On Polygamy: Why Did God Allow?

Question:  Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament?

 Answer prepared by Gaylon West




            Several prominent men in the Old Testament were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, David (2 Samuel 5:13; 1 Chronicles 3:1-9, 14:3), Solomon (1 Kings 11:3), and others (In 2 Chronicles 11:21, King Solomon's son Rehoboam had 18 wives and 60 concubines) all had multiple wives. What are we to do with these instances of polygamy in the Old Testament?   Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament?    If it was a sin, why didn’t God condemn such “faithful” ones as Abraham for having Hagar?


          First of all, polygamy existed and that’s a fact.   But Jesus commented (according Matthew 19:4-5), "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'  and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?”    Someone would ask then, ‘Would this not indicate that multiple wives was not in God’s original plan?’


          If so, then why would God allow polygamy in the Old Testament?   Most commentators admit that the Bible does not specifically tell why.   Some have observed and rightly so that the best anyone can do is make “informed” speculation.  On the one hand,  1some have speculated that it was the customs of the time for families and economics (but does God just condone sin because it is a popular custom?); some others speculate that the need for filling the earth with people might have caused God to allow it (but does God condone bad [sin] in order to do good [fulfil His other commands]?);  some have said since God winked at things before Christ (Acts 17) and now commands repentance, maybe He just winked at polygamy in spite of it being a sin.    


          But can not God have His own reasons for doing things and keep them to Himself? And since it is admitted that He does not reveal why He allowed polygamy, would this not put it beyond revelation and label it as “secret” from man.   Deuteronomy 29:29 "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”





          This we do know from the Law that God sometimes does not like a thing to happen but He allows it but with regulation.  God has allowed things that He hated.  We do know that God has done this at times with the Israelites.   According to 2the KJV Bible God told the Israelites that He hated divorce (Malachi 2:16), but Jesus said that God not only allowed it to happen but commanded how it was to happen (Mark 10:3).   He regulated divorce.  

          Slavery was allowed and regulated (Exodus 21: 2-7).

          Likewise, God allowed and regulated polygamy:   e.g., God chose to regulate it by demanding that each wife must be treated equally. "If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money" (Exodus 21:10-11).

          In Exodus 21:10, a man could marry an infinite amount of women without any limits to how many he can marry as long as he can provide for her living and marital rights.  He could also have female slaves (concubines) but he could not treat them like they were a male slaves. There were special regulations for them.

1.   ALL WIVES WERE TO BE TREATED AS "DAUGHTERS": Exodus 21 :1 "Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them:  …7 "And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 "If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her.  9 "And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.  3   10 "If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. (NKJV)

2.   In Deuteronomy 21:15-17:  "If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons...."

          "If a man have two wives, one beloved and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated, and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated, then it shall be when he makes his sons to inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn."  Verse 17, "But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.

          The point is this: you have two wives.  Wife #1, you don’t like.  Wife #2, you like.  Both have sons; you’re prone to give the inheritance to the second wife, to her son, even though he is not the firstborn because you like that second wife better.  But the Law says, you cannot do it.



Some definitions of “sin” in the New Testament:

 1 John 5:17   “All unrighteousness is sin”

 1 John 3:4   “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (“transgression of the law” -KJV)

 James 4:17   “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin”

The word “sin” literally means to “miss the mark”.    The word that has the opposite meaning is Old Testament word for  "law" ("hitting the mark like an arrow").

If the Law provided for polygamy, how could it be a "sin"?                                                                                                                                                      



            1.   The proponents of those that say that polygamy was a sin under the Law of Moses, say, “Here is a man [Exodus 21] who has two wives in his lifetime.   He may not give the inheritance to the second though she is his beloved and maybe he’s long forgotten the first, but his inheritance must go to the first.  It’s a situation here and if you study carefully through the text and through the verb forms that are used here, you will see that that is supported by the text.  The word “had” is there.  The word “was hated,” past tense, relative to that wife who has died.  The argument is: PAST TENSE PROVES IT WAS NOT A MARRIAGE THAT WAS OCCURING AT THE SAME TIME BUT COULD HAVE FOLLOWED ONE ANOTHER (e.g., in death).  FALSE.  The marriages referred to are not in past tense.

