Israelite Kings: Is Polygamy Okay?
The question spontaneously popped into my mind about two months ago. It captured my intrigue, prompted intermittent but intentional reflection, and imparted a certain reservation in fully considering the issue due to the possible conclusions. The question I had was “Were the Old Testament kings like David and Solomon living in sin due to the many wives they took throughout their lives?”. We will look at Old Testament descriptions of marriage, New Testament descriptions of marriage, historical description versus endorsement in Scripture, assessments of polygamists’ lives in the Bible, and define “living in sin”.
How does the Old Testament define marriage? Given that the lives of kings David and Solomon occurred in the Old Testament era, I believe it is pertinent for us to start here. Foundational verses to the definition of marriage occurs in the first two chapters of the Bible.
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”… Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:18, 24
Notice in God’s described rationale for bringing a wife to Adam is that he will make a “helper” for Adam. Helper was singular and the descriptions of man and wife in verse 24 are also singular. Visible from the beginning of creation, God’s standard description of marriage is that it occurs between one man and one woman.
The book of Proverbs and the minor prophets also provide insight.
An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones. – Proverbs 12:4
House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD. – Proverbs 19:14
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. – Malachi 2:15
All the descriptions of “wife” in the above verses occur in the singular. As we can see, the descriptions of the marriage relationship throughout the Old Testament are that it is between one man and one woman. The book of Deuteronomy gives a forward-looking command that was relevant for the subsequent Israelite kings.
And [the king] shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. – Deuteronomy 17:17
As opposed to the monarchs of surrounding pagan nations, the Israelite king is not one who should acquire “many wives”. Though not as direct a rebuttal of polygamy and endorsement of monogamy as it could be; clearly, the Israelite kings were to be different from neighboring pagan kings who often had many wives (such as Pharoh in Egypt).
How does the New Testament define marriage? Consistently, it is defined as between one man and one woman. First, let us look at an instructive way Jesus discussed marriage with the Jews.
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Mark 10:2-9
Notice that in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees question, he does acknowledge what was stated in the Mosaic Law, but he reasons from the totality of biblical revelation at that point, going back to Genesis 2. This provides justification for us to do likewise and look at the totality of biblical revelation, including the New Testament, in defining marriage to help as assess the polygamy of Israelite kings. Let us look at key verses regarding marriage in the New Testament.
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:32
For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. – Romans 7:2
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. – 1 Corinthians 7:2
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. – Ephesians 5:33
Every single description of wife, woman, husband, and man in the above verses occurs in the singular. Clearly, the New Testament is consistent is describing marriage as between one man and one woman. Looking forward to what marriage points to, the relationship between Jesus and his bride, the Church, the bride is described in the singular.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” – Revelation 19:7-8
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” – Revelation 21:9
Jesus has one singular bride – the Church.
From Old Testament to New, marriage is consistently and authoritatively stated to be between one man and one woman. How, then, do we understand the descriptions of polygamy in the Old Testament. Several important Old Testament figures are polygamist, including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. First, we must understand that most, if not all, of the sections of Scripture describing the polygamist activities of the above figures occur in historical narrative. In historical narrative, the author records what happens but often doesn’t endorse or condemn what is described. The facts are merely recounted without commentary. Therefore, we shouldn’t take the absence of condemning the polygamist activities of these Old Testament figures as endorsements that it is okay. Rather, from the descriptions of marriage throughout all Scripture, we know that polygamy is a contradiction of God’s definition for marriage. Since the standard of marriage is clearly defined, every deviance from the pattern is a disfiguration of the institution. Every potential deviation doesn’t have to be specifically condemned because God’s standard for marriage is so clearly defined.
Let us also consider how the Bible describes the lives of various Old Testament polygamists, like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Though the historical narratives in Scripture don’t often explicitly condemn their polygamist activity, the Bible does make obvious the problems polygamy brought to their lives and / or the sin it was rooted in. Abraham took Sarah’s servant as a wife in an act of disbelieving God’s promise of descendants. He thought God’s promise needed help being fulfilled. Jacob’s taking of two wives, Leah and Rachel, resulted in distrust, feeling of favoritism, and attempted murder amongst his kids. David’s many wives resulted