Does the Bible Condone Polygamy?

polygamy

Entertainer and Atheist Penn Jillette claims that nothing will make you an atheist faster than reading the Bible.  I have read through the entire Bible cover to cover multiple times, and my faith has grown through the experience.

How can this be?  Rationally thinking adults reading through the same book and coming to drastically different conclusions?  We certainly both have our own biases, and those play an important role.  But I want to challenge one of the misunderstandings that those outside the faith often have about the Bible.  It does not condone polygamy.

First of all, the Bible makes it clear that the pattern for marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

When marriage is instituted by God, Adam is given just one wife, Eve.  In Genesis 2:24 we are told that “a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  This idea is repeated in Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7, and Ephesians 5:31.  The pronouncement says “wife” and not “wives.”  Furthermore, a man can only leave his father and mother once (unless he goes back to them again, thus leaving his first wife.)

I would also suggest that a man can only experience the true union of two into one in a marriage to one and only one woman.  Thus the requirement that an overseer be the “husband of one wife” (literally: a one woman man) in 1 Timothy 3:2.

So maybe the pattern was for one man and one woman, but isn’t the Old Testament full of polygamy that God supports?  Actually, I think that Timothy Keller – summarizing the work of Berkeley Jewish scholar Robert Alter – sums up nicely how the Bible portrays polygamy: “In every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally.”

God tolerated polygamy, but He was also very strait forward in his recording of its terrible results.

In Genesis 30, tension between sister-wives Rachel and Leah reaches the boiling point over an argument about some mandrakes that turns into an argument about who gets to sleep with their husband.  Centuries later, Solomon’s many wives turn him away from God and an entire family dynasty is brought to a screeching halt.  At every turn in fact, polygamy is causing rivalry and distress among participants.  If God supported polygamy, you would think His book would hold it up as beautiful, not portray it as a train wreck.

So when those like Penn Jillette read through the Bible, they see that God condones polygamy.  When I read through the Bible, I see His beautiful plan for one man and one woman, as well as the freedom that He gives His people to deviate from that plan, and the painful results that follow.

What implications could this principle have for us today?  For those determined to undermine the Bible, it is a reminder to read with an open mind instead of a hidden agenda.  For those who put their faith in the Bible, it is a reminder that a voice may not come out of the clouds and rebuke all of Christendom anytime someone deviates from God’s original plan.

It is not enough to assume that our lives are in line with His will simply because He has not spoken to us from a cloud.  We must go back to His patterns and invest in understanding the theology of the Word.

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4 thoughts on “Does the Bible Condone Polygamy?

  1. Well, that’s shows the simple fact that you can cherry pick your way through the bible, if you want to, which simply proves that it is a completely useless old book, that anyone can interpret the way he wants, effectively putting his words into his personal god’s mouth. Want to justify polygamy? No problem. Want to ban it? Also not a problem. Slavery? Great idea. Oh, you don’t like slavery? Well, of course the bible is also against it. etc.etc.etc.etc.

    For people who want a little bit more nuanced look at the topic “Polygamy in Christianity”, I suggest starting (but not ending) on the Wikipedia page for it… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy_in_Christianity

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    • Any literary work, and especially any religious book, is open to various interpretations. That doesn’t make it a “completely useless old book.” I could pick the transcript of a recent presidential speech and cherry pick phrases to support my own views, but that doesn’t mean the speech was worthless.

      And just because verses can be picked and chosen does not mean that all interpretations of a piece of writing are created equal. Typically the most comprehensive view, when informed by the cultural and historical factors at the time of writing and the systematic teaching of the rest of the work, is the most substantial view.

      I won’t go into detail on slavery here, but since you mention it, the slavery mentioned in the Bible was an indentured servitude in which masters were told to treat their slaves with kindness. It cannot be compared to more recent atrocities.

      Thanks for the link.

      The Hebrew law did indeed provide provisions for polygamy. Much like the law provided provisions for a kingship, though God told Samuel that in asking for a king Israel was rejecting Him (1 Samuel 8:7).

      It follows then that the law was not a picture of a perfect society, but a “tutor” as Galatians 3:24 states to give the people some sense of guidance until the Messiah came.

      Also, please note that instead of cherry picking verses for my argument, I advocated the simple approach of analyzing whether the Bible portrays polygamy in a positive, neutral, or negative light.

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    • Thanks for the feedback. As the previous commenter pointed out, when reading the Bible our own biases can easily creep in. We may find ourselves picking and choosing parts of the Bible to use in specific ways to support our own desired ends. I sincerely hope that this was not the case when reading the Bible turned you to atheism. The Bible is actually a pretty incredible book with some amazing and powerful teachings!

      I’m not sure how you define “valid proof,” but I don’t believe that either theism or atheism can be objectively proven. Both are a matter of evaluating evidence and making an educated decision. If you’d like to know more about the evidence that leads me to a belief in God, consider reading my post “Where Does Consciousness Come From?” In it I comment on how contemporary science is actually discovering God piece by piece all over again after having supposedly dispensed with Him forever.

      If you define science as the pursuit of knowledge about the world through observation and experimentation, then there is no reason why science and the Bible must be mutually exclusive. If you are interested in the harmony that actually exists between the Bible and science, consider checking out some of my other articles. And science does indeed provide us with some fascinating wonders! My article on Morpho butterflies gives a great example of the amazing things science has revealed in nature.

      Never stop searching! We will both always have more to learn.

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