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Does the Bible condone polygamy?

Published: 22 July 2017 (GMT+10)

In response to one of our articles on same-sex marriage, Jim G. from the U.S. wrote to us:

marriage-man-and-woman

Homosexuality is clearly sinful and an abomination per God (Lev 18:22, 20:13, Rom 1:26–27, 1 Cor 6:9–11, 1 Tim 1:8–10). God has spoken definitively on that subject regardless of the gay-marriage advocates who try to twist scripture to say something else. However, the author errs when he excludes polygamy as a valid expression of marriage as ordained by God. Nowhere does God ever declare polygamy to be sinful or speak a negative word against it. The Law assumed that polygamy would be a valid, moral expression of marriage in Israelite society along with monogamy as shown in Exodus 21:7–11, Deut 21:15–17, Deut 22:22–29, and Deut 25:5–10. The Levirate Law in Deuteronomy 25:5–10, which commands a brother to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow and have children in his brother’s name, makes no exception if the surviving brother is already married. Therefore this command would result in polygamous marriages if the surviving brother was already married, and in practice it often did. Furthermore, God figuratively describes himself as having a polygamous relationship with Israel and Judah in Jeremiah 3:6–11 and Ezekiel 23:1–12. Also, Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:1–13 describes the coming Kingdom in terms of polygamy between a single bridegroom and ten virgins.

CMI has produced many anti-polygamy articles that all fail to engage with any of the arguments put forth by Christian polygamy groups. Tom Shirpley has written an ebook called “Man and Woman in Biblical Law” that very convincingly argues that the primary purpose of the Genesis 2 creation account was to establish patriarchy of which polygamy is a necessary and valid expression. Every argument put forth by CMI has been clearly addressed, and I would love to see an article that engages with these arguments directly.

CMI’s Keaton Halley responds:

Hi Jim,

Thank you for submitting your comment on How gay marriage harms people.

You’ve raised enough concerns about another important topic that I think it warrants us publishing a separate article. So please see my comments interspersed.

Homosexuality is clearly sinful and an abomination per God (Lev 18:22, 20:13, Rom 1:26–27, 1 Cor 6:9–11, 1 Tim 1:8–10). God has spoken definitively on that subject regardless of the gay-marriage advocates who try to twist scripture to say something else.

Agreed.

However, the author errs when he excludes polygamy as a valid expression of marriage as ordained by God. Nowhere does God ever declare polygamy to be sinful or speak a negative word against it.

In One man, one woman, we’ve explained how the Bible treats monogamy as normative. This is apparent in the creation account, for example, and in instructions to the church (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Corinthians 7:2). So it’s incorrect to say there is no "negative word against it.”

I do not think that polygamy is as drastic a departure from the biblical ideal as same-sex marriage, but it is nevertheless a departure.

The Law assumed that polygamy would be a valid, moral expression of marriage in Israelite society along with monogamy as shown in Exodus 21:7–11, Deut 21:15–17,

These are examples of regulations placed on polygamy, which do not entail an endorsement of polygamy itself. In fact, the second passage (Deuteronomy 21:15–17) concerns a situation where one of the wives is “unloved”, but surely this should not be taken to mean that the Bible approves of a man who does not love his wife.

Similarly, the Old Testament law allowed for and regulated divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1–4), but Jesus pointed out how this was an accommodation, not the ideal as determined by the created order (Mark 10:2–12).

Deut 22:22–29,

This passage is about penalties for adultery and rape so, up through verse 27, it has no relevance to polygamy. The only way that the passage might relate to polygamy is because verses 28–29 require a man who has violated an unbetrothed woman to marry her, and it is possible that such a man was already married to another. If so, then see my comments immediately below about Levirate marriage, which would hold true in this situation as well.

and Deut 25:5–10. The Levirate Law in Deuteronomy 25:5–10, which commands a brother to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow and have children in his brother’s name, makes no exception if the surviving brother is already married. Therefore this command would result in polygamous marriages if the surviving brother was already married, and in practice it often did.

Fine, but this would be an exception to the general rule that only one wife is preferable. There is a biblical principle that some moral rules will trump others if there’s a conflict, so I agree that in some situations polygamy was morally permissible—but only under very particular circumstances, where a higher law took precedence. This is not moral relativism, but graded absolutism. For instance, Jesus indicated that David was blameless for eating the Bread of the Presence as he was fleeing for his life (Matthew 12:3–4) even though, according to the Mosaic Law, it was only to be eaten by priests (Leviticus 24:9). And Jesus also noted that the priests were guiltless when they performed temple duties on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:5), despite the command to rest (Exodus 20:10).

The Bible is full of similar examples, like how we are commanded to obey the government (Romans 13:1–5), yet obligated to disobey when the government requires us to violate God’s laws (Acts 5:29; Exodus 1:15–21). So if polygamy was approved in certain narrow, less-than-ideal circumstances, this does not negate the fact that it was generally a bad idea.

In the case of Levirate marriage, we can understand the allowance of polygamy as an accommodation for a culture in which women could be reduced to poverty if they had no husband or sons (e.g., Ruth). This provision was intended to care for the widow as well as carry on the family name of the deceased. But it would not prove that polygamy was approved by God in ordinary circumstances.

Furthermore, God figuratively describes himself as having a polygamous relationship with Israel and Judah in Jeremiah 3:6–11 and Ezekiel 23:1–12.

These are figurative, as you say, so they need not be taken as endorsements of polygamy. In one of his parables, Jesus compared God the Father to an unrighteous judge (Luke 18:1–8), but this does not imply that God is pleased with unrighteous judges!

Also, Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:1–13 describes the coming Kingdom in terms of polygamy between a single bridegroom and ten virgins.

It’s not clear to me that the bridegroom planned to marry all ten virgins. Rather, the group may be composed of a single bride and her friends—something more akin to ‘bridesmaids’. It was common in that culture for a wedding processional to accompany the newly married couple from the bride’s home to a banquet at the groom’s home. And, indeed, it would seem odd even in a culture where polygamy was practiced for a man to marry ten people all at the same time.

However, even if your interpretation is correct, it would still be a misapplication of the parable to see it as an endorsement of polygamy. Jesus once compared his exorcisms to the binding of a strong man before plundering his house (Matthew 12:28–29), but this does not mean Jesus was giving approval for plundering strong men in general. It meant he was plundering the devil—that’s all. Likewise, the parable of the ten virgins means we should be ready for Jesus’ return—that’s all.

CMI has produced many anti-polygamy articles that all fail to engage with any of the arguments put forth by Christian polygamy groups. Tom Shirpley has written an ebook called “Man and Woman in Biblical Law” that very convincingly argues that the primary purpose of the Genesis 2 creation account was to establish patriarchy of which polygamy is a necessary and valid expression.

How is it necessary? Obviously patriarchy can exist without polygamy, because Adam, Noah, Isaac, and Joseph were patriarchs (heads of their families) who practiced monogamy.

Every argument put forth by CMI has been clearly addressed, and I would love to see an article that engages with these arguments directly.

I’ve at least taken the time to engage with the arguments you’ve offered so people can judge for themselves whether they do justice to the Bible’s teachings. Thank you for reading our literature and interacting with us despite our differences. Hopefully I’ve given you something to chew on as well.

Respectfully,
Keaton Halley

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