When Did Polygamy Become A Sin?

When Did Polygamy Become A Sin?
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Welcome back to the BRC Podcast, my name is Aaron Ventura and in this episode we are going to answer the question When Did Polygamy Become A Sin? And this is a follow up to the last episode on Those Polygamous Patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, David etc. and how we should think about God calling those men righteous.

Well since there were a number of questions about this, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain more about this issue, and there are basically four positions when it comes to this question, but just before we look at those, first a note on vocabulary.

  • Polygamy can refer to both polygyny (a man with more than one wife) and polyandry (woman with more than one husband). Pretty much everyone agrees that polyandry is forbidden (and there are almost no cultures or nations right now where polyandry is commonly practiced), however polygyny (with an n) is still practiced in many countries today (I have a missionary friend in Muslim region of Africa where this is common). And so when I say polygamy in this episode, I am talking specifically about polygyny, not polyandry.
  • Alright, so here are four basic positions on When did Polgyamy become a sin?

Position 1: Polygamy is not a sin. It never has been and never will be, even after the New Testament polygamy is approved of and/or permitted by God.

This is the view held by some Mormons, some Muslims, and even some Christians.

Position 2: God allowed, approved of, and even commanded polygamy (depending on how you understand the Mosaic Levirate law and other texts, where a man marries his brother’s wife), and it’s only after the New Testament that polygamy is forbidden.

This is held by some Christians.

Position 3: God permitted polygamy prior to the giving of the Law at Sinai, and then permitted but regulated polygamy under the Mosaic law, and it is only after the coming of Christ that polygamy is forbidden.

This is a common view I come across amongst Christians today.

Position 4 (this is my position, and basically the position of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, RJ Rushdoony and many other reformed pastors): God forbid polygamy from the beginning of Creation, but regulated it under the Mosaic Law, and although polygamy is always a sin against the natural law of creation, it is not criminalized under Mosaic law.

  • And our prooftexts for this creational prohibition would be Genesis 2:24, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 19:5, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

Defense of Position 4

Now let me give you 2 reasons why I believe position 4 makes the most sense with all the biblical data, and then answer the most common objection people have to this position.

Reason 1: The prohibition of polygamy is inherent to the very definition of marriage.

  • Before the fall and before any human laws or customs existed, God declares that marriage is properly a one flesh union between one man and one woman for life.
    • Jesus says that from the beginning divorce was not permitted, but because of the hardness of men’s hearts, God permitted divorced in cases of adultery and abandonment (1 Cor. 7).
    • Now just because God commands something, doesn’t mean that everyone obeys it, in fact usually we do the exact opposite of what God commands. And that is exactly what we see unfold in Genesis. Lamech is the first polygamist (Genesis 4:19). And although this is a sinful violation of God’s creational law, Lamech is genuinely married to his two wives and is required by the marriage covenant to fulfill his duties to both of them.
    • RJ Rushdoony says that there are no civil or criminal penalties in Mosaic Law for polygamy, probably because polygamy is its own punishment!
    • However once a man had committed the sin of polygamy, God graciously gives additional laws (Deut. 21:15-17) to protect and regulate these sinful marriages. But remember, regulation does not equal approval! Let’s say it together, “regulation does not equal approval.”
      • And if you think about, what law would you come up with to protect these women if a man has already taken multiple wives? You could have him killed, but that would leave these women vulnerable. You could require him to divorce all except one, but this again would leave these women like single mothers and vulnerable. There are not a lot of good options. So God gives the Mosaic Law to protect and regulate these marriages because you can’t unscramble the egg!
      • And this is actually extremely helpful to us today in how we deal with Muslims with multiple wives who become Christians. God has given us divinely inspired laws for how to deal with this.
      • So to summarize, Genesis 2:24 prohibits polygamy, but because men break this law, God gives additional laws to regulate it, and this regulation is not approval of the institution, and in fact the very need for regulation is there because it is a sinful corruption of God’s law of creation.
  • Now if you disagree that Genesis 2:24 prohibits polygamy, here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine that a man decides he wants to marry a sexbot—an artificially intelligent robot that looks like a woman. It’s not a woman, it’s a robot. What passage would you use to argue that marrying a sexbot violates God’s law?
  • My guess is that you would appeal to Genesis 2:24, and say that marriage is between one man and one woman, and a robot is neither man nor woman therefore its forbidden. Well this is the same argument I am making against polygamy, I am just emphasizing the one man and one woman part.
  • So if you deny reason 1, I think it leaves you vulnerable to all kinds of problems in combating and prohibiting other sins.

Reason 2: Leviticus 18:18 is likely an explicit prohibition against polygamy.

