By: Stephanie Wilcox
I was recently asked this during a conversation about marriage in the Bible. There are myriad examples of polygamy in the Old Testament and my friend struggled to think that this was sanctioned by God. Have you ever wondered about that? I think it's actually a common question and likely part of a larger question concerned with what appear to be inconsistencies between the Old and New Testaments. Do you struggle to read and learn from the Old Testament because of these differences? Do you question whether Scripture gives us a leg to stand on as we seek to uphold biblical marriage?
David’s called a man after God's own heart but had at least eight wives and concubines. Solomon, filled with God’s wisdom, is marked in history as the wisest and wealthiest of all Israel's kings, but he had a thousand wives and concubines. Jacob, a Patriarch listed among those in the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, had two wives and several concubines. It doesn't stop there—polygamy was common in ancient times.
But does that mean that God was okay with it?
Absolutely not! Let’s consider a few ways we can examine this through context, understanding descriptive vs. prescriptive Scripture, and allowing the text to speak for itself.
Context is Key!
It's easy to read about Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah and feel confused about why it's profitable or necessary for me to read about the sins of the Patriarchs. But knowing the context as I start reading allows me to understand the redemptive nature of God, the earliest history of Israel, and to observe how God imparts faith—we cannot produce it in ourselves. Context opens our eyes to all that’s happening in a passage.
But context can also widen to include a greater context beyond one book. If we broaden our gaze a little bit further we see the prevalence of sin contributing to broken marriages throughout Scripture, disordering affections, and revealing patterns of sin throughout the generations. Disordered relationship appears in the first marriage at the point of the Fall, as Adam quickly blames his wife for his own sin and a schism is introduced into the marriage relationship (Gen. 3:12). The repercussions of this initial sin flow into the coming generations. This broader context allows us to clue into the dysfunctions that we will observe in marriages comprised of sinners throughout the OT.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Scripture
Secondly, OT history narratives are primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. These are historical writings that convey the account of God's people and his redemptive works. These narratives aren't showing us how perfect and amazing God's people are. They're showing us how faithful and merciful God is—His redemption working to redeem sinners and sinful marriages. In these books we see the good, bad, and ugly.
Prescriptive scripture gives timeless instructions to apply—it prescribes right action or attitudes for us. For example, Christ taught that we must pray for our enemies rather than curse them, so that we may reflect the Father's heart (Matt. 5:44-45). This is instructive and is a timeless truth. On the other hand, descriptive Scripture tells about God, about a specific time, or instruction for a specific culture. It isn’t teaching us to imitate what we read. So when we read Exodus, we're reading the history of what happened to God's people described, not instructions for escaping a toxic work environment.
Letting the text teach
Reading about polygamous marriages as good readers, employing context and understanding what's prescriptive or descriptive, we can recognize that Scripture doesn’t condone polygamy. On the contrary, every example of polygamous marriage that we have reveals heartache and introduces disordered relationships.
As modern readers it can feel as though the OT is harsh and unloving toward women. I hope we can go into this in more depth someday, but what I know without a shadow of a doubt is that God is for women, his heart is tender towards women, and he historically redeems and restores them. Just think of Hagar—used, abused, and discarded—God appears to her, leads her to life-giving water, and gives her the promise of abundance to come. This is what God does for women! And her story isn't in isolation. Unloved Leah was given the gift of children, which culturally gave her an inheritance of provision, security, and status—all of which was provided by God rather than her husband's care. Christ as our Bridegroom does this for us, and abundantly more. Bathsheba was horribly mistreated, yet God restored honor to her and made her the mother of one of Israel's greatest kings, and better still, allowed her a place in the lineage of the King of kings.
Again, we broaden our context to understand God’s heart for marriage, this time looking ahead rather than behind. Paul gives us a glimpse into God’s desire for marriage in Titus when he addresses the qualifications for an elder. In describing eligibility for eldership in the Church, he unequivocally states that he must be married to one woman (Titus 1:6). This is setting a standard for the sort of man that is leading a local church body and worthy of imitation. Further, Paul writes in Ephesians 5:25 that husbands are to sacrificially give of themselves to their wives—laying down their lives as Christ modeled. God’s heart for marriage is that a husband would care for his wife, loving her to the point of self-denial and tremendous sacrifice. There is no place there for polygamy.
While at first glance the Old and New Testament may appear to be at odds on this matter, I hope we can see that God’s heart on the matter is consistent. And what a gift this is—He’s in the habit of tenderness and care towards women!