Does the Old Testament condone polygamy?


While I was reading an NPR article entitled: Same Bible, Different Verdict On Gay Marriage I ran across a claim that I have encountered one to many times and that has galvanized me into responding with this blog entry. An excerpt from the article states:

LaBerge resigned her post as minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after the denomination voted last year to ordain non-celibate gay clergy. She says the Bible is clear.

“From the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament, the only sexual relationships that are affirmed in scripture are those in the context of marriage between one man and one woman,” she says.

Actually, the Old Testament does condone polygamy. Still, LaBerge says, from Leviticus to Paul’s writings in Romans and First Corinthians, homosexual acts are called vile and detestable, and legalizing same-sex relationships does not change the sin.

As the author (Barbara Bradley Hagerty) interjects the phrase: “Actually, the Old Testament does condone polygamy,” I am left thinking to myself, Really? Where in the Old Testament is the reader told that God allows polygamy? To be sure, there are several accounts of Old Testament men who had multiple wives (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 2 Samuel 5:13, Judges 8:30, 2 Chronicles 11:21, 13:21, 1 Kings 11:3 etc.) but then there are also several accounts of Old Testament men who worshiped idols (1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 16:30-31, 2 Kings 21:1-3, Judges 2:11-13, Hosea 13:2 etc.), yet no one in their right mind would claim that the Old Testament condones idol worshiping. Therefore, in order to prove her case, Haggerty needs to show us a verse in the Old Testament where God is seen overlooking, excusing or allowing polygamy (without consequence). After all, according to the Princeton University WordNet Dictionary, the word condone means to: “excuse, overlook, or make allowances for” or to “be lenient with.” Haggerty’s task is a lot more difficult than it may seem because it requires foreknowledge of an event which has yet to occur. In God’s patience, He often stays quiet about sinful behavior, yet one day He promises to set things in order before each sinner’s eyes (Psalm 50:21).  That day which God has appointed to judge the secrets of men has not yet transpired (Acts 17:31, Romans 2:16). It is not until the day of judgment that one can truly say whether the Judge has condoned or punished an act of disobedience. If as Hebrews 2:2 implies, God will indeed ensure that every violation and disobedience will receive a just and adequate penalty, then it is careless to suggest that the Old Testament condones the sin of polygamy. Yet, Haggerty like many others who would impugn the Old Testament, apparently feels confident that its pages condone polygamy. 

The more that I think about Hagerty’s claim, the more I wonder why she didn’t instead say that the whole bible condones polygamy and not just the Old Testament. I suspect that Hagerty limits her claim to the Old Testament because she is aware of the numerous and clear admonitions against polygamy in the New Testament (i.e. 1 Timothy 3:2 , 1 Timothy 3:12, Titus 1:6, 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 etc). However, what the author probably fails to realize is that the New Testament is really just an exposition of the Old Testament. Many, if not most of the New Testament ordinances are merely divine inferences from the Old Testament writings. Therefore, if the New Testament does not condone polygamy it is only because the Old Testament doesn’t either. Nevertheless, even if Hagerty were to restrict her inquiry to just the first half of the bible, is she really trying to suggest that the Old Testament “excuses, overlooks or allows” the sin of polygamy?

Genesis 2:24

What about the second chapter of the very first book of the bible, Genesis 2:24 where God says that “the two [i.e. the husband and his wife] will become one flesh”? Wouldn’t condoning polygamy require God to say “the two or more will become one flesh?”  Since it is God’s will that the two married persons should in His sight become one, then how is it possible for someone to not regard subsequent marriages as a “breach of the first institution of marriage?”¹  Since it is impossible to have a union of two—and only two —souls within a polygamous context, then is it not irrational to suppose that a man can be permanently joined (at least in this life) to more than one woman at the same time? The wives of a polygamous husband cannot all say “My beloved is mine, and I am his” yet when we read these words in Song of Solomon 2:16 we are reminded that even Christ has but one bride—i.e. the single congregation of believers worldwide—thus confirming the biblical standard of monogamous marriage. Furthermore, Paul reminds us that in marriage, “the wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.” Yet, it is impossible for each wife of a polygamous husband to have power over their husband’s body seeing as how the same body is also owned by at least one other woman. Hence when God in Matthew 19:4-6, and Mark 10:5-9 reaffirms Genesis 2:24 in explaining what is acceptable within the confines of marriage, this assures us that His standard has never changed in spite of what ancient history records men doing. Nevertheless, there is also biblical evidence suggesting that in ancient times (preceding the Mosaic Law) polygamy was already understood to be against God’s will.

