What Is the Bible’s View?
Why Was Polygamy Allowed?
WHEN Jesus Christ was on earth he pronounced God’s standard with regard to marriage. Asked about a man’s divorcing his wife “on every sort of ground,” Jesus replied: “Did you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will stick to his wife, and the two will be one flesh’? So that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has yoked together let no man put apart.”—Matt. 19:3-6.
Consequently, a true Christian cannot be a polygamist. The apostle Paul, following Jesus’ lead, wrote: “Let each man have his own wife and each woman have her own husband.” (1 Cor. 7:2) He also counseled that “a wife should not depart from her husband; but if she should actually depart, let her remain unmarried or else make up again with her husband; and a husband should not leave his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11) Paul also wrote about himself and his fellow Christians who were taking the lead as examples: “We have authority to lead about a sister as a wife [not, ‘sisters as wives’], even as the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas, do we not?”—1 Cor. 9:5.
So, since God’s standard for Christians is one wife or one husband, why did God allow his ancient covenant people Israel to have more than one wife?
A Brief History of Polygamy
Polygamy did not start among those who were true worshipers of Jehovah God. The first record of polygamy is with Lamech, a descendant of unfaithful Cain. (Gen. 4:19) But God’s servant Noah had only one wife, as did each of his three sons. (Gen. 7:13; 1 Pet. 3:20) God’s friend Abraham had one wife, Sarah. But Sarah, long barren, knowing that a “seed” had been promised to Abraham, induced him to have relations with her Egyptian slave girl Hagar, who thereby became a concubine to Abraham. (Gen. 16:1-4) Abraham’s son Isaac, born later to Sarah through a miracle, and who was the promised “seed,” had only one wife. (Gen. 21:2, 12; 24:67) Isaac’s son Jacob, however, had two wives, due to trickery on the part of his father-in-law Laban. Jacob also had concubines.—Gen. 29:21-29; 30:1-13.
So when the Law came in, it did not bring in polygamy or concubinage, nor did it encourage these practices. In fact, polygamy was evidently not practiced by the majority in ancient Israel; primarily it was confined to the more prominent and wealthy, though not to these exclusively. (Judg. 8:30; 2 Chron. 11:21) For kings to have many wives was sort of a ‘status symbol’ among the nations.—2 Sam. 16:20-22.
References in the Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to happy marriages seem to take for granted the monogamous state. “Rejoice with the wife of your youth,” says Proverbs 5:18. And Ecclesiastes 9:9 counsels: “See life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun.” (Compare Psalm 128; Proverbs 18:22; 31:10-31.) Furthermore, the danger of polygamy was stressed in God’s counsel to kings: “He [the king] should also not multiply wives for himself, that his heart may not turn aside.” (Deut. 17:17) King Solomon ignored this warning, to his sorrow.—1 Ki. 11:4-6.
The Mosaic Law Discouraged Polygamy, Protected Women
The provisions of the Law were such as would actually discourage polygamy. Each time a man had intercourse with his wife he was unclean, in a religious sense, for a day. (Lev. 15:16, 17) Thus, relations with several wives would make it more frequently inconvenient for the Hebrew, for uncleanness prevented the man from engaging in a number of activities. (Lev. 7:20, 21; 1 Sam. 21:3-5; 2 Sam. 11:11) Also, the laws of inheritance required that the man give the double inheritance to his firstborn son, even if he was the son of the less-loved wife. (Deut. 21:15-17) In these respects, polygamy was undesirable.
Even though polygamy was tolerated, the Law protected women, giving Hebrew women a far higher and more respected status than was the case in other nations. If a man seduced a virgin girl who was not engaged, he was required to marry her, and he could never divorce her. (Deut. 22:28, 29; Ex. 22:16, 17) If a man falsely accused his wife of not being a virgin at the time of her marriage, he could never divorce her. (Deut. 22:13-21) Also, the polygamous man was required to provide fully for and give the marriage due to the less-loved wife. (Ex. 21:10, 11) A foreign virgin girl captured in warfare as a slave could be taken as wife by the soldier capturing her. But if he later sent her away because of her not being pleasing to him, he could not sell her to another person. He had to let her go free according to her pleasure. (Deut. 21:10-14) Allowing soldiers to marry captured virgins was a blessing to these girls, because they would otherwise have no homes or friends.
