Author's Note: This article is an updated version of the one published in May 2006. The article has undergone various minor revisions, but this revision involved a complete examination of the article and the references cited. The basic substance has not changed, but all Scripture and Internet references have been rechecked and in some cases updated. Some web addresses used previously were found to be defunct. All the Internet addresses cited in this edition are active as of the date of this publication. In addition, the manner of citing references has been changed to conform to academic standard and hyperlinks added for many works on the Internet and in the public domain.
Sources: Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB Updated Edition (1995). Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article along with a complete list of my research sources. Numbers in brackets refer to references in the Works Cited section at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic writings and message I use the terms Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ), Tanakh (Old Testament), and Besekh (New Testament) and incorporate other appropriate Hebrew and Jewish terms. (See the glossary.)
Polygamy has become a hot topic in America due to the various lawsuits challenging state constitutional bans on the practice and the growing numbers of polygamous families in the United States. Some Christian conservatives have joined with secularists to attack polygamy as an aberrant and immoral behavior, lumping polygamists in with homosexuals. This article represents my own investigation of polygamy in its historical, biblical, and contemporary context to help Christians better understand the issue.
By etymology polygamy means “many marriages” (polus, many, and gamos, marriage or wedding) and thus the functional meaning of polygamy in Western civilization has always been “plural marriage with many wives.” In other words, the husband is the polygamist and the wives are monogamous to him. Polygamy is not group marriage, which has a communal basis, nor polyamory ("many loves"), which consists of multiple sexual relationships.
Anthropologists generally identify the sub-categories of polygamy as polygyny, multiple wives, and polyandry, multiple husbands. Some polygamists prefer to say they practice polygyny rather than polygamy to reinforce this distinction. When describing marriage customs in ancient cultures other social researchers use a more general definition of polygyny to include unmarried partnerships, such as concubinage.
In contrast monogamy is defined as the exclusive union of one man to one woman until separated by death or divorce. In many countries of the world monogamy has the advantage of exclusive legal sanction.
History of Polygamy
Polygamy and polygyny have existed since recorded history and practiced throughout the ancient Near East, the Far East, the Mediterranean empires, Europe and Britain as attested by royal archives of kings and Caesars and writings of ancient historians such as Moses, Herodotus, Demosthenes, Polybius, Strabo, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus. Besides legitimate marriage, temple prostitution and the spoils of war were the two most common sources of women for polygynous men. Records of explorers and missionaries in the Christian era confirmed the widespread practice of polygamy among native tribes in Africa and the Americas.
Some ancient societies did offer protection to wives against a second co-wife. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi stipulated that in the absence of special circumstances (such as infertility, sickness or misconduct of the first wife), the existing wife first had to agree to the second union (Scheidel 21). Only among the Greeks and Romans was there any effort by civil authority to enforce monogamy for legitimate marriage. Hunt and Edgar in a journal article Select Papyri mentions one Greek marriage contract reads, “It shall not be lawful for Philiscus to bring in another wife besides Appolonia” (Adams 81).
However, concubinage was universally practiced in all ancient societies as illustrated in the famous quote from Pseudo-Demosthenes (4th century BC), "Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households" (Speeches: Against Neaera, 59:122). In non-Jewish cultures a concubine was not a legal wife, but a slave woman who lived with a man (often married) to provide regular sexual relations. Children of this type of union were not considered legitimate.
The Bible records at least forty men by name with multiple wives, including four Gentile kings: Abimelech (Gen 20:17-18), Benhadad (1 Kgs 20:3-4), Ahasuerus (Esth 1:9), and Belshazzar (Dan 5:2). At least half the men had more than two wives. The earliest recorded plural marriage was Lamech (two wives, Gen 4:19), six generations after Adam. Even though Lamech is the only polygamist identified before the global flood, there is no reason to believe that he was alone in that status. The post-flood patriarchs continued the plural marriage tradition: Terah (Gen 11:26; 20:12), Nahor (Gen 22:20-24) and Abraham (Gen 16:1-3; 25:1-6). While Isaac was monogamous his two famous sons were polygamous. Esau had five wives (Gen 26:34; 28:9; 36:2-3) and Jacob had four (Gen 29:23-28; 30:4, 9). Eliphaz, son of Esau, had two wives (Gen 36:11-12).
The twelve sons of Jacob and their descendants no doubt continued to be polygamous considering the number of men of fighting age and the number of firstborn counted after the Exodus (Num 1:2; 3:40). Other notable men during the Israelite confederacy identified with plural mates included Simeon, (Gen 46:10; Ex 6:15), Manasseh (1 Chron 7:14), Moses (Ex 2:21; 18:1-6; Num 12:1), Caleb (1 Chron 2:18-19, 46, 48), Gideon (Judg 8:30), Gilead (Judg 11:1-2), Elkanah (1 Sam 1:2), Jerahmeel (1 Chron 2:26), Ashhur (1 Chron 4:5), Ezra (1 Chron 4:17f), Mered (1 Chron 4:17-19), Machir (1 Chron 7:15f) and Shaharaim (1 Chron 8:8). The tribe of Issachar was particularly noted for its practice of polygamy (1 Chron 7:4). Other men during this time may be considered polygamous by virtue of the number of sons listed: Jair (Judg 10:4), Abdon (Judg 12:14), Ibzan (Judg 12:9), and Shimei (1 Chron 4:27).