  • Alright, this one is a bit more complicated because it requires us to look at the actual Hebrew text and flow of the chapter in Hebrew.
  • So first the context. Leviticus 18 is a list of laws prohibiting various “abominable customs” of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. And even though those nations were not given the Mosaic Law, God still executes judgment upon them for violating these laws.
  • Now not every single law here is a creational law, for example, this chapter prohibits marrying your sister, but Cain married his sister (since that was his only option) and that didn’t violate the creational law, but eventually as the human race grew, God sets some boundaries for the degrees of consanguinity within which you can marry. And Leviticus lists some of those prohibitions.
  • So verses 6-17 of Lev. 18 are all about not uncovering the nakedness of anyone who is “near of kin.” And then it defines who is “near of kin.”
  • And if you look at the Hebrew, starting in verse 7 and going to verse 17, every single verse begins with the Hebrew word עֶרְוַ֥ת (erevat), which means nakedness. And when you get to verse 17, there is this little concluding summary phrase that ends that section “they are near of kin to her, it is wickedness.” So all of these verses deal with family bonds, who is near of kin.
  • But then in verse 18, our verse in question, it begins with a completely different word and marks the start of a new grammatical construction which goes all the way to verse 23,      וְאִשָּׁ֥ה (veh-isha) “and a woman/wife.” So verses 18-23 all begin with the Hebrew vav conjunctive (this is super common pattern in Hebrew). And the content all of those other verses deal with sexual relationships outside of the family bond.
  • So the question then becomes how do you translate verse 18, is it part of the prior section dealing with those “near of kin,” or is it dealing with people outside of the family (you neighbor, bestiality, homosexuality, etc.)?
  • To me its rather obvious based on the grammatical construction that it is part of the second group, those outside of the family bond.
  • However, most translations think it belongs in the first group, so the NKJV reads this way: “Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.”
    • So the NKJV adds that word “nor” (that’s how it translates the vav consecutive) because they think this is talking about two biological sisters. However, this doesn’t fit with the Hebrew grammatical construction, or the logical flow of the passage. One commentator says,
      • “Everywhere else this phrase “isah el-achotah” (a woman in addition to her sister) occurs in the Old Testament, this phrase is always “used idiomatically in the distributive sense of ‘one in addition to another’ and nowhere else refers to literal sisters.” Given this fact, the word “sister” in Leviticus 18:18 should be interpreted “broadly as any woman in addition to a first wife, in accord with idiomatic use of the same expression.”
    • So the sister here is not a biological sister, but a religious sister that is counted amongst the people of God. It was already forbidden to marry a foreign woman who did not fear God, just as God forbids us marrying unbelievers. Christians likewise are only allowed to marry in the Lord, marry a sister in Christ.
    • So a better translation, and one that is actually in the margin of some bibles is “neither shalt thou take one wife to another to vex her.”
    • And I think this fits best with the context and flow of the chapter and the Hebrew grammar. This is position of RJ Rushdoony, and it goes back at least to the 1st century. And we know this because in the Temple Scroll (one of the dead sea scrolls), they interpreted the law against a king multiplying wives to mean that he could only marry one woman. “He may not take a wife from any of the nations. Rather, he must take himself a wife from his father’s house—that is, from his father’s family. He is not to take another wife in addition to her; no, she alone shall be with him as long as she lives. If she dies, then he may take himself another wife from his father’s house, that is, his family.”
    • So the community at Qumran interpreted Deuteronomy 21:17 (a king shall not multiply wies) based on Leviticus 18:18 limiting marriage to one woman. And this makes sense especially in light of Malachi, the last of the prophets, which holds up monogamous marriage as the only righteous option.
      • This is Malachi 2:15, But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.”
      • And some Jewish writers think this is an allusion to Abraham, who committed polygamy by marrying a foreign woman, Hagar, and as a result had ungodly offspring, or what Paul calls “a son according to the flesh,” Ishmael. So man is to have one wife, because God desires godly offspring. And as the lives of the patriarchs and the monarchs, David, Solomon, etc. shows, polygamous marriages lead to rivalries between sons, and those sons often end up killing one another.
    • So I don’t think Malachi, and Qumran, and the New Testament are creating a new morality for marriage, I think they are reading the Torah and concluding that polygamy is sinful by definition.
    • There are other reasons from the New Testament we could get into, for example I take Paul’s requirement that an elder be a one-woman man to have allusions to the kingly office and the law for kings in the Old Testament. Pastors are shepherds and shepherds are kings. Elders are judges, and kings are judges. So there’s more we could get into but for time’s sake, let’s deal with biggest objection people make to this view.

Objection: Doesn’t God approve of Polygamy in 2 Samuel 12:8?

  • So this is the scene where Nathan confronts David for murdering Uriah and taking Bathsheba to be his wife.
  • 2 Samuel 12:7-9, says, Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping, and gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight?
  • So people who hold to positions 1-3 say that in this passage, God is approving of polygamy and even participating in it, by giving David Saul’s wives and saying that he would have given David more wives if that was not enough.
    • There are at least three problems with this view.

