Polygamy or Divorce, which would God rather condone

How can polygamy be at odds with the Bible when the entire nation of Israel was founded on a polygamous marriage??

Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah

Polygamy and Divorce - what does the Bible REALLY say?

"I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called"

"Faithful and True" Rev 19:11 NIV


The divorce rate is higher today than ever before. Is there an alternative to divorce in some circumstances? Polygamy is a subject which has been dismissed out-of-hand by many biblical scholars, but here we want to look at what the Bible says on both subjects in a logical and rational manner. God is the personification of Faithfulness and this is the key to pleasing Him.

The Biblical Answer

Many may say, why bother with what the Bible says anyway? My answer would be that many of the ethics of our western civilisation are founded upon the precepts of Christianity and hence the Bible. Also, recent studies of the hidden codes in the Old Testament have shone new light on the "Intelligence" behind the first five books of the Bible which many consider as just "stories". Mathematical evidence has been produced to prove that the creation of these codes is well beyond our current computer technology and something to be marvelled at. All this brings new weight to the "laws" found in these books - if these came from such an intelligent being, can they be disregarded lightly?

It is generally assumed from the following three references in the New Testament to a deacon (or church leader) being the husband of one wife, that this means that God expects every Christian who marries to follow that example:

1Tim 3:2,3 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to much wine, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

1Tim 3:12 A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and his household well.

Titus 1:6 An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.

There is no reason to suppose this to be the case, but let us first consider God's attitude towards divorce because therein lies a pointer to understanding His attitude towards polygamy.

Let us turn first to the New Testament and see how scathing Jesus is towards divorce:

Matthew 19:2-9 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

"Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

Have you ever wondered why this is? Why should God, who understands our human frailties come down so hard on divorce? Most scholars who expound on the New Testament major on "love", because rightly, the New Testament is the revelation of God's ultimate love towards us in sending His own Son to be our Redeemer, to take our place as God balances the scales of justice in Creation.

However, God also places tremendous importance on "faithfulness". Even a cursory read through the Old Testament reveals that God often rebuked the Jewish nation for their unfaithfulness to Him. Let it not be assumed that love was not important in the Old Testament also. For example consider Abraham and Isaac and the request by God to Abraham to sacrifice his only son - this is a heart-rending story where although Abraham loves his son so much, a first son born to his wife when she was over ninety years of age, a son promised by God through His angel, yet he was called upon to sacrifice him. However, God show's His love in the provision of the ram caught in a thicket and Abraham's son is spared, but even more important is the picture in this story of the coming of God's only Son and He would not be spared, He would be called upon to make the sacrifice. So let none think that God's love is absent in the Old Testament, yet how can there be love without faithfulness?

Malachi 2:15,16 Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.

"I hate divorce", says the Lord God of Israel, "and I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment," says the Lord Almighty.

So guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith.

Here we see the reason God hates divorce. He sees this unfaithfulness undermining His plan to have the family as a strong unit to nurture children in faith in Him and Godliness. God sees divorce as an abdication of responsibility, therefore can we wonder at the state of our society where divorce is considered so lightly?

Now let us return to the question of polygamy, where does it stand in God's plan for mankind? Firstly, looking at the New Testament we find a remarkable absence of comment on polygamy except for the three references above which as stated are not a condemnation of this state but rather that one who seeks service in the offices of the Church should refrain from having more than one wife. Also, some have interpreted one wife as meaning "first wife" i.e. They have not divorced a previous wife. In short, polygamy is not condemned in the New Testament, a fact which must be remembered when you consider the strong condemnation of divorce by Jesus.

Now let us return to the Old Testament where there are many instances of polygamy and not in a degrading context but concerned with people whom God has used in a powerful way.

Jacob or Israel

Genesis 29:31 - 30:24 This entire passage is a remarkable example of how God blessed a man who effectively took four wives. Jacob's first wife Leah bore him four sons, then his second wife Rachel, realising that she could not have children gave her maidservant Bilhah to Jacob as a wife and she bore Jacob two sons. Following this Leah gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a wife and she bore Jacob another two sons. After this Leah herself bore Jacob yet another two sons and she said, 30:17 God listened to Leah and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. Then Leah said, "God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband." So she named him Issachar. Leah bore yet another son and a daughter to Jacob. Finally Rachel bore two sons herself to Jacob.