During the Israelite monarchy, the kings, their sons and other prominent men took multiple wives. Named individuals include King Saul (1 Sam 14:50; 2 Sam 3:7), King David (1 Sam 25:42-44; 2 Sam 3:13-14; 5:13; 6:20-23; 12:8), King Solomon (1 Kgs 11:3), King Rehoboam (2 Chron 11:18-21), the sons of Rehoboam (2 Chron 11:23), King Ahab (1 Kgs 20:3), King Jehoiachin (2 Kin 24:15), King Abijah (2 Chron 13:21), King Jehoram (2 Chron 21:14), King Joash, (2 Chron 24:2-3), and King Zedekiah (Jer 38:23). Other men during this time may be considered polygamous by virtue of the number of sons listed: Heman (1 Chron 25:4) and Ziba (2 Sam 9:10).
Polygamy was not only common among the people of Israel before the first century, but was practiced in the apostolic era and the age of the church fathers. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian mentioned that the “ancient practice among us to have many wives at the same time” continued in his day (Antiquities of the Jews XVII, 1:2). Though not indicated in Scripture, King Herod the Great of the Nativity story had ten wives (Ant. XVII, 1:3). The church father Justin Martyr (110-165) mentions that in his time Jewish men were permitted to have four or five wives (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, §134). His comment echoes the attitude of the Jewish Mishnah, codified in writing c. 220 AD. (The Mishnah reflects Jewish traditions and debates of Jewish leaders from as early as AD 70.) Rabbinic scholars assumed the continuance of plural marriage and imposed rules for treatment of multiple wives and their children in estate matters.
In 212 the lex Antoniana de civitate made monogamy the law for Romans, but specifically exempted Jews. The law indicates the presence of plural marriage in the Roman world. Later, in 285, Diocletian rescinded the exception, but in 393 Theodosius enacted a special law against plural marriage among the Jews since they persisted in the practice. An increasing Jewish population was viewed as a threat, just as in ancient Egypt (Hillman 20f). (In the 20th century polygamy among Muslims eventually gave them the upper hand in Lebanon.)
About the year 1000 a rabbinic assembly convened by the Ashkenazi Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (960-1040) issued an edict prohibiting polygamy for a thousand years, thereafter known as “the ban of R. Gershom” (Maimonides xxiv). The ban of Gershom was adopted because of pressure from the predominant Christian culture, which viewed polygamy as barbaric. The concession did not ease antisemitism nor did it end Jewish polygamy.
Sephardic Jewish communities in the Moslem countries of the East did not acknowledge Gershom’s edict. The famous 12th century Sephardic legal scholar, physician, and philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) supported Talmudic tradition and reiterated laws regulating plural marriage in volume four of his Code called The Book of Women.
When Israel became a state in 1949, Gershom’s ban became legally binding on all Jewish residents. According to the article Marriage at the Jewish Virtual Library website the only accommodation that was made allowed those who came to Israel with more than one wife to keep their family intact, but no new wives could be added. Yet some Sephardic Jews in Israel continued to take second wives in "underground" marriages sanctioned by rabbis who oppose the legal ban.
Polygamy among Jews is not limited to Sephardim. Jews living in Yemen and Ethiopia practice polygamy under the belief that Israel's rabbis are wrong in their prohibition of plural marriage. Another group of polygamists associating with Judaism are the "Black Hebrews," some 2,000 black Americans who emigrated illegally from urban Chicago to Israel in the early 1970s, claiming to be descendants of one of the (so-called) lost tribes of Israel (Smith). (See my article The Twelve Tribes of Israel.)
Perhaps the first known Christian leaders to advocate plural marriage were Basilides and Carpocrates, early second century religious teachers in Alexandria, Egypt (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, 28:2). They were condemned as heretics by the Church, more for their theology than their marriage beliefs. In actuality concubinage continued long after the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Even as late as the Roman councils of 1052 and 1063, the suspension from communion of laymen who had a wife and a concubine at the same time implies that mere concubinage was tolerated. It was also recognized by many early civil codes ("Concubinage," Encyclopedia Britannica 1911).
However, at the Council of Trent in 1563 the Catholic Church opposed plural marriage in the strongest terms. In Canon II of the Doctrine on the Sacrament of Matrimony, the Church declared: “If any one saith, that it is lawful for Christians to have several wives at the same time, and that this is not prohibited by any divine law; let him be anathema.” In the Decree on the Reformation of Marriage the Church banned “concubinage” in all their lands and called upon the civil authority to enforce this ruling by the most severe punishments to those who did not put away their concubines.
