How are we to interpret events and actions in the Scriptures which do not receive explicit judgment from the LORD?
For example, the Old Testament mentions divorce and slavery and yet neither condones nor condemns the practices explicitly. The Old Testament law makes provision for divorce and yet Christ is clear that such separation of husband and wife is against the will of God (Matthew 19:1-12). God made provision for divorce for a time not because He approved of it, but because of man’s “hardness of heart.”
We see something somewhat similar in the context of slavery in the Old Testament which is regulated, but not commended. There is a difference between God describing an action and prescribing an action. The Bible describes polygamy; it never prescribes it.1 Thus we may conclude that, as with divorce, God tolerates it not due to His acceptance, but because of man’s “hardness of heart.”
When no explicit judgment is made on an action or event, we must look beyond the overt and attempt to infer from the surrounding context whether such behavior is acceptable and good. There are often implicit suggestions within the text to grant us interpretive assistance. On the topic of polygamy, we find a few helpful hints:
- The Bible consistently portrays marriage as a “one flesh” relationship of husband and wife. Genesis 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. This passage speaks of “a man” and “his wife” not “men” or “his wives.” When Jesus comments on the passage He says even more specifically, “the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5).2
- The first example of polygamy in the biblical text was in reference to Lamech, the godless murderer (Genesis 4:19-24).
- The Bible explicitly condemns the taking of many wives by the kings (Deuteronomy 17:17).3 This is especially relevant given that the polygamy of David and Solomon (both of whom were kings) are the most common examples used to argue that polygamy is condoned.
- Every biblical narrative that includes mention of polygamy is saturated with strife, jealousy, favoritism and abuse. Consider the enmity between Rachel and Leah, the conflict between the various children of Jacob, the outcome of Solomon’s life, the struggle between Sarah and Hagar,4etc. It is as if the text is screaming, “Can’t you see this overwhelming pattern when polygamy is pursued?”
- The New Testament clearly forbids leaders in the church from practicing polygamy (“husband of one wife” 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). This is particularly instructive when considering that elders and deacons were to live as examples for the church to mirror.
Why therefore did God bless the patriarchs who practiced polygamy?5 Some would perhaps conclude that God’s blessing implies His acceptance of the practice, but this is a dangerous argument. The patriarchs were not perfect and were blessed in spite of their imperfections. For example, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all deceivers and yet God blessed them. Does this indicate that God condones lies and deceit? God blesses His children because He is gracious, not because we are obedient.6
Ultimately, marriage is intended to mirror the faithful relationship between Christ and His Church. But polygamy implies polytheism by suggesting that we can distribute our covenantal affections toward a plurality of lovers. We are to be faithful to one spouse as we are to be faithful to one God. Like all other sexual sin, polygamy perverts this picture and thus obscures our view of the nature and character of God.
2 The words of Jesus on this are critical. If divorcing a wife and marrying another is considered adulterous, would we really think that we could avoid the adulterous implications by simply taking a second wife without divorcing the first?
3 The text does not specify what “many” means. Some might argue that the text condemns only an excessive number of wives (like Solomon’s 700 – 1 Kings 11:3) and not 2 or 3, but that is certainly not a necessary conclusion. It literally reads “he shall not increase wives.”
5 2 Samuel 12:8 says that God “gave” David all of Saul’s wives which some use to justify polygamy. It is important to note that there is no historical or biblical evidence that David actually married any of those wives. In that culture, part of the transfer of power involved the official transfer of the royal harem. By listing the various “possessions” of the king (household, harem, kingdoms), the LORD is highlighting the absolute nature of David’s rule. He did not inherit a divided kingdom of only part of what was Saul’s, but indeed was given everything that belonged to the former ruler. While this verse is difficult, when placed in its proper cultural context, I don’t think that it should be used to dispute God’s displeasure with polygamy in general.
6 This is not to imply that there is no connection between our obedience and God’s blessing, just that God’s blessing is most ultimately related to His mercy, which subsequently produces obedience in us.
7 I was asked this question in a missions class in seminary. Thinking I would never really have to deal with that particular context in real life, I gave it only casual reflection. Ironically, this question was one of the first to be asked when I went to Sudan for the first time. All of that to say that it is not purely hypothetical.