Don’t Do Polygamy – On the Polygamy of the Patriarchs and the Problems it Produces

When God set forth marriage as described in the Book of Genesis, there is poetically but clearly set forth a set form for marriage: one man for one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. For God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Already we see that “helpmate” is singular, not plural. After teaching the man that the animals are not suitable, God puts Adam in a deep sleep and, from his rib, fashions Eve (cf Gen 2:21). Note again that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam God created Eve, not Steve. And so we see any notion of homosexual marriage excluded. But neither did God create Eve and Ellen and Sue and Jane and Mary. And here too, implicitly and poetically, but clearly, we see excluded the notion of polygamy.

God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman. The scripture goes on to insist that marriage be a lasting union for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew = דָּבַק  = dabaq) to his wife (singular, not wives), and the two, (not three, four, or more) of them shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24). God went on to tell them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

So far, clear enough: one man for one woman in a stable, fruitful relationship of mutual help and support.

But then, what to make of the polygamy (multiple wives) of the patriarchs such as Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, Solomon, and many others? Does God approve of this? There is no evidence that he thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior. The fact that they have several wives goes un-rebuked, and is said, more in passing in the Scriptures, and narrated with little shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet has many things for which to rebuke David, but having multiple wives is not among them.

What of this polygamy?

We ought to begin by saying that the Scriptures teach in various ways. There is the methodology of straight rebuke, wherein sin is both denounced, and punished. But there is also a more subtle and inductive way that Scripture teaches, more through story, than prescription. And in this way, the Scriptures teach against polygamy. For, we learn by story and example, how polygamy causes nothing but trouble. In fact it leads to factions, jealously, envy and outright murder. The problem is less the wives, than the sons they have borne. As we shall see.

But,to be clear, polygamy was a common thing among the Old Testament Patriarchs. The list is not short:

  1. Lamech (a descendant of Cain) practiced polygamy (Genesis 4:19).
  2. Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6, some called “concubines”).
  3. Nahor, who was Abraham’s brother, had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29; 22:20-24).
  4. Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30), and  later he received two additional wives making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
  5. Esau took on a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
  6. Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
  7. Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them “had many wives” (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
  8. Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
  9. Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
  10. Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
  11. Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of which was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
  12. David, had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23; 20:3).
  13. Solomon, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
  14. Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21), and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
  15. Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
  16. Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
  17. Jehoram had wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
  18. Jehoiada the priest gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3),
  19. Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).

Well, you get the point. So we have to be honest, polygamy, at least among wealthy and powerful men, was practiced and the practice of it brings little condemnation from God or his prophets.

But the silence of God does not connote approval, and not everything told in the Bible is told by way of approval. It would seem for example, that God permitted divorce because of the hard heart of the people (cf Matt 19:8). But to reluctantly permit, as God does, is not to command or to be pleased.

And, as we have noted, God teaches in more than one way in the Scriptures. For the fact is, polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with (i.e. mentioned more than merely in passing), always spells “trouble” with a capital “T”.

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies.

1. Jacob had four wives whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (who he felt stuck with and considered unattractive), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid)  and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him 6 sons and a daughter : Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah. Rachel, his first love, was stubbornly infertile, but finally bore him Joseph, and later, Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, Zipah bore him Gad and Asher.

Now all these sons by different mothers created tension. But the greatest tension surrounded Joseph, who his brothers grew jealous of, and began to hate. His father, Jacob favored him, since he was Rachel’s son. This led to a plot to kill him, but due to profit, and Reuben’s intervention, he ended up being sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites. At the heart of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess and the unspoken, but clear teaching, among others is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

2.  Gideon, as we have seen, had many wives (Jud 8:30) and by them many sons. Scripture shows forth a story of terrible violence and death that results from many sons, by different mothers all competing for kingship and heritage. Scripture tells the terrible story:

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who lived in Shechem also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. At a good old age Gideon, son of Joash, died and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal (i.e. Gideon), went to his mother’s kinsmen in Shechem, and said to them and to the whole clan to which his mother’s family belonged, “Put this question to all the citizens of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you: that seventy men, or all Jerubbaal’s sons, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ You must remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” When his mother’s kin repeated these words to them on his behalf, all the citizens of Shechem sympathized with Abimelech, thinking, “He is our kinsman.” They also gave him seventy silver shekels from the temple of Baal of Berith, with which Abimelech hired shiftless men and ruffians as his followers. He then went to his ancestral house in Ophrah, and slew his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), on one stone. Only the youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, escaped, for he was hidden. (Judges 9:1-5).