The twelve tribes of Israel all came from one man and his four wives - could a husband be more blessed? Notice also the order of the blessing, Jacob's first wife Leah, then the two maidservants who became wives', then the first wife again and finally the second wife Rachel. In other words God's blessing continued as Jacob took more wives and as stated above in Genesis 30:17, Leah felt vindicated in giving her maidservant as a wife because she continued to bear more children. This family has got to be the greatest example of a blessed polygamy.

Consider the provisions within the Law of God, the Torah or Pentateuch, for this state.

Let us look at these verses which make provision for the rights of the firstborn of the first wife:

Deut 21:15-17 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father's strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.

Now consider these verses which in a very practical way make provision for the needs of the first wife if she is joined by a second:

Exodus 21:10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.

She has to be provided for not only in food and clothing but also sexually, she is not to be deprived of this right just because someone, perhaps younger or more beautiful comes along. The main advantage of polygamy is that it preserves the family unit, no ex-wife is left to fend for herself in old age, and no children are left without the help of a father.

We will look at another three examples of polygamy and consider how they had God's blessing.

King David

First let us look at the most famous of all son's of a polygamous marriage, Solomon, a man filled with wisdom and might, able to build up the nation of Israel to its pinnacle, and yet his father David had many wives, given to him by God. God speaking to David through his prophet says:

2 Sam 12:8 I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms, I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

The following comment on David's life found in the book of 1 Kings is very noteworthy:

1 Kings 15:5 For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord's commands all the days of his life - except in the case of Uriah the Hittite.

In other words, David taking many wives, did not break any of God's commands, only committing adultery with Uriah's wife was a sin in God's eyes. This is an essential point to be grasped and one, which is overlooked by most biblical scholars.

Elkanah (Samuel's father)

Perhaps less obvious is our second example but in some ways more important because it shows a more ordinary family. I refer to Elkanah, Peninnah and Hannah, the family into which the famous prophet Samuel was born. We can see from the account in 1 Samuel 1 to 1 Samuel 2:11 that Elkanah and Hannah, Samuel's father and mother, were God-fearing and at least Hannah was serious about prayer. She prayed earnestly for a child although she was barren and had to watch Peninnah, Elkanah's other wife, have the joy of bringing up her husbands children while she could not bear any. However, God answered her prayer and she bore Samuel, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. Its unlikely God would have heard Hannah's prayer if He thought polygamy a sin. Not only did Hannah bear Samuel but also God blessed her with more children because she gave Samuel to the service of God as she had promised. The keeping of promises is key to this story and it is obvious that God sees a husband caring for more than one wife as still keeping his promises to both.

It is worth remembering that having more than one wife was not an unusual situation:

1 Chronicles 7:3b,4 The sons of Izrahiah:
Michael, Obadiah, Joel and Isshiah. All five of them were chiefs. According to their family genealogy, they had 36,000 men ready for battle, for they had many wives and children.

King Joash

The third example is that of King Joash of Judah for whom the priest Jehoiada chose two wives.

2 Chronicles 24:2,3,15,16.

Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years of Jehoiada the priest. Jehoiada chose two wives for him, and he had sons and daughters.

15 Now Jehoiada was old and full of years, and he died at the age of a hundred and thirty. He was buried with the kings in the City of David, because of the good he had done in Israel for God and his temple.

Notice the good influence Jehoiada had over King Joash. The fact that it is recorded it was his decision to choose two wives for Joash infers that this was part of his wisdom.

Conclusion: Anyone who dares to say that polygamy as found in the Bible is sin had better consider carefully what they are saying. Sin does not change over the centuries - the ten commandments were, and are God's high standard. If polygamy was acceptable to God in the days of Jacob and David then it is acceptable to Him now! However, if divorce was not acceptable to God then, neither is it acceptable to Him now.

Henry Gibson