The edict institutionalized monogamy, requiring all weddings to be performed by a priest, and adopted a belief that marriage so entered is both a sacrament and indissoluble (once married always married). However, in spite of declaring marriage a sacrament, celibacy became even more sacred. Canon X of the Doctrine on the Sacrament of Matrimony declares: “If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema.”
By its elevation of celibacy the Church created its own version of polygamy by enticing thousands of women to disobey the creation mandate and renounce the high calling of being wives and mothers to become "brides of Christ." Yeshua became a polygamist. In 2006 the Franciscan Sisters website stated, “A sister or nun … is a bride of Christ, because He has chosen her for this purpose. Her main identity is as a spouse of Christ. The Lord asks her to sacrifice marriage and family life and to belong to Him alone” (Frequently Asked Questions). The website has now been amended to say that sisters are a sign that the Church is the "Bride" of Christ, although the nun who has taken Perpetual Vows wears a wedding ring (Common Questions).
Concubinage may have been outlawed but men routinely had mistresses in Catholic Europe, including the priests, with little or no punishment for the blatant immorality. The Protestant Reformation did little to change the marriage theology or the mating practices of men, thereby fostering wholesale injustice to women. Divorce did not become widely legal until the 19th century, but it was no remedy to the root problem created by the Church. Combined with the Western romantic myth of a right mate for every person, churches have often treated divorced persons as pariahs. If Catholic doctrine were true then with the number of divorces and remarriages in the last century the Body of Christ is in a polygamous mess.
Polygamy is still widespread in the world, whether in the form of plural marriage, concubinage or both. Islam allows men to have up to four wives, and as many concubines as desired. According to the ethnographic data in the Atlas of World Cultures, 1041 out of 1231 societies are polygynous. Christian missions have suffered in some areas due to not treating the issue with sensitivity. (See the Christianity Today articles by Seamands and Isichei.)
America has a long history of polygamy beginning with the Indian tribes, all of whom were polygamous when America was colonized. By the mid-1800s each tribal council had banned polygamy to curry favor with the white government and under the influence of white missionaries. Polygamy still persisted among Indians, however, as evidenced by the 1900 census of Oklahoma that asked whether individuals in the household were living in polygamy.
In 1830 polygamy was embraced as a religious tenet by Joseph Smith and eventually accepted by his Mormon followers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formally banned polygamy in 1890 as a condition for Utah entering the Union and since then has actively excommunicated members found to be living in polygamous households. However, polygamy has continued among Fundamentalist Mormons who believe that polygamy is essential for achieving the highest degree of heaven.
While most Americans would associate polygamy with Mormons, polygamy among religious and non-religious people exists in every section of America in spite of legal constraints and social ostracism. Estimates of those who practice plural marriage range anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000.
Polygamous families generally live together under one roof or wives may occupy separate houses or apartments nearby. Some religious families adopting a patriarchal model may add wives at the husband's discretion, but other families operate more democratically with the husband seeking the consent of his wife/wives to add another wife. When living in one house each wife may have her own bedroom. The husband may rotate sleeping with his wives or all the wives may share his bed for sleeping. In most cases intimacy takes place privately with each wife.
Another form of polygamy has a long history in America. A lawyer in the South related to a family therapist how his father had another family “down the road,” which his mother knew about and just accepted (Chapman 38f). While many women would not tolerate such "bigamy" once they learn of it other women choose to share their man rather than endure the destruction of divorce.
Few Christians are probably aware that Martin Luther preferred secret bigamy to divorce and remarriage. If a woman had an impotent husband she could enter with her husband's consent a secret marriage with his brother or another male mutually agreed upon, and raise any children of this second union as if they were those of the impotent husband. Luther believed such an arrangement was far better than divorce and ensured continuing companionship and support for each spouse, while at the same time it prevented whoring and adultery on the part of the healthy spouse (Braun 251).
Other Christian advocates of polygamy arose in the 17th and 18th centuries, most notably John Milton (1608-1674), the famous author of Paradise Lost, Martin Madan (1726-1790), an itinerant English preacher in the Calvinist Methodist movement and author of Thelyphthora, or A Treatise on Female Ruin, and Wesley Hall (1711-1776), brother-in-law to John Wesley and dedicated evangelist. Hall had the distinction of actually practicing polygamy and yet many churches and Christian evangelicals supported him throughout his ministry (Milton).
Many modern Christians may find it difficult to believe but there are Christ-centered, Bible-believing conservative Christians espousing and living in plural marriages. Polygamy as a cultural phenomenon among Protestant Christians came into existence (or came out of the closet) in the early 1990s and should not be confused with Mormon polygamy. The theological and Scriptural foundations are totally different for the two systems. Protestant polygamists, while espousing traditional Christian doctrines, believe strongly that Scripture permits polygamy and the church should recognize that fact. The following is a review of what the Bible says about polygamy.