At the heart of this murderous and internecine conflict was polygamy. Brothers who competed for kingship, power and inheritance, and brothers who lost little love on each other since they were by different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his brothers, but to his mother, and her clan. Thus he slaughtered his brothers to win power.

Among other lessons in this terrible tale is the lesson of chaos and hatred caused by polygamy, as if to say, “Don’t do polygamy.”

3. King David had at least eight wives – Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba, and “10 concubines.”  Trouble erupts in this “blended family” (to say the least), when Absalom (the third son of David), whose mother was Maacah sought to overcome the line of succession and gain it for himself. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half brother Amnon stood in the way. The tensions between these royal sons of different mothers grew very hostile. Amnon raped Absalom’s full sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and nourished hostility for his Father David, and eventually sought to overthrow his Father’s power by waging a rebellious war against him. He is eventually killed in the ensuing war, and David can barely forgive himself for his own role in the matter (2 Sam 18:33).

But the family intrigue isn’t over. Solomon would eventually become king, but only through the court intrigues of his mother, Bathsheba, David’s last wife. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah, (Son of David’s wife Haggith) the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was acclaimed King in a formal ceremony. But Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet, and deceived David into thinking Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made her that Solomon, her son, would be king. David thus intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after assurances of his safety by Solomon. Yet, still he was later killed by Solomon.

Here too, are the complications of a messed up family situation. Sons of different mothers hating each other, wives playing for favorite and securing secret promises, conspiring behind the scenes and so forth. At the heart of many of the problems was polygamy and once again the implicit teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

4. Solomon, it is said, had 1000 wives (700 wives, 300 concubines). Again, nothing but trouble came from this. Scripture says,

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women….He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord.… (1 Kings 11:1-6)

The tolerance of pagan religious practices encouraged by these wives, along with other policies led to great hostility and division in the Kingdom and led, after Solomon’s death, to the northern Kingdom of Israel seceding from Judah.  There was never a reunion and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy and the lesson, once again is “Don’t do polygamy.”

5. Abraham’s dalliance with his wife’s maid Hagar, while not strictly polygamy, more adultery really, also leads to serious trouble. For Hagar bore Ishmael, at the behest of Sarah. But, Sarah grew cold and jealous of Hagar and Hagar fled (Gen 16). She eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael but later, when Sarah finally bore Isaac, Sarah concluded that Ishmael was a threat and had to go. She had Abraham drive her away (Gen 21).

Ishmael went on to become the Patriarch of what we largely call the Arab nations, Isaac’s line would be the Jewish people, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Polygamy, once again, lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So, the Bible does teach on polygamy and, through stories, teaches us of its problematic nature. We ought not be overly simplistic with these stories as if to say that polygamy was the only problem, or that these things never happen outside polygamous settings. But polygamy clearly plays a strong role in these terrible stories.

It would seem that God tolerates polygamy in the Old Testament, like divorce, but nowhere does He approve it.

In Matthew 19, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and hence excludes divorce. For he says, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt 19:8-9) He also says, Have you not read, that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt 19:4-6).

Back to Plan A – So, what ever one may argue with regard to the Old Testament’s approach to marriage, Jesus makes it clear that we are going back to plan A: One man for one woman in a stable fruitful relationship of mutual support.

Pay attention though, polygamy is coming next. Already, in the wake of so called “Gay Marriage,” the polygamists are stepping up and insisting the Bible approves their way. Just Google “Polygamy” and you’ll see a lot of sites devoted to this thinking, and to the promotion of polygamy. It’s coming next, indeed, it is already here, in a big way on the Internet.

