Everything You Wanted to Know About Polygamy (But Were Afraid to Ask)

By David Servant

You might be wondering why I would write on the subject of polygamy. Let me assure you it is not because I’m advocating it for anyone or considering it myself. I think polygamists—whether they be ancient biblical characters or their modern counterparts—generally err on a grand scale. I also think, however, there are some good reasons to study what Scripture has to say on the subject. One is because it can teach us something about our own relationship with God. I hope to provoke your thinking, as always. But first, some trivia:

Polygamy concept - Everything you wanted to know about polygamy (but were afraid to ask)

You may be surprised to know that, although polygamy has been outlawed in many nations for centuries, about one-third of the world’s population lives in societies where it is acceptable and legal, mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Polygamy is most prevalent in Muslim-majority countries and communities that tend to be traditional and agrarian. I’ve met many pastors in various parts of Africa who told me their fathers had multiple wives. But most tell me that polygamy is becoming less common.

Polygamy is illegal in all 50 U.S. states. Yet rough estimates place the polygamous population in the U.S. somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people, chiefly among Muslim and fundamentalist Mormon sects. Polygamist men circumvent secular laws by being legally married to only one woman. If you are interested in adding another wife or being another wife, there are polygamous match-making websites waiting for you, such as Polygamy.com and SisterWives.com.

My closest encounter with polygamy in the U.S. was when I drove, with my wife and some friends, through the twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale that straddle the Arizona-Utah border, where about 7,000 people live. Most belong to fundamentalist Mormon sects that practice polygamy. (The Merry Wives Café in Hildale gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor.com. Unfortunately, they closed early on the day we stopped by, hoping to try the acclaimed Shadrack sandwich.)

At least half of the population of Colorado City/Hildale are descended from two of the towns’ founders, Joseph Smith Jessop and John Yates Barlow, and that is the reason those towns suffer the world’s highest incidence of Fumarase deficiency, a very rare genetic condition that causes severe intellectual disability.

The Old Testament mentions at least 30 polygamists, including such notable figures as Abraham (2 wives), Jacob (4 wives), Esau (3 wives), Moses (2 wives, but perhaps he married the second after the death of the first), Caleb (2 simultaneous wives, 3 wives total, and 2 concubines), Gideon (“many” wives), and David (at least 8 wives plus 10 concubines). Taking the prize was Solomon (700 wives and 300 concubines).[1]

God obviously used such men, in spite of their polygamy, for His good purposes. Although monogamy was the ideal[2] and the norm for most marriages in the Old Testament, it seems safe to say that, if God was opposed to polygamy like He is opposed, for example, to murder, He would simply have prohibited it. But He didn’t. Rather, He permitted it, and within the Mosaic Law He regulated it to a degree. Let’s briefly consider three of those regulations.

The First Regulation

You shall not marry a woman in addition to her sister as a rival while she is alive, to uncover her nakedness (Lev. 18:18).

You may remember that, before the Mosaic Law was given, Jacob married sisters Leah and Rachel, although that was not his original intention. And you may recall the problems he suffered because of their rivalry (incidentally, both were his cousins through his mother). From reading this particular law in Leviticus 18:18, it seems God was trying to prevent potential rivalry between sisters that could destroy their relationship. Of course, rivalry between multiple wives could easily occur in any polygamous marriage, and the Bible contains examples of that very thing. Worse, a polygamous man could exploit that potential rivalry to serve his own selfish ends. Perceptive readers of this particular law—both ancient and modern—are apt to consider these things and thus be motivated to avoid engaging in polygamy.

Interestingly, and understandably, God did not consider polygamy to be a form of adultery, something He condemns just two chapters later in Leviticus: “If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). Adultery is committed when a married person has sex outside of their marriage. A polygamist could commit adultery, of course, but he would not be committing adultery just by virtue of having multiple wives.

A Second Regulation

Here’s a second regulation concerning polygamy that is somewhat heartbreaking to read and which also implies the superiority of monogamy:

If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the first-born son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the first-born before the son of the unloved, who is the first-born. But he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the first-born (Deut. 21:15-17).

