Polygamy in the Bible:
a sordid tale
by Lionel Windsor
Isaw an excellent interview on Australiaís Channel 7 Sunrise program recently. Christian leaders were being asked about their opposition to proposals to redefine marriage, and were discussing the Bibleís view of marriage. At one point, the interviewer asked a question which is often brought up in these contexts: Doesnít the Old Testament condone polygamy? There was, of course, a question behind the question; since the Old Testament says polygamy is OK, why should we listen to it on any moral issue?
Why did this interviewer think the Old Testament condones polygamy? Clearly heís expressing a common point of view. Where has it come from? I reckon it stems from the fact that a lot of people in our world donít really know what the Bible is about. A large number of people (maybe as a result of ineffectual communication by Christian teachers) think the Bibleóand especially the Old Testamentóis just a list of moral commandments, along with some stories to give us examples of how to be good. So when they do get around to reading the Old Testament, they read it with this moralistic framework in mind. And they find quite a few stories where the lead character is a polygamist. Furthermore, they donít find any explicit commands that say ďThou shalt not commit polygamyĒ. So, since they are assuming that the Old Testament is just a book of moral commandments and morality tales, they conclude that the Bible says polygamy is OK.
The problem, of course, is that the Bibleóeven the Old Testamentóis not really a book of commandments and morality tales. The Bible does of course contain commandments, and lots of narratives. But hardly any of the narratives are about morally upright heroes who keep Godís commandments. Most of the narratives are about Godís actions and plans to save immoral human beings. Most of the human characters in Bible stories (even some of the most faithful ones) are morally dubious at best; in fact, many of their activities are downright sordid. Youíre not supposed to read these stories as direct examples for your own life; youíre meant to read them to understand Godís actions in the midst of a tragic human history.
It is true that the stories will also teach us something about Godís moral order. But we donít usually discover this moral order simply by reading the stories as if they were straightforward examples to emulate today. Like many good stories, the Bibleís stories can communicate deep moral truths without needing to resort to explicit commandments. Indeed, stories are often more morally powerful when there is no explicit moralising. Think of a movie like Schindlerís List, a powerful story telling us about one of the darkest moments in Western history. Now imagine, at the end of the movie, as youíve been hit with the human horror of the holocaust, just before the credits, a commandment comes up on the screen: ďThe director would like to point out (in case you missed it) that you should not be racist.Ē Not only would this be unnecessary, it would destroy the power of the story.
Something similar happens when it comes to the Bible and polygamy. Sure, the narrators never pause to say, ďOh by the way, please, donít be a polygamist.Ē But why should they? The stories make the point all by themselves. As Peter Jensenóone of the interviewees in the TV segment I referred to aboveópointed out, stories about polygamy in the Bible, time after time, result in disaster. Off the top of my head, here are some of the stories about polygamy in the Bible:
The first polygamist, Lamech, calls a family conference so he can boast about his inordinate vengeful violence. Heís clearly not a nice man (Gen 4:19-24).
Jacob has two wives and two concubines, a situation which creates family heartbreak, envy and, ultimately, attempted murder (Genesis 29-37).
Gideon has many wives and many sons (Judges 8:30). This results in civil war and wholesale slaughter in Israel (Judges 9).
David has a seemingly insatiable appetite for women. He has many wives (2 Sam 5:13), and in the end steals another manís wife and murders him (2 Samuel 11-12). The resulting big family was not a happy one: they ended up committing incestuous rape (2 Samuel 13) and rebellion which almost destroyed Davidís kingdom (2 Samuel 14ff).
Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. They led his heart away from the Lord, and led to the breakup of his kingdom (1 Kings 11:3-4).
The stories tell the story all by themselves, donít they? Polygamy, according to the Bible, is a disaster.
Furthermore, there are other pretty clear indications in the Bible that polygamy is wrong. The Bible begins with an explicit affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman (Genesis 1-2), an affirmation which is later confirmed by Jesus himself (Matt 19:4-6). There are, furthermore, laws limiting some of the worst effects of polygamy (Deut 21:15-17). And then, in the New Testament, Paulís command to Timothy that church leaders must be, alongside exemplars of other moral virtues, ďthe husband of one wifeĒ (1 Tim 3:2,12; cf 1 Tim 5:9) implies that polygamy is not a desirable thing.
And thatís why, in most modern Western societies (which still draw much of their moral understanding from biblical principles) polygamy is illegal. Christians might, with sadness, admit that polygamy exists in certain parts of the world. We might even, at times, seek to help those in polygamous relationships to make the best of a bad thing, to limit the suffering. But we donít condone polygamy. In this, weíre following the Bibleís teaching. Sure, the Bible accepts that polygamy (like divorce) is one of the realities of a sinful world, and seeks to regulate it to some extent. But that all needs to be understood within the bigger picture of the Bibleís story: Godís salvation of a sinful humanity through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Within this story, polygamy isnít an example to be emulated. Rather, itís an example of the many bad things Jesus rescues us from.
Reprinted by permission from The Briefing (No. 401). For more information about The Briefing and other publications by Matthias Media, phone 1800 814 360 (Freecall) or visit www.matthiasmedia.com.au