Photo Credit: Purpleslog via Creative Commons

Here’s a light-hearted description of Jacob’s polygamous family:

Here’s where things start go sour:

27 Replies to “Don’t Do Polygamy – On the Polygamy of the Patriarchs and the Problems it Produces”

  1. Haydock or Lapide….. can’t remember… said it was so they could fill the planet. i.e. be fruitful and multiply. And when that was accomplished, it was no longer tolerated. Not that it is a great excuse:)

      1. That was the LDS justification, too. It is an unhappy way of life for women and children. It’s much more common than it would seem…

  2. except for marital unfaithfulness – misleading, not accuarte and not proper translation.

  3. ‘God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman.’

    The more I think about it the more I see any variation of this plan on the macro level to be destructive of Western civilization, and on the micro level, destructive of the human dignity of men, women and children.

    Aside from the homosexual agenda, there is another agenda we should be concerned with. I would like to mention the Islamic plan which permits a man to ‘marry’ up to four wives at any one time and permits a man to very easily divorce any of his wives and acquire a replacement. This way of looking at marriage is not compatible with the Christian perspective and the Church would do well to preach against it and properly inform women who enter into ‘marriage’ with a Muslim man what exactly marriage means in Islam. The word is the same the but the difference is vast. The legacy of tragedies for women and children are too numerous to mention.

    This difference is a major civilizational challenge to the West and is actually permitted (or ignored) now in many Western countries for fear of offending our Muslim brothers and sisters.

      1. Just to give this Muslim marriage issue another perspective: Islam is a political religion and so its rules and interpretations vary according to the country.

        In Malaysia, where it is the national religion (Malaysia is not an Islamic State, contrary to what many foreigners seem to believe), polygamy is generally frowned upon among the local Muslim population (which makes up the majority of the population in West Malaysia, but not East). Its sort of like spitting in a shopping complex. No one is going to forbid you from doing so, but it is not the norm and discouraged.

        In any event, the way it works here as I understand it, is that unless the man swears to God that he will be able to care equally and adequately for all his wives (including the one he is marrying) and obtains the consent of the current wives, polygamy forbidden. I personally know many married Malaysian muslims (50?) and none of them have more than one wife.

  4. Msgr. Pope thank you for this warning. Now there is now also a cable show called “Sister Wives,” propogandizing about how archaic Mormon’s are “persecuted” for their practice of polygamy and how great polygamy is for is for “sisterhood” among women? Evidently; according to the show, LasVegas is the only haven of tolerance for poligamists. Go figure! While I am not sure that the problems polygamy poses for monarchs always applies to middleclass Americans, I do think that the American Catholic Church should say a lot more about this pernicious trend. Thank you!

  5. Polygamy is not tolerated and is not at all possible with the Sacrament of marriage. Nor is polygamy possible for baptized Christians, who can only have a marriage that is a Sacrament, not a natural marriage. However, the marriages of the Patriarchs were natural marriages only. If it were intrinsically evil to have polygamy in a natural marriage, it would not have been tolerated. That trouble results from polygamous natural marriages is in the circumstances of the act, not the moral object.

  6. Priest-man, thank you for this. Rarely do I see an implicit condemnation of Martin Luther and his endorsement of polygamy.

    On the otherhand, no thank you for the Osmonds. I think I lost my lunch.


  7. Thanks for writing this. I think the “moral of the story” about polygamy in the Old Testament is obvious, but it’s clearly overlooked by some people.

    As an aside, do you know when polygamy disappeared from Judaism? It seems to be mostly, if not entirely, absent by the time of the New Testament. It would be interesting to know when that happened and what the reasons for it were, since they would not include the sacramental aspect of Christian marriage.

    As for the secular West, it is in the uncomfortable position of having long tolerated married men openly supporting “mistresses”, yet trying to justify outrage if the same man were to refer to a “mistress” as a “wife”. We can no longer tolerate these “traditional” vices without falling into the Bottomless Pit.

    1. Yemeni Jews were still practicing polygamy in the 20th century. My reading indicates that in countries that permitted polygamy, some Jews had multiple wives. I do not know if Israel permits new polygamous marriages, but Israel did tolerate the polygamous marriages of Jews coming from Yemen.

  8. Msgr. Pope writes a good post on his blog about the seeming conflict between the monogamous plan of creation in Genesis and the practice of polygamy by the ancient patriarchs. In passing, he notes that marriage is defined by God as a relationship between a man and a woman. The core purposes of marriage are also espoused:

    1. Adam is lonely and is given a helpmate who complements him in a shared nature.
    2. Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply.