Naturally, a man with multiple wives might be comparing them in his mind, and one might likely take the “top slot.” How tragic it is to read about the “unloved” wife in this passage. Regardless, once again, God was trying to prevent a potential problem in polygamous marriages regarding inheritances left to offspring. And again, perceptive readers of this law—both ancient and modern—would be saying to themselves, “The obvious way to avoid this potential problem is simply to have one wife.”

A Third Regulation

And here is a third regulation in the Mosaic Law concerning polygamous marriage that will likely also evoke some sympathy. I’ve added my own comments, contained in brackets within the text, in an attempt to clarify it:

If a man sells his daughter as a female slave [In ancient times and in current primitive places, daughters are considered to be their fathers’ possessions, and to relinquish such a possession demands a price (remember Jacob served Laban seven years twice as the “bride price” for Leah and Rachel). The only reason I can imagine that such a father would sell his daughter as a servant would be because he couldn’t sell her as a bride, which could command a higher price.], she is not to go free as the male slaves do [that is, go free after six years of service as did Hebrew male slaves; see Ex. 21:2]. If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master [the man who bought her from her father] who designated her for himself [that is, he bought her as a slave but at some point took her as his wife, perhaps a shrewd way to buy a wife more cheaply], then he shall let her be redeemed [that is, he can sell her back to her father for a refund of the original price, which obviously also indicates that he is divorcing her]. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her [take note that God finds fault with this divorcing man, calling him “unfair”]. If he designates her for his son [that is, if he purchases her as a servant and at some point gives her to his son as a wife], he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes to himself another woman [that is, if he takes another wife while the woman he originally bought is still his wife, so this is polygamy], he may not reduce her [that is, his original wife’s] food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money [that is, her father is not required to refund the slave/bride price to the divorcing husband as he would have in the previous case when she was redeemed] (Ex. 21:7-11).

By this collection of related laws, God was clearly trying to mitigate some of the evils associated with the buying and selling of daughters as well as with polygamous marriage. Although the “women’s rights” enumerated in this passage are a far cry from where women’s rights stand today in many progressive cultures, they were perhaps somewhat revolutionary for the ancient world, and would be revolutionary in some less-civilized parts of the world today.

Again we see that polygamy was obviously permitted by God, and thus it was not considered by Him to be adultery. Just 20 verses prior to this passage in Exodus, God said in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14 – 21:8).

Take note that God required the man who took a second wife not to reduce the original wife’s food, clothing or conjugal rights (concerning that third requirement, one can’t help but wonder how Solomon complied). If he didn’t do these things, she had the right to divorce him—a refreshing “women’s right” to find in Scripture that makes perfect sense—and presumably return to her father, who was not obligated to refund the original “slave/bride price.”

Not only does this passage reveal something about God’s toleration and regulation of polygamy, but also something about His toleration and regulation of divorce (including divorce within polygamy), something Jesus said was permitted within the Mosaic Law because of the “hardness of men’s hearts” (Matt. 19:8). In this particular passage, we read two versions of failed marriage that certainly indicate “hardness of heart”: (1) a man finds something displeasing about his wife and consequently sells her back to her father (“redeems her”), something that is characterized in this passage as “unfairness to her” or literally, as a marginal note in my NASB reads, “dealing treacherously” with her and (2), a woman whose husband takes a second wife and consequently neglects her by denying her basic needs, which frees her to divorce him.

Regarding the first revelation of hard-heartedness, the divorcing of a woman who isn’t pleasing to him for some reason, God mitigates the evil by forbidding him from selling her to foreigners and requiring him to sell her back to her father. Regarding the second revelation of hard-heartedness, the neglect of his first wife as he favors his second wife, God mitigates the evil by allowing the first wife to escape the abusive marriage.

What’s Wrong with Polygamy?

I think it can be safely said that, generally speaking, polygamy is not and never has been God’s perfect will for anyone, based purely on the fact that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve and Ethel and Emily.[3] Moreover, it seems to me the average polygamist violates the second greatest commandment on two counts. First, when he takes a second wife, he does not “love his neighbor as himself” because he doesn’t love his original wife as he loves himself. That is, if he wouldn’t want his wife to have two simultaneous husbands, he should not have two simultaneous wives. Second, he potentially robs another man of a wife, as there are generally an equal number of females as males (except when a lot of males are killed during times of war). Solomon, it could be said, robbed 999 other men of wives.