For instance, the English Anglican Bible commentator John Trapp states:

Laban, though he had cheated Jacob into the having of his two daughters to wife, yet he could not but confess it to be a sin against the light of nature. Hence at parting he takes a solemn oath of Jacob, Genesis 31:50 “If thou shalt afflict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness between me and thee.”¹

Therefore, in light of all the above, how could anyone think that Genesis 2:24 comports with God condoning polygamy?

Malachi 2:15

Or what about Malachi 2:15 where the reader is asked to ponder why God made only one woman for Adam when he had the residue of the Spirit (i.e the inexhaustible creative power) to have easily made Adam many more wives. In reasoning this way, Malachi shows that God’s intent and will was that one man should only have one wife at a time. Apparently, but unsurprisingly, this precept like many others had been widely disregarded by the Jews of Malachi’s day. From the context of Malachi Chapter 2, it is clear that the Jewish men of that day were not only engaged in polygamy but were also divorcing their old Jewish wives for younger women of foreign decent. In Malachi 2:14 God’s prophet claims that these men had “dealt treacherously” with the “wives of their covenant” (i.e. their first wife). In case the reader is wondering why both polygamy (v.15) and divorce (v.16) are in scope for Malachi, it is instructive to consider that both polygamy and illegitimate divorce (for the purpose of remarrying) are functionally equivalent in at least two of their consequences—both result in adultery and the acquisition of multiple wives.

Exodus 20:14

“An illegitimate divorce gives place to adultery because God doesn’t recognize the divorce, and sees a new relationship as bigamous.”³ Our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ demonstrates why this is so in His Matthew 19:9 dialogue with the Pharisees. In an earlier discourse, Jesus delivered a shocking interpretation of the Seventh Commandment by deducing that the man who only commits adultery with his eyes, is also an adulterer (Matthew 5:28). In the same spirit, Christ in Matthew 19:9 proclaims that a man who divorces his wife (for any other reason than fornication) and marries another commits adultery. Contrary to the Pharisaic mindset, Christ’s teaching shows that an unlawfully divorced man is actually still married to his unlawfully divorced wife in God’s sight. The necessary inference then, of Matthew 19:9 is that an already married person cannot be married again without committing adultery. Otherwise, there would be no reason for Jesus to label as adultery, the acquisition of a new wife by the illegitimately divorced man. Because it is the case that any man who comes along and marries an illegitimately divorced woman commits adultery (Mark 10:12), and because it is also the case that all illegitimately divorced men upon remarriage also commit adultery (Mark 10:11), it is therefore permissible to categorize polygamy as a form of adultery—howbeit one that does not require capital punishment (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:21-24). If God considers subsequent marriages to be adultery in the case of an illegitimate divorce (Matthew 5:32), then God must also consider subsequent marriages to be adultery in the case in polygamy since both scenarios start with one wife and end in at least two. Since adultery is the sin of being sexually involved with a married person; the conclusion that must follow from all of this, is that, a remarried woman is actually still married to the husband who dares to illegitimately divorce her (and vise versa). Hence in both illegitimate divorce and polygamy, the husband becomes an adulterer and ends up with multiple wives. It is no wonder then that the bible uses the word “hate” when describing what God thinks about divorce (Malachi 2:16). One cannot deny that Malachi 2:14-16 clearly demonstrates polygamy to be against God’s will, and since it is so, then how can anyone claim that God condones it? Moreover, since God in the Seventh Commandment forbids adultery (Exodus 20:14) and polygamy is a form of adultery, then it follows that God forbids polygamy as well.

Deuteronomy 17:17

And what about in Deuteronomy 17:17 where we are told that kings (who’s wealth and power made them the most likely culprits to commit polygamy) are forbidden to have multiple wives? Wouldn’t the a fortiori (i.e. reasoning from the greater to the lesser) argument when applied to Deuteronomy 17:17 also forbid all other men from engaging in polygamy? If the directive to not have multiple wives is taken seriously, one cannot also assert that God condones polygamy. A righteous Judge cannot be said to condone that which He forbids.