See my article Marriage By Design.
In the beginning God commanded Adam to multiply his descendants and fill the earth (Gen 1:22; 9:1). Thus, marriage has been God’s normative pattern and will for men and women since Creation. He wants every man to be married and every woman to have a husband (cf. Gen 2:18, 21-24; 1 Cor 7:2; 11:7-9). For descendants to multiply marriages multiplied and at some point men decided it would be good to have multiple wives. Perhaps women simply outnumbered men, as now, and with the need of their care and protection the men took seriously the creation mandate of Genesis 3:16 that requires a woman to be under the authority of a man, whether a father or a husband (cf. 1 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:12). With the revelation of the Torah to Israel God demonstrated His acceptance of polygamy. The divine commandments were not designed to regulate polygamy out of existence, but to assure proper treatment for the women and children involved.
Status of Women
Scripture identifies the mates of polygamous men mostly as wives (Heb. ishshah), but sometimes as concubines (Heb. pilegesh). These two categories are distinguished from other women with whom married men could not have legitimate sexual relations (Lev 18). Ishshah has a two-fold meaning. The root meaning of ishshah is “woman,” but when it is used of a woman who has freely agreed to belong to a man with the right of consummation then the word is rendered as “wife.” The first occurrence of ishshah as wife is in reference to Eve (Gen 2:25). In Jewish society a pilegesh was a legitimate wife, though of lower rank than the principal wife, which is indicated by the references to a pilegesh as wife (Gen 25:1; 30:4; 35:22; 2 Sam 12:11; 16:22; 1 Chron 1:32), a pilegesh's husband (Judg 19:3), the pilegesh's "father-in-law" (Judg 19:4), and the pilegesh's "son-in-law" (Judg 19:5). A pilegesh did not cohabit with a man unless married to him (TWOT II, 724).
Because of her status a pilegesh was entitled to the same care and respect accorded any wife (Gen 16:3; 30:4, 9). In fact, King David was so moved by the maternal love of Rizpah, the pilegesh of Saul, that he had her children buried in the family sepulcher (2 Sam 3:7; 21:8-14). In Gentile nations a concubine was at best a kept mistress and at worst a sex-slave that could be hired out to friends or brothels by her owner. However, a pilegesh was not to be violated or harmed by another man. Thus Jacob never forgave his eldest son for violating Bilhah (Gen 35:22, 49:4). According to the story of Gibeah (Judg 20) 25,000 warriors of the tribe of Benjamin lost their lives on account of the abuse and death of a pilegesh. To engage in intercourse with the king's pilegesh was tantamount to usurpation of the throne, as Abner did with Rizpah (2 Sam 3:7) and Absalom did with his father David's concubines (2 Sam 16:21-22).
The real difference between a pilegesh and the principal wife in ancient times had to do with property. A man did not have to pay a bride-price for a pilegesh nor did she have a dowry. According to the Babylonian Talmud a man was not required to provide a pilegesh a formal betrothal (kiddushin) or a ketubah (marriage contract) (Sanhedrin 21a). The practical effect of not having a marriage contract is that the pilegesh was not assured of an amount to be settled on her should her husband die or divorce her. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Kethuboth 29d, a concubine also received a ketubah, but without the guaranteed financial support in the event of divorce or death of the husband (Pilegesh, Jewish Encyclopedia). In modern times a pilegesh might be likened to a common-law wife. There were various ways a woman might become a pilegesh.
Since the greatest curse a woman could experience was barrenness, an ishshah might give her maid to her husband as a substitute in order to have children, as in the cases of Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Zilpah, Rachel and Bilhah (Gen 16:2-3; 35:22). The irony is that in these cases the female servant still retained that status even though she had become a wife (Gen 16:9; 21:10; 31:33; Ex 23:12).
If a family fell on economic hard times a father might consider selling his daughter as a bond-servant (Ex 21:7-9). In other words, a man might buy a man’s virgin daughter, either for himself or his son. If the buyer changed his mind after the sale, but before consummation, he must let her be redeemed by another Israelite. She could not be sold to a foreign people.
Men were allowed to take women captured during a war as their concubines after a respectable period of mourning (Num 31:18; Deut 21:10-13).
There have always been women who would prefer a husband to loneliness, economic deprivation or harlotry. Thus a woman, such as an unattached virgin, a divorced woman or widow, might agree to become a man’s concubine for their mutual benefit. It may be that Keturah fell into this category (Gen 25:1). In the days of the Israelite monarchy concubines were added to the household simply for the sexual desire of the husband (Eccl 2:8). While King David had ten concubines, his son, Solomon, far exceeded this number with 300 (1 Kgs 11:3). Solomon’s son Rehoboam had 60 concubines.
