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December 20, 2010

Flipping through radio stations I’ve learned to recognize the tagline “family-friendly” as code for a Christian radio station. The re-branding of Christianity as a matter of social cohesion at the level of nuclear family is not one I particularly care for. But today I do not intend to address this dislike. Instead, I intend to address one of the family-unfriendly things about the Bible: polygamy. Polygamy is, to quote a Kuwaiti friend of mine (Kuwait allows a man to have multiple wives) “legalized mistresses”. So what’s it doing in the Bible?

Before we start we should quickly define some terms. When we say “polygamy” we primarily mean polygyny where one man has multiple wives. In polyandry a woman has multiple husbands while polygamy is simply multiple marriages. The Bible does not deal with generalized polygamy but polygyny which is why this topic is part of the Women in the Bible series.

I was able to locate twenty-seven characters in the Bible who are unambiguously polygynous and two who are on the edge. In this case, unambiguously means that this person was stated to have more than one wife/concubine. I grouped wives and concubines together because both relationships are long-term legal arrangements. In fact, telling a wife from a concubine is quite difficult. Wives and concubines are both simply called women of so-and-so. Concubine is also a separate term, פילגש (pilgash), and so any woman called פילגש is a concubine. However, a woman called only a woman of so-and-so may be a wife or concubine. Obviously, my strict selection criteria almost certainly excludes a lot of polygynists (although polygynists are limited in number due to roughly even birth rates of men and women and the expense incurred by a man who tries to support more than one wife). However, we are interested in what the Bible says about polygyny which makes the men whose marital status is unknown a less-useful territory.

Of the twenty-nine polygynous characters that I identified some, like Abraham, have large sections of text devoted to them. Others, like Izrahiah and his sons, have so few lines that we know little more than their names and that they were polygynous. If we divide these men into categories based on the amount of text about them and their marriages we get the following. Some of these men have a lot of space devoted to both them and their marriages: Abraham, Jacob, Elkanah (who appears in the narrative of one of his wives, Hannah, devout mother of the famous Samuel), David, and Solomon. Some of these men are well-known but their marriages receive relatively little comment: Esau, Gideon, Saul, and Caleb. This category should also include the kings Rehoboam, Abijah/Abijam, Jehoram, Joash, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. There are also several men who are much less familiar to us and whose marriages receive as little comment as the rest of their lives: Lamech, Nahor, Ashhur, Izrahiah and his sons, and perhaps Manasseh and Eliphaz. These last two have only a concubine each listed but the manner of reference to the concubine suggests that she is not the only woman married to them. Finally, four pagan rulers are obviously polygynous: the Pharaoh Abraham encounters, Abimelech, Ahasuerus, and Belshazzar.

A number of these men are not good people. The pagan rulers cannot be held up as examples of moral conduct. Neither can Esau, Lamech (who takes up almost all his lines in the Bible with threats of vengeance and murder), and the kings Saul, Rehoboam, Jehoram, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Of the eighteen characters left nine have so little said about them that it is nearly impossible to know if we should consider them as exemplary men or not.

The nine who remain should be trimmed further. Caleb, Abijah, and Joash are all known to be polygynous on the basis of short snippets. While it’s important to note that the Bible doesn’t stop to yell at them for this, these passages are less illuminating than the remaining passages. For instance, we know that Gideon is polygynous on the basis of a few lines. However, most of these lines deal with the fallout of Gideon’s polygyny: his son Abimelech (not the pagan king) by his unnamed concubine tries to murder his own half-brothers so that he can assume sole rule. The Bible does have a judgment about Gideon’s polygyny: it caused trouble.

The remaining five examples are much more fruitful. All contain statements or stories about the marriages of the polygynists. For instance, Solomon’s downfall is directly attributed to his wives. I don’t know if we can call this a “polygyny is bad” passage since it focuses on the pagan status of his wives but it is certainly not the endorsement of polygyny that might otherwise be gleaned from a story about a wise king with hundreds of marriages. This is the most direct statement but the other stories are (mostly) not hard to understand.

Abraham, like Gideon, ends up with family strife. Hagar and Sarah (his concubine and his wife) come into conflict, Ishmael and Isaac (Abraham’s sons by Hagar and Sarah) come into conflict, and Abraham ends up driving his concubine and his son out into the desert. Interestingly, Abraham has not at this point been told that he will have offspring through Sarah, merely that he will have offspring. That promise comes later and so the idea that Abraham is doubting God’s promise by marrying Hagar doesn’t seem to fit the narrative very well. There’s no explicitly religious reason for Abraham not to marry Hagar, but the story still says it was a bad idea and perhaps the sort of thing Abraham should have known would turn out badly.

Jacob’s story is even more intense. A huge section of the story is devoted to the trouble in Jacob’s family because he married two sisters and eventually their maidservants as well. The competition between the wives is clearly destructive and it’s noteworthy that the sons that throw Joseph (Rachel’s son) in a well and then sell him to slave-traders are his half-brothers. It’s also noteworthy that Joseph, much later in the story, shows special concern for Benjamin his only full brother. I suspect that he worries that his half-brothers have turned on Benjamin now that he, Joseph, is gone. Even if I’m wrong about this the conflict in this family is a terrible thing and the conflict between the sons prompts Jacob to claim he will die from grief on several occasions.

Elkanah’s story is really Hannah’s. Elkanah appears only as scenery. His other wife, Peninnah, has children but Elkanah loves Hannah more. With distinct Rachel/Leah echoes Penninnah is described as Hannah’s rival. Eventually Hannah has had enough (despite Elkanah’s perhaps ham-handed attempts at comfort) and visits the Temple in tears to pray for a child. God vindicates Hannah by giving her a son who she gives into the service of the temple. This son grows up to become the last judge, the king-maker Samuel. Despite the happy ending for Hannah and her portrayal as a virtuous woman, the fact that God has to intervene to vindicate her says nothing good about life in Elkanah’s household.