Furthermore, a man could not divorce his wife without due cause. He had to write her a formal certificate of divorce. This would require a public authority as witness and would very likely be done before the city elders, to give it official authorization. This provision, along with the further law that the man could not remarry this wife if she married another man who later died or divorced her, was a deterrent to hasty or frivolous divorces. (Deut. 24:1-4) Moreover, the certificate of divorce provided legal evidence of the woman’s remarriageability. It protected her from the charge of prostitution or adultery.—Compare Deuteronomy 22:13-21.
“The Appointed Time to Set Things Straight”
So God, although regulating polygamy, did not see fit to abolish the custom among his people at that time, just as he did not abolish, yet regulated, slavery. It was not yet time for him to restore all things to his perfect standard. The writer of the Bible book of Hebrews quotes Jesus as saying, in effect, about the many animal sacrifices offered by the Jews: “Sacrifice and offering you [God] did not want, but you prepared a body for me.” (Heb. 10:5) The Law’s arrangement for animal sacrifices was a mere shadow, not the reality. Jesus Christ gave the truly satisfactory sacrifice to remove sins. The writer speaks about sacrifices and other features of the Law and says: “They were legal requirements pertaining to the flesh and were imposed until the appointed time to set things straight.”—Heb. 9:10.
Therefore, with Jesus Christ’s appearance on earth the time came to begin to set things straight. He made clear God’s standard of monogamy, and of Scriptural divorce only on grounds of adultery. (Matt. 19:9) When asked by the Pharisees why God did not enforce this standard upon Israel, Jesus replied: “Moses, out of regard for your hardheartedness, made the concession to you of divorcing your wives, but such has not been the case from the beginning.”—Matt. 19:7, 8.
In harmony with what Jesus said, Jeremiah the prophet had long before foretold a change in God’s dealings when the new covenant, based on Christ’s sacrifice, would come in. Jeremiah said: “‘Look! There are days coming,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I will conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant; . . . I will put my law within them, and in their heart I shall write it.’”—Jer. 31:31-33; Heb. 10:16-18.
The new covenant would soften the hardheartedness of those taken into it. Faith in Christ’s sacrifice would remove consciousness of sins, which animal sacrifices could never do. The law of this covenant would not be something merely written on stone tablets. It would be written on hearts. It would give them clean consciences, which the Law did not do.—Heb. 9:13, 14.
Moreover, we see that even with Christ’s coming, not all things were set straight at once. After teaching his disciples for three and a half years, Jesus said to them on the night before his death: “I have many things yet to say to you, but you are not able to bear them at present.” (John 16:12) Humans, in striving to meet God’s perfect standard, cannot make all the necessary changes in their lives at once, all in one short period of time. The early Hebrew Christians, for example, had much to learn about getting free from many of the Jewish traditions. They had to be set straight by the apostle Paul on the matter of observing certain days as holier than others, on eating, on circumcision, and so forth. God lovingly and considerately did not see fit to load all these changes on them at once.—Rom. chap. 14; Acts 15:1-29.
Such was the case with polygamy. Because of the Jews’ “hardheartedness” God did not force a change. It was not the important thing at that point. As the apostle Paul explains: “Why, then, the Law? It was added to make transgressions manifest, until the seed should arrive to whom the promise had been made.” “However, before the faith arrived, we were being guarded under law, being delivered up together into custody, looking to the faith that was destined to be revealed. Consequently the Law has become our tutor leading to Christ, . . . But now that the faith has arrived, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Gal. 3:19, 23-25) God made the Jews a separate nation by giving them the Law. But even in his regulating of polygamy there was separateness, for none of the nations had such laws on the matter.
Jehovah’s considerateness and his progressive leading of his people are evident in this matter of polygamy. (Ps. 103:10, 14) In bringing mankind up out of the low sink of sin, God has his time to accomplish certain features of his purpose. Why, it will take the thousand-year reign of his Son Jesus Christ to wipe out all the effects of sin and to bring mankind to the perfect state, where they are no longer hindered by any vestiges of “hardheartedness” and so can live up to every aspect of God’s perfect standard. How thankful we should be for his patience and undeserved kindness!—Rom. 8:21; 11:33-36.