As early as Lamech in Genesis 4 and making a sideline appearance in the law code with Deuteronomy 21:15’s “If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other”, the idea of “one man, one woman” seems suspicious. The heritage that we know with Jacob and his two women on through the kings of Israel makes this idea of monogamy at least something to be questioned.
Is it the cultural mores that suggest one over the other? Did it revolve an early need to procreate quickly as St. Augustine notes, a need that is no longer exceptional? Could it be reduced to an economic argument? Or perhaps it simply makes little sense romantically and we might be surprised that Paul knew this and espoused it - “husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). Maybe it’s a spiritual concern - “A deacon must be the husband of but one wife” (I Timothy 3:12).
But, as with other issues there is not an absolute clarity on a theological basis with regards to polygamy. Rather, we must get at our conclusion of monogamy by marrying together various traditional and spiritual overtones.
I asked David Petersen, professor of Old Testament at Emory University to answer a few questions.
MHP: The creation account of Genesis seems to order the universe. And, in so doing the idea of one man and one woman as a unit appears to be "the order." Is that reading to much into the account? Because discounting something supernatural or untold, procreation occurred in unspecified ways. Maybe? Is there a wide interpretation on these points?
David Petersen: The accounts of creation in Genesis accomplish many purposes. Among them are several depictions of what it means to be human. Diversity in gender is one hallmark of the priestly account (Gen 1:27) whereas the notion of “the man and his wife” feature in the non-priestly account (Gen 2:25). The latter text is surely an etiology for marriage, but not a legal text. The issue of procreation is mentioned in the priestly account, but the command “to be fruitful and multiply” is not explicitly linked to marriage (Gen 1:28).
MHP: Polygamy does not appear to be a directive from God nor one put down in the Levitical code (like Islam with the allowance of four if treated equally). So, if that's the case, was it an adoption of the wider culture? When did it happen. For example, it appears the Noah and his sons only had one wife each and Abraham had only Sarah by law. Law?
DP: Anthropologists have developed various terms to describe patterns of human marriage. Several of these terms work well for characterizing marriages in the book of Genesis. The family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar represents polycoity, a family in which one male has sexual access to several females, only one of whom is the primary wife. The family of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel involves sororal polygyny, a marriage in which one male has several wives, all of whom are sisters. These two forms of marriage are consistent with the kinship structure present in Gen 12-36, namely, patrilineal endogamy.
MHP: Did God ever disdain the taking of multiple wives? Jacob had two in that sordid tale that looks like a likely "gotcha" story given his deceit. We know David had several, but the judgement is the immoral taking of Bathsheba. And Solomon, it seems, is more about the secular influence of kowtowing to their gods.
DP: Any number of texts in the Hebrew Bible attest to polygyny (one man with multiple wives), though none to polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). Genesis includes the names of four women who were married to Esau (Gen 28:9; 36:2-3). Elkanah had two wives who apparently had, in principle, equal status (1 Sam 1:2). Several Judahite kings were remembered as having many wives. The reasons for this are probably multiple. The deuteronomistic history reports that one of Solomon’s marriages symbolized a treaty relationship (Pharoah’s daughter, 1 Kings 3:1). One of David’s wives clearly helped him achieve legitimacy in his dynastic struggle with the Saulides (Michal, 1 Sam 18:27-28). Solomon’s marriages received bad press, not because of the number of his wives, but because they led him to venerate deities other than Yahweh (1 Kings 11:1-8). No such comment is made about David and his wives. Finally, a law in the book of Deuteronomy clearly presupposes a case in which one man had two wives (Deut 21:15).
There does seem to be a move away from polygyny in the Persian and Greco-Roman periods. Economic factors were no doubt important. It is hard to imagine two wives of a sort described in Prov 31:10-31, a text that probably dates to the Persian period, in one household. Extra-biblical evidence for Jewish family practice, e.g., the texts from Elephantine, need to be integrated into this discussion.
MHP: So, is polygamy sinful?
DP: The Hebrew Bible does not condemn, i.e., construe as sin, the diverse patterns of family life attested in its pages.
Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.