CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Polygamy and Scripture

Dec 19, 2011

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.

[1009 words]

18 Responses to Polygamy and Scripture

  • I read in one of your articles that you can read through the Bible from start to finish in only one year (reading 3 chapters a day). I decided to do a variation of this and read a chapter a day (or more if I have time) along with Alister McGrath’s NIV Bible Commentary and the study notes to the ESV Bible. Here is what I read just this week in the ESV study notes.

    When no suitable companion is found among all the living beings, God fashions a woman from the man’s own flesh. The text highlights the sense of oneness that exists between the man and the woman. Adam joyfully proclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” This terminology is used elsewhere of blood relatives (29:14). This sentence and the story of Eve’s creation both make the point that marriage creates the closest of all human relationships. It is also important to observe that God creates only one Eve for Adam, not several Eves or another Adam. This points to heterosexual monogamy as the divine pattern for marriage that God established at creation.

    Further on Genesis 4:19 notes that Lamech had two wives. He also killed a man for wounding him (4:23).
    Lamech was born several generations after Cain.

    The new developments of vv. 20–22 are overshadowed by Lamech’s boast of having killed a man for wounding or striking him (v. 23). Lamech’s response is out of proportion to the injury, showing his inordinate vengefulness. This, like his bigamy (v. 19), reveals his depravity. His behavior reveals that the line of Cain is dominated by those who have no regard for the lives of others or respect for the principle of monogamy that 2:23–24 endorses.

    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks for that Annette.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The sinners and those searching and pining for reasons to shoot holes through the bibles chapters obviously haven’t dug deep or read through the book thoroughly.

    If one looks at Samson and his desires for women, although God gave blessed Samson with enormous strength he wasn’t blessed with great discipleship and was far from obedient to the word of god, as he took his eyes off god, he was capture and as a result lost his eyes while in slavery to the Philistines.

    Secondly, in the days of Noah, gods wrath is clearly foretold as he floods the world as an act of punishment to all the sinners for their sexuality, their ungodliness and their sins.

    For every evil deed comes an act of punishment, Adam and Eve sinned, what happened with them? – banished from the garden, their first born rose and slew his younger brother in an act of jealousy, gods wrath was upon Cain, his bloodline was filled with vengeful and hateful acts.

    If anyone who has the desire to commit sinful acts and selfish deeds are making false claims against the bible, they must reflect on their desires as its quite obvious they are on the path selective reading.

    Fivos Panayiotou

  • Bill, how would you deal with someone who points to David – a man after God’s own heart – as someone who practiced polygamy? Was there no condemnation from God? Did David believe God endorsed it? Can we say God ‘turned a blind eye’ to David’s choices in this regard?
    Geoffrey Bullock

  • Thanks Geoffrey

    But David was also an adulterer and a murderer. For all his sins he paid a very heavy price indeed, as God judged him for them. But as I said in my article, God’s grace is in display big time here, as many of his chosen perform well below his expectations, but he blesses them to some extent nonetheless. Indeed, just look at your own life, as I must look at mine: lots of grace despite plenty of shortcomings and sins on our part.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Geoffrey, God declared that David was NOT to build the temple, precisely because he had blood on his hands.

    As the NT says, God is not mocked. We wear the consequences of our sins, even if we are genuinely repentant and forgiven by the Lord.

    John Angelico

  • These people who try to find holes in scripture, aren’t they also the ones who generally dismiss the old testament or at least the “God of the old Testament” as they see Him different from the God of the new testament? How then does the old testament all of a sudden become authoritative in their eyes when it comes to this subject?
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Yes absolutely right Ursula.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • All this relies on the fact that God created a real man and a real woman at the beginning in history as He said in Genesis. That means we must present Genesis as history and defend Genesis as history.

    The Christian doctrine of marriage is destroyed by the compromising claim that humans evolved from apes, as the lot from BioLogos, who claim be be evangelical Bible believers, have been are advocating. See “The Non-Mythical Adam and Eve!
    Refuting errors by Francis Collins and BioLogos”

    Tas Walker

  • Anyone who clears there heart of all the junk of this life, like a child; knows that there is only one pure and true marriage, and if that fails we have the Torah to confirm it.
    Russell Boden, UK

  • Hi just discovered this great site
    On this topic another important affirmation of monogamy is the fact that there were 4 married couples on the ark from which the world was repopulated.
    Ernie van Stralen

  • Those verses from the Pentateuch don’t appear to expressly forbid all polygamy, but rather put limits on it. However that could just be the translation I’m reading. I do agree with polygamous relationships being portrayed negatively throughout. However as they are from the Mosaic (also known as “Old”) Covenant, I don’t see it as that important whether they do forbid all polygamy or not as the Mosaic Covenant is obsolete.

    It should be noted that the Messianic (“New”) Covenant replaces the Mosaic (also known as “Old”) covenant which expressly forbids polygamy, well at least simultaneous polygamy (see below).

    The Messianic Covenant raises the bar (this issue is no exception – though some might disagree) over what’s in the Mosaic Covenant.

    Then one should note that there are two types of polygamy, simultaneous and consecutive.

    Simultaneous polygamy is the taking of multiple wives at once. I would think that everyone agrees that is expressly forbidden in the New Testament.

