[Note: This article is not promoting the practice or non-practice of polygamy. This article does not reflect the personal preferences of Richard Anthony, or any other writer on this website. This article is simply reflecting what scripture says on this topic, and attempts to answer the question, "Is polygamy a sin?" For example, Richard Anthony has no intention at all of ever marrying more than one woman. Even though God's Law may allow polygamy, Richard prefers not to engage in this practice.]
Have you ever wondered why God never condemned polygamy? It's not hard to prove from the Old Testament and the New Testament that polygamy was, and still is, a valid form of marriage and is not sinful.
Old Testament law on Polygamy
The Scriptures are clear that polygamy was, and still is today, a valid form of marriage. God nowhere condemns godly men for having more than one wife. Abraham had a wife, and then he married her maid (Genesis 16:2-4); Jacob married Leah and Rachel (Gen.29:23-30; 31:17; 32:22) and then he married Leah and Rachel's handmaids, Zilbah and Bilhahand (Genesis 30:1-24; 37:2); Judge Gideon had many wives and a concubine (Judges 8:30-31); Elkanah married Hannah and Peninnah (1 Sam.1:2); David married Abigail and Ahinoam (1 Sam.25:42-43; 30:18), then later took more wives (2 Sam.5:13) at Jerusalem (1 Chron.14:3); In 2 Sam.12:7-8, God gave David these multiple wives as a blessing, just as anointing him as king over Israel, protecting him from Saul, and giving him the house of Israel and Judah were also blessings from Him; King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-3); Ashur married Helah and Naarah (1 Chron.4:5); Shaharaim married Hushim and Baara (1 Chron.8:8); Abijah had 14 wives (2 Chron.13:21); Jehoiada the priest had 2 wives (2 Chron.24:3). Also, God never condemned ungodly men for having more than one wife either: Lamech (Gen.4:19), Esau (Gen.36:2,6), King Rehoboam had 18 wives (2 Chron.11:21); King Belshazzar had many wives (Dan.5:2-3). In addition, after war-time, many women would marry more than one man because of the shortage of men available due to there being killed (Isaiah 4:1).
We find our brother Paul referring to the polygamy of Abraham without a hint that it was sinful (Galatians 4:22).
When we study the Old Testament law concerning polygamy, we find that when the singular "wife" is used, those laws could apply to monogamy or polygamy (Deut. 22:13, 22), and when the plural "wives" is used, those laws only apply to polygamy. (Deut. 21:15-17). The Law stated that a man could take another wife as long as he still provided for his first wife (Exo.21:10). This is what the apostle Paul calls "due benevolence" (1 Cor.7:3). The law protected the rights of the first born son concerning his inheritance in the case where the father preferred another wife over his mother (Deut. 21:15-17).
The law commanded that any man who had sex with a virgin was to marry her (Deut. 22:28-29). There is nothing in this text that supports the idea that only single men are to marry in this instance. This law protected and ensured the woman that her food, clothing, and marital rights and duties would not be diminished. This also protected the woman from the reproach of not being able to find another man to be her husband because she was no longer a virgin and, furthermore the reproach of possibly never being able to have children. The man, single or married, needed to be responsible for his fornication and the woman needed to be protected.
The law commanded a man to marry the widow of his deceased brother's wife if he had no children with her (Deut. 25:5-10). Again, there is nothing in this text that supports that this law was limited to only single brothers.
The law did have some restrictions on polygamy, such as a man not marrying the sister or mother of his wife (Lev. 18:17, Lev. 20:14). Another restriction admonished the king against the acquisition of too many wives (Deut. 17:17), and, in particular, foreign wives, because they would tend to tempt him towards their gods (1 Kings 11:1-8). Solomon sinned, not because of the fact that he had many wives, but because he married women from foreign countries, and he did not tear down their places of worshipping false gods (Deuteronomy 7:3). It would also appear that Solomon broke this law in that he multiplied seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines to himself (1 Kings 11:3). Solomon abused the right to take more than one wife and no doubt had difficulty in meeting the sexual needs of so many women. David, on the other hand, did not break this law, as was discussed earlier (2 Samuel 12:7-8).
