Chapter 1. Polygamy, A Biblical Custom
Before proceeding with a point-by-point study of the merits of polygamy and of the arguments against it, we need a context for discussion. We need an authoritative tradition to use for boundaries. On this issue, we have a choice between the tradition of the Church Fathers or the tradition of the Old Testament. The New Testament seems to be silent on polygamy, while Church Tradition stands opposed to it (excepting the Persian Church tradition). While opinions of the Church Fathers will not be neglected, I will not use them as my starting point. The Old Testament constitutes over two-thirds of Godís written Word. That fact demands we begin there.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we find both monogamy and polygamy as accepted and even expected forms of marriage. Commentators, embarrassed by the polygamy in the Bible, try to mute the subject by insisting its practice was rare and abnormal. The record does not stand up to that assumption. Polygamy was a custom practiced extensively among Godís people.
An example of this fact is the near universal practice of polygamy by the Israelites during their captivity in Egypt and following the Exodus. Numbers 3:40-43 provides us with a census of the firstborn in Israel. The number given is 22,273 firstborn sons. We may safely conclude there were at least 22,273 families in Israel, since a family cannot have more than one firstborn son. There were, no doubt, families which had no sons.
That has no bearing upon this remarkable fact:
The patriarch Jacob required four wives to get twelve sons. Is it too much to suppose that the typical Israelite needed twice as many wives to get 28 Sons? What about the daughters? If there was a daughter for every son, then there was 56 children per Israelite household, on the average scale. There is no way to know how many wives the average Israelite may have had, but it is impossible that the average woman could have had 56 children. Israelite society was a polygamous society.
22,273 families are responsible for a total count of over 600,000 fighting men (Numbers 1:46). If you take 600,000 and divide it by 22,000, you get 27. The average Israelite household with sons had 28 of them!
Nevertheless, quibbling over numbers would be beside the point. For if polygamy is immoral at all, it is immoral always. And if it happened only once in Scripture, with Godís approval, then we are dealing with an ethical system utterly foreign to modern moralism. Moral absolutes cannot have exceptions, else they are not absolute.
We are left with relativism. Thus, if we make a dogma that moral marriages are, without exception, "one man with one woman for one lifetime", it must exclude the Old Testament as a basis for that dogma. For such a moral law does not exist there.
That God accepted polygamy can be demonstrated by His approval and exaltation of the men who practiced it. Abraham was "father of the faithful" and Jacob "the prince of God". David was a man "after Godís own heart" and Solomon the wisest man of all time.
Christians deny the worldís claim that we can separate a manís greatness from his moral conduct. Immoral men are not great men. Yet, Christians use such a standard in judging the Patriarchs. They overlook Abrahamís concubines (a practice considered very wicked), and still call him great (Genesis 25:6, KJV). Is this not a double-standard?
But even the morality of it is not our concern here at this juncture. I merely wish to remind ourselves that polygamy was an integral aspect of Hebrew culture - Biblical culture. Consider how at variance our Protestant culture is with that ancient one. Today, polygamy by Christian leaders would create a scandal. In Bible times, it was expected as a normal display of Godís favor. Fundamentalists boast that they do not need the sex manuals of the Playboy generation. "We have our own book on sex in the Song of Solomon." Yet, ironically, it is a book written by a man who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Additionally, the text itself depicts polygamy as a normal expression of sexual love (6:8-9). I think King Solomon has Hugh Hefner beaten.
First created on 4 April 2000
Updated on 18 June 2016
Copyright ©1991 J.W.Stivers, Library of Congress #TX-3-189-734
Stivers Publications, P.O. Box 8701, Moscow, Idaho 83843, USA
Reproduced by permission and with thanks by HEM, 2000
Endorsement of this book by HEM does not necesserily mean
endorsement of the author's other publications or views.