    The unitive meaning (fidelity) and procreation are stressed. There is nothing capricious about this bond. It is expected that it will be lasting and life-long. They are no longer two, but one.

    But as we hear from our Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, there is a problem with their hardness of hearts. The early believers are much like their pagan neighbors. The marriage bed is compromised with many would-be spouses and Moses would even allow a writ of divorce. This is not the way things were supposed to be.

    It may be that primitive men of faith lacked the capacity to receive the fullness of truth and God tolerated or even used a situation that would later be remedied. Further, as with various Islamic men today, such extended households were usually reserved to the wealthy and/or to the leadership. Most men had their hands full caring for one wife and family. By the time of Jesus, polygamy was frowned upon and the sin of adultery was attached to any who would compromise a singular union. We must learn from God’s Word, not by extracting isolated proof texts but by an integral approach which respects progressive revelation. The people of God grow in the ways of God and the fullness of truth.

    Msgr. Pope argues that the rivalries between the wives and the place of their children are illustrative that polygamy was always frowned upon by God. It is fraught with problems. I would concur, although even having one wife can be a source of both joy and heartache, going back to Adam, the first man. When ladies lament that they feel sorry for priests and wish we could get married, I often respond (somewhat tongue-in-cheek), “Why would I want to get married; I have enough penance in my life!”

    Today, our society is indeed returning to the transgressions and abuses of the past. Divorce and remarriage, or the practice of cohabitation and fornication, is essentially serial or successive polygamy. Similarly, just as certain Greeks tolerated and institutionalized homosexual liaisons, there are efforts today to condone and legalize same sex civil unions. When will we learn?

    1. That’s funny! My friends are always telling me that I need to let love and romance into my life (I am divorced). But I too have enough penance in my life. As if romantic love were so wonderful!

  9. Your title would be more alliterative if it were “Pass Up Polygamy…” 😉

  10. Of Joseph you say “…he ended up being sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites.- I’m having a long hard look at islam at the moment – I was told Hagar was Egyptian and went back to Egypt with Ishmael and therefore in no way can the Arabs claim descendency from Ishmael and therefore Mohommad had absolutely no claim on descendency from Abraham? What say you? – Blessings – Rene

  11. Not only polygamy is coming next because of the “logic” of “same-sex marriage.” Also on the horizon is incestuous marriage.

    That’s right — a child marrying one of his or her parents.

    Not necessarily for sexual reasons, but because of the legal benefits pertaining to marriage. Namely, the marital deduction from gift/estate taxes. Only recently, that taxation was as high as 55 percent of the taxable estate, such that an estate passing to a child would generate a tax bill of that amount. However, there is allowed a 100 percent deduction from the estate for transfers between spouses, so an estate passing from a deceased spouse to a living spouse will incur no taxes whatsoever.

    As such, it would be gross incompetence for an estate lawyer not to recommend that a child marry his parent in order to obtain the benefit of the marital deduction. Otherwise, that same child would have to pay a substantial amount in taxes upon that parent’s death.

    And, of course, whether or not that child and parent ever engage in sexual relations is none of the government’s business, so that cannot be used as a justification for not permitting them to marry if same-sex couples and polygamists can marry.

  12. St. Thomas Aquinas discusses polygamy in the Summa (Suppl., questions 65-66). He makes distinctions: Polygamy is not contrary to the primary precepts of the natural law, which have to do with procreation and raising offspring, but is contrary to the secondary precepts, relating to the amicable relationship between the spouses. In question 66, article 5, he offers an example of a pope who dispensed a subdeacon from rules regarding bigamy.

  13. >St. Thomas Aquinas discusses polygamy in the Summa (Suppl., questions 65-66). He makes distinctions: >Polygamy is not contrary to the primary precepts of the natural law, which have to do with procreation and >raising offspring, but is contrary to the secondary precepts, relating to the amicable relationship between the >spouses. In question 66, article 5, he offers an example of a pope who dispensed a subdeacon from rules >regarding bigamy.
    Did St. Thomas address both forms of polygamy ? While polygyny, or multiple wives, is much more common, polyandry, or multiple husbands, is not unheard of .

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