    Consecutive polygamy is the taking of multiple wives but only one at a time (i.e. Remarriage after divorce). There is debate over this and perhaps some legitimate differences in opinion, which involves a number of considerations, such as:
    1. Is marriage a covenant (binding agreement on two parties, one party breaks the agreement, the other is still bound to it) or a contract (one party breaks the agreement and the other is released from their obligation)?

    Matt Vinay
    2. Translation of passages referring to this issue, including an understanding of how the grammar works particularly in regards to the word “except”.
    3. Considering how the synoptic gospels (John doesn’t refer to this, I think) treat this issue and other places in the New Testament.

    An interesting new book well worth reading on polygamy is “Remarriage is adultery unless…” by David Pawson. The book is available from amazon.com and davidpawson.com.au David spent forty years writing this book and has had relatives and close friends affected by the issue. Whilst it deals with consecutive polygamy some of the arguments (e.g. superseding of Mosaic covenant) will of course also apply to simultaneous polygamy.

  • “These people who try to find holes in scripture, aren’t they also the ones who generally dismiss the old testament or at least the “God of the old Testament” as they see Him different from the God of the new testament? How then does the old testament all of a sudden become authoritative in their eyes when it comes to this subject?”
    Ursula Bennett

    Good comment I think Ursula, and yes, many (including sometimes Christians will take Scripture out of context in order to fit it in with per-conceived ideas and to justify them)

    In the context of such OT examples of polygamy, as Bill infers, surely these must be interpreted in the light of the fuller and clearer light and teaching of the NT, which confirm as Bill states, that ‘descriptive’ does not equate with ‘prescriptive.’

    I suggest therefore that the OT is most certainly not “authoritative” in this matter – not least because the whole of the OT dispensation was but temporary, and anticipated the New. As the writer to the Hebrews wrote (during the transitional period between both Testaments – that the OT is “ready to vanish away”. Thus our sole authority now are the words of Christ and the Apostles, and the ‘Old’ is now to be interpreted in the light of the New.

    Graham Wood

  • As well as all the Biblical teaching for monogamy and against polygamy there is also the biological fact that baby boys and girls are born in more or less equal numbers. Nature herself ‘teaches’ that there are enough girls for the boys to marry (and vice versa) as long as they have only one each! As soon as this natural scheme of things is violated eg., if baby girls are commonly aborted or killed in preference to baby boys, then nothing but trouble eventually arises for the societies which practice it.
    Alan Williams

  • Hi Bill,

    I completely agree that God’s plan for marriage has always been monogamy. Another piece of supporting evidence for this is that God created us to give birth to almost equal numbers of boys and girls.

    I think you are quite right, therefore, to say that homosexual activists will get no mileage from the argument that the Bible condones polygamy.

    But I think the many Christians who want to keep polygamy illegal, but say we should not criminalise homosexual acts are going to have a big logical problem and be a thorn in the Christian side when it comes to resisting the coming push to decriminalise polygamy.

    The polygamist activists will correctly point out that even though the Bible is either neutral or negative when it touches on polygamy, it never lists polygamy as a civil offence or one meriting any civil punishment. Homosexual acts, on the other hand, are always condemned as sinful in the strongest possible language, and God himself declared such acts capital civil crimes in Israel.

    How will these Christians then defend their view that homosexual acts should not be criminal offences, but polygamy should? They will end up making themselves and the Biblical cause seem grossly hypocritical. We must decide which side we’re going to be on – if we want to defend keeping polygamy illegal then we must also affirm that homosexual acts also should be.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • If you look at the scripture, Jesus had nothing to say on abortion or homosexuality, homosexuality being dealt with elsewhere in scripture and opposition to abortion a logical conclusion considering the sanctity of life, that we are made in God’s image.

    Marriage is something Jesus did talk about including four passages to do with conditions on/prohibition of (some debate about this) consecutive polygamy. Simultaneous polygamy is definitely forbidden, but there is debate about whether consecutive polygamy is as well.

    I would argue that a good way to mount an offensive defence on the issue of polygamy would be to refer to the issue of consecutive polygamy. Some passages, particularly the ones in Luke 16 and Mark 10 (and perhaps the one in Matthew 5 as well, though the Sermon on the Mount is clearly addressed to believers) do appear to prohibit it. The one that really leads to a lot of debate is the one in Matthew 19 where the grammar regarding the use of the word “except” is critical (it’s explained in the book I referred to above).

    What’s interesting is that in John a case of consecutive polygamy, the Samaritan woman at the well, we are not given the solution to the problem.

    Graham as for dismissing the Old Testament as temporary, replaced by the New, I wouldn’t be so fast. The Old and New Testaments are really bad titles as the “Old” Testament contains multiple covenants with some debate as to how many there are. Considering five covenants: there’s the Abrahamic, Noahic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenants. Of these I would argue that the Mosaic Covenant is the one replaced by the Messianic (New) Covenant. The Noahic Covenant is clearly still in effect or we wouldn’t be here. The Davidic Covenant is still clearly in effect too. The Abrahamic Covenant, I believe is also still in effect.

    Matt Vinay

  • Seven is God’s perfect number. Seven colours in the rainbow. Seven times we are told in Scripture that to remarry after divorce is adultery.
    Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9, Mark 10 11-12, Luke 16:18, Romans 7 2-3, 1 Corinthians 7 10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:39.
    We cannot go against Bible truth.
    Judith Bond

  • Bill, just to say that the Geoffrey Bullock above is not me – Geoffrey Bullock FamilyVoice Australia!

Leave a Reply