This subject of polygamy applies to Christ and the gospel, in that Christ came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mat.5:17). Christ is a polygamist in the sense that the church is likened to five wise betrothed virgins (Matt. 25:1-13, Matt. 24:34). Christ is one with the "members" (plural) of His body, the church, and one Spirit with them all (1 Corinthians 6:15-17).
Christ, in fulfilling the law, is the perfect husband to each individual member providing them with "clothing" such as His robes of righteousness (Matt. 22:11-14, Rev. 7:9,13-14, Rev. 22:14), "food" as He is the "bread of life" (Jn. 6:32-35), and "hidden manna" (Rev. 2:17) which God's people are presently feasting on at the wedding supper of the lamb (Rev. 19:9). Could any Christian doubt the loveliness of Christ as his lover? Christ has taken His people to His banqueting house, and His banner over us is love (So. 2:4). He has provided a place or a dwelling for us (Jn. 14:2). There's no question that God's people are well taken care of.
At one time, I thought that polygamy was the same thing as adultery until I actually took the time to study the matter. Since adultery was punishable by death under the law (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-23), and the law allowed, regulated, and as was seen earlier, would command polygamy in certain instances; adultery cannot be seen as synonymous with polygamy. Men and their wives were not put to death for having polygamous marriages!
It is very important that we look to the Scriptures to define what "adultery" is instead of holding to a slanted Western definition of adultery. In the U.S., adultery is seen as a married individual having sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex, besides their spouse, married or single. U.S. law on this matter reflects the ideas of Roman culture and the apostate Roman Catholic Church and is not aligned with God's law.
The Scriptural view of the wife is that she is the property of her husband. Therefore, any man who had relations with her was guilty of breaking the 8th commandment as well, "You shall not steal" and was to be put to death along with the adulterous wife. As already discussed, if a single or married man had sex with a virgin or unmarried woman, he was commanded to marry her.
Neither God nor Moses saw any violation or contradiction of Genesis 2:24 to the law which not only allowed polygamy, but, as was seen earlier, in some cases commanded it. It would be strained exegesis to say that God, in Genesis 2:24, is establishing some kind of monogamous law that excludes, or somehow condemns, polygamy.
Exegetically and contextually, Jesus' point, in Matthew 19:4-6, when he cites Genesis 2:24, is the indissolubility of marriage, for He says, "Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate." The expression "one flesh," insofar as it relates to the structure of marriage, refers to the indissolubility of a man and his wife within a marriage, whether it be monogamous or polygamous. This was our Lordís point in quoting the Genesis passage, and in no way condemns polygamy.
Now what about Saint Paul's expression 'one flesh'? Far from being a certain revelation concerning monogamy, the Pauline usage would illustrate, rather the broadness and flexibility of this Old Testament expression. For Paul, this unity in the 'flesh' is not confined to the conjugal union of one husband and one wife, nor is it limited to the bonds of kinship. Even a man who joins himself to a prostitute becomes 'one flesh' with her (1 Corinthians 6:16-17). This kind of unity is obviously not exclusive in the way that a monogamous union is supposed to be, for a man can become 'one flesh' with any number of prostitutes. According to this use of the expression, it would follow also that a man becomes 'one flesh' with more than one wife in a society which accepts this form of marriage. If a sinful prostitute can become "one flesh" with many men, then why would it be inconceivable that a godly man like David could have been "one flesh" with the wives God gave him?
Individually, each Christian that is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him (1 Corinthians 6:17). Just as another Christianís union with Christ does not, in any way destroy the oneness of my union with Christ, so it is that a man may be one flesh with more than one wife. Christ knows, receives, and becomes one Spirit with His virgin(s) (Matt. 25:1-13).
