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I’ve been reading a bit into 1 Samuel, and came across something that confused me:

1 Samuel 25:43 NIV David had also married Ahinoam of Jezreel, and they both were his wives.

But, in Genesis, we read how one single man unites as one with his single wife, as shown below:

Genesis 2:24 NIV That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

So, why would God allow people after his own heart, such as King David, to participate in this act?

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    Scripture finds no fault in Jacob producing the twelve tribes of Israel from four different women. – Nigel J Jun 19 at 7:08
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    Apparently, Judaism has never considered polygamy to be a sin: halacha - Questions about Polygamy in Jewish Law and Culture - Mi Yodeya. Unfortunately there is no mention of Genesis 2:24 there. – Ray Butterworth Jun 19 at 13:29
  • It is logical to think that the number of males and females in heaven will be identical. And why wouldn't it? Even here on earth the number of people being born is a very balanced mix. Why would the number of people being born into heaven be different. It ought to be even more balanced, since heaven is where perfection reigns. It follows that people who want to prepare themselves for heaven would have to strive for that balance already here on earth. And that polygamy very well suits carnally minded people. People whos main aim is to fulfill the OT command to populate the world. – Constantthin Jun 20 at 2:28
  • A distinction is to be made between allowing and condoning polygamy. – Mike Borden Jun 27 at 16:00
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The best Biblical answer is the reason Jesus gave why Moses allowed divorce.

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”  He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matt. 19:7–8, ESV)

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”  And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. (Mark 10:4–5, ESV)

Because of human weakness revelation was progressive:

 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." (John 16:12, ESV)

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Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament?

The question of polygamy is an interesting one in that most people today view polygamy nowadays as immoral while Sacred Scriptures nowhere explicitly condemns it.

The Scriptures do not specifically say why God allowed polygamy. As we speculate about God’s silence, there is at least one key factor to consider. Due to patriarchal societies, it was nearly impossible for an unmarried woman to provide for herself. Women were often uneducated and untrained. Women relied on their fathers, brothers, and husbands for provision and protection. Unmarried women were often subjected to prostitution and slavery.

The Old Testament allows polygamy but doesn’t encourage it. Great men such as Abraham, Israel, Judah, Gideon, Samson, David, and Solomon had multiple wives, though the Old Testament records many problems that resulted. However, the law actually made it mandatory in one circumstance: if a married man died without leaving a male heir, his brother was required to marry his widow regardless of whether he already had a wife. This was so that she would have support during her old age (either from her new husband or from her son) and so that the family name and land would be passed on (Deut 25:5–6). Polygamy was also allowed in other circumstances, and the only restriction was that you shouldn’t marry two sisters (Lev 18:18).

Polygamy was beneficial when the number of men was reduced by warfare. It not only helped women who would otherwise be on their own but also helped to replace the population more quickly. In peacetime, however, this practice meant that if rich men had more than one wife, then some poor men had to remain single. - Polygamy in the Old Testament

Polygamy is both seen in a favourable and an unfavourable light within the Old Testament.

Polygamy: Implicit Old Testament Teachings

There are at least sixteen men whose polygamy is a matter of Old Testament record.18 One author, a missionary to Sierra Leone writing an apologetic for polygamy, lists fifteen of them, of which six she describes as having a positive effect.19 It should be emphasized that the fact that though a situation may produce positive effects, the situation was not necessarily a positive good. Each one will be examined to see how the Bible presents these examples, whether good or bad.

Lamech (Gen 4:19)

Lamech, the sixth from Cain, is the first recorded bigamist. Mann lists his polygamy as having a positive effect because, based on 4:20-22, “creative children resulted.” 20 However, most conservative commentators see Lamech differently, presenting Lamech and his family, based on his arrogant and murderous sword-song, as defiant and godless.21 Whatever his children may have accomplished,Lamech and his family certainly were not good moral examples. In fact, the “deviant lineage of Cain”22 appears to have ended with Lamech’s children. The Cainite line, because of its wickedness, was destroyed with the flood (with the possible but unlikely exception of Noah’s daughters-in-law, whose pedigrees are not recorded).

Abraham (Gen 16)

Abraham is the next polygamist in the Bible. The sorry affair with Hagar plagues Israel, the Church, and the world still today. If Abraham had kept himself for his original wife alone, his seed of promise would have been spared much heartache. Whether Hagar can be counted as a full wife or a concubine, the results of Abraham’s lapse show the harmful familial results of his bigamy.