            EXODUS 21:10 DISPUTES THIS POSITION.   The verb “has” or “have” (present tense, not past) is used in these translations for the time during the marriage.   The “hatred” is the one that is referred to in the “past tense” [which would be at the time of pending death] and not the marriage.  No, the marriage is to two wives.  He has two wives.   The Law permits it.  Since sin is a “transgression of the law”, how could this be a sin?

            2.  The proponents of those that say that polygamy was a sin,  say that ABRAHAM’S “WRONG” (hence, sin) WAS ADMITTED BY SARAI.

          Genesis 16:1-4   states that Sarah instigated it, she started it and led him into it.   After he lay with Hagar and  impregnated her, Sarah became jealous.    This is when she first is aware of it as a mistake.   Verse 5 says this:  Then Sarai said to Abram "MY wrong be upon you!...... the Lord judge you and me.”   

          But the “wrong” she admitted could  and should be applied to her lack of faith in the promises of God by her intervening with her presumptuous plan for God to give Abraham an heir.   Sarah must have known polygamy was not correct for some reason, maybe jealousy or moral conscious.  Yes, she could relieve those guilts by sharing them with Abraham.  An obvious consequence of this mistake and “running ahead of God” is that the nations of Abraham have suffered every since. 

          But using the slave girl Hagar as a concubine could not be classified as a sin on the basis of what Sarah admitted.  Note:  What Law would she be appealing to?  The Law had not been given to Israel yet.   Deuteronomy 5 states that Abraham and Sarah did not have the Law given to Israel.  Had God said it was wrong to take the slave girl as a surrogate mother?   God had not as yet specified that Sarah would be the mother of the promised seed.  Abraham had only been told that the heir would be of his body.  No where does the Bible indicate the “polygamy” here was a sin.

            Abraham followed either the Hurrian civil law of Haran and/or the Babylonian “Hammurabi Code” of his birthplace, Ur of the Chaldees.  The latter’s civil code specifically provided for taking a slave girl to bear a child for the barren wife and was not considered "polygamy" or at least illegal:

If a barren wife gives to her husband a slave girl who bears children to him, then he may not marry another wife (section 144); otherwise he might do so (section 145). The slave given to the husband is bound to show due deference to her mistress; if she does not do this she loses her privileged position, but she may not be sold if she has borne a child to the husband (sections
146 f). Incurable disease of the wife is a ground for the marriage of another wife (sections 148 f).



            Sarah and Abraham's action could not have been a sin based on a lack of "faith" in what God had promised "through" her.  The angels had not appeared to Abraham yet.  God had only assured Abraham that he was to have an heir from his body.


          Sarah and Abraham jumped the gun so to speak on God and PRESUMED that He wanted them to decide on their own how to make this come about.     In this sense then their lack of the Word of God instructions on the subject meant that they would have committed a presumptuous sin.


            Psalms 19:13 "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression."


          3.   The proponents of those that say that polygamy was a sin, say JACOB SINNED IN TAKING RACHEL AS HIS SECOND WIFE!  Genesis 29.


            Rachel said to Leah, "Give me of thy son’s love apples, "4 supposedly a sexual stimulation.  She said, "Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband?”  Do you see there?  In her mind, Leah says, “You took my husband."  You see?  Had God also looked at it that way?  Leah adds, "And would you also take away my love apples” also: won’t you even let me go in unto him? 

          But what does the Bible say?  God’s “curse” of barrenness was not in regard to any adultery or in taking multiple wives.     “He loved Rachel more than Leah and when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb and made Rachel’s barren.”    THIS 'PUNISHMENT' WAS NOT BECAUSE OF JACOB’S SECOND MARRIAGE BUT WAS BECAUSE HE LOVED THE SECOND AND HE HATED THE FIRST.   God eventually gave Rachel children as well as giving children to the servant girls (concubines but nevertheless were Jacob's "women" and hence our interpretation is &quo;wives"). Note that there is no word in the Hebrew or Greek for "wives."