But I guess when God says not to do something it apparently also means that He condones it. Ironically, that’s what the whole NPR article above boils down to; should one take the biblical text seriously or not? Of course, if there is no reason to take the bible seriously, then logically speaking (i.e. by arguing from the greater to the lesser), there is also no reason to take any other text seriously since the Author of the Bible dares to proclaim Himself Omniscient, a class to which all other authors must admit they cannot approach.

Hagerty, the author of the article above, would do good to remember that not everything mentioned in the Old Testament is condoned in the Old Testament. It is incorrect to use the word “condone” when referring to polygamy since the bible teaches that God doesn’t condone, overlook or excuse ANY sin, no matter how small (James 2:10, Deuteronomy 27:26, Hebrews 2:2). There is coming a day when God will judge the secrets of men (Romans 2:16) and if on that day God were to uncharacteristically ignore the polygamy that men have endeavored to commit, then perhaps at that time it could be said that God condones polygamy. Nevertheless, since the necessary inference of Hebrews 2:2 is that every disobedience act will receive a just recompense of reward, we are thereby assured that God does not (and will not) overlook the sin of polygamy.

The conclusion then, is that, if disobeying God is still considered a sin (1 John 3:4), and God commands us not to have multiple wives (Deuteronomy 17:17, Exodus 20:14) and if also, God does not excuse or overlook any sin whatsoever (James 2:10, Deuteronomy 27:26, Hebrew 2:2) then it follows by good and necessary consequence that our God Who “will by no means clear the guilty” does not excuse or condone polygamy in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:7).

The skeptic says: Ok, but hold on; if God does not condone polygamy, then why does He tell the reader in 2 Samuel 12:8 that He gave King David his master’s wives? Since the result of this transaction meant that David would have multiple wives then doesn’t this mean that God condoned David being in a polygamous relationship?

This is an important type of charge to refute. Incidentally, a cousin of mine (who is in a polygamous relationship, though not in this country) argued somewhat similarly that since David had multiple wives (2 Samuel 5:13, 2 Samuel 12:8) and in Scripture he is referred to favorably (e.g. David is called a man after God’s own heart —1 Kings 15:3, Act 13:22, and is placed in the lineage of the Messiah by the promise that Christ will sit on the throne of His father David— Luke 1:32) that this therefore demonstrates polygamy to be acceptable in God’s eyes.

In addressing these objections, we should first read the entire chapter of 2 Samuel 12, and when we do, we find God upbraiding King David through the mouth of His prophet Nathan for David’s arranging of Uriah’s murder in order to steal Uriah’s wife. In God’s condemnation of David’s behavior, He reminds David that He had given him absolute power over every thing that Saul possessed, including his’s wives and house. Now, if this pronouncement means that God condones polygamy, then contrary to Deuteronomy 17:17 and all that we have mentioned above, we must conclude that God is a person who contradicts Himself.

However, before we decide to foolishly discard the central axiom upon which the Christian worldview is based (i.e. the reliability of the Scriptures) perhaps we should first examine the reasoning behind the argument that uses 2 Samuel 12:8 to accuse God of excusing polygamy. Besides the glaring Deuteronomy 17:17 mandate, another obvious problem with using 2 Samuel 12:8 to endorse polygamy is that the act of God giving David his predecessor’s wives is entirely and necessarily different from polygamy. Polygamy is marrying multiple wives in defiance of God’s will whereas 2 Samuel 12:8 involves the acquisition of wives in accordance to God’s will². The failure to realize this subtle distinction has ensnared many into the irrational act of accusing God of excusing sin or breaking moral laws. The biblical God is the world’s only potentate. Since YHWH is the only Ruler Who is unrestrained by law, it follows that His edicts do not apply to His own actions. When God does something that He forbids His creatures to do, that’s just called being God. After all, He is the Creator and the Owner of all things; discretion is His prerogative. For instance, God forbids murder, yet God punished the Amalekites for their unspeakable atrocities by commanding Saul to totally destroy their city (including men, women and children). Was God condoning or perpetrating murder? No! Was God being hypocritical? No! He was simply exercising His prerogative as the Judge and Owner of the earth’s inhabitants (Genesis 18:25, Deuteronomy 32:36, Hebrews 2:2). Accordingly, God is also the legal Owner of vengeance (Deuteronomy 32:35). Besides, no one who professes the godliness of Scripture as his or her axiom can logically assert that God is capable of wrongdoing since the bible states that God is perfect, righteous and thus the standard of goodness and righteousness (Psalms 145:17; Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4, 1 Peter 1:15-16). Therefore, any claim that God is being inconsistent or immoral is without a rational warrant. Polygamy according to the bible is sin. Similarly, all kings that kept concubines were engaging in sin. Abraham sleeping with his wife’s maiden at his wife’s behest (regardless of whether or not it was the norm) is sin. Just because God is friendly with a sinner doesn’t mean that He condones the sinner’s sin.