Esau (Gen 26:34; 28:8-9)

Esau, a “profane person” (Heb 12:16), took Hittite wives, which grieved his parents. Seeing this, he took a daughter of Ishmael, Mahalath (or Bashemath, Gen 36:3) as third wife. Mann records this third marriage as positive because Mahalath was “God-fearing.”23 Yet there is nothing in the text to suggest that was the case. On the contrary, she was the daughter of a “wild man,” the progenitor of an ungodly line. The following observation is appropriate:

[Esau marrying Abraham’s granddaughter was] a step by which he might no doubt ensure the approval of his parents, but in which he failed to consider that Ishmael had been separated from the house of Abraham and family of promise by the appointment of God; so that it only furnished another proof that he had no thought of the religious interests of the chosen family, and was unfit to be the recipient of divine revelation.24 Obviously, Esau’s marriage to Mahalath is no endorsement of polygamy, and only adds further vividness to the negative portrait Scripture is painting of it.

Jacob (Gen 29:30)

The problems associated with polygamy in the life of Jacob hardly need mentioning, “These narratives [i.e., Abraham’s and Jacob’s polygamy] . . . do not fail to bring out the darker side of polygamous life.”25 The deceit, the jealousy, the idolatry, the immorality, and the cruelty shown by Jacob’s father-in-law, wives, and sons was stopped only by the gracious forgiveness of Joseph (Gen 50). Yet tribal infighting continued to be a problem until the carrying away of the northern kingdom. Jacob’s married life could be called the classic case study of the evils associated with polygamy.

Ashur (1 Chr 4:5)

This is a reference to a man of the tribe of Judah. Nothing is mentioned of him except the names of his wives and children. He does not affect the argument over polygamy positively or negatively.

Gideon (Judg 8:30)

Gideon’s polygamy is another sad example of a man whose usefulness was limited and his legacy blotched by polygamy. Gideon’s seventy sons were murdered and Israel torn my civil war as a result of jealousy among his sons. The Abimelech war put Israel into a spiritual and military tailspin from which it did not recover until the monarchy.

Elkanah (1 Sam 1:2-8).

Though Mann lists the effect of this episode as both negative and positive,26 it can hardly be used as support for polygamy. The evil effects of the practice are obvious. The two wives competed against each other based on their ability to produce children. Elkanah shows favoritism to one wife over another.

It is quite a strong statement on the evils of polygamy that the word for co-wife is here translated “adversary” (KJV; NASB, NIV: “rival”). “It is significant that the common Semitic name for ‘second wife’ is פְּנִנָּה, the root meaning of which is ‘show hostility toward,’ ‘vex.’”27 A co-wife is a “vexer,” significant in light of the fact that in Semitic cultures polygamy was a part of life. Hannah’s vexer certainly lived up to her role, probably in part because she saw that her husband loved her vexer more than he loved her. Peninnah’s vexing caused terrible grief to Hannah, such that she refused to eat. An event which was supposed to be joyful in the LORD thus became the time of greatest grief for righteous Hannah, all brought about by polygamy. One wonders how many more such cases existed in Israel and exist in the world today, with no relief brought by the divine grant of a child. The problem seems to have been compounded by a lack of understanding on Elkanah’s part.

David (1 Sam 25:39; 2 Sam 3:2-5; 5:13; 1 Chr 14:3)

It is ironic that Mann, based on 2 Samuel 12:8, lists David’s taking more wives in 5:13 as having a positive effect.28 She does this on the assumption that God was blessing David. Yet the fact that God was blessing David even as he was taking more wives and concubines does not mean that the wives and concubines were part of God’s blessing. “[This instance] undoubtedly show[s] God’s conditional concession to man’s carnal desires.”29

In fact, David’s taking more wives (and presumably concubines) was in direct disobedience to the command in Deuteronomy 7:17 that the king was not to multiply wives unto himself. Even before David started taking more wives and concubines in 5:13, he already had at least seven wives. While it is not exactly clear how many wives constituted “multiplying,” in is intuitively obvious that seven wives is enough for any man. He could have had a different one every day of the week!

The fact that God gave David Saul’s wives and would have given him more (12:8) also does not imply the blessing or even the approval of God on David’s actions. The statement is made in the wake of the Bathsheba and Uriah affair. David has been guilty of adultery, theft, and murder. The LORD is saying here that he would have given David more wives if he had asked for them, but that would have been short of God’s best for David. However, in light of what David has just done by stealing something which he had not asked for, he has done great damage to his and God’s kingdom. Therefore, God would have rather given him more wives than see him do the wickedness and damage he has just done. Here is no divine blessing on David’s polygamy. The subsequent history of David’s children is illustration enough of the evil and tragic effects of David’s being a very negligent family man. David’s son raped David’s daughter. David’s son murdered another of David’s sons. The murderous son then led a near-successful revolt against his father, sleeping with his father’s wives in the process. Two other sons struggled for the throne, leading to deaths and depositions of talented men, including the death of the son who lost the power struggle.

