I’ve been preaching through the book of Genesis at my church, and polygamy comes up in several of the stories without condemnation or even comment (see Gen 29:16-30, for example). Since I’m not likely to give it a lengthy treatment in any of my upcoming sermons, I’m addressing it here because it is important for understanding the theology of the Old Testament.
Even though polygamy is permitted in the Old Testament, and even commanded in a few instances, it is clearly not part of God’s good design from the beginning (Gen 1-2). The first instance of polygamy occurred when Lamech took two wives in Genesis 4:19, which is presented as evidence of the increase of evil and a departure from God’s original design. But why didn’t God condemn the practice directly and unambiguously?
The answer may surprise you. We need to grasp two important concepts to understand why God allowed polygamy. First, ancient people depended on their households to survive. Second, God permitted polygamy because in a fallen world it offered vulnerable women the opportunity to belong to and build up a household. Simply put, God allowed polygamy because He is merciful to the vulnerable.
It’s hard for us to see God’s compassion in permitting polygamy because we live in the modern world where the practice is no longer necessary. Polygamy in the modern world usually occurs because of a man’s twisted and bizarre sexual fetish. And certainly, in the ancient world, polygamy occasioned much cruelty and abuse. It was an ugly practice and is not what God designed marriage to be.
I am not defending every instance of polygamy in the Old Testament as something good. It was a terrible practice and led to the cruel subjugation of women. I am defending the concept of polygamy as God’s merciful accommodation to the survival needs of women in a fallen world.
The Scarcity of the Ancient World
In the ancient world, food was scarce. Their food supply came from the work of their own hands, yet crops could fail and animals could die. Putting food on the table was a constant concern. Having more people meant more mouths to feed, but also more people working together to provide more food and provide more protection. The creation mandate (Gen 1:28) included the command for humanity to continue to increase in number and spread out across the world, because God created it with all the necessary potential to feed all the people that would be born into it.
But it was never going to be easy. There was no medicine or healthcare. Sickness and disease were an ever-present threat. People were vulnerable to any number of natural calamities. And, of course, people would violently take from others the fruit of their labors. “Violence” is a recurring theme in the early chapters of Genesis (Gen 6:11-13), because people violently oppress one another to take their resources.
In those days, the household was the primary way to provide for people’s needs and protect them from danger. People survived by belonging to and building up their households. People who did not belong to a household were much more vulnerable, especially women.
The Vulnerabilities of Women
Women are not as physically strong as men. They were not as able physically to perform the demanding work of tilling the soil, raising crops, and managing livestock. Men typically performed this work. Men also protected women who were more vulnerable to attack from violent men. Everyone valued the woman’s ability to have children, because children grew up to become productive household workers. A woman’s ability to bring new life into the household was highly prized, because children benefitted the entire household. Sons would join their fathers in working a trade to provide for the household and protect those in it. Daughters would join their mothers in building up the household from within, managing the household affairs and helping to nurture the younger ones to prepare them to contribute to the household.
The father and mother held the household together. When a son got married, he often began his new household from within his father’s household, because there was strength in numbers. When a daughter got married, she typically left her household to join the household of her new husband. Incidentally, the modern day practice of the father ceremonially “giving away” the bride faintly preserves this ancient practice.
But when the father “gave away” his daughter to be married, he was losing a productive worker for his own household. The marriage of a daughter was an economic loss for her family, but an economic gain for the groom’s family. Therefore, the groom would pay a “bride price” to compensate the bride’s family for their economic loss.
The Dangerous Duties of Men
So, how does polygamy fit into this picture?
Simply put, women outnumbered men in the ancient world, because men the duties were more dangerous. The ever-present threats of wars, accidents, or natural disasters in the world threatened the men who were tasked with protecting and providing for their households. Many men died young, leaving vulnerable widows and orphans behind. This net deficit of men available to lead their households meant a net surplus of women needing households.
Women wanted marriage and children because building up her own household was the best way for her to survive. If her husband died, her best option was to remarry and build up a household with her new husband. Paul addressed this in 1 Tim 5:14 when he said, “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” If a woman’s husband died beyond the age of remarriage, she needed to rely on the households of her her grown children. First Timothy 4:4 says, “if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.“
In other words, the household was necessary for survival, so Paul taught Timothy how to handle various situations like this in a church. The Bible emphasizes looking after widows and orphans (James 1:27) precisely because they would have a much harder time surviving without a household. God commands his people to show hospitality to sojourners for the same reason – they are traveling away from the provision and protection of their households (Rom 12:13, Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 4:9).
Given the primacy of the household for survival in the ancient world, polygamy was often practiced to ensure that more women were able to become productive members of households. Since women were more numerous than men, some men could take a second wife and build up his household with her and her children.
You might ask, why wouldn’t someone take her in as a “live in” member of the household without her being a wife? That would have been possible, but it would be of far greater benefit to the household for her to have children who could build up the house. This would also benefit her, because children were the retirement plan for the ancient household. They would take care of her in her old age.
Children Were the Retirement Plan for the Household
Children were like the 401K plan of the ancient household. Initially, the parents “paid in” a lot of effort and investment for little economic benefit. But as the children grew up, they’d start to collect dividends on their investment. Over time, the children contributed more and more to the work of the household. Eventually, the daughters will get married, and if they married well, the household would be handsomely compensated for their loss of her productive labor. And when the sons got married, they would pay out a bride price for his new wife. The bride price of the new way repeated the “pay in” process, because soon enough her children would grow up to work for the household.
As the father and mother reached their golden years, they passed down more and more of the family responsibilities to the younger generation. Typically, the eldest son became the new patriarch of the family. His youth and strength would be expended for the benefit of the whole family, including his aged parents. The eldest son and his wife were responsible for the care of the whole household. If a man had multiple wives, the children and grandchildren of each wife would take care of their mother.
The stories of barren women in the Bible reveal the tragic desperation of women who not only wanted children for the joy they bring, but also for the economic reality that children represented the hope of a better future for her.
The bottom line is this: even though it was not his good design from the beginning, God permitted polygamy in the ancient world to mercifully protect the most vulnerable people.
When Jesus spoke about divorce, he taught a simple principle that is relevant to this discussion. Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). In other words, God allowed something evil to continue because our hearts are hard, even though it was not his design from the beginning. In the same way, God allowed the evil practice of polygamy to continue because the world is fallen and this was the best case scenario for vulnerable women and children. So instead of forbidding it, God allowed it and regulated it until his plan of redemption would render the practice obsolete, as it now is.
In the modern world, most household labor has been monetized and outsourced to other entities. This is a mixture of good and bad. Without question, the household itself is a necessary part of the Christian faith. And thankfully, polygamy is no longer necessary for women to survive. In the modern world, we benefit greatly from a Western society that is built on Christian principles of hard work, personal responsibility, and taking care of those who are vulnerable. Even though polygamy was permitted in the OT, the fact that it is nearly unheard of now can be attributed to the outworking of biblical principles in Western society.
Thanks be to God.
Addendum: I have really enjoyed and benefitted from the work of Alistair Roberts regarding the household. Check out his work – it’s really good.