Having more than one wife was a practical benefit for the man’s intimacy needs considering the rules of the Torah that made a wife unavailable for sexual activity for forty days after delivery of a baby boy and sixty-six days for a baby girl (Lev 12:2-5), seven days out of every month for her menstrual period, and during the time that she experienced an abnormal menstruation or any discharge other than her menstrual flow (not an uncommon experience of women) plus seven days following it (Lev 15:25).
Security for Wives
The foundational law for the security of wives in a plural marriage is found in Exodus 21:10. A man was only to take an additional wife if he could financially afford to take care of her. He was not to reduce the food or clothing of the first wife to share it with a second wife. And, he had to ensure that he met the intimacy needs of all his wives.
The Torah also includes a provision for the children unparalleled in ancient society. The firstborn son was entitled to receive a double portion of the estate when the father died and became the head of the family. God required that in plural marriages the inheritance rights of the firstborn of the family must be honored regardless of which wife delivered the firstborn (Deut 21:15-17).
The pilegesh’s children had equal rights with those of the principal wife. They were never treated as illegitimate. Even though Isaac was Abraham’s heir, Abraham nonetheless bequeathed gifts to the sons of his concubines (Gen 25:6). Jacob's sons by Bilhah and Zilpah shared equally with his sons by Leah and Rachel. Abimelech, the son of Gideon and his Shechemite concubine, subsequently became king over a part of Israel (Judges 8:31).
How Many Wives?
The question about whether God imposed a limit on the number of wives a man might have is often debated, since God placed certain restrictions on the king in Deuteronomy 17:15-17. The Hebrew verb “multiply” in verse 16 means to increase with many. The primary issue in the restriction is multiplying wives of the wrong type, that is, women who practiced idolatry. The corollary is seen in the same prohibition of multiplying horses and wealth. The king was not prohibited in increasing his wealth or having more than one horse, but he was not to trust in a strong chariot army, vast riches or political treaties through marriage to provide Israel’s security.
Jewish Talmudic scholars later determined that this commandment applied not just to the king but also to all men. While the Torah regulation did not specify a numerical limitation the Jewish scholars determined that the maximum number of wives that a man may marry is eighteen based on the example of David (Sanhedrin 2:4), but in general they discouraged taking more than four wives for meeting their conjugal obligations (Yebamoth 44a). As Maimonides ruled, “A man may marry several women, even a hundred of them, either at the same time or one after another, and his wife may not hinder him therein, provided that he is able to supply each one of them with the food, raiment and conjugal rights due her” (87).
Besides the freedom given to men to take multiple wives, there were three specific situations in which a man incurred marriage obligations, even if he already had a wife: sex with an unbetrothed woman (Ex 22:16-17; Deut 22:28-29; cf. 1 Cor 7:36), death of a married brother without a male heir, called yibbum or Levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-6) and redemption of property bound to a childless widow of near relation (Lev 25:25-26, 35; Ruth 2:1; 3:2; 4:14). (See my articles Marriage in Ancient Israel and Levirate Marriage for more exposition on these topics.)
New Covenant Torah
The Torah regulations concerning plural marriage could not have been invalidated by the New Covenant since its very purpose was to enable God’s people to obey Torah commandments (Jer 31:31-33; Luke 1:68-75; 22:20; Gal 3:17; 1 Cor 7:19; Heb 8:7-13; 10:15-16). The only Torah commandments explicitly superseded in the New Testament are those related to Temple sacrifices for sin and the Aaronic priesthood. In recent years the Catholic Church and a number of Protestant leaders have issued landmark statements affirming that the Old Covenant has not been revoked as far as the Jews are concerned. (See the published monographs Reflections on Covenant and Mission and A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People.) The implications for the continuing authority of Torah provisions on mandatory marriage and regulation of polygamy are staggering, yet little considered.
Yeshua made it clear that He had not come to subvert the Torah (Matt 5:17). He also conveyed to His apostles the authority to make binding decisions to guide the people of God (Matt 16:19; Eph 2:19-20). One would think that if either the Lord or the apostles had intended any change to be made to the Torah permission and regulation of polygamy, they would have articulated new laws. The silence of Yeshua and the apostles on this matter should not be ignored.
Polygamy in the Background
As an accepted practice among ancient Jews polygamy would have been very familiar to the Jewish apostles. It would only be natural for the early congregations, consisting of mostly Jewish members, to include polygamous families. The New Testament does not handle polygamy forthrightly as the Old Testament, but there are some allusions or inferences regarding the practice.
When John the Baptist rebukes King Herod for committing adultery, the fact that Herod’s father just before that time had ten wives receives no censure.
