Polygamy was very common in the ancient world. It is somewhat understandable: in an agrarian culture, it was not impossible (cf. Ruth 2), but very difficult for women to provide a living for themselves apart from a husband. It was also shameful in a patriarchal society to be an unmarried women. And if there were few men in your village, or a war led to the majority of the men dying, it made practical sense for multiple women to marry one man. The Bible, however, stands out in the ancient world in its prescription of monogamy.
But, every now and then when reading the Old Testament we come across examples of polygamy. Rarely are we given any kind of overt explanation of whether or not this is right or wrong. We found that at the end of our chapter we were studying on Sunday in 1 Samuel 25, “Then David sent and spoke to Abigail, to take her as his wife…David also took Ahinoam of Jezreel, and both of them became his wives,” (1 Sam 25:39, 43).
What do we do with that? Let me try to provide a few brief interpretive aids.
Description ≠ Prescription
Just because something is described in the Bible does not mean that it is prescribed, especially when reading historical narrative. There are many things described in the Bible that, far from being models for us, are cautionary tales of what to avoid. Furthermore, it is important to note that while the Bible may describe instances of polygamy, we are nowhere ever encouraged or commanded to practice it.
Prescription Outweighs Description
While the Old Testament has instances of polygamy, there are clear prescriptive texts that indicate that the Bible understands monogamy to be the only parameters marriage is to take place. Elders, who are to be models of godliness to the church, are required to be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:6; cf. 1 Tim 5:9). Paul emphasizes the singularity of one husband and one wife, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband,” (Eph 5:33)–it does not say “wives” but “wife.” In that same section, Paul points to the reality behind marriage in Christ’s union with the Church: Jesus is the singular groom and the Church is His singular bride (Eph 5:22-32). Most significantly, both Jesus and Paul use the creation account of Genesis 2 to be authoritatively prescriptive (Matt 19:1-9; Mark 10:2-9; 1 Tim 2:13-14), and there we see that God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman.
Pay Attention to the Descriptions
The narrators in the Bible don’t often provide moral evaluations of every act performed. This isn’t always true, of course; after David’s sin with Bathsheba we are told, “But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD,” (2 Sam 11:27). But most of the time, that kind of commentary is absent. Like good literature, the Biblical authors don’t provide simple “just so” stories, but expect the reader to pay attention to the design patterns of the narrative to determine whether or not something is right or wrong, whether or not it aligns with God’s Law.
So, the first instance of polygamy we find in the Bible comes from the character Lamech, a descendant of Cain, the first murderer (Gen 4:1-18). He is a violent man who boasts to his two wives how he has murdered a teenager for giving him a superficial wound and how he will be avenged “seventy-sevenfold” against anyone who hurts him (Gen 4:19, 23-24). The character of Lamech is obviously a morally perverse one that we do not want to follow.
David, however, is more complicated. David is often a paragon of godly virtue, especially in 1 Samuel. But in 1 Samuel 25, we find a couple of details that incline us to think that David’s polygamy is a step towards sin.
First, chapter 25 is the first time we are told of David failing to abide by God’s Law. Filled with wrath, David is intent on murdering Nabal and his household, but is prevented by the beautiful and wise Abigail (1 Sam 25:23-35). Prior to this, David has been a sterling example of righteousness in the face of temptation. Here, we see the first cracks in David’s armor appear. So, we as readers have already been introduced to the idea of David’s susceptibility to sin. Second, notice the word choice used to describe David’s polygamy: “Then David sent and spoke to Abigail, to take her as his wife. When the servants of David came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent us to you to take you to him as his wife,” (1 Sam 25:39b-40). Again, at the end of the chapter, “David also took Ahinoam of Jezreel, and both of them became his wives,” (1 Sam 25:43). What are women to David? Things to be taken.
It appears that Abigail was certainly a willing participant given her response (1 Sam 25:41-42), but this is an unsettling reminder of Samuel’s solemn warning to Israel about what their sinful desire for a king will bring: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons…He will takeyour daughters…He will take the best of your fields…He will take the tenth of your grain…He will take your male servants and female servants…He will takethe tenth of your flocks...” (1 Sam 8:10-18). The correspondence between David’s actions and Samuel’s prophetic warning incline us to think: Maybe David’s “taking” is wrong here. This is strengthened by what leads to David’s eventual downfall with Bathsheba: “So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her,” (2 Sam 11:4). The details of the narrative have a design pattern that help us realize: What David is doing is wrong.
And, if we pay attention to the details of each story of polygamy in the Bible, we will see that it always turns out to bring about conflict, strife, tragedy, and pain. We saw that at the very beginning of 1 Samuel with Elkanah and his two wives: Hannah, and Peninnah (1 Sam 1:1-2). Peninnah is described as Hannah’s “rival” who attacks and irritates Hannah, boasting in her many children while Hannah has none (1 Sam 1:6). Polygamy will never work, will always break down because it cuts agains the grain of God’s design in Genesis: one man, one woman.
Remember Who the Hero Is
If it feels troubling for the heroes of the Bible–Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon–to be apparently walking in flagrant sin in their polygamy, then we can take heart in remembering two things: (1) Jesus is the only sinless hero, and He is who all the other flawed heroes point to, and (2) God is more gracious and patient than we can imagine. Polygamy was a sin that was so common and so prevalent that many of the characters in the Old Testament were blind to it, much in the same way Christians of previous generations were blind to sins that we see clearly now (slavery, racism, sexism, etc.). If we are troubled by why God didn’t deal more harshly with their sin, it would do us well to pause and consider what sins we may be blind to ourselves, and then consider what patience God has extended to us.