Polygamy and Scripture

A common complaint made by critics of Christianity is that polygamy seems to be allowed in the Bible, and/or many Biblical characters seemed to have had more than one wife. The homosexual activists are also jumping on this bandwagon as they seek to justify their lifestyle: “God is OK with polygamy, so why not homosexuality?” they ask.

Four short replies can be given at the outset to this line of thought. First, description does not equal prescription. Just because something is described in the Bible does not mean it is being prescribed. Plenty of activities are recorded in Scripture which we are of course not to emulate or congratulate. Simply having an activity recorded in the Bible does not necessarily mean it is to be engaged in by others.

Second, God in his grace often allowed fallen mankind – including his own people – to engage in activities and behaviours which he is not at all thrilled about. He often showed patience and forbearance as his own people moved away from their pagan roots into the fullness of what he had in mind for them.

Third, there are a number of texts which in no uncertain terms condemn polygamy and warn God’s people against it. Finally, the overall biblical record is clear on what God’s ideal is in regards to human sexuality. Marriage between one man and one woman for life has always been God’s intention, and it is against this backdrop that all discussions of sexuality should be seen.

But let’s look at all this in more detail. God’s intentions at creation have to be seen as paramount here. It is quite clear that what God intended for Adam and Eve is the divine template for marriage and sexuality. In my new book Strained Relations I put it this way:

“As De Young puts it, ‘the creation of humans as male and female (Genesis 1) and the heterosexual union that constitutes marriage (Genesis 2) lie at the basis of the rest of Scripture and its comments about sexuality and marriage.’

“God’s intention for human sexuality is made clear in the early chapters of Genesis. John Stott says three fundamental truths emerge from the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2: 1) the human need for companionship; 2) the divine provision to meet this human need; and 3) the resulting institution of marriage.

“Gen. 2:24 makes it clear that one man and one woman only can constitute a marriage bond: ‘Thus Scripture defines the marriage God instituted in terms of heterosexual monogamy. It is the union of one man with one woman, which must be publicly acknowledged (the leaving of parents), permanently sealed (he will “cleave to his wife”), and physically consummated (“one flesh”). And Scripture envisages no other kind of marriage or sexual intercourse, for God provided no alternative.’

“As one Old Testament scholar says, ‘Without question 2:24 serves as the bedrock for Hebrew understanding of the centrality of the nuclear family for the survival of society. Monogamous heterosexual marriage was always viewed as the divine norm from the outset of creation’.”

In his book, God, Marriage and Family, Andreas Kostenberger rightly says, “the Creator’s design is simple and clear; one woman for one man. This is the law of marriage established at Creation.” Thus “polygamy was never normative among the followers of Israel’s God”.

He continues, “While it is evident, then, that some very important individuals (both reportedly godly and ungodly) in the history of Israel engaged in polygamy, the Old Testament clearly communicates that the practice of having multiple wives was a departure from God’s plan for marriage.

“This is conveyed not only in Scripture verses that seem univocally to prohibit polygamy (cf. Deut. 17:17; Lev. 18:18), but also from the sin and general disorder that polygamy produced in the lives of those who engaged in the practice.”

Or as Old Testament scholar Richard Davidson puts it in his magisterial Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, when we examine the patriarchal narratives where examples of plural marriages are found, “the narrator presents each account in such a way as to underscore a theology of disapproval. The record of these polygamous relationships bristles with discord, rivalry, heartache, and even rebellion, revealing the motivations and/or disastrous consequences that invariably accompanied such departures from God’s Edenic ideal.”

He goes on to state that of the 3000 men mentioned in the OT record, only 33 are involved in polygamy, and “invariably the divinely inspired narrators include their tacit condemnation of these practices. Contrary to other ANE legislation, Mosaic legislation condemns all polygamy, both for the people and (at least implicitly) for the king.”

While God at times may show some grace to the polygamist along the way, “the prohibitions in Lev.18 – including polygamy – are presented as universal law, applicable to all humanity (transcultural) for all time (transtemporal), upholding the order of creation.”

And obviously the New Testament also enjoins monogamous relationships only. As Norman Geisler summarises, “Our Lord reaffirmed God’s original intention by citing this passage (Matt. 19:4) and noting that God created one ‘male and [one] female’ and joined them in marriage. The NT stresses that ‘Each man [should] have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband’ (1 Cor. 7:2). Likewise, Paul insisted that a church leader should be ‘the husband of one wife’ (1 Tim. 3:2, 12). Indeed, monogamous marriage is a prefiguration of the relation between Christ and His bride, the church (Eph. 5:31-32).”

He continues, “Polygamy was never established by God for any people under any circumstances. In fact, the Bible reveals that God severely punished those who practiced it. . . . God never commanded polygamy – like divorce, He only permitted it because of the hardness of their hearts (Deut. 24:1; Matt. 19:8).”

So those who want to try to pick holes in Scripture, or want to justify their sinful sexual lifestyles by appealing to polygamy in the Bible had better find a new approach. They are obviously pushing a dead horse here, and their theological revisionism will get them nowhere.

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