Problem 1: The language of God “giving Saul’s wives into David’s bosom or arms,” does not necessitate a sexual or marital relationship.

  • This is common Hebrew idiom and occasionally it refers to sex, but more often it is used to simply refer to someone holding something close to their body or bosom, and especially taking care of a baby or a child.

Problem 2: And this is I think is requires us to read bosom in a non-sexual way. Is that, Leviticus 18:17 says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter.”

  • Now David was already married to Michal, Saul’s daughter, and so if he married Saul’s wife and concubine, he would be explicitly breaking this law.
  • Scripture only lists one wife for saul (Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaaz) and one concubine (Rizpah). And neither show up in any list of David’s wives or lineage.
    • David marries a different Ahinoam (Ahinoam of Jezreel) while he is on the run from Saul in 1 Samuel 25:43.
  • So these are two problems that I think requires us to take the “giving of Saul’s wives into David’s bosom” as referring to the care and provision David now gave to them since he had replaced Saul as master of the house. God is simple saying that all that belonged to King Saul was torn from him and placed in David’s lap.
  • And so the phrase, “I also would have given you much more” is not a specific reference to God giving David more wives, it’s a reference to the whole of the list that God had given to David, Israel, Judah, the crown, and all of Saul’s possessions.

Problem 3: If God “adding much more to David” mean giving him more wives, then we would have to conclude that more wives is a blessing. But that would run contrary the law of creation AND every single example of polygamy in Scripture. So I just don’t see this is a legitimate reading of the text.

Other Objection: A final and related objection comes from 2 Chronicles 24, where it says “Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest. And Jehoiada took two wives for him, and he had sons and daughters.”

  • Some take this to mean that Jehoida gave Joash a two wives at the same time and since Joash is said to have “done what was right in the sight of the Lord” it must mean that polygamy is right in the sight of God.
  • There are lots of problems with this interpretation.
    • First, there is nothing here that requires us to read this in a polygamous way, for example, Joash could have one wife, and then she died, and then he was is given another, and Jehoida is the one who arranged a godly wife for the king. That’s a possible reading of the text.
    • Another possibly reading is that that the Hebrew conjunctive vav in verse 3 is more properly translated as “but” instead of “and”, and if you ever learn Hebrew, one of the first things you’ll learn is that “vav” can mean and or but or other things and it depends on the context and flow of the passage to determine which it is. So in this case, it would actually be saying that Joash did was right in the sight of the Lord, except for, “but” he took two wives, and this would actually be a condemnation of the kind’s polygamous relationship, and it would concur with the law of Leviticus 18:18.
    • Another thing we have to remember is that “doing what is right in the sight of the Lord” never means that the king was sinless. This is a common refrain in Kings and Chronicles that refers to the King’s loyalty to God, not whether they were morally perfect. For example, in 1 Kings 11:5-6 it says, “For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David.”
      • Now of course, David committed murder and adultery, he did not fully follow the Lord there, so when it uses this phrase assessing the king’s reign, it is talking specifically about worship and whether or not the king committed idolatry. Whether they did right in the eyes of God is a question of covenant loyalty to YHWH and whether they cleansed the land of idols, not whether the king was personally sinless. Which of course David infamously was not sinless.
      • Also, in Joash’s case we are told in the parallel passage of 2 Kings 12 that there some things he left undone: 2 Kings 12 says, “Jehoash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days in which Jehoiada the priest instructed him. But the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.”
    • So depending on which reading you take, even if Joash had committed polygamy, the phrase “Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord” has nothing to do with that, because the same is said of David and he committed far greater sins like murder, adultery, etc.


So let me conclude by summarizing my answer to the original question, When did polygamy become a sin?

  • Polygamy became a sin by definition when God instituted marriage in Genesis 2 as a covenantal union between one man and one woman.
  • Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, and all those who lived before the Mosaic law, sinned against this natural or creational law, and experienced the consequence for their sin, namely the division in their household between wives and children. We could look at polygamy in the lives of the patriarchs as cautionary tales for us to learn from.
    • Also, Genesis 50:20 sums up the book when Joseph says, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” So although the patriarch’s polygamous marriages were sinful, God still worked it for good and eventually the Messiah was born from the line of Judah. However, God working evil for good is not an argument for us to commit evil, anymore than Jospeh’s brothers throwing him in a pit and selling him into slavery was good.
  • Now. once God gave the Mosaic Law, I think the evidence is overwhelming that Leviticus 18:18 is an explicit prohibition again polygamy. But just like many other sins, it is never criminalized like other sins are such as (bestiality, sodomy, etc.)
  • The New Testament confirms this reading in how it speaks of marriage, and of course God is not polygamous. Marriage is a picture of Christ’s love for the church and Christ as only one bride. And we as his image bearers are to reflect that faithful monogamy in our own marriages.