Moreover, many readers confuse or take the Mosaic Law’s remediation of societal ills to be a tacit endorsement of those ills. For instance, the bible states in Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce, yet, what we find in the Mosaic Law are instructions in regards to how to properly execute a divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Does this mean that God condones divorce? Of course not! But bad behavior in God’s congregation must still be regulated so as not to approach the licentiousness of their heathen neighbors. Yet, some skeptics see this mere regulation of impropriety as something more. This confused reasoning leads to the sort of objection that asks: Why would God allow provisions for polygamy in the Mosaic Law (i.e. If [a man] takes another wife… Exodus 21:10) if He doesn’t approve of it? Doesn’t this demonstrate that God condoned this type of behavior? Interestingly enough, in the first verse of the same chapter (Exodus 21:1) we read “If a man steals an ox or a sheep…” yet, no one would therefore argue that God condones theft — especially in light of the fact that the Sixth commandment states: “Thou shall not steal!” (Exodus 20:15). Even so, Exodus 21:10 does not stand as the only verse which is alleged to permit polygamy; others include: Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Exodus 21:10-11; Leviticus 18:18 etc. Yet, in every case, it would be thoroughly irrational to infer a divinely-granted license to commit polygamy, since doing so permits the absurd conclusion of Exodus 21:1’s reductio ad absurdum argument, as stated earlier.

When God does not immediately deal with a particular sin, or does not immediately respond to a disobedience with a reciprocating punishment, this does not mean that He condones it (Psalm 50:21). For example, the 73rd Psalm is all about the foolishness of arguing from one’s own ignorance and God’s apparent silence that He therefore condones sin. In that passage, the Psalmist laments: “So foolish was I, and ignorant” after finally realizing that God is not indifferent concerning sin but that He will eventually “awake” to confront the sinner in judgment (Psalm 73:20,22). God’s law states that a married couple should not seek to divorce (Malachi 2:16), the same way that God’s law states that we should not murder (Exodus 20:13), the same way that God’s law states that polygamy is wrong (Genesis 2:24, Malachi 2:15, Deuteronomy 17:17, Exodus 20:14) . Therefore, to subsequently say that God condones these actions is to imply that sin is permissible, yet, we know that transgressing the law of God is not permissible. Every single departure from God’s commandments will be dealt with sooner or later (Hebrews 2:2, Psalm 50:21). For the soul that chooses to believe in the promised Messiah, his or her sins are already accounted for and forgiven; this is what is meant by obeying the gospel. On the other hand, for those who choose not to know God and for those who have not obeyed the gospel, every single sin committed awaits that person on the day of judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:8, Hebrews 2:2-3).

In Psalms 50:21, God states: Because I have kept quiet at these things that you have done, you thought that I was exactly like yourself: but I will condemn you, and set your sins in order before your eyes. The Amalakites (AKA the Amorites) probably thought that because God kept quite for hundreds of years (Genesis 15:13-16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19) while they multiplied their sins, that He was indifferent to sin or that He was just like them; but God’s mercy ran out and they were made into an example (Exodus 17:8-16, 2 Peter 2:6) so that others could see the folly (Psalm 73:11) in thinking that God does condones sin.

No, Hebrews 2:2 reminds us that on the day of judgment, all unbelievers will discover that God does NOT condone polygamy.


  1. [Trapp – Mal 2:14]
  2. In addition to 2 Samuel 12:8, the Scriptures inform us that David did apparently of his own accord marry other women (2 Samuel 5:13). This action, if not ordained by God, would also impugn David with the sin of polygamy.
  3. [Guzik – Mat 5:31-32]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s