Beyond these offenses, the married man who takes another wife is somewhat comparable to the man who divorces his wife. The polygamist “semi-divorces” his original wife when he marries another. Although he may still relate to his original wife on some level, her 100% claim on him has been reduced to a 50% share. He cannot avoid sending a message to her that she is insufficient. She can’t help but feel hurt by his second marriage, realizing she is now in competition for her husband with another woman. The polygamist is akin to the employer who thinks he is smart by hiring a new employee whom he gives the identical job title and job description as one of his current employees. Good luck with that!

In fact, the polygamist could be considered to be even more selfish than the man who divorces his wife and marries another. The polygamist insults his first wife at the deepest level when he takes his second wife, and in one sense (though not technically in the biblical sense as we have seen) commits adultery against her continuously, yet he expects her to remain faithful to him, an arrangement he would never allow for her. At least the man who divorces his wife does not expect her to remain faithful to him as he lives unfaithfully to her. He at least gives her a chance to find a decent man who will love her exclusively (if remarriage is permitted in her context).

If you are a woman, which would you rather your husband do: divorce you, or bring home a second wife? I asked my wife, Becky, that hypothetical question, and without hesitation she said, “Divorce me! If you brought home another wife, I’d divorce you, right after I killed you!” (Now that is true love!)

I can imagine God looking down from heaven any time a man added a second (or third, or fourth…) wife and thinking to Himself, “You knucklehead! You think you are solving a problem or gaining an advantage, but actually you are setting yourself up for heartache. You deeply wound a woman who loves you and now put her in competition for your affections. You imagine you are gaining something of value, namely, another wife, but actually you are losing something that is much more valuable, namely, the wonderful blessing of a monogamous relationship.”

Polygamy in the Church

Those of us who live in nations and cultures where polygamy has been socially condemned and illegal for a long time are generally not aware of the challenges faced by the church in cultures where polygamy is acceptable. What do you do with a man who comes to faith in Christ and has multiple wives? What if his wives also come to faith? God tolerated polygamy under the Mosaic Law. Has that changed under the New Covenant? Is there now a higher standard?

It seems safe to assert that polygamists are disqualified from being church leaders. Paul wrote:

An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…. Deacons must be husbands of only one wife, and good managers of their children and their own households (1 Tim. 3:2, 12, emphasis added).

For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion (Titus 1:5-6, emphasis added).

But the requirement that leaders be monogamous is not completely unique to the new covenant. In the Law of Moses, long before Israel had any kings, God said:

When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,” you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses…. He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself (Deut. 17:14-17).

Surely King Solomon, who like every other polygamist began as a monogamist, transgressed this commandment with his 700 wives. Was not his father, King David, also guilty with his eight wives and ten concubines? Although some point out that God prohibited “multiplying” rather than “adding” wives, at what point did Solomon, or David, cross that undefined line? And in all honesty, if it is inappropriate to have ten wives, what makes it OK to have five, or two?

Regardless, we should be careful when we claim that God was OK with leaders being polygamous under the Law of Moses, unlike under the new covenant. (And I can’t resist pointing out to “Divine Divorce” proponents that, even though Solomon and David had surely exceeded their limit, God never instructed any polygamist to divorce any of their wives.)

But let’s return to Paul’s marital restrictions for overseers, elders and deacons. Such restrictions would not have been necessary if there were no polygamists in the church, or if Paul had, for example, required polygamist converts to divorce all but their original wives.

It is interesting that some good folks—who read these passages through the lens of Western, modern culture and Christianity—try to force meaning into them that simply isn’t there, claiming that Paul was disqualifying anyone from leadership who had been previously divorced and remarried, because such people have had “two wives.” They imagine Timothy interviewing candidates and asking them, “Can you tell me your complete marital history, because if you’ve ever been previously married and divorced, even if it occurred 30 years ago, and in spite of the fact that Jesus died for all your sins and you are now a new creation in Christ, you are simply unqualified to be a deacon.” And that is why some denominations will not ordain or allow in ministry those who have been divorced and remarried.