In the parable of the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13) there is no mention of the bride simply because the virgins are the brides. In fact, early copyists of New Testament Greek manuscripts recognized the straightforward meaning and added "and bride" to several manuscripts at the end of Matthew 25:1 (GNT 96). Latin translations also added the words, including Jerome's Vulgate. Yeshua essentially commended the five prudent brides for keeping plenty of oil available for their lamps while waiting for their polygamous husband. That is the plain meaning of the text. As mentioned above in the quote from Maimonides, Jewish law permitted marrying multiple wives at the same time and no doubt some Israelite kings built their polygamous households in this manner.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1 Paul rebukes the church for tolerating a man’s immoral relations with his father’s wife, the same sin committed by Reuben who slept with his father’s wife, Bilhah (Gen 35:22). This kind of immorality did not exist among the immoral Gentiles, because incest was banned among the Greeks and Romans.
In Hebrews 3:2 Paul contrasts God's compliment of the faithfulness of Moses with the faithfulness of Yeshua, alluding to Numbers 12:7, the context of which pertains to Moses taking a second wife.
Care of Widows
In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul rules that widows over 60 would be supported by the congregation if there were no family members to assume the duty (1 Tim 5:4-10). This is general guidance for believers with blood relatives who are widows (i.e., mother, grandmother, aunt). Paul’s instruction concerning widows in 1 Timothy 5:14-16, however, sounds remarkably like application of the Torah obligation of yibbum, that is, marrying the widow of a brother without a male heir. In verse 14 Paul expresses a strong desire that younger widows (those of childbearing age) would be married. It is not unthinkable that in his Jewish understanding he would expect the nearest male relative to take on the Torah responsibility.
Paul makes this clear when he commands in verse 16 that if any believer has widows (related by blood or marriage), then the believer must accept the responsibility of those widows. Modern versions translate the word for "believer" with "woman who is a believer" because the noun is feminine. However, the gender of the Greek word is immaterial since its corresponding word in Paul's native language of Hebrew is also feminine and it has a general usage. The KJV introduces the verse with "any man or woman that believeth," which reinforces the generic application. This instruction is an apostolic command which has the full authority of the Yeshua behind it and the Torah expectation of fulfilling the requirements of yibbum.
Polygamy faces three types of criticism: its legality, its effect and its morality.
By legal definition polygamy exists when one marries or cohabits with more than one spouse at a time in purported exercise of plural marriage. The term implies more than two in contrast with bigamy which means a second marriage distinguished from a third or other (Black 1044). All the states adopted antibigamy laws shortly after the founding of the country. The Edmunds Act of 1882 made bigamous cohabitation a misdemeanor, but the Edmunds-Tucker Anti-Polygamy Act of 1887 classified polygamy as a felony. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in 1890 (Davis). Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah, which joined the union after that date included bans against polygamy in their state constitutions.
Christian opponents to polygamy often categorize polygamists as lawbreakers and appeal to the apostolic command to be "in subjection to the governing authorities" (Rom 13:1; cf. 1 Pet 2:13-17). Of course, adultery is also a crime and a much more serious problem in America than polygamy. Even Christians commit adultery. Yet, there is no clamor to jail all the adulterers. The truth is everyone breaks the law, if it’s only the speed law. Scripture says that anyone who breaks even one law has violated the law as a whole (James 2:10).
It is ironic that those who object to polygamy on the grounds of obeying Caesar also lionize colonial patriots who not only broke the law but overthrew a legitimate government by force of arms. The truth is that Christians around the world are quite ready to break the law to stop abortions, spread the Gospel or perform other acts of conscience in order to obey God’s Word. It was for this reason that Jews in the first century continued to practice plural marriage in spite of the Roman "standard" of monogamy. Yeshua's statement about "whom God joined together" (Matt 19:6) illustrates that marriage in Israel was always the province of God and the family, not the idolatrous civil government.
In my view those who practice polygamy, especially from a religious basis, have been unfairly treated. Christians should not tolerate infringements of religious liberty, just because it doesn’t fit one’s theology. One only needs to survey the case archives of Christian legal advocacy organizations to understand the insidious and pervasive nature of the problem. The U.S. is not a Christian nation and our right to practice our faith according to the Scriptures and our conscience is under attack every day.
Polygamists employ various strategies to avoid legal penalties. Some don’t register any marriage or call themselves married either publicly or on government forms. After all, bigamy and adultery are only crimes for married people and only a few states still criminalize "lewd and lascivious" cohabitation (Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia). Polygamists may call additional wives “concubines” since there are no laws against concubinage. Some polygamists divorce and marry each wife in turn in order to establish a lawful basis for the relationship. There is no law against living with your ex-wife and this procedure allows partaking of the legal benefits of marriage.
There is some good news for polygamists. The attorneys general of Utah and Arizona have said in recent interviews that they have no intention of prosecuting polygamists unless they commit other crimes such as incest or taking underage brides (Szep). As a result polygamist communities and leaders have become more open with authorities to report offenses against minors. Actually the real threat to polygamists across the country is not prosecution but social opposition, whether expulsion from churches, discrimination by employers or child custody lawsuits instigated by disapproving relatives.
