Chapter 3. In Favor of Polygamy
"Jesus said to him, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to it, Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).
If the above declaration by our Lord is the guiding rule for our Christian life, then a case can be made for the moral superiority of polygamy over monogamy. The Creation Ordinance tells us that the God-ward aspect of our sexuality is primarily to procreate. Children are the Lord's heritage and He seeks a godly offspring in the earth. Therefore, one can argue that it is morally derelict for a Christian man to refuse the opportunity to be polygamous. Polygamy is superior to monogamy in fulfilling the Creation Ordinance in that more women would be married, and thus more children would be born. In terms of God's procreative intent for the human species, polygamy is more true than is monogamy.
Secondly, the man-ward purpose for sex is better fulfilled by polygamy than it is by monogamy. That secondary purpose is the sacramental union of the sexes or henosis - one flesh. In this regard, polygamy is still morally superior to monogamy; for with polygamy, more women enjoy fulfillment in the one flesh experience, and also have a headship (1 Corinthians 11).
Finally, in regards to self-love, there are two aspects to polygamy which makes a better man. First, the variety and frequency of sexual fulfillment allows the biological functions of his masculinity to have free course. This eliminates frustrated desire, temptation for perversion, and heightens morale. Second, the task of loving and nurturing more than one woman teaches him sacrifice and discipline to a degree unknown among monogamists. Polygamy produces greater men - not always righteous men, but certainly men who are more masculine.
The above arguments in favor of polygamy are based upon an important fact: there are always more women available for marriage than men. In spite of the proximity of numerical equality at birth, the social reality has always been - for several reasons - there are more marriageable women than men. War, disease, irresponsibility, homosexuality, vocation, selfishness - these are some of the reasons which produce the gap. Whatever the reason, the gap is there, and has always been there: greater in monogamous societies, lesser in polygamous ones.
Some may doubt it possible for a man to love more than one woman. Perhaps for the majority of men, that is true. But there has always been a class of men - for whatever their reasons - willing to pay the price to be polygamous. And for them, loving more than one woman is no more difficult than loving more than one child. Women may not understand that capacity of such men, since it's contrary to their nature. She is created to love one man as her husband. With the help of an analogy, she knows it is possible to love each of her children, though they be many. And they rarely doubt her love. So it is with her polygamous husband.
A Biblical example of this love is that of Abraham and Sarah. Most commentators look upon their polygamous experiments as signs of weakness. The opposite is true. It witnessed to the strength of their love and commitment that other women could not break it. Sarah so completely trusted Abraham's love that she was not afraid to give another woman into his arms. Abraham so loved and admired Sarah, that no relationship could diminish his ardor for her. Their purposes for polygamy were noble and holy: an heir and godly offspring. Christians should take note. They are the best qualified for this custom.
Pressing on now to the positive Scriptures supporting polygamy, we begin with Biblical law.
#1 - Exodus 21:7-11 Maidservants
It is axiomatic in law that customs are not codified into statute or supported by judicial notice unless their practice is widespread and socially approved. Otherwise, they become the objects of persecution and repression. The regulation of polygamy is prominent in Biblical law; thus, we may interpret that fact as indicative of its pervasiveness as a social custom.
Immediately following the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we find the regulation of Private Altars, the Year of Release, and Concubinage, respectively. We do not doubt that the building of altars in Israel was of utmost importance. Likewise, the emancipation of servants during the sabbatical year was meant to be universal. Can we imagine that the regulation of concubinage would have so quickly followed in the Mosaic Code when it was, if we believe most commentators, merely a novelty of the very rich? I think the opposite is true. Concubinage and polygamy were so basic to the life of the Hebrews, that their operation could not have been left unguided by Divine precept. Hence, we have the above passage.
Basically, concubinage was marriage without dowry, the dowry being paid to the father as the purchase price, instead of to the girl. Concubinage was not slavery: for slavery as we have known it in America did not exist in Biblical law among the Hebrews. When a man purchased his bride, it was not her person he bought, but it was her seed.
As a side observation, the average American wife is a concubine; for she usually enters marriage without a dowry. She is legally dowered by the state into her husband's estate, but that is almost always encumbered by debt - a form of servitude (Proverbs 22:7). Also, the state takes prior claim to that estate through probate, taxes, and legal fees collected by attorneys, who are officers of the court. There is generally very little wealth, if any, left for the wife.
In Biblical times the woman was first adopted as the man's sister (thus made heir to the family estate by taking the family name) and dowered (given at least six month's wages as security money should there be a divorce or death). Normally, the woman could not inherit land, but she could inherit houses in the city and movable wealth, which could be in the form of jewels, livestock, and the like.