Solomon (1 Kgs 11:1-8)

The victorious son followed his father’s family practices to an extreme. The result was tragedy, also to an extreme. Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. One wonders how many Israelite men had to do without wives in order to gratify Solomon’s lust, or how much tax revenue was wasted to maintain such a harem. One wonders also how many children he had and what family problems were created by such a mess. Certainly he could not have been a very good father to them, as shall be discussed shortly. Solomon’s wives turned his heart from following the LORD, with the results that the kingdom was torn in two and his son kept the smaller portion. Israel never again regained the glory enjoyed under David and Solomon, nor will do so again until her King, who has only one Bride (contra Omoregbe),30 returns in power and glory.

Was this tragedy caused by polygamy alone, or by polygamy with foreign wives? It is impossible to tell exactly how much of the tragedy was caused by the number of the wives and how much by the foreignness and idolatry of the wives. However, one thing is certain. If Solomon had obeyed God’s command in Deuteronomy 17:17, he would have saved himself, his family, and his kingdom from much evil and grief.

Rehoboam (2 Chr 11:18-23)

The effects of Solomon’s polygamy, his resultant idolatry, and presumably his negligence as a father is demonstrated in the life of his son. Rehoboam’s foolishness (1 Kgs 12:1-20) and wickedness (2 Chr 12:1, 14) reduced the kingdom to a shadow of its former self. In two generations the seeds of David’s polygamy had matured into a twisted tree with bitter fruit. Rehoboam also continued the marriage practices of his fathers, along with the household strife attendant in such arrangements (11:21).

Abijah (2 Chr 13:21)

Ironically, Mann lists Abijah as one whose polygamy had good effects.31 This is strange when one examines his life. Abijah did become strong and married fourteen wives. However, the effects of these fourteen wives are not known, except for the fact that Abijah’s successor, Asa, was a generally righteous king. The mere fact that the wives are mentioned in conjunction with a strong king does not justify polygamy.

It is also rather strange that Mann lists only the Chronicles account of Abijah’s reign, not the Kings account (where he is called “Abijam”). It is true that 2 Chronicles 13:21 accounts one righteous act to him. Yet “the author of Kings dismisses Abijam with very few words, none of them encouraging.”32 Apparently the only reason the LORD allowed him to keep his throne was for David’s sake, presumably to perpetuate the messianic line. Aside from a single event in which he acted righteously, he seems to have done nothing praiseworthy. He is hardly a role model for polygamists. One wonders if Mann is simply ignorant of the biblical facts or deliberately vague about them.

Jehorah (2 Chr 21:14)

The vagueness appears to become greater and less excusable with this next king. Mann comments simply “vague reference in Elijah’s letter” and the effect of his polygamy she leaves blank.33 At least one of these marriages which “contributed to his spiritual demise was his marriage to Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter, the wicked Athaliah.”34 Jehoram was one of the most evil kings in the history of Judah, perhaps second only to Manasseh, and Manasseh repented of his evil. Jehoram murdered his brothers, worshiped pagan abominations, and compelled all Judah to do so. Once again, this man hardly provides support for polygamy.

Joash (2 Chr 24:3)

This example of polygamy (actually bigamy) is not so easily condemned as the others, but neither does the Bible praise it. All that is known about Joash’s marriage is that it was arranged by righteous Jehoiada and that it included two wives. Joash served the LORD while Jehoida lived; but after his death he turned from the LORD and eventually slew Jehoiada’s son, a sin for which he paid with his own life. The giving of two wives by a righteous high priest is hardly evidence that this was a good practice (David, a man after God’s own heart, violated God’s command not to multiply wives). Nothing good or bad is mentioned about the marriage. Mann lists the effect of this case of polygamy as “Positive,” 35 but Joash’s later life is certainly no endorsement of the righteous effects of the practice.

Ahab (2 Kgs 10:1)

Ahab’s having seventy sons implies that he had many wives. The fact that “there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness” (1 Kgs 21:25) says much, in light of the fact that he is being compared to other Samarian kings. A wantonly wicked king, he was also a polygamist. The direction of causality, if there is any causality, is not stated, but wickedness and polygamy are associated with the same man.