It is important to recall that the real background to marriage in ancient Israel, the background against which the biblical passages on marriage are to be seen, was the larger community of the family and the clan. Marriage was not understood primarily in terms of the husband-wife relationship, and certainly not in terms of an exclusive relationship between only two persons. Marriage was regarded as a social instrument required for the preservation and continuation of families and clans. Through daughters being married into different families, there was a mutual strengthening of kinship bonds-each family giving its own flesh and blood to other families.
"Flesh" has a wider social or kinship meaning found frequently in the Old Testament (cf. Gen. 29:14; 37:27; Lev. 18:6; Judges 9:2; 2 Sam. 5:1; 19:12-13; Neh. 5:5; Isa. 58:7). 'One flesh', is not confined exclusively to only two persons. The several children of one mother are 'one flesh' with her, by reason of their unity in generation and in maternal love. The relationship between the mother and each child, respectively, may even be regarded as a union of 'two' in 'one flesh', without thereby excluding the other children from this same relationship with their mother. So, by reason of a socially valid polygamous marriage, a man may be conjugally united with each of his wives, respectively, as 'two' in 'one flesh'-both in a carnal sense and in terms of kinship.
Yes, the Church, in most Pauline contexts, is described as the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-33), but then again Paul will describe the Church as a plurality of persons: a husband must love his wife, "as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body" (cf. Ephesians 5:28-33; 1 Corinthians 6:15; 12:27). In theological jargon, this is called "corporate personality", the bride (singular) symbolically representing the we/members (plural).
It is not entirely true that the Father and Christ are only portrayed as monogamists in Scripture. God is married to two women - Judah and Israel (cf. Jer. 3:6-10; 31:31-32; Ezk. 23:2-4), and, as already pointed out, the Church is pictured as being in a polygamous relationship with Christ, with five faithful virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). The covenant union was described by Jeremiah in terms of a polygamous marriage, "I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD" (Jer.31:31-32).
I reject the premise that morality and application of God's moral standards contained in the old law for Israel have vanished along with its theocratic status. Certain aspects of God's law for Israel stem from His eternal holiness and justice and know no geographical and ethical barriers. Israel and her law's moral and socio-political standards of justice are applicable for us today because they stem from God's holy character. Men can either form laws for societies proceeding out of their own hearts and imaginations, or they can go to God's word and submit to what His standards of divine justice are for human societies. Much of God's civil law that was given to Israel is purely reflective of His holiness and His standards for justice (what is right and what is wrong). Since God's holy character never changes, His standards of what is right and what is wrong, and how evil workers are to be punished, should never change either.
Those who do not favor taking God's law as the ultimate standard for civil morality and public justice will be forced to substitute some other criterion of good and evil for it. The civil magistrate cannot function without some ethical guidance, without some standard of good and evil. If that standard is not to be the revealed law of God, then what will it be? In some form or expression it will have to be the law of man - the standard of self-law or autonomy. And men will either choose to be governed by God or to be ruled by tyrants. Because of the merciful, restraining work of the Holy Spirit in societies, we do not see at every stage in history these stark polarities coming to expression; most societies will, to some measure, strive for conformity to God's law, even when it is officially denounced. However, in principle the choices are clearly between God's law and man's law, between life and death for a society.
Concerning marriage, any religious group or nation that ignores the moral standards set forth in God's law surrounding marriage, polygamous or monogamous, will be held accountable by God for their actions.
First of all, this passage is not addressed to all believers in Christ, but applies only to elders and deacons. Period. We cannot take something that only applies to a specific group of men, and apply that too all men in general. This would be taking a verse out of its context.
Secondly, notice, these passages do not say "only" one wife. The Greek word that "one" is translated from here is word #3391, mia, and is also translated as "a" or "the first" in other parts of scripture. Thus the emphasis would be that an elder needs to be a married man, having children, and that he must not have divorced his first wife.
