[UPDATE 3/27/2012: I’m already getting comments that seem to suggest that I “missed” the biblical portrayal of polygamy as causing great consternation in the home. No surprise, and no kidding. I think my post was clear on this originally, but just in case … My point in the post that follows was that polygamy in the OT was the cultural norm and was not viewed as adultery in the biblical text. I never said it worked like a charm! It didn’t. We have plenty of instances where it caused a lot of problems (but we would be reading into the text to presume it caused only problems — it would never have become a cultural norm if that was the case; ancient people weren’t self-destructive idiots). Another point is that the biblical text does not condemn polygamy as adultery. I can’t improve on the biblical text. It says what it says and has its own clear definition of adultery. This is transparent in the biblical text. When something is described in the Bible we need to be honest with the description. Lastly, since God did not step into the culture of the biblical writers and change it, or insist that the practice stop before he would give them revelation, we have to assume some apathy on God’s part toward it. It just was what it was, and God didn’t care to alter the culture in which he was dispensing revelation. That is, getting rid of polygamy — or slavery, or attitudes about the inequality of women, etc. — was not a precondition to working with human beings. The Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific culture; cultures are the product of humans, not God. A culture is evident in the biblical text because those were the people God spoke to and through, not because God invented it to be handed down to posterity.]


This post topic comes recommended by a reader who asked the following:

It seems as though polygamy was not viewed as sinful by God in the Old Testament. And while monogamy seems to possibly be suggested in the NT as a more ideal situation . . . I wonder if polygamy was still tolerated as a non-sinful situation like it was in the OT?

Good observation and good question. Polygamy is another illustration of how easily something can be understood if the Bible is allowed to be what it is, and how disturbing something in the Bible seems when its contents are presumed to derive from a modern European worldview (and contemporary evangelicalism to boot).

Let’s start with the obvious points – points that anyone who has spent serious time reading the Old Testament would have stumbled upon:

1. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament view extra-marital (a key term) sex as a heinous sin, one dealt with in the most serious way under the Mosaic law (death penalty if the sin was by consent; cp. Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). John 7:53-8:11 (its text-critical uncertainty set to the side for sake of this discussion) also suggests that extra-marital sex could still (at least in theory and in Jewish law) be punished with death.

2. Despite severity of the above, the Old Testament descriptions of patriarchal life assumes that men had more than one wife (e.g., Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon). This is known as polygamy, but is more accurately called polygyny (one husband, more than one wife), as opposed to polyandry (one wife, more than one husband). There are no examples of the latter in the Bible.

3. The Old Testament narratives also describe concubinage (e.g., Abraham and Hagar), which was not quite the same as marriage. It was also distinct from utilizing the services of a prostitute.

Let’s walk through the material and dispense with some myths and get our bearings. I have heard (in sermons and poorly-informed conversations) that the act of sexual intercourse (here defined as vaginal intercourse) constitutes, in and of itself, a marriage. This is an unbiblical idea. The glaring fact that the Old Testament uses different terms (wife, concubine, harlot) for women with whom men had intercourse (and in some cases the same man) and only one of those terms met the social, cultural, and legal parameters of “wife” (e.g., one would not hold a marriage celebration for all three) tells us clearly that the act of intercourse did not constitute a marriage in biblical thinking or theology.

Terminology for “adultery” is actually infrequent in the Old Testament. The term in the ten commandments (na’aph; Exo 20:14; Deut 5:18) occurs only one other place in the Mosaic law (Lev 20:10). Other terms are used to describe illicit sex (e.g., sex with a prostitute – zanah; e.g., Gen 38:24; Lev 21:9). Permissible (non-violent and consenting) sexual relationships with multiple wives or concubines are not described with either word. Rather, the normal euphemisms for marital intercourse are employed (the man “went in to” or “knew” his wife or concubine). Consequently, the biblical material does not consider those relationships adulterous or as prostitution.

This terminological parsing is not accidental, for the Old Testament (and the patriarchal culture in which it was produced) defined adultery very strictly as sexual intercourse with a woman already married (or betrothed) to another man.” This means that, in the Old Testament world, polygamy was not adultery; it is not treated as such in the Mosaic law.

The reason adultery (taking the wife of another man) was so detested in the ancient world was that the act violated property rights and, more importantly, intruded on inheritance rights via illegitimate paternity. As property and its transmission through bloodlines was the primary means of economic survival in a patriarchal pastoral-nomadic culture, and later a predominantly agrarian culture, violation of inheritance lines was a serious offense that could mean (economic) life or death. Since children were obviously linked to the household of their mother, strict boundaries on women and their sexual activity were the logical focus in such a culture. There were no scientific ways to evidence paternity, and once a woman had a child by another man (even if unknown), that child (especially if male) became an inheritance threat should his biological father at some point assert rights of ownership over the property of the son and his mother. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes:

Israel viewed extra-marital sexuality in the severest light, prescribing death for adultery. As in the rest of the ANE, there was a double standard: males could have sex outside marriage, most notably with prostitutes: “adultery” meant copulation with a married woman. Beyond concern for property rights or clear paternity, the demand for sexual exclusivity for wives sought to prevent married women from establishing bonds that could weaken the family unit . . . Adultery was a capital crime according to Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:22. Both parties must die. The reasons for the gravity of this crime are never explicitly stated in the OT, yet the patrilineal nature of Israelite society strongly suggests that mistaken paternity would surely be dreaded. If an act of undetected adultery produced offspring, a likely result would be the bequeathal of the family inheritance to this illegitimate heir. (ABD, 5:1144; I:82).

