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Does the Old Testament endorse polygamy?

Wed October 4th, 2017

The beginning of Genesis makes God’s plan for man and woman quite clear:

Gen 1:22 Then the Lord God made the rib he had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 And the man said:

This one, at last, is bone of my bone  and flesh of my flesh;

this one will be called “woman,”  for she was taken from man.

24 This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.

So it appears that the rule in Eden was one man and one woman in one marriage.

So why does it all go wrong so quickly, and does God endorse what happens?

Down the toilet

Following the collapse of human behaviour after Eden, we next read of Lamech having two wives:

Gen 4:19 Lamech took two wives for himself, one named Adah and the other named Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of the nomadic herdsmen. 21 His brother was named Jubal; he was the father of all who play the lyre and the flute. 22 Zillah bore Tubal-cain, who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools. Tubal-cain’s sister was Naamah.  23 Lamech said to his wives:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;  wives of Lamech, pay attention to my words.

For I killed a man for wounding me,  a young man for striking me.

In one small paragraph we see polygamy and murder. We don’t hear of Lamech again but we remember him for being the first recorded man to have two wives.

The Bible accurately records the polygamy of Lamech, but it doesn’t say it approves, nor does it say anything to change God’s plan for marriage, it just demonstrates that mankind has always had choice and that Lamech exercises his! The recording of sin in the bible doesn’t endorse it – otherwise we would have to accept that Cain’s murder of his brother Able makes it legitimate to kill someone!

I think most of us can cope with Lamech, but thank God, we can always look to Abraham for a good example?

Thank God for Abraham?

Genesis 16:1 Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne any children for him, but she owned an Egyptian slave named Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Since the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go to my slave; perhaps through her I can build a family.” And Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife for him. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan ten years. He slept with Hagar, and she became pregnant.[1]

Abraham has two wives! What is this about? In fact after Sarah dies he married again (Keturah, Genesis 25:1)

We must start with our feet firmly connected to reality. What example did Abraham follow, what parts of the Bible did he have to read everyday? Did his family bring him up to follow the Lord?

Of course, there was no bible until Moses came along! No written account of God and his ways, so as hard as it sounds for us to hear Abraham did not have daily bible readings as part of his routine.

As for his family, well we read of Abraham’s first encounter with God in Genesis 12:

The Lord said to Abram:

Go out from your land,  your relatives,  and your father’s house  to the land that I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,  I will bless you,  I will make your name great,  and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,  I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt,  and all the peoples on earth  will be blessed through you. 

Didn’t read his Bible

Abram’s family were from Mesopotamia and came from a society of sun worshippers. It is quite possible that they had been on a metaphorical journey to God over many years, but the real moment of change is Genesis 12 and none of it includes a list of dos and don’ts. Funny isn’t it that people accuse Christians of having a list of behaviours, but really that is the Jews and Abraham might have been their father, as he is ours, but he didn’t have such a list himself.

When we first meet him he is a liar (about his marital status) but he is a first generation believer. He is a man who for example has to be taught that human sacrifice is not wanted by his God (read Genesis 22). He is a man, and any man whose wife offers him a much younger, attractive slave girl has to be tempted!

Feeding and protecting people

By the time Moses comes along there are ‘laws’ for guidance on almost everything. One of those issues is surviving debt and in a society where there are no banks or credit cards there has to be righteous system for making sure that no one is left on the roadside to starve to death, or indeed to sell themselves into prostitution. So we have systems for marrying your dead brothers wife to keep his land in your family and ensure that his widow doesn’t starve, and for taking a war-bride so that she will not starve or simply become a harlot.  Even for the king there is a rule about not having ‘many wives’ (which Solomon breaks so dramatically that you have to ask “wasn’t Solomon supposed to be wise?”)

There is a basic education happening in the Old Testament where sun worshippers (Abraham’s clan) and worshippers of Egyptian gods (Jacob’s descendants) are slowly being taught how to live. God doesn’t throw thunderbolts at people as soon as they sin, but relationally tries to walk with them, educating them along the way.

The New Testament is full of great guidance on how we should live and it again reminds us

Mark 10:7 But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female.,7 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and the two will become one flesh.,n So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Eph 5:31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.,w 32 This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.

Ultimately marriage between one man and one woman is supposed to talk to us about the church’s relationship with God – and there is only one God and one Church.

Just because things are recorded in the Bible it doesn’t mean that they are planned by God or desired by Him, but that they are simply a truthful recording of what happened and that we should listen to the Bible when it clearly shows us a pattern to live by and not look for get out clauses!