This leaves only David. David’s story is convoluted and I’m not sure I follow it nearly as well as I would like. I’ll say it flat-out: the beginning of David’s story seems to be a place where one could argue that polygamy is seen as a good thing. In 1 Samuel 25 we learn that David has taken two wives. The story centers on Abigail and mentions at the end that David’s first wife has been divorced from him and remarried but that David has married a woman named Ahinoam. Whether David marries Abigail before or after Ahinoam is not clear. What does seem clear is that David is to be commended for marrying Abigail. Abigail also seems to have improved her lot by this deal – David is a good man headed for kingship while Abigail’s late husband was terrible. There’s a case to be made that this is an endorsement of David’s polygamy. It’s not a very good case, though. Abigail may or may not be a second wife in the important sense. She’s second chronologically but she may not be the second of two women to whom David is simultaneously married. It’s unclear whether this is a story about polygamy at all at the critical point.

David seems to remain married to these two women, and them only, until he becomes king. In 1 Samuel 30 the Philistines raid David’s home base, the town of Zilkag, and capture, the text tells us, David’s two wives. In the next chapter Saul is killed in battle, an event that leads directly to David assuming the throne. In 2 Samuel 5:13 we learn that David, as king, marries more women – something that is not surprising when one considers that marriages between royal families were an integral part of many Near Eastern alliances, peace treaties, and suzerain-vassal treaties at this time.

The story of David returns to the issue of women, marriage, and David’s overactive libido in 2 Samuel 11, the familiar story of Bathsheba. Suffice it to say that this incident, in which David arranges to have a loyal soldier who insists on following Israel’s purity laws murdered to cover the fact that David has raped his wife, is a disaster for everyone involved. David is rebuked (although not for polygamy – part of the rebuke centers around the fact that, as king, David has plenty of women without stealing the wives of his subjects) and God promises that David will find enemies and war in his own house. This is, in fact, exactly what happens. By the end of David’s life, two of his sons are dead by violence. Amnon, David’s firstborn, has raped one of his half-sisters. David has not, apparently, learned how to deal rightly with women and has done nothing so David’s second-born son, Absalom, the raped Tamar’s full brother, has killed Amnon. Absalom himself starts a rebellion against David (in which Absalom publicly has sex with several of David’s concubines to assert his authority – the feelings of the concubines about this are not mentioned) and is eventually killed. David dies with his house still divided between his chosen successor Solomon and his son Adonijah who expected to be chosen instead.

So where does this leave polygyny? Well, it’s not explicitly condemned anywhere in the Old Testament and the condemnation doesn’t get much more explicit in the New Testament where only certain church leaders are to be “husbands of only one wife”. A number of men who are great people in the faith are polygynous. At the same time every single story that could be said to be about polygyny is about bad things happening because of polygyny. These stories aren’t only stories about how bad things are for the women either, although many depict one and sometimes both wives as victims of their husband’s polygyny. The Biblical verdict on polygyny is consistent: wherever it is addressed it is a bad thing.

Why isn’t polygyny explicitly banned? I don’t know, but I have several thoughts. First, it’s hard to see what it would be replaced by. Much of the patriarchal system would need to be reworked first – something that did, eventually, happen right around the time that polygyny began to be frowned upon. Second, that may have simply been too much change too fast. The only reason to make explicit a command that is otherwise clear is to force those who don’t want to comply but also don’t want to be seen as noncompliant to comply. However, if they aren’t going to comply anyway there’s little point in doing that. Those who want to do what is right have a long list of examples to meditate on. Those who don’t won’t anyway. While the lack of an explicit ban may be disturbing I’m less than convinced that an explicit ban would have changed anything. Our own society, after all, is explicitly monogamous when it comes to marriage but a number of men (especially powerful men) still maintain essentially polygynous relationships. Simultaneously, despite the lack of such a ban rabbinical tradition developed a dislike of polygyny and Christianity came to ban it entirely. While the Biblical mandate may be mostly implicit it is consistent and intelligible nonetheless.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert permalink
    June 21, 2015 5:04 pm

    Your thesis about polygyny bearing strife could also be applied to Adam and Eve’s monogamy, which bore Cain and Abel and therefore the murder of Abel.

    • Eric permalink
      June 22, 2015 10:50 am

      Not really. In the cases I list above polygamy was a fairly direct cause of problems. In the case you mention monogamy really isn’t even an important part of that story. It happens that Adam and Eve were monogamous but the direct cause of conflict between Cain and Abel has nothing to do with their parents’ monogamy. In fact, before you’d get to monogamy as a cause of conflict you’d need to condemn allowing adult children to live in the same area, having children, and having sex. In the story of Cain and Abel proper Adam and Eve aren’t even characters, just generative causes of the characters.

      If you want to pick fratracidal conflict that does relate to the number of women the father of the characters is married to you’d need to look at the story of Joseph or the story of Absalom. But those are stories about half-siblings in polygamous families.

  2. Mavex permalink
    September 27, 2016 4:45 pm

    I do think it is actually condemned in
    Gen 2:23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
    Gen 2:24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

    Which is quoted in matt 19 we also know God does not change and the Son does not contradict the Father

    • Eric permalink
      September 30, 2016 5:50 pm

      I agree that it is condemned – implicitly. I would also call the section you quote an implicit condemnation. It’s not explicit, and was clearly something that many polygamists thought applied to their marriages. (Indeed, some modern polygamists think the same.)


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