Here in Exodus 21, we find the status of the concubine discussed. A female was purchased as a maidservant (Israel had what we call "indentured servitude"). Sometime during the six years of her service, it was expected that the master would marry her or marry her to his son. If he did not do this, he was said to have "dealt deceitfully with her". The destiny of a maidservant was to become her master's bride - either as a mistress or concubine. She was not released in the seventh year as was her male counterpart. Marriage was meant to be permanent in Israel. However, if he deceived her by not marrying her, then she was released.
The bearing this custom has on polygamy is that verse 10 implies the man, as the custom was, would have more than one maidservant (concubine). Here, we have a clear reference to the institutionalizing of polygamy in Mosaic Law.
#2 - The Law on Seduction: Exodus 22: 16-17
This passage teaches that a woman's seducer must marry her unless her father objects. No exception is made for married men. It was not adultery; for a virgin was not a married woman. Here is an instance of fornication where polygamy is mandatory as a remedy. Of course, fornication is grounds for divorce for the first wife. But if she was content to still dwell with her penitent husband, he had no choice in the matter. Now, he had two wives to support. This law eliminates the possibility for the institutionalizing of prostitution in a society; for it does not allow transient relationships.
If men know they are required to marry every woman they seduce, then the costs of seduction will be too high for it to occur often. Likewise, the market for new prostitutes would be slim; as fewer girls would be introduced to pre-marital sex, and thus a life of immorality.
#3 - The Law of the Levirate: Deuteronomy 25:5-10
The law of the levirate was the custom of a brother marrying his deceased brother's widow. The declared motive for this practice was to raise up an heir to the brother's estate. But it was also to protect the integrity of the family unit. The widow was viewed as a sister and a permanent member of the family.
Although there was no civil penalty attached for refusing to fulfill this fraternal obligation, yet it was considered a dereliction of duty. Again, we find no exceptions made for brothers who were already married. In this case polygamy would be a moral requirement.
#4 - The Laws of Inheritance: Deuteronomy 21:15-17
Biblical law legitimizes the offspring of a polygamous marriage - that is, all the children are heirs. Until recent years, Western law has viewed the offspring of the first wife as the only legitimate heirs. The others were considered bastards. This view, of course, violates God's Word. This Scripture is also significant in that it assumes polygamy will be practiced.
#5 - The Law of the War Bride: Deuteronomy 21:12
Like other Biblical laws, a man's marital state is not a factor in choosing another bride. Here, a man finds a beautiful woman among the war captives. He is at complete liberty to take the woman, whether he is married or not. Polygamy in this instance has evangelistic value; for the woman is caused to go through a symbolic act of circumcision - the initiatory rite of the Old Testament Church.
(An example of this law in practice is found in Numbers 31, a holy war to take booty and women.)
It is worth adding that had this Biblical law been accepted. in this country during the Vietnam War, much of the misery of abandoned women and children could have been avoided. Many servicemen left behind Vietnamese sweethearts, knowing that they would have had to make a choice between them and their American families. This is a blot upon our nation and a telling example of the evils of enforced monogamy. Monogamy cannot deal with the realities of war and the vulnerabilities it creates in the human heart. Many a child has been denied his rightful heritage because of the demands of monogamy.
#6 - The Lord's Heritage: Psalms 127
The 128th Psalm is a happy depiction of the monogamous household (v.3). For those contented with it, monogamy can be a beautiful and tranquil experience. We do not seek in this study to diminish the blessing of such a marriage.
The previous psalm, Psalm 127, depicts the blessing of the polygamous household. I say that it is a polygamous household, simply because of the number of children involved. It is impossible for one woman to bear so many. A "quiver full" of children is far more than most of our pro-baby advocates realize (e.g. A Full Quiver by Rick & Jan Hess, 1990). We may pass it off as metaphor, but anyone living in Bible times would know how many arrows fill a quiver.
This is not a hunter's quiver. And since Israelites did not rely upon horses in their army, it is not a charioteer's quiver, either (Deuteronomy 17:16; 2 Samuel 8:4-5). It is an archer's quiver. The reference is to the military (i.e. "mighty man", "speak with their enemies"). Israel's army was an army of infantrymen. And the archaeological figures I have seen show the archer's quiver as a cylindrical basket spanning the entire back but cupping into the space between the shoulder blades (The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 2, Abingdon Press, p. 71). It could hold scores of arrows, perhaps over a hundred. (If I was a warrior, I would cram as much ammo in there as I could!)
No one woman could have so many children. Nor is this text referring to grandchildren; for it speaks of them as "children of the youth". This is obviously a polygamous household, a household with institutional clout in society. It is a family strong enough to contend with its enemies, without the aid of allies - "at the gate", the place of judgment, rule and government.
