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.
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.