The modern concept of polygamy, or having multiple partners, is likely to be controversial as it veers away from societal norms. However, for centuries, plural marriage has been a part of religion, economics, and social structure across the globe including Islamic states and Hebrew tribes in the Bible. Does the Bible support polygamy? There are ample verses that explain that polygamy is, indeed, authorized by the Bible.
The Old Testament contains several references to polygamy. For example, King David and King Solomon each had hundreds of wives and concubines. The Hebrew tribes practiced polygamy, and concubines and second or third “wives” were believed to be a display of a man’s wealth. Other early fathers, such as Jacob, had multiple wives. Such conventional practices, as well as countless others, were authorized by the Bible.
RIsa Rice, a researcher for the Free Bible Commentary, says that polygamy was only to be allowed in special cases. In what circumstance? When a widowed or divorced woman had no other means of sustenance. An example of this is when a man was obligated to marry a brother’s wife to support her in the case where his brother had died without having children. The Bible also states that the man was only allowed to take an additional wife if he was able to provide for all of his wives equally.
Rice further states that faithfulness was paramount when it came to wedding and marital ceremony in the Bible. In fact, the Bible clearly states that one should not be a party to sister wives in the same household. Those found guilty of infidelity or adultery were dealt with firmly. An example is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel, who were sisters.
According to biblical scholar Robert Steele, Old Testament polygamy wasn’t simply tolerated; it was encouraged in certain circumstances. The Bible does not ban a man from having more than one wife. Instead, it merely warns men about the practical features of having multiple wives.
Steele also explains that in the New Testament, monogamy is the ideal standard, yet polygamy is not forbidden. In fact, most writers contend that they are attempting to discourage men from taking multiple wives, not condemn it. Paul’s advice to Timothy tells men to have only one wife only “if they can” control themselves.
Marriage is a highly symbolic and spiritual act in Christianity, and the Bible places major emphasis on the sanctity of marriage. This is evident in Jesus’ declaration of the law that marriage is between one man and one woman in Matthew 19:5-6. This has been widely interpreted to mean that the Bible does not support polygamy. However, in Jesus’s explanation, he does not actually state that it is prohibited.
Old Testament Laws Practice Polygamy
The Old Testament contains laws that allow polygamy in the lands that governed the Israel people, such as Deuteronomy 21:15-17. This law states that a man can take more than one wife but only if he “treats her as her husband’s equal”. Clearly, the Old Testament also favors monogamy over polygamy, as Deuteronomy 17:17 states that kings should not have multiple wives.
Another law written in the Old Testament is Exodus 21:10. This law states that a man who takes more than one wife must provide her with food, clothing, and even sleep in different quarters. This law illustrates that polygamous relationships are not ideal, as they require substantial resources.
Rabbinical teachings also explain that it is wrong to take a second wife if it will harm the first one in any way. The Bible states that marriage is a covenant and should be taken seriously. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 explains that a man who takes a second wife must still honor and provide for his first one.
Counter Arguments of Polygamy in the Bible
There are other passages in the Bible that could be seen as against the idea of polygamy. For example, Jeremiah 3:14-15 and Ezekiel 16:26-29. Critics suggest that these verses point to God’s disapproval of the practice of having multiple wives. However, these passages are referencing a condemnation of extreme sexual depravity which was rampant in the time period.
In addition, some have remarked that Paul’s prohibition against “sexual immorality” in 1 Timothy 3:2 could be interpreted as a blanket condemnation of polygamous marriages. Critics would argue that this implies that all polygamous relationships are sexually immoral. Conversely, supporters of polygamy cite other verses in relation to Paul’s letter, such as that marriage should take priority over “celibacy and false doctrines” (1 Corinthians 7:2).
Furthermore, many biblical commentators suggest that the New Testament outlines a vision of a one-man-one-woman marriage. Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:2-9 seem to support traditional marriage and reject the idea of polygamy being accepted in the New Testament.
