How Can We Defend Traditional Marriage From The Bible When It Allows Polygamy?

QUESTION: How are we to defend marriage in the public square as being between ONE man and ONE wife when Old Testament is littered with polygamy? “I’m barren so I’ll give you my servant”?? When talking to a non Christian, this whole idea seems so discrediting. I think these women are crazy to let their husbands sleep with anyone else but my goodness, how come these men don’t just say no?!?!

RESPONSE: Great question and let me address your second question first because it relates to the Biblical ideal. And that’s important because if we can’t establish a cohesive biblical ideal, then it does seem weird to argue for a set of sexual morals in society when our holy book doesn’t even seem to have a consistent message itself. The fact is, despite instances of polygamy, the Bible DOES have a consistent sexual ideal and design. In fact, the occurrences of polygamy in Scripture help us respond to the challenge of homosexuality in the present as you’ll see.

God’s sexual model is revealed on the first pages in the creation narrative (Gen 1-2) and the same model is affirmed throughout the Bible, most importantly by Christ himself who actually deepened our understanding of the importance of it (Matt 19:1-9).  Finally Paul indicates that faithful, loving, heterosexual monogamy was the only marriage model the Church affirmed (1 Tim 3:12).

Yes, intermixed with this simple model are descriptions of sexual models and customs that conflict with it, but those have to be understood in relation to the overall teaching of Scripture and their specific intent.  The first description of someone perverting God’s marriage model is Lamech (Gen 4) who is the first polygamist. His actions are not put forward as a new ideal or a new permissible option for marriage… he’s an illustration of what the Fall into sin has done in perverting God’s good design.

So now remember when I taught on the difference between PRESCRIPTION and DESCRIPTION in Scripture?  God never PRESCRIBES any marriage model except one:  one man, one woman, for life.  He often DESCRIBES many other models in his Word.  Polygamy being one.  “Levirate marriage” being another – that was when a brother in law was required to marry his sister-in-law if his brother died without leaving any sons.  These are examples of marriage practices that God doesn’t specifically initiate, but in some cases “tolerates” or “manages” until the new creation period brought in by Christ – who comes to RESTORE God’s creation desires and designs.  Polygamy is a fundamental desecration of this larger design.

When the law comes and talks about polygamy, keep in mind that it is merely a temporary steward of God’s People to temper the devastating effects of sin – not God’s ideal order.  So, for example, Levirate marriage was a specific form of polygamy that God tolerates in his law after the Fall to help widows be cared for who wouldn’t be otherwise without sons.  In the new creation period, however, this provision goes away as widows are to be cared for by the Church rather than find plural marriage partners (1 Tim 5:16).

Therefore, polygamy being practiced by Old Testament characters or being talked about in the law of Moses is not an endorsement or presentation of “just another lifestyle choice” or evidence of conflicting marriage models.  Contrary to what this snarky internet meme is meant to convey:

Remember, polygamy PREDATES Mosaic Law. Thus biblical polygamy laws, rather than mandate the practice, are there to manage the extra hardships that come with this preexisting condition, the insecurity, and jealousy and infighting known in all polygamous cultures.

Hence, the law about polygamy in Deut 21:15-17 – is a law requiring that non-favored wives NOT be treated inequitably. The transcendent moral principle is about fairness, not condoning multiple wives – and the implicit acknowledgement is that polygamy creates no end of ugly family dynamics. Abraham’s story illustrates all the problems which this law is meant to address – in fact, part of his story is to teach us the steep price he paid for violating God’s marriage ideal!

Having said that, we should notice there are underlying “noble” intentions or cultural mandates surrounding polygamy – which may be why God doesn’t come out and specifically challenge it with Abraham or other O.T. figures.  It was common practice in those days to build your household through a slave-wife if your actual wife was barren.  While that seems crazy to us, keep in mind just how critical it was to have children in the ancient world!  Children were EVERYTHING.  They were your retirement fund, they were your police/security guards, your work force, your fire department, your food security, your medical insurance, all wrapped up in one.  So now let’s say your wife isn’t having kids.  How would you like to live your life without any of those securities?  I’m not saying it was right according to God’s creation design, but the need for polygamy was felt in the ancient world deeply, because of the rampant loss of male lives at childbirth and in war and work (it was a dangerous world to be a man!) and the importance of children on your security.

Now, in the same way, our culture feels a need for homosexual marriage because of the value we place on sexual freedom.  Homosexual marriage would seem as crazy to them as polygamous marriage seems to you.  Changing cultural conditions make certain forms of marriage more palatable at certain times.  Well, God’s Word speaks with a timeless authority above temporary conditions like a shortage of males or barren females (them) or an overemphasis on the value of sexual freedom and personal autonomy (us).  God’s design is not swayed by the transitory winds of want – it’s founded in God’s own unchanging character and our ACTUAL needs as his creations.

So we are not that different from them.  I’m glad you brought up polygamy in relation to the national debate about marriage, because it illustrates how ALL variants to God’s marriage model have some “noble” rationale.  A shortage of males makes it seem only natural and permissible to multiply wives, for seemingly good reasons:  survival, even compassion – for unmarried women would most likely turn to prostitution to live.

Well, in our society, because we put such a high value on sexual autonomy, when we find some people who are genuinely sexually attracted to members of the same sex, it seems only natural and permissible to endorse homosexual unions – in fact tolerance would seem to DEMAND it.

However, though some OTHER good is upheld in these diverse marriage models (compassion/survival in polygamy or freedom/tolerance in gay marriage) the Bible still says “it is not right to do evil that some good may result.” (Romans 3:8). Violating God’s revealed, and narrow sexual design is never right even if it achieves some partial good. Given God’s clear creation sex model, if it was not right to marry many women no matter the cultural condition of the ancient world, how can it be right to marry someone of the same gender in today’s world?

So the sexual design in the Bible, from first page to last page, is clear – difficult, narrow, challenging – but clear.