#7 - A Case of Polygamy in the New Testament
We are skipping better than twenty personal histories in the Old Testament which clearly involve polygamy. To cite them seems unnecessary. Most commentators will concede polygamy as an Old Testament custom. They do so while insisting that the New Testament is a radical departure from Biblical norms.
Why are there not New Testament cases of polygamy? The answer is twofold. First, the chronological span of the Old Testament is at least 4000 years and filling three-quarters of the Bible. The New Testament, on the other hand, covers a period of merely 60 years and the last fourth of the Bible. There simply was not enough time to teach the doctrines of salvation and to rehash the teachings of the Old Testament, also.
Second, the characters of the New Testament are a captive people, subject to the rule of Rome. Certain customs were repressed because they were inconsistent with Roman law. Rome permitted promiscuity of all kinds and promoted temple prostitution. But it did not allow polygamy. Consequently, it should not surprise us that some aspects of the Mosaic Law had withered away.
Having said that, we should note that polygamy was not entirely eliminated among the Jews of Palestine. Jews still practiced it extensively beyond the eastern frontiers in Parthia. Some of these Jews were no doubt present and converted to Christianity in Acts 2, when they miraculously heard the Gospel in their own language.
Yet, there is evidence of a more specific example of polygamy in the New Testament. It appears that our Lord grew up in a polygamous household. Although Jesus had brothers and sisters (probably step-brothers and step-sisters), we find his mother as his lonely follower among his family. This was because He would have been her only son, while the others would have been children of Joseph through other wives. George Lamsa, the Aramaic, scholar provides convincing evidence for this theory in his commentary Gospel Light, Harper & Row, p.5-7:
Lamsa's argument lacks reference to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, which can explain, in part, why the Biblical text always associates Jesus with Mary. Nevertheless, the Bible often speaks with double meaning. In this case, the average reader of the Aramaic text would have naturally picked-up the nuánce: Christ was born of a virgin and his step-father, Joseph, was a polygamist.
The reference to Mary [in the genealogy of Matthew 1: JS] is to show that Jesus was born of her and not of the other wives of Joseph. Whenever a reference is made to a particular son, the name of the mother is mentioned throughout the Scriptures. Whenever a king's name is mentioned his mother's name is also mentioned to distinguish her from the other wives of the king. If Joseph had no other wives except Mary, the word awled would have been used in the case of Joseph as in other instances. The sixteenth verse would then read "Joseph begat Jesus", but as Mary's name is mentioned the word etteled is substituted for the word awled to indicate that Mary was the mother of Jesus. Even today in many eastern countries where polygamy is still practiced, whenever a son is mentioned, reference is made to his mother as the one who gave birth to him.
#8 - The Widows: 1 Timothy 5:14
The Apostle Paul makes plain in this passage his will that any widow under sixty years of age should remarry. Contrary to the notions of modern socialists, the institutional church was never meant to be the primary dispenser of charity. The Apostles always insisted upon familial remedies. If you were a man who could not make a living, you indentured yourself as a servant. If you were a woman, you married someone who could take care of you. Charity was meant to be a personal act.
In this instance, the Apostle speaks to the widows, the most worthy of charitable assistance. He did not advocate nunneries or houses for unwed mothers. He demanded marriage. And like other Biblical laws, no consideration or exception is made for situations involving married men. What would happen should a church find itself with widows but no single men? Obedience to this command would require polygamy.
We have here a New Testament application of the levirate law. Christian men are to treat Christian women as sisters. If they are widowed, then they and their orphans should be adopted and incorporated into a family. If they are lawfully divorced, they are covenantally widowed and should be treated the same, as say the Early Fathers. This is the work of "pure religion" (James 1:27). Polygamy encourages this practice; monogamy discourages it.
#9 - Polygamy: Christ's Promise (Mark 10:29-31)
Here, the Greek texts imply polygamy, and that implication led to controversy in the early church of the West. But the Aramaic rendering leaves no doubt: Christ promised "maidservants" to replace the forsaking of wives for the Gospel's sake -a hundredfold "in this time". You will recall that maidservants are concubines.
"Jesus answered and said, Truly I say to you, There is no man who leaves houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of my gospel, Who shall not receive now, in this time a hundredfold, houses and brothers and sisters and maidservants and children and fields and other worldly things, and in the world to come life everlasting" (from the Aramaic text).
The Aramaic text is the preferred text in translating the Gospels; for Jesus taught in Aramaic and that was the language of his Apostles and of the disciple Mark, whose Gospel we quoted from above. Greek was unknown and too difficult to learn by the peoples of the East, except for the educated few, such as Saul of Tarsus. So the Greek texts are less reliable here.
