Polygamy in the Bible

Compiled by The BibleStudyTools Staff on 07/20/2018
Polygamy in the Bible

What are the references to polygamy in the Bible? In biblical times it was common to find the custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time. The truth is that the story of polygamy in the Old Testament is, well, a problem. Although monogamy was clearly God's intent - Genesis 2:22-24, the picture blurs pretty quickly after Adam and Eve's Genesis 3 and expulsion from the Garden. By Genesis 4, you have Cain's son Lamech taking two wives.

Moses had two wives as well. The Mosaic Law likewise accommodated the practice of marrying more than one wife, including captured prisoners from foreign conquests (Deuteronomy 21:1-17). It also made provisions for continuing the family line by marrying a brother's wife if he died without producing heirs (Deuteronomy 25:5-12). And the stories keep coming: Gideon, one of Israel's champions, had many wives; Elkanah, a presumably godly man and the father of Samuel, had two wives.

The picture gets even dicier when one considers the practice of the kings of Israel. King David, the "man after God's own heart," had eight wives. In 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba, we read: "This is what the Lord God of Israel says: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I have given you your master's house and your master's wives into your bosom ... and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah, and as if this wasn't enough, I would have given you even more." David's son, Solomon, however, went overboard, flouting a stipulation in Deuteronomy 17:16-17 that kings not accumulate "too many" wives. For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

How does one respond to this situation? The answer begins by seeing that God always points His creation back to the primacy and perfection of the original design. Next, you have to read every book to the end -- especially if it is the biblical context. And if you read the stories about the characters referenced above, you'll quickly find that polygamy was an unmitigated sociological disaster that created heartbreak and sowed familial discord. By the time of the writing of Malachi, God's command to a thoroughly chastised nation was clear: covenantal monogamy was to be the norm.

Further, through the ministry of Jesus, we see God "reset the clock" so to speak to the original goodness of monogamous marital union -- pointing forward to a new society and a new way. He also enacted new provisions to protect women and raise their standing in society. Jesus showed a world that had distorted the meaning of marriage back to the beauty of "the man being joined to his wife, and two will become one flesh."
~ Excerpt from God’s Plan for Marriage: Dealing with Old Testament Polygamy by Gregory Alan Thornbury

5 Ashhur the father of Tekoa had two wives, Helah and Naarah.
13 After he left Hebron, David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him.
8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.
21 Rehoboam loved Maakah daughter of Absalom more than any of his other wives and concubines. In all, he had eighteen wives and sixty concubines, twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters.
21 But Abijah grew in strength. He married fourteen wives and had twenty-two sons and sixteen daughters.
10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights.
19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.
4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her,
9 When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife.
1 In that day seven women will take hold of one man and say, “We will eat our own food and provide our own clothes; only let us be called by your name. Take away our disgrace!”
30 He had seventy sons of his own, for he had many wives.
1 Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.
2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love,
16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love.
17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.
1 Joash was seven years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem forty years. His mother’s name was Zibiah; she was from Beersheba.
2 Joash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest.
3 Jehoiada chose two wives for him, and he had sons and daughters.
1 The word of the LORD came to me:
2 “Son of man, there were two women, daughters of the same mother.
3 They became prostitutes in Egypt, engaging in prostitution from their youth. In that land their breasts were fondled and their virgin bosoms caressed.
4 The older was named Oholah, and her sister was Oholibah. They were mine and gave birth to sons and daughters. Oholah is Samaria, and Oholibah is Jerusalem.
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.
4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
5 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.
6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
7 However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.”
8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,”
9 his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.”
10 That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
1 These were the sons of David born to him in Hebron: The firstborn was Amnon the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel; the second, Daniel the son of Abigail of Carmel;
2 the third, Absalom the son of Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith;
3 the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital; and the sixth, Ithream, by his wife Eglah.
4 These six were born to David in Hebron, where he reigned seven years and six months. David reigned in Jerusalem thirty-three years,
5 and these were the children born to him there: Shammua, Shobab, Nathan and Solomon. These four were by Bathsheba daughter of Ammiel.
6 There were also Ibhar, Elishua, Eliphelet,
7 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia,
8 Elishama, Eliada and Eliphelet—nine in all.
9 All these were the sons of David, besides his sons by his concubines. And Tamar was their sister.