For example, in the following passages, the word "a" is the same word translated "one" above:
Matthew 21:19,"And when he saw a fig tree in the way..."
Matthew 26:69, "Now Peter sat without in the palace: and a damsel came unto him...",
Revelation 9:13, "And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice..."
Likewise, Elders and deacons are to be the husbands of a wife, and have children, because if he cannot rule his own household, how can he rule the assembly of Christ? This passage does not limit him to only one wife, that is not its point. The purpose for these qualifications is stated in 1 Timothy 3:5, "(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the assembly of God)?" The point is that he must be able to rule his wife and children, and if he has multiple wives, and is able to rule them, so much the better! Any man who can love and rule multiple women, and made them happy, according to the Word of God, is certainly qualified to rule a congregation of many other believers!
Another example of how the word "one" is translated is when scripture speaks of Christ having risen "the first day of the week" (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2,9, Luke 24:1, John 20:1,19), the phrase "the first" is translated from the same word that "one" is translated from above. Thus, it can also read as follows, "Elders and Deacons are to be the husbands of the first wife."
Again, the purpose for these qualifications is stated in 1 Timothy 3:5, "(For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the assembly of God)?" And if an elder or a bishop was divorced from his first wife, he would be violating God's Law regulating polygamy, which states, "If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish" (Exodus 21:10). In other words, if an elder or a bishop was not still married to his first wife because of divorce, but married to other women, then he would be diminishing his first wife's food, raiment, and her duty of marriage, and therefore evidences that he does not know how to rule his own house, and therefore cannot rule the assembly of God.
Some might object to this interpretation that an elder needs to be a married man with children because they say Paul was an elder but was a single man. However, scripture does not say Paul was an elder. And even though Paul was unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:8), a glance at Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon, and Zodhiates Word Studies, will reveal that 'unmarried' is used to denote both 'bachelors' and 'widowers'. It refers to those who are not currently married, whether they have never been married or were once married and have been widowed, or divorced. The parallelism thus suggests that in 1 Corinthians 7:8 'unmarried' refers only to widowers', and not to any bachelor or single person. Paul himself could have been a widower. Especially since the Bible implies that Paul was married! As a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5) Paul must have been married because there were no single Pharisees. Also, Paul himself defended his prerogative to take a wife and bring her on his journeys with him as other apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5).
Paul's purpose in 1 Corinthians 7 is not to give requirements and advice for the eldership, anyway! Due to the "present distress" (vs. 26) Paul advised "that it is good for a man to remain as he is:" This "present distress" was a situation unique to the earlier church due to the persecution that was prophesied by Daniel and Jesus.
Leviticus is taken out of context. This is how it reads, "Thou shalt not take a wife in addition to her sister, as a rival, to uncover her nakedness in opposition to her, while she is yet living" (Septuagint). As we can see, this text doth not simply forbid the taking one wife to another, but the doing it in such a manner or for such an end, that he may vex or punish, or revenge himself of the former; which probably was a common motive amongst that hardhearted people to do so. When Jacob married two sisters (Genesis 29), his intent and purpose was not to vex them. Therefore, Jacob did not violate God's Law, and nothing was changed.
The term "brother," in Genesis 29:12 is translated from a Hebrew/Greek word that literally means "a relative," and is extended to remote degrees of relationships, as uncle, cousin, or nephew. The authority of the Septuagint bears this out by translating this passage, "And he told Rachel that he was the near relative of her father..." (Genesis 29:12). So, it does not mean that Jacob was Labon's literal brother, but simply a relative.
Here is what Abraham said about his wife, Sarah:
Genesis 20:12, "And yet indeed she is my sister; she is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife."