Jehoiachin (2 Kgs 24:15)

Nothing is known about Jehoiachin’s wives, except that he had more than one. He reigned for only three months, and was so evil that Jeremiah prophesied that none of his descendants would occupy the throne (Jer 22:30). The reference to his wives is almost incidental, but the context is of disobedience and calamity.

The following article(s) may be of interest:

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  • The fact that the kings were polygamous and were also poor rulers with lots of civil wars isn't necessarily a condemnation of their polygamy - just look at the history of the British royal family, for instance. I think it's just a reflection of the fact that they were kings. – nick012000 Jun 20 at 3:39
  • @nick012000 We can not completely compare the Kings of Old to modern Kings. Henry VIII although not a polygamist, did have eight wives. He would never be considered as a great king. But again reigning power has it’s privileges! – Ken Graham Jun 20 at 3:51
  • King Henry might have had a bunch of wives, but he wasn't the only bad king. youtube.com/watch?v=jNgP6d9HraI – nick012000 Jun 20 at 3:53
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More generally, why did (and/or does) God allow a number of things that are bad ideas, or things reprehensible to us, or things just plain evil (like rape, war, horrific diseases, accidents, and automated messages that say, "Due to heavy call volume...")? There are many things recorded in Scripture which most would agree are bad but which God does not explicitly condemn. It is inappropriate to presume that God approves of such things. The created universe (and God himself) are more complex than we know, or can know. Paul set the standard for marriage clearly when he said that elders must the husbands of one wife (and therefore, no more).

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Polygamy was allowed under the Law of Moses.

Long story short, when God led the ancient Hebrews into freedom from the Egyptians, the Hebrew people asked God to create a system of rules they could follow rather than being guided by a personal relationship with Him. God agreed, and God produced the Law of Moses, and this agreement formed the basis for what came to be called the Old Covenant, after it was replaced by Jesus's New Covenant.

Under the Law of Moses, adultery was defined as a man (regardless of marital status) having sex with a married woman. Additionally, if a man (regardless of marital status) had sex with a virginal girl, he was required to marry her (though if it was consensual, her father could nullify the agreement and thereby prevent the marriage, the same way he was allowed to nullify any other contract his daughters entered into). Furthermore, if a man's brother were to die without children, he was obligated to marry and impregnate his brother's widow.

As a result of these facts, as well as the general principle that everything not forbidden was allowed, it is easy to see why polygamy was allowed under the Law of Moses.

A better question, perhaps, is "Why is polygamy disallowed among Christians", and an answer to that involves the fact that monogamy was the dominant practice among the Hellenistic pagans who converted to Christianity in the early days of the church, and that later on, the Catholic Church began banning polygamous relationships among medieval kings as a way of gaining political control over them by controlling their marriages and the alliances that came with them.

There are a few verses in the New Testament that have been interpreted as banning polygamy; one involves the Apostle Paul banning church leaders from polygamy since it would make them too focused on worldly matters, and a couple of others involve Jesus's speaking during his life and ignore the fact that when Jesus's was alive he was under the rules of the Old Covenant, and that one of the rules of the Old Covenant was (paraphrased) "don't create new rules to add to this" (Deuteronomy 12:32).

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I conducted a study of Bible passages in which appear different aspects of the oppression of women. I found sixteen different dimensions to the oppression. (There may be more, but I stopped at sixteen). One was polygamy as a form of women losing their voice, as found first in Genesis in the story of Lamech and his wives, Adah and Zillah, who never speak.

I then read of historical developments toward women's equality, focusing on major developments in law and custom, or the lives of remarkable women who defied one of those forms of oppression and served as an inspiration to later women. Like a FIFO stack in programming, the pattern was clear. As each layer of the oppression appeared in a certain order, the remedy or breakthrough related to those sixteen forms of oppression occurred in the same order.

By this pattern, it is evident that God has a standard of equality that he is implementing, with each facet building upon the previous, until full equality between men and women is reached in history. During the Old Testament and even the early times of the New Testament, the oppression was still deepening. Then as the Gospel began to be preached to the nations, things started to turn around. The abolition of polygamy is just one part of God's plan. The very first book of the Bible to be written, Job, ends with a vision of this in chapter 42: Job's sons are not named but his daughters are, and he gives to daughters and sons an equal share of his inheritance.

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  • Minor nit-pick: FIFO is a queue, a stack is LIFO. – Ray Butterworth Jun 24 at 22:55

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