Now, most commentators seek to avoid the obvious conclusion by spiritualizing the text and saying that Christians share these things communally. Thus, we have many fathers (elders), mothers (older women), brothers, and sisters in the Church, the household of faith (1 Timothy 5:1-2). We share our houses and properties as if they were not our own (Acts 2:44-45). And since the New Testament sanctions a benevolent form of slavery, the maidservants would be spiritually shared as well, since some Christians would have them (1 Timothy 6:1-3; Philemon).
There is some merit to this interpretation, I suppose, for those spokesmen of the faith who travel, and cannot have a home and family of their own. They must share in the bounty of God's people wherever they go in the Lord's work.
To take such a principle, however, and apply it to all Christians everywhere at all times - it would be nothing short of communism and the denial of property rights. To apply it to sexual relations would amount to advocating free love and wife swapping. This, of course, is unbiblical.
Therefore, we can say there is a symbolic aspect to this promise, but it is secondary to the real one. There is such a thing as private property - houses and lands. These are protected by the Eighth and Tenth Commandments. There is such a thing as family: brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers. These are protected by the Fifth Commandment. There is such a thing as children that are your own - begotten - another relationship protected by the Fifth Commandment. And there is still such a thing as sex and wives and concubines. These are protected by the Seventh Commandment. We are not angels, yet. We are still of the earth. Consequently, all of this talk of "spiritualizing" the text wrests its meaning to our own destruction. Christ promised all of these "worldly things" in this life to His faithful followers, and in the life to come - "eternal life".
I think we find here a plain statement in favor of polygamy if I ever saw one - and that from the lips of our Lord. The monogamists have a lot of explaining to do.
#10 - Polygamy in Prophecy: Isaiah 4
The above passage from Isaiah the Prophet is a source of no small discomfort to Bible scholars. Most theologians acknowledge that chapters 2 through 4 clearly refer to the Messianic kingdom. But they have supreme difficulty, ethically, accepting 4:1 as an annunciatory event of Christ's reign. So, they attach it to the judgment of Zion described in the previous chapter and say that there is a dual fulfillment - one, back in the days of Isaiah which includes the polygamy of 4:1, and another, during the Millennium which excludes it. This sleight of hand is arbitrary and solves nothing. Exegetically, it does not fit. If the entire three chapters refer to the Messianic kingdom (they are threaded together by the expression "In that day"), how can an unrelated and one -time event be sandwiched in between?
"And in that day seven women shall take hold of one man, saying, We will eat our own bread, and wear our own apparel; only let us be called by your name, to take away our reproach. In that day shall the glory and honor of the LORD shine forth, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for the remnant of Israel."
One famous commentator, sensing the exegetical quagmire, has conceded that the offer of polygamy occurs at the beginning of the Messianic reign, but that there is no evidence that the men will accept it!
Frankly, this is an example of commentary by party line. Everybody says polygamy is immoral, and thus, it is impossible to conceive the notion that Christ would use an immoral practice to establish His kingdom.
But Christ also reigned in the Old Testament as YAHWEH. Paul says that it was Christ who gave the Law and who provided the supernatural government of Israel (1 Corinthians 10). Jesus ruled Israel from the Ark of the Covenant. In the Messianic kingdom, He rules from a corporal body in Heaven. If Christ permitted polygamy during His reign in Israel - the Old Testament Church - why would He not permit it in the New Israel - the New Testament Church? If polygamy is evil and will not be tolerated during the Messianic reign, why was it not considered evil, and thus punished during the Old Testament?
The only plausible explanation offered by theologians - and this is the linchpin holding the monogamous case together - is that the saints of the Old Testament had a primitive ethical system, and that maturity through the centuries has occurred culminating in the Church. God had to allow Israel certain vices, else they would have revolted against God's Law. [They did anyway!]
There is not a shred of evidence supporting this theory. None. Such an evolutionary view of Biblical ethics presumes a God of moral weakness. It assumes the Gnostic heresy of two revelations: one for the carnal masses and a secret one for the illumined. But the Biblical text does not support this view. Adultery and murder were evil then, and now. The killing of animals for food was accepted then, and now. Do our moralists advocate vegetarianism? Is incest now good because it is forbidden in the Old Testament, but not mentioned in the New?
The notion that God connived at sin by permitting Israelite polygamy is preposterous. A sovereign God had a carte blanche with the newly liberated Israelites. He could have imposed any social system He wanted. And He did. On the issue of polygamy, the Mosaic law is more lenient than the law codes of the Canaanites. Canaanites regarded monogamy, temple prostitution, sodomy, and other disgusting practices to be better and more just to the sexual needs of men and women than polygamy. Biblical law chose an opposite course by prohibiting prostitution and permitting polygamy.
In these chapters, Isaiah describes a feminist society which self-destructs. Judgment is followed by polygamy, which is, in turn, the mechanism God uses to usher in the Messianic kingdom. Polygamy restores family life, the rule of the father, and the political foundations of society.
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.