However, by "daughter," Abraham was referring to his niece. Terah, Abraham's father, is supposed by many interpreters to have had two wives; Haran, Sarah's father, to have been a son of the second; so that Sarah was his niece, and granddaughter of his father, but not of his mother. The term "sister" was then often given to a niece, and "brother" to a nephew, uncle, or near relative (Genesis 11:29; 20:5,13). This is how the Hebrews used these words.
Even if Abram did marry his half-sister, he married her before he was called by the Lord (Genesis 11:29). After he married her, the Lord called him to His service (Genesis 12). All men are sinners, and Abram was no exception. Even if he married her sinfully, it is God's Will that one keep his covenant and oath with another. If Abraham realized that he married her when he was not supposed to, he had to stay married to her rather than divorce her.
Yes, it must be evident that in the infancy of the world, persons very near of kin must have been joined in matrimonial alliances; and that even brothers must have matched with their own sisters. In these first instances necessity required this; when this necessity no longer existed, the thing became inexpedient and improper for two reasons: 1. That the duties owing by nature to relatives might not be confounded with those of a social or political kind; for could a man be a brother and a husband, a son and a husband, at the same time, and fulfil the duties of both? Impossible. 2. That by intermarrying with other families, the bonds of social compact might be strengthened and extended, so that the love of our neighbour, &c., might at once be felt to be not only a maxim of sound policy, but also a very practicable and easy duty; and thus feuds, divisions, and wars be prevented.
Adam's sons must of necessity have married their own sisters; but it was requisite that it should be made by a positive law unlawful and detestable, for the preventing of sinful familiarities between those that in the days of their youth are supposed to live in a house together, and yet cannot intermarry without defeating one of the intentions of marriage, which is the enlargement of friendship and interest. If every man married his own sister (as they would be apt to do from generation to generation if it were lawful), each family would be a world to itself, and it would be forgotten that we are members one of another. It is certain that this has always been looked upon by the more sober heathen as a most infamous and abominable thing; and those who had not this law yet were herein a law to themselves. The making use of the ordinance of marriage for the patronizing of incestuous mixtures is so far from justifying them, or extenuating their guilt, that it adds the guilt of profaning an ordinance of God, and prostituting that to the vilest of purposes which was instituted for the noblest ends.
Even though a man can marry more than one woman without being charged with "adultery", a woman cannot marry more than one man (Romans 7:2-3, 1 Corinthians 7:39), and that if a woman is involved with another man, she will be charged with adultery. The reason the man is not mentioned by Paul is because, according to the law, a man could marry another woman while his first wife was still alive and not be guilty of adultery.
In matters of divorce and remarriage, it is Paul's pattern of writing in 1 Corinthians 7 to apply something to both the wife and the husband if it indeed applies to both. Both a wife and a husband are admonished not to divorce (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Both the husband and the wife are commanded not to divorce in the case that they are married to an unbeliever (vs. 12-16). But only the wife is told that she cannot be joined to another as long as her husband lives. (vs. 39).
Therefore, the Biblical position on remarriage is the following: If a woman is divorced unjustly by her husband, she may not remarry another because she is bound to the first as long as he lives. If a man is divorced by his wife, he may remarry another, but he must pray for his first wifeís return and accept her back as his wife if she does return (1 Corinthians 7:11). If a man divorces his wife unjustly, he may not remarry another, as it would then be considered "adultery" (Mark 10:11).
Understanding polygamy and accepting it as a valid and Biblical form of marriage today is very crucial because it brings healing and knowledge to those who have found themselves divorced by a spouse, as well as giving understanding and wisdom to missionaries who preach the gospel to polygamous families in other countries. It is my sincere prayer that you have experienced some healing and/or gained wisdom and understanding from what God's Word has to say on this subject of polygamy.
For most of the world, polygamy is unnatural, just as righteousness and honesty have become increasingly "unnatural." Our perception of things is relativistic -- it depends on our own spiritual condition and the way our minds have been trained. We, as bondservants of Christ, ought to be trained by the Word of God and not by the world.
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