Perhaps it’s time for Christians to return to a biblical view of marriage. A covenant of lifetime companionship without a bureaucratic license was considered marriage for over five thousand years before the government got involved. Government sanctioned ceremonies, whether civil or religious, do not guarantee the durability of a relationship. Half of all legal marriages, including Christian, end in divorce, usually with much acrimony and at great expense. This is better than polygamy?
The second attack on polygamy criticizes the nature of the relationship. The Media has given sensational coverage to several cases of "marriage" to underage girls or close relatives, the most notorious of which are Warren Jeffs and Tom Green. Such stories suggest that all polygamists in America are either rapists or prurient religious fanatics. The rhetoric of conservative family activists criticizes polygamy as being just too improper, too unhealthy for the good of society. The practice surely demeans women and harms the children involved. And, the only reason it exists is to give men all the sex they want.
In response polygamous wives are openly defending their choice in Media interviews, insisting they have not been coerced, don’t feel demeaned and are not sex slaves. Some have even offered compelling glimpses into their lifestyle through books and websites. (See the Polygamy References and the Polygamy Websites sections at the end of this article.) They're quick to remind the public that every polygamous marriage has more women in it than men. From their point of view polygamy is primarily for women.
Polygamy has even become a new arena for feminists to assert their cause. In monogamy the wife often struggles with the expectation to be all things to her husband and children. Feminists regard polygamy as liberating. The noted libertarian John Tierney defended polygamy in a March 11, 2006, New York Times editorial, in which he declared that polygamy "isn't necessarily worse than the current American alternative: serial monogamy." He goes on to quote a woman in Utah who shared her hubby with seven others but enjoyed the shared day care arrangement.
"If I'm dog-tired and stressed out, I can be alone and guilt-free," she explained in a speech to the National Organization for Women. "It's a rare day when all eight of my husband's wives are tired and stressed at the same time." She said polygamy "offers an independent woman a real chance to have it all" and represented "the ultimate feminist lifestyle."
Family therapist Audrey Chapman wrote about non-Mormon American women that voluntarily chose a polygamous lifestyle. The women she interviewed told of safety, security and stability in their households. One woman remarked that she “knows at all times where her husband is.” She also said, “I’m not worrying all the time that he’s going to leave and break up my family” (Chapman 46). Another polygamous wife told Chapman that her relationship with a co-wife works because they don’t see their husband as a possession. The wives in these households avoid rivalry by scheduling personal time with their husband and the husband including them in decision-making. A surprising revelation came from one wife when asked about their sex lives. While sexual contact is kept private and each wife respects that intimacy, she reported, “Actually not much sex occurs, because the relationship is not based on their physical union, but upon a spiritual basis instead” (Ibid. 47).
The reality is that 500 years of enforced monogamy has not prevented uncommitted cohabitation, underage or forced marriage, dishonest bigamy, adultery, wife swapping, prostitution, seduction, rape, incest, child and spouse abuse, desertion, the child-welfare state, and other social ills. Social history since the Council of Trent suggests that the monogamy-only policy has actually contributed to these problems due to the libidinous propensity of men and the surplus of women in the world.
The evidence indicates that the great majority of American polygamists have not contributed to the cultural decay. By all accounts they are decent, hard-working and law-abiding citizens with strong moral, ethical and family values. One can only wonder how a man making a vow of lifetime fidelity, being responsible for the welfare of his wives and their children and teaching them to live by God’s Word can possibly be unhealthy or harm the women and children. Indeed, Christian and Fundamentalist Mormon polygamists seek to honor the principles of marriage found in the Bible just as committed Christian monogamists.
The third form of criticism addresses the biblical material and classifies polygamy as either a form of immorality at worst or a dispensational condition that ended with the New Covenant. Biblical characters that engaged in polygamy are typically cast in a bad light and we must not be like them. The main problem for these critics is that nowhere in Scripture, including the New Testament, is the practice of polygamy classified as sinful, prohibited or even criticized (cf. Rom 4:15; 5:13). It is never included in the definition of adultery, prostitution or incest.
Moreover, there is not the slightest hint of disapproval in Scripture from God or any biblical character toward a man because of having multiple wives. The spiritual and salvation implications for Abraham, Jacob and their blood descendants would be very grave if polygamy were to be defined as wicked (cf. Deut 23:2; John 8:41). In reality, all of the biblical marriage values and ideals can apply to plural marriage as well as to monogamy. The biblical record of polygamists proves it. To call polygamists immoral is calumny of the worst degree.
The names of polygamists in Scripture include many good and righteous men faithful to God, including Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Caleb, Abdon, Elkanah, King Abijah, King David and King Joash. Many other names are listed without any character evaluation and only a few had a bad reputation (Lamech, Esau, King Rehoboam, and King Ahab). King Solomon, who had the most wives, is difficult to classify, since he began well and ended badly.