Why did polygamy disqualify a man from church leadership? Paul doesn’t say, but he clearly believed polygamy was not something to be modeled by leaders and imitated by others. The creation story, the three relevant Old Testament passages we’ve read, the prohibition against Israel’s kings from multiplying wives, and the numerous troubles polygamous men experienced in the Old Testament contain enough wisdom to help anyone considering polygamy to think more intelligently. Paul believed, as God has always believed, that monogamous marriage is the ideal. To the Corinthians he wrote, “Because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2).

Again, however, just as is the case today in various places around the world, there were men in the church in Paul’s day who had more than one wife, and they were surely in a minority. Most likely, they became polygamists before their salvation, rather than after. Historically, there is some surviving evidence that polygamy was practiced in the New Testament period among both Jews and Gentiles, even though polygamy was forbidden for Roman citizens by Roman law. (And it isn’t safe to claim that Paul was actually speaking to the polygamists in the church when he wrote in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives“…)

I’ve been asked quite a few times by African pastors what they should do with polygamous men who give their lives to the Lord. Some pastors would advise such men, “Divorce all but your first wife.” But that hardly considers the plight of the newly-divorced wives and their children, who may well be new believers themselves. And should those newly-divorced wives be told they can’t remarry, lest they commit adultery? African leaders have been debating these things for many years.

I always answered the question by recommending what it seems Paul allowed, that is, for polygamous men who come to faith to remain “in the state in which they were called,” yet informing them that they should not consider taking any additional wives, and they should abandon any aspirations to leadership within the church. In my humble opinion, this not only reflects the attitude of Paul, who allowed polygamists in the church even though he promoted monogamy as the ideal, but also what is taught in the Law of Moses, a Law which Paul said was “holy, just and good” (Rom.7:12). Besides, you can’t unscramble scrambled eggs.

 A Final Parallel

Studying God’s toleration of polygamy certainly reveals something about the depth of His great mercy. Even if you believe that God’s toleration of polygamy has changed under the new covenant (which would seem to require that His essential character has changed, as He is now less tolerant than previously), you have to be amazed at how tolerant He was at one time.

And if we are going to pass judgment on biblical polygamists like Abraham (who was willing to sacrifice his only son in obedience to God), Caleb (who trusted God when virtually no else in Israel did), and David (a man after God’s own heart), we might look in the mirror and wonder if God is similarly demonstrating some toleration for that person.

Statistics indicate, for example, that “mental polygamy” (porn/lust) is rampant among professing Christian men, a huge problem in the church that is not often addressed. God’s former or current toleration of polygamy certainly does not give “mental polygamists” license to “remained married” to their “mental wives”; rather, there is no doubt He calls them to “divorce” those kinds of “wives.” How much happier such men would be if they were truly monogamous. How much happier their actual wives would be if they could be certain they weren’t sharing their husbands with other women. And how ironic it is that the church condemns actual polygamists while ignoring the fact that its pews are literally filled, every Sunday, with mental polygamists. — David

[1] See Gen. 16:1-3; 26:34; 28:9; 29:20-23, 28; 30:4, 9; Exodus 2:21; 18:1-6; Num. 12:1; Judges 8:30; 1 Sam. 18:27; 19:11-18; 25:39-44, 2 Sam. 3:2-5, 13-14; 5:13; 6:2-23; 12:24; 15:16; 16:21-23; 1 Kings 11:3; 1 Chron. 2:18-19, 46, 48; 14:3).

[2] Ps.128:3; Prov. 5:18; 18:22; 19:14; 31:10-29; Eccl. 9:9

[3] The only case I can think of where polygamy could be considered virtuous would be when an already-married man takes the widow of his deceased brother as a second wife, something that the Mosaic Law stipulated (but did not require), although it could be questioned if that particular law applied to a man who was already married, and it seems it only applied when the brothers were living together and the deceased brother had no son (see Deut. 25:5-10).