The Bible is an incredibly candid book when compared to the religious writings of other traditions. Rather than covering up the faults and flaws of its key figures, the Bible frequently shows us humanity in its deepest sin. A prime example of this is the transparent treatment of David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11). These sinful actions had real consequences from which we can draw lessons, and David’s repentance gives us a model to follow when we fall into sin. Likewise, the Bible records many instances of polygamy in the Old Testament, involving even some of the patriarchs of Israel.
Though our common usage of polygamy tends to be applied to a man with multiple wives, the word polygamy simply means multiple spouses. More accurately, polygyny would be one man with multiple wives, while polyandry would be one woman with multiple husbands. Bigamy is another word used for having two spouses. More recently, those who live in communities of open relationships have been called polyamorous, having multiple husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends in various arrangements. As we look at Scripture, none of these arrangements matches the structure of marriage given by God from the beginning.
The First Marriage
When God created the universe, He did things in a very specific manner. Those descriptions are provided for us in Genesis 1–2. At the end of His creative activity, God pronounced the things He had made as being “very good” (Genesis 1:31). In Genesis 2 we learn the details of the creation of mankind. After creating Adam from the dust of the ground, God presented the beasts of the field and the birds of the air to Adam to name. When Adam found no suitable helper, God formed the first woman from Adam’s side.
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him.
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.
And Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18–25)
Let’s look closely at this passage and note several key phrases that indicate God’s intent for marriage to be monogamous—one man for one woman. First, God intended to make “a helper” for Adam, not several helpers. Second, from one rib God made one woman for Adam. Genesis 2:24 reveals the pattern of a man leaving his family to “be joined to his wife,” not wives. This union is then described as becoming “one flesh.”
Jesus confirmed this understanding of marriage when he was asked about divorce by the Pharisees. This is recorded in Mark 10:1–12 and Matthew 19:1–12. In His response Jesus quoted from Genesis 2, confirming that His understanding of marriage was one man for one woman. Confirming the covenantal nature of marriage, Jesus said that divorce was only allowed because of the hardness of the hearts of man. God intended, from the beginning, for marriages to consist of one man and one woman for the duration of their lives. Divorce and polygamy were regulated in the laws given to Moses, but polygamy was recorded long before then.
Polygamy and the Bible
The first reference to polygamy is found in Genesis 4 in the lineage of Cain. Of Lamech, a descendant of Cain, we read:
Then Lamech took for himself two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah. And Adah bore Jabal. He was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute. And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron. And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah.
Then Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech!
For I have killed a man for wounding me,
Even a young man for hurting me.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:19–25)
Before the Flood, we have a clear distortion of what God had intended for marriage. To compound Lamech’s sin, he brags of his murderous deeds. The Flood was brought upon the earth to judge the sinfulness of mankind, including the sins committed by Lamech.
After the Flood, there are many mentions of polygamous relationships—including among the patriarchs of Israel. Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon all had multiple wives. It is interesting to note that there are no passages in Scripture that clearly state, “No man should have more than one wife.” However, polygamous relationships are never mentioned in a positive light, and, indeed, the problems of such relationships are presented.
Just because the Bible records polygamous relationships does not mean that God approves of such things.
Consider the consequences revealed in Scripture in each of the following cases: Abraham—led to bitterness between Sarah and her maid, Hagar, and the eventual dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael; Jacob—led to Rachel’s jealousy of Leah and to Joseph being betrayed and sold by his half-brothers; David—led to the rape of one of his daughters (Tamar) by one of his sons (Tamar’s half-brother Amnon) and Amnon’s subsequent murder by Tamar’s brother Absalom; Solomon—his many wives “turned away his heart” from the Lord and to the worship of false gods (1 Kings 11:1–8). Just because the Bible records polygamous relationships does not mean that God approves of such things.
The only direct command against polygamy is given to the kings that were to rule Israel, as they are told not to “multiply wives” to themselves (Deuteronomy 17:17). It is also interesting to note that polygamous relationships seem to be regulated in the commands Moses gave to the nation of Israel. Leviticus 18:18 instructs that a man should not marry sisters, and Deuteronomy 21:15 talks of assigning an heir to a man with two wives. Many commentators suggest that the passages do not endorse polygamy but rather prohibit it. Deuteronomy 21:15 may also be translated as “has had two wives” in succession rather than at the same time. The sisters in Leviticus 18:18 are understood by some to be any Israelite women. Regardless of the interpretation of these passages, the taking of multiple wives is not in accord with God’s design from the beginning.
Moving to the New Testament, there are several passages that can be understood to speak against polygamous relationships. The first to come to the mind of many would be the qualifications for leaders in the church given by the Apostle Paul to Timothy and Titus. In 1 Timothy 3:2 and 12 and Titus 1:6, we are told that leaders of the church must be the “husband of one wife.”
In 1 Corinthians 7:1–16 Paul answered questions that the Corinthian church had about marriage. In this passage Paul used the singular form of wife and husband throughout the passage. In fact, this is true of the New Testament writers in general.
Scripture compares the relationship of husband and wife to that of Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5:25–33 Paul explained this relationship and referred back to Genesis 2:24. Once again, God’s standard for marriage is defined as one man and one woman. Paul finished this analogy by stating, “let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:33).
Polygamy in Other Religions
Other religions have promoted polygamy. For example, according to Sura 4:3 of the Koran, Islamic men are allowed to take up to four wives under certain circumstances. Muhammad was granted the privilege of many wives in Sura 33 and had many wives. Modern Muslims practice polygamy in various ways according to their cultural context.
Historically, members of the Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons) practiced polygamy, although the acceptance of the practice changed as new “revelation” was given to the prophets of the church. Initially, the Book of Mormon decried polygamy. Jacob 2:23–28 and 3:5–8 denounce the practice of polygamy as an abomination before God. Likewise, the Doctrine and Covenants (a supposed revelation given to Joseph Smith) state clearly that marriage should be one man for one woman (D&C 42:22). Later writings of Smith allow for unlimited plural marriage to virgins (D&C 132:51–66) and directly contradict what had been written earlier.1
Polygamy, more accurately polygyny, was practiced secretly by some Latter-day Saints from the 1830s until the 1850s, when the church admitted to the teaching after many previous denials. Eventually, they were pressured into denouncing polygamy after it was vigorously prosecuted by the federal government. From the 1870s on, many LDS leaders encouraged rebellion against the laws, but in 1890, LDS president Wilford Woodruff encouraged members to obey the laws.2 This caused a large split in the church, and new organizations were formed by those who continued the practice of polygamy and considered themselves as faithfully adhering to the commands of God over man’s laws. Some secretly practiced polygamy while others abstained.3 What has become the mainline LDS Church currently denounces polygamy and claims that anyone who practices it is not a true Mormon.4 It is clear that, despite appeals to the patriarchs, the Bible was not the source of the Mormon doctrine of polygamy.
Despite these supposed additional revelations from God, the Bible makes it clear that He intends marriage to be between one man and one woman—as it was “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:6). Any challenge to this teaching stands in opposition to God’s plan for His creation. This short chapter cannot exhaustively cover all of the issues related to polygamy, but we can look to the Bible as the standard for understanding the world we live in. As we face specific questions regarding plural marriage, let us prayerfully consider what God has revealed and apply the principles He has given us in Scripture.