flesh for one lifetime (Gen. 2:24). We can deduce this from the fact that God only gave Adam one wife, not multiple. We can also see that marriage comes with the command to be fruitful and multiply, something that only requires one male and one female.
Monogamy was also Jesus’ view. When asked a question about divorce being permissible, Jesus argued that God intended marriage to be lifelong and monogamous (Matt. 19:8). He didn’t base his understanding of marriage on what the Law of Moses said about divorce; he went back to God’s original intention for marriage: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:4-6). Two become one flesh. Polygamy is not prescriptive; monogamy is.
Since polygamy is not prescriptive, then it must be descriptive. But what exactly does Scripture describe about polygamy and its results?
In short, polygamy is described as having devastating consequences for those who practice it and for those born as a result of it.
Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben, by his first wife Leah, had sex with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and was then killed by Tamar’s full brother Absalom (2 Sam. 13). Absalom then tried to usurp the throne from his father David and had sex with David’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:22). Solomon “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away” (1 Kings 11:3). These descriptions are sad reminders that polygamy is sin and has destructive consequences.
So, how should we view the patriarchs of the Old Testament who practiced polygamy? First, we must recognize that polygamy is described as something they practiced but never as something God prescribed. We should view these men as they are described, flawed human beings, who sinned immensely, that God still loved and worked through. This should encourage us because we all are sinners. I’m glad God works with flawed people like you and me, but make no mistake, polygamy is not and has never been intended by God.