These economic concerns are also reflected in laws about (consensual) pre-marital sex (Exo 22:16-17; Deut 22:28-29). These passages required payment of the marriage dowry to the father (as though a betrothal was taking place). If the girl’s father refused to let her be married to the man, the offender still had to pay since the woman’s economic value (upon her loss to her parents household) was lost (i.e., it would be unlikely that someone would later want to marry her due to the cultural stigma – note that virginity was highly esteemed and expected). Once married, no divorce was permitted in such cases. And if the woman did not consent to the sexual relationship (i.e., she was raped) the man would suffer the death penalty. These laws were designed to discourage promiscuity.

So, does the Old Testament “approve” of polygamy? Yes, in the sense that (a) it was part of the culture at the time God chose to call Abraham and create a people through him and his wife Sarah and (b) God didn’t care to outlaw the culture of the time. But it would be misguided to think that God promoted polygamy or held it out as the most desirable option. The Old Testament holds monogamy as an ideal, and makes no effort to argue that polygamy was a desirable situation for men in general. Polygamy just “was” and God didn’t care about the culture in which he initiated the next phase of his salvation plan. Polygamy had no vital theological place in that plan and would ultimately become even culturally irrelevant when Israel was replaced as the circumcision-neutral Church as the people of God. 1 It just wasn’t an issue.

These points also answer the question, “Is polygamy for today then?” No, it isn’t. It’s no more “for today” than any other cultural element tied to patriarchal Israel would be for believers in any era after the patriarchal Israelite kingdom was replaced  – in the divine design no less – by the Church. We aren’t living in the second millennium B.C.  Frankly, that question is utterly pointless and destitute of theological sense since it completely ignores what happened in the New Testament with the Church, where Israel and the Mosaic theocracy expired by divine design. On what basis would we ever assume the Church was a new form of Mosaic theocracy? Apparently the apostles didn’t get that memo since we don’t see them setting that up in Acts or assuming they should.

Lastly, the New Testament says nothing directly about polygamy. Only a preference for monogamy is evident, along with the thorny issue of divorce and remarriage. Judging by extra-biblical material, polygamy seems to have all but disappeared in first century Judea.2 It certainly existed in Jewish (and Gentile) culture in the Mediterranean, but urban life undermined the economic need and rationale for polygamy.3 The New Testament might contain hints of polygamy, depending on how the plural (“wives”) is understood in several verses (Acts 21:5; 1 Cor 7:29), but the plural may simply be collective, reflecting each male in the intended audience and their (one) wife. It’s hard to tell.

  1. And please, don’t assume I mean anything specifically eschatological about that. The Scripture is clear ( Gal 3 ) that the Church inherits the promises given to Abraham but despite what well-meaning dispensational interpreters want to say, really isn’t the key eschatological question. The real question is not “Did the Church replace Israel as God’s people?” but “Does God still have an eschatological future planned specifically for national Israel?” The two questions are not the same, though they are related. I’m not going to respond to mind-numbing questions about eschatology here. Please see the multi-part series I did on that earlier.
  2. A telling example seems to be the Jewish community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Qumran texts 11QTemple 56:17; 19; 57:17-19 and CD 4:20-21 apparently forbid polygamy and even remarriage after divorce.
  3. The Dictionary of New Testament Background (“Marriage: Marriage, Childbearing and Celibacy”) notes: “Some peoples on the periphery of the empire reportedly practiced polygamy, including Thracians, Numidians and Moors (Sallust Iug. 80.6; Sextus Empiricus Pyr. 3.213; cf. Diodorus Siculus Bib. Hist. 1.80.3 on Egypt); writers also alleged that some distant peoples merely held children in common (Diodorus Siculus Bib. Hist.. 2.58.1). Although a few Greek philosophers supported group marriage (Diogenes Laertius Vit. 6.2.72; 7.1.131; 8.1.33), Greek culture as a whole forbade it (e.g., Euripides Androm. 465:93, 909). Likewise, Roman law prohibited polygamy, which bore as its minimum penalty infamia (Gardner, 92-93; Gaius Inst. 1.63; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 11.28.4); Roman wives found the notion of polygamy abhorrent (Aulus Gellius Noc. Att. 1.23.8). Although the practice was not common, early Palestinian Judaism allowed polygamy (m. Sanh. 2:4), and it was practiced at least by some wealthy kings (Josephus, J.W. 1.28.4 .562). The early sage Hillel reportedly complained against polygamy, but mainly because he felt wives could be dangerous, especially in large numbers (m. ‘Abot 2:7). Nevertheless, the vast majority of Jewish men and all Jewish women were monogamous, and some conservative sectarians forbade polygamy, including for rulers (CD 4:20-5:2; 11QTemple 56:18-19).