Some of these stories clearly reveal God’s attitude. Not many Bible expositors consider that when Hagar ran away from Sarah, God told her to go back to her marriage (Gen 16:9). After the death of Sarah Abraham had at least two wives at the same time without any adverse comment from God (Gen 25:1-6). When Aaron and Miriam opposed Moses' decision to take a second wife (Num 12:1-9), God defended his action by extolling his faithfulness (Num 12:7) and punished Miriam in particular for her opposition.
After David committed adultery God’s rebuke reminded him that in addition to the multiple wives and concubines David had, God had given him the widows of King Saul into "his bosom" (KJV), which means conjugal relations (cf. Gen 16:5). Moreover, God would have given him more wives if he had asked (2 Sam 12:8). So, God not only permitted polygamy and directed marriage in situations of Levirate marriage that would result in polygamy, but was willing to act as a matchmaker for polygamy.
Another factor often ignored is that plural marriage was highly valued in Israelite culture by the women. Sarah, Rachel and Leah were all eager for their husbands to take a concubine-wife in order to have children (Gen 16:2; 30:3-4, 9). Deborah, the godly judge of Israel, in her song of praise to the Lord after the defeat of Sisera included in the list of the blessed spoils of war “a maiden, two maidens for every warrior” (Judg 5:30). When Ruth the Moabitess married Boaz the women of the village said, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah” (Ruth 4:11). Abigail joined David’s polygamous household without reservation (1 Sam 25:39-43). Indeed, Scripture records the joyful anticipation of marrying the polygamous king (Ps 45:10-16; SS 6:8-9).
Often overlooked is that God even portrayed Himself as a polygamist to teach a spiritual lesson (Jer 3; Ezek 23). In short, God has never permitted something He deemed immoral. If God had wanted only monogamy just one “thou shalt not” would have taken care of the matter. When God permits something or allows something He is still making a choice. When God is morally outraged He does not keep it to Himself. There are things God hates clearly identified in Scripture, but polygamy is not one of them.
Researching the subject of polygamy has been an enlightening and thought-provoking venture. Polygamists offer cogent arguments for their lifestyle and deserve to be heard. Polygamy is not going away and polygamists will continue to press for equal rights. It's long past time in my view to de-criminalize polygamy between consenting and competent adults. I encourage all Christians to study for themselves what God’s Word has to say on this important issue and let Scripture be the final arbiter. I think our churches could benefit from increased dialog on this subject and greater charity toward those who choose to live differently than the majority.
Other Works Consulted
Atlas of World Cultures, Patrick Gray, ed., University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.
Batchelor, Mary, Marianne Watson, and Anne Wilde. Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage. Cedar Fort Publishers, 2000.
Edersheim, Alfred. Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
Hillman, Eugene. Polygamy Reconsidered. Orbis Books, 1975.
Kilbride, Philip L. Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option? Bergin & Garvey Paperback, 1994.
Essays and Academic Treatises
Batchelor, Mary, Marianne Watson, and Anne Wilde, I Would Never...Go Back to Being a Monogamous Wife, beliefnet, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/66/story_6652_1.html.
Bergstrom, Theodore C. On the Economics of Polygyny, (private paper) University of Michigan, 1994; http://www.econ.ucsb.edu/~tedb/Evolution/polygyny3.pdf.
Harford, Tim. I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do: The Economic Case for Polygamy. Slate Magazine, Feb 18, 2006, http://www.slate.com/id/2136453/.
Mouw, Richard. A Modest Defense of Polygamy, beliefnet, http://www.beliefnet.com/story/78/story_7881_1.html.
Scheidel, Walter. Sex and Empire: A Darwinian Perspective, Stanford University, 2006, http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/050603.pdf.
Batsheva bat David, From A Woman's Perspective: The Case For Polygamy, http://pilegesh.blogspot.com/2007/01/from-womans-perspective-case-for.html.
Greenstone, Julius H. “Polygamy,” Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12260-polygamy.
Kurtz, Stanley. Here Come the Brides: Plural Marriage is Waiting in the Wings. The Weekly Standard, Dec 26, 2005, Volume 011, Issue 15; http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/494pqobc.asp.
Schechter, Solomon & Joseph Jacobs, “Levirate Marriage,” Jewish Encyclopedia, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9859-levirate-marriage.
Soukup, Elise. Polygamists, Unite!: They used to Live Quietly, But Now They're Making Noise. Newsweek, May 20, 2006, http://www.childbrides.org/cpac_Newsweek_after_gay_marriage_polyg_activixm_rises.html.
Sudan Pushes Polygamy, BBC News, 15 August 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1493309.stm.
Turley, Jonathan. Polygamy Laws Expose Our Own Hypocrisy, USA Today, October 3, 2004, http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/columnist/2004-10-03-turley_x.htm.
Wolfson, Hannah. Christian Polygamists on the Move, Associated Press, July 19, 1999, http://www.rickross.com/reference/polygamy/polygamy24.html.
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Copyright © 2013 Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.