Does the Bible really approve of Polygamy?

Throughout this year, I have been preaching through the book of Genesis with my congregation. Last Sunday we arrived at Genesis chapter 16, where polygamy is mentioned for the second time in the Bible. Earlier in the Bible (and in human history), we read about a man named “Lamech” who had two wives (Gen. 4:19-24). The context of Genesis 4, however, is easily perceived as negative. That is: “Lamech was a bad man; and this bad man did multiple bad things, including the taking of more than one wife.”

Genesis 16 records polygamy in the household of an essential character in the Biblical storyline (even a “good guy”), Abraham.  This is often a topic that becomes quite problematic for many Christians who want to be consistent in their adherence to and affirmation of the Bible.

Since the Bible tells us that polygamy was practiced by some of the most important leaders of the Judeo-Christian Faith, how can any Bible-believing Christian argue for monogamous marriage today?

Well, here are seven points of consideration that will help us gain a better perspective and help us have a good answer to the big question:

  1. The Bible consistently affirms Monogamous Marriage
    • The Bible clearly institutes and defends monogamous marriage defined as a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:21-25).
    • Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 2:21-25) is undoubtedly the first wedding ceremony, and God divinely institutes and defines marriage at that point.
    • Both Jesus (Matt. 19) and Paul (1 Cor. 7) refer back to Genesis 2 in reference to defining and regulating marriage.
    • When the Bible speaks positively about marriage (particularly in any imperative or didactic way) it consistently affirms monogamous, lifelong, male-female relationships.
  2. Abram and Sarai are clearly depicted as disobeying God in Genesis 16
    • Ancient pagan and common customs at the time of Abram and Sarai did allow for (at times even obligate) a polygamous method of procreation.
    • Hammurabi’s Code, a reference to “brides” and “slaves” in a Nuzi text, and an Old Assyrian marriage contract all confirm that what we see in Genesis 16 was common in that period.
    • However, the addition of Hagar to the marital relationship between Abram and Sarai is clearly undesirable from the perspective of the text.
    • It is precisely on the matter of polygamy that Abram and Sarai are taking God’s promise into their own hands and proving themselves to be disobedient.
  3. Abram’s union to Hagar (Gen. 16:3) is a mockery of the original marriage ceremony (Gen. 2:21-25).
    • “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took (grasped, seized) Hagar” and “gave (give, hand down) her to Abram”
      • God formed a woman and “brought (bring, lead in) her to the man [Adam]”
    • Hagar is never once a volitional person in this exchange, but simply an object to be used by others
      • Adam’s wife is raised to an equal status with the apex of God’s creation, when Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”
    • Hagar is called Abram’s “wife” (iššā), but only in a utilitarian sense; there is no mention of anything more than procreative intent here.
      • When God give Adam his wife, he celebrates in poetic song and gives her a new name.
  4. The voice of God in the passage rejects Hagar’s status of “wife” (iššā).
    • The “angel of the Lord” (mysteriously speaking with divine authority) refers to Hagar as “servant of Sarai” (v8)
    • Of course, this is an argument from silence, but it does demonstrate that God knows Hagar’s status and omits any affirmation of her as Abram’s wife.
  5. God commands Hagar to return to Sarai, not Abram.
    • The “angel of the Lord” commands Hagar to “return” and “submit” to Sarai, not Abram (v9).
    • This is more compelling, as it affirms Hagar’s relationship to Sarai as her proper abode, rather than Hagar’s recent polygamous marriage to Abram.
    • Properly, Hagar would have been under Abram’s provision as his wife, but this command provides compelling evidence that God did not approve of such a union.
  6. Genesis 16 is all about family dysfunction, not marital bliss among alternate models of marriage.
    • The capstone of Genesis 16 is the last 2 verses, which clearly articulate a disjuncture in familial progression (Genesis 16:15-16).
    • These lines might as well read, “Ishmael was Hagar’s son by Abram, but Ishmael was not Abram’s son of promise because he was borne out of a disobedient relationship.”
  7. The Bible simply never approves of polygamy.
    • The entire Old Testament records several instances of polygamy and the use of concubines, but it never speaks of such things in an affirmative light (Gen. 4:23-24; 26:34; 1 Sam. 13; 1 Kings 11:1-3).

Let us note with all honesty and humility that the Bible does address issues that sometimes make us uncomfortable. Surely, I would have been so happy to learn that the line of Biblical characters were righteous beacons among a dark world, but this is not the picture we get. The Bible tells an honest story of a believable human history, and the people we meet are just as rebellious and sin-ridden as the people we know today. But, this is exactly the point of the Bible!

The Bible is not a religious book that tells good people how to be better. It does not tell bad people how to be good. No! The Bible tells bad people how the gracious God averted His justice by pouring out His wrath on a substitute. The Bible tells broken people how their Creator God has the ability and the intention of making them new and whole and satisfied in Him. The Bible tells hopeless people how God intends to give them an eternal dwelling with Him forever, and His plan has been a long time coming.

Let me know if this article has been a help to you. May God bless the efforts and time invested here.

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