Polygamy is one of the most troubling problems modern interpreters face when they approach the Hebrew Old Testament. It is almost unfathomable in the modern west for evangelicals to accept polygamy as a legitimate form of a family structure in the biblical text. Yet the evidence from Scripture shows that polygamy was frequently practiced in ancient Israel. The typical evangelical response to polygamy in Scripture sounds something like this, “Yes, its true that polygamy existed in the Old Testament and God never said that it was a sin, however, every case of polygamy in Scripture is portrayed in a negative light.” The principle behind this thinking is commendable, clearly, polygamy was obviously never God’s ideal design (Gen. 2:24 “becoming one flesh” is exclusive of everyone else). However is that statement and others like it fair to the evidence of Scripture and its world? If so, then how should the Song of Solomon be read? Is the Song of Solomon negative? Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines and yet it exemplifies the holy intimacy of biblical sexuality in marriage. Moreover, Isaac, Joseph, Samuel, and Solomon all come out of polygamous marriages. Were their lives portrayed as negative? On the one hand, there is solid truth behind the statement above and in fact all of the polygamous marriages in Scripture, save the Song of Solomon, express the inherent difficulties of having multiple wives. On the other hand, polygamy is not explicitly condemned in Scripture as being an iniquity.
It seems that the typical diagnosis of biblical polygamy has not been looking in the right location for a proper identification of the problem. The source of the issue lies within the culture of the ancient Near East. As a rule polygamy was a rampant practice among all of the nations of the ancient Levant. Israel and her neighbors were no exception to this rule; the fathers of Israel (Jacob) (Gen. 29), Edom (Esau) (Gen. 26:34), Ammon (Lot) and Moab (Lot) (Gen. 19:31-38) all had polygamous marriages. Torah does not expressly condemn nor commend these polygamous actions. When subsequent generations of Israelites practiced polygamy they did so with no thought of wrongdoing. They acted out of an ideal that was completely embedded within their culture and heritage.
The polygamous relationships in ancient Israel can be broken down into two different categories, regular polygamy and royal polygamy. The difference between the two categories is purpose. Most royal polygamous marriages were for the advantage of the state (e.g. 1 Kings 9:16; 1 Kings 16:31; 1 Chr. 3:1-2), whereas regular polygamy was mainly for the pro-creational and/or recreational advantage of the patriarch of the beit av (e.g. Gen. 16:1-4; Judg. 19:11; Gen. 38:92). Although admittedly there is some overlap between the two categories. For instance it is unlikely that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines only for the benefit of the United Monarchy (1 Kings 11:13).
A thorough examination of the evidence shows that Yahweh did not outright condemn polygamy. Instead of condemnations for the practice, Scripture tries to conform/sanctify polygamy (of the regular type) within the Yahwistic theocracy (Leviticus 18:83; Deuteronomy 21:10-17). These attempts at conformation in Torah show that Yahweh did not choose the total condemnation of polygamy as a proverbial “hill to die on” (as say the making of “graven images” (Ex. 20:4)) in his shaping of Israel as a peculiar people (Exodus 19:5-6). In addition Scripture also gives instruction for royal polygamy that instructs the king to “not acquire many wives lest his heart turn away” (Deuteronomy 17:16). Once again this instruction does not expressly forbid the acquiring of more than one wife, but warns of the consequences of having many wives. It is impossible this side of Heaven (and maybe there also) to know Yahweh’s complete reasoning behind not condemning polygamy. Moreover, it is difficult and even exegetically dangerous to find reasons why something was or was not written. However, some humble suggestions may be made regarding the nature of polygamy in Yahweh’s theocracy.
Torah was counter-culture, but was not anti-culture. Torah operated within the culture of the ancient Near East not outside of it. There are many examples of a complete break from Levantine culture in Torah (e.g. commands against making “graven images” (Ex. 20:4), eating unclean animals (Lev. 5), circumcision on the eighth day (Lev. 12:3)). However there are also examples of a reforming of Levantine culture (e.g. “an eye for an eye” ends continual, vengeful bloodshed (Ex. 21:24), proper treatment of slaves (Ex. 21:20-27)). Polygamy would fall into the latter category. Yahweh in his infinite knowledge and wisdom established Torah for his people both to be distinguished from and to operate within the nations. It would seem that a total break from polygamous relationships would have drastic effects on the second purpose. Polygamous relationships were used effectively in ancient Israel, particularly in the case of royal polygamy. The United Kingdom of David and Solomon would not have reached its lofty state had it not used political marriages. Likewise, regular polygamy produced the twelve tribes of Israel through Rachel and Leah.
In conclusion, ancient Near Eastern polygamy as refined by Torah should not be seen as ontologically moral or immoral, but as amoral. The Israelites operated within a culture that accepted polygamy as a legitimate form of a family structure and Torah reformed this culture to Yahweh’s standard. Certainly a case can be made that these reforms eventually transformed the culture, which led to recognizing the insufficiency of polygamy, but that does not change the fact that polygamy was not condemned in Torah. It was therefore not immoral to be polygamous in ancient Israel. However, since the New Testament clearly defines monogamy as the ideal (1 Tim. 3:2), modern polygamy is thus completely immoral.4
1 In this general framework the having of concubines is to be considered polygamous.
2 This is an example of Levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10), but it is still an example of polygamy since Onan was “saving” his seed for his own line, although it is unclear from Genesis 38 if Onan had a wife at that time.
3 In Lev. 18:7 the command is not to uncover the nakedness of your mother. Lev. 18:8 gives the same command, but applies it to “your father’s wife,” which is general enough to cover polygamous marriages and remarriages.
4 Modern western culture subsequently rejects polygamy as a legitimate family structure.