Theological Arguments For and Against Polygamy
Although polygamy is not explicitly banned in the Bible, there is still much debate about the morality and practical implications of having multiple partners. Many theologians explain that the principle of monogamy is essential to strengthening a family and preventing various forms of abuse. Theologian Peter Walker explains “if polygamy were practiced widely, it would be socially destabilising.”
On the other hand, some theologians suggest that polygamy could have some benefits. For example, polygamy could offer protection and care to widows, single mothers, and other vulnerable women in society. Supporters of polygamy also contend that it can be used to reduce poverty, as plural marriages in some societies typically bring larger families and more resources.
Proponents of polygamy also note that some verses in the Bible indicate that a polygamous marriage can be a positive thing. In particular, Genesis 4:19 states that the Lord blessed Lamech and his wives. This is taken to mean that God could be seen as approving polygamy.
Family Life With Multiple Parents
Family life with multiple parents has been a challenge throughout history. Some suggest that plural marriages bring out negative feelings and cause unhealthy rivalry between co-wives. Polygamy also raises the question of how to divide resources and parenting time among everyone in the family.
Others remark that having multiple parents can benefit a child in some ways. For instance, a child from a polygamous family has more real-life examples of love, spending time with multiple parents may encourage the child to be more independent, and the extra sets of eyes can give a better safety net for their children.
The debate about polygamy is ongoing and far from settled. Many Christians see it as a violation of the standards set by God, while others cite the various Bible verses which indicate that it was tolerated in some circumstances. Ultimately, it all depends on how each individual chooses to interpret the Bible.
Polygamy, a Sacrament Within Some Faiths
Polygamy is recognized as a legitimate practice within some religions, including Islam, Hinduism, and some forms of Mormonism. With these faiths, polygamy is seen as a sacrament, rather than a social practice. These faith traditions maintain that the purpose of polygamy is the production of children, as well as spiritual and emotional growth.
Perhaps the best example of polygamy in a faith tradition is that of the Mormons. Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), practiced polygamy. Polygamy was then officially banned in 1890 and has since been condemned by the Church.
Other religions, such as the Baha’i faith, do not condone any form of polygamy. According to Baha’i teachings, marriage is to be monogamous and should be celebrated. The Baha’i faith condemns any form of plural marriage, whether polygyny or polyandry.
The Impact of Polygamy on Society
Polygamy has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years due to concerns over its effects on society. Studies have suggested that polygamous relationships lead to more domestic violence, mental health issues, and financial hardships. For instance, polygynous marriages often have a greater tendency to break up, as the men in such marriages usually cannot provide enough resources and attention to multiple wives.
Proponents of polygamy, however, argue that it can provide a supportive environment for everyone involved. In some societies, it can provide vulnerable women with financial security and a family structure. Similarly, polygamous marriages can be empowering if the decision to enter one comes from the woman involved.
Furthermore, polygamy is more commonplace in some cultures and can be perceived as normal. For example, in West African and some parts of Asian society, polygamy is accepted and even seen as preferable. Critics insist that polygamy takes away from the sanctity of traditional marriage, while supporters argue that it could provide an alternative family structure for those who may not have access to traditional marriage.
The Legal Debate Over Polygamy
Despite the Biblical discussion, much of the debate over polygamy centers around its legal implications. Many countries have outlawed polygamy, with some even jailing those who practice it. For instance, in the United States, polygamy is against the law in all states. In Canada, some provinces have anti-polygamy laws while others do not.
Advocates of polygamy suggest that it should remain a personal decision, as it is a matter of religious freedom. They argue against government-imposed monogamy and suggest that it is not in the best interests of society. Conversely, opponents of polygamy insist that it is an archaic practice and violates the human rights of its participants.
The debate over whether polygamy is wrong or right is an ongoing one. While the Bible does not explicitly forbid or encourage the practice, there are verses which can be interpreted both ways. Ultimately, it all boils down to the individual’s interpretation of the Bible and their stance on moral and ethical grounds.