The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs

In daily Mass this week (4th Week in Ordinary Time) we read of the rebellion and subsequent death of David’s son Absalom. Among the causes of Absalom’s rebellion is the rivalries that set up among. the sons of David by his different wives. More on that below. But more generally we ought to ponder the problem of polygamy which is reasserting itself in Europe and other places where “thrupples” (three to get married) and other polygamous unions demanding recognition as marriage. Let’s ponder a biblical and Catholic response to this reemerging moral error.

In the Book of Genesis, God’s plan for marriage is set forth clearly: one man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Note that the word used is “helpmate,” not “helpmates.” After teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions, God puts Adam in a deep sleep and, from his rib, fashions Eve (cf Gen 2:21). Note that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam God created a woman not another man; He also created one woman—not two, not three. So, we see that both homosexual “marriage” and polygamy are excluded.

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

Given the clear plan for marriage, what should we make of the polygamy of the patriarchs (e.g., Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, and Solomon)? Does God really approve of this? There is no evidence that He thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior; in fact, it seems to go unrebuked. The fact that they have several wives is noted in Scripture more in passing, with little if any shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet rebukes David for many things, but having multiple wives is not among them.

Let’s begin by noting that the Scriptures teach truths in various ways: there is direct rebuke and punishment described for wrong-doing, but there is also subtle instruction through stories. This is the way in which the Scriptures teach against polygamy. Through various stories we learn that polygamy causes nothing but trouble: factions, jealousy, envy, and even murder. The problem was not so much the multiple wives as it was the sons they bore.

Polygamy was common among the Old Testament patriarchs. Here is a “brief” list:

1.  Lamech (a descendant of Cain) had two wives (Genesis 4:19).
2.  Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4, 25:6 (some were called concubines)).
3.  Nahor (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 received two additional wives bringing the grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
5.  Esau took a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
6.  Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
7.  Obadiah, Joel, Isshiah, and those with them had multiple wives (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
8.  Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of whom 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 whom 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 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 multiple 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).

Clearly, polygamy—at least among wealthy and powerful men—was common and brought little condemnation from God or His prophets.

The silence of God does not connote approval, however. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is approved. For example, God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8), but to permit reluctantly is not to endorse or be pleased.

Polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with in Scripture (i.e., mentioned more than just noted in passing), always spelled trouble with a capital T!

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies:

Jacob had four wives whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (whom he considered unattractive and felt himself “stuck with”), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah. Rachel was infertile for many years, but finally gave birth to Joseph and later Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, while Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.

All these sons by different mothers created tension, the greatest of which surrounded Joseph, whose brothers grew jealous and began to hate him, for their father, Jacob, favored Joseph as Rachel’s son. The brothers hatched a plot to kill Joseph, but due to a combination of their desire for monetary gain and the intervention of Reuben, he was instead sold into slavery. At the root of this sad story of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The clear teaching (among others) is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Gideon had many wives and by them many sons. Scripture tells the story of violence and death that resulted from this situation, with the sons all competing for kingship and heritage.

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 conflict was polygamy. The sons competed for kingship, power, and inheritance. They had little love for one another because they had different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his half-brothers but to his mother and her clan; he did not hesitate to slaughter them to gain power.

Among other things evident in this terrible tale is that polygamy leads to chaos and hatred. The story is cautioning, “Don’t do polygamy.”

King David had at least eight wives (Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba) and ten concubines. Trouble erupts in this “blended” (to put it mildly) family when Absalom (David’s third son, whose mother was Maacah) sought to move to the head of the line of succession. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half-brother Amnon stood in the way. The tension between these royal sons of different mothers grew intense. Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. She was Absalom’s full sister and he grew furious when King David only mildly rebuked Amnon. Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and over time nourished hatred for his father David, eventually waging a war against him in an attempt to overthrow his power. Absalom is killed in the war, and David can barely forgive himself for his role in his son’s death (2 Sam 18:33). The family intrigue wasn’t over, however.

David’s son Solomon (by Bathsheba, David’s last wife) would eventually become king but only through the machinations of his mother. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah (by Haggith), who was the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was proclaimed king in a formal ceremony. Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet and deceived David into thinking that Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made to her that Solomon would one day be king. As a result, David intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after Solomon assured his safety. Despite this he was later killed by Solomon.

What a messy situation! We have sons of different mothers hating one another, wives playing for favor and conspiring behind the scenes, and so forth. Once again, the implicit teaching is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Solomon, it is said, had 700 wives and 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. After Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah. They were never reunited, and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy and this lesson: Don’t do polygamy.

Abraham’s sexual relations with his wife Sarah’s maid, Hagar, while a case of adultery rather than polygamy, also led to serious trouble. Although Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael at Sarah’s behest, Sarah grew jealous and mistreated her, causing her to flee (Gen 16). Hagar eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finally bore a child (Isaac), she  decided that Ishmael was a threat and had Abraham drive him and Hagar 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. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once again, polygamy is lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So, the Bible does teach on polygamy. Through stories, we learn of its problematic nature. We ought not to be overly simplistic and conclude that polygamy was the only problem or that such tragedies never occur in other settings, but it clearly played a strong role.

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

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and excludes divorce.

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).

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).

Whatever 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 and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support.

Beware, polygamy is the next taboo targeted for overturning. In the wake of the legalization of gay “marriage,” polygamists and their supporters are insisting that the Bible approves of this way of life. Do a web search on “polygamy” and you’ll see many sites devoted to this thinking and to its promotion.

The basic message must be this: While reporting the existence of polygamy, the Bible also describes the consequences, which were nearly always violent. The biblical teaching, therefore, is clear: Don’t do polygamy.

Here is a clips from the movie Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  It illustrates the growing problems in Jacob’s family between the sons of different mothers. 

5 Replies to “The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs”

  1. What a spooky logic! The first killing was by an own brother, Abel/Cain. Instead of justifying your truth using Scriptures as all sinners do (original sin, all dying ones) strive to be gifted of true Faith, and Hope for ever lasting life in the Kingdom of God, where there is no Law and men are men and women are women and is Paradise.

    1. See Genesis 4:23-24 : The Bible says that Lamech, the very first man it records as having more than one wife, was more than ten times worse than Cain, the archetypal murderer. To take a second wife is in effect murder.

  2. You didn’t mention God’s alarming/awful/amusing punishment of Abraham after he took a second wife:
    God had already made a Covenant with Abraham promising him that he would be the father if God’s own people, and that all the peoples of the world would bless themselves by him. Now after Adam’s disobedience and lack of faith, God adds an extra condition to the Covenant required of Abraham and all his male descendants: Circumcision! It’s as if God wanted them all to have a permanent reminder on the very generational member of each of their bodies, reminding them of its purpose and that God had commanded men to have no more than one wife each.

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