Does God approve of polygamy? David, who wrote most of the psalms, had eight wives
In Old Testament times some wealthy and powerful men indulged in polygamy, having wives and concubines. Because of the bride price, few could afford more than two wives. Concubines were secondary wives who were often servants with fewer privileges than a wife. They could also be prisoners of war claimed by the victor.
God’s plan for marriage was taught by Moses, Jesus and Paul. The first marriage was described as, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24-25). This was the marriage of one man and one woman, Adam and Eve. The principle of the man leaving his parents to be united to his wife was re-stated by Jesus and Paul (Mt. 19:4-6; Eph. 5:31). Also, each elder in the local church must be “the husband of but one wife”, which implies being faithful to their wife (1 Tim. 3:2; Ti. 1:6).
But people don’t always follow God’s instructions. The first mention of polygamy in the Bible involves Lamech who claimed to avenge himself eleven times more often than Cain (Gen. 4:19, 24). The Bible says that Cain belonged to Satan (1 Jn. 3:12). So, Lamech was a violent and evil man.
After he left Hebron, the Bible says that “David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him” (2 Sam. 5:13). As David had eight wives, he probably followed in the way of other military leaders of his time (2 Sam. 3:2-5; 12:24). Bathsheba became his eighth wife via adultery and murder, which was certainly not God’s will. In fact, God had commanded that the king “must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Dt. 17:17). The most extreme example of polygamy in the Bible is king Solomon who “had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray” (1 Ki. 11:3). His wives turned him to idolatry.
According to the bible, polygamy was practiced by: Lamech, Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Ashur, Gideon, Elkanah, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, Jehoram, Joash, Ahab, Jehoiachin, Belshazzar, and Hosea. It was associated with trouble, jealousy and strife. In David’s case there was strife between the children of different wives involving incest, murder and treason.
There are two other passages in the Bible that may involve polygamy. Firstly, it was sought by women as a solution to being widows and childless after war had decimated the male population (Is. 3:25; 4:1). Secondly, as a provision for a childless widow (Dt. 25:5-6). If a man died and left his widow without a son, there was a danger that his name might perish and his property pass out of the family. Therefore, a brother of the dead man was supposed to marry the widow. The best example is Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 4:5,10). Here the nearest relative was to repurchase some land that Naomi’s husband had owned (Lev. 25:23-25) and marry the widow and support the family. In Ruth’s case the nearest relative refused these duties, but Boaz was willing to do it.
Jesus said that Moses permitted divorce because their hearts were hard, “but it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:7-9). Likewise, it seems that God permitted polygamy in Old Testament times, but it was not His original intention for marriage.
Polygamy degrades a wife from being a unique “helper”, as Eve was for Adam, (Gen. 2:18,20) to being one of many mistresses. So having more than one wife is one part of David’s life that we shouldn’t imitate.
Written, November 2004