        It should be noted that these men lived before the giving of the Law.  Abraham, for example, was allowed to marry his half sister but the Law would forbid this as incest (Leviticus 18:9).


          4.  The proponents of those that say that polygamy was a sin say Solomon’s life was a disaster and the kingdom of Israel was torn and split because of his sins which included taking “wives” and “concubines”.   We see in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, that the kings were commanded not to multiply wives.   Solomon did indeed sin in "multiplying wives" (Deuteronomy 17:17); and one consequence was his being especially being influenced by the foreign (strange) wives to practice idolatry.


          Solomon’s sins were specifically violation of the law for Israel’s kings.  He was forbidden to multiply wives.  He sinned in taking strange wives and letting them influence him to commit idolatry.   But would the law for the kings apply to the average John Doe?  Since polygamy was regulated by the Law of Moses, it would appear that the Law for kings either did not apply or, which is more likely, the condemnation is for the marriages with strange wives. The latter was unclean ("tame'") ceremonially and condemned for all. Under Ezra the people were commanded to put away their "strange" wives.






        It has been observed that often Bible teachers are embarrassed about people like Abraham, Gideon and David having several wives and concubines.   They may call David an adulterer.  But this is just not what the Bible teaches. The fact is: prior to the New Testament, God allowed this practice and it was not adultery!   If a man had two wives and two concubines he was expected to be faithful to them all.  


          But under the New Testament no regulation is given to suggest to us that God would allow multiple wives under Christ’s kingdom and authority (1 Corinthians 7:1,2; Ephesians 5:22-32). In fact, whereas God is pictured married to sisters (Israel and Judah, polygamy) in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, Jesus is monogamous with His single bride, His church. Marriage of single male and female are compared to Christ and His church (one body, one church, Ephesians 4:4).





Concubinage was practiced in many ancient cultures, especially in Mesopotamia [where Abraham was from –gw].....where a private citizen might have one or two concubines in addition to his primary wife.....a concubine was often a slave or part of the booty of war (Judges 5:30). A man might have a concubine simply as an economical form of marriage, since no dowry or bride-price was required. A concubine could add to a man's prestige by giving him two wives and thus an increased capacity for children. Such offspring were normally delivered onto the knees of the legal wife, thus establishing their legitimacy as family members. The concubine was also another servant to add to his work force.' (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1997, Vol 1, p504).


^ 2Note: some authorities indicate that in the original it was the man that hated his wife for no Scriptural cause defined in Deuteronomy 24:1 as (Heb.) "ervah dabar" and God was upset for this and called it "treachery." This would be in harmony with God's law on divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-3; Exodus 21). This corresponds also to what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:31. See Marriages Made In Heaven by Gaylon West. Chapter on Malachi 2.Available in BN and Amazon.


^ 3Note: To my knowledge this is the only passage of Scripture that authorizes a wife to "divorce" her husband. Basically, the power to divorce resided in the man (but for Scriptural cause of "ervah dabar" (Deuteronomy 24:1). See Marriages Made In Heaven by Gaylon West. Chapter on Malachi 2.Available in BN and Amazon.


^ 4Note: On "love apples": "man'-draks (dudha'im; mandragoras (Gen. 30:14; Song. 7:13); the marginal reading "love apples" is due to the supposed connection of dudha'im with dodhim, "love"): Mandrakes are the fruit of the Mandragora officinarum, a member of the Solanaceae or potato order, closely allied to the Atropa belladonna. It is a common plant all over Palestine... The plant was well known as an aphrodisiac by the ancients" according to E. W. G. Masterman, author of articles, such as, "Notes on some Tropical Diseases in Palestine" in Journal: Journal of Hygiene , vol. 14, no. 01, 1914 [quoted by ISBE.]

Question #2:   How Could Solomon Perform His Marital Duties to His Wives? ?

Question #3:   How Could Abraham Favor Isaac Over Ishmael and Yet Be Called Faithful?

Question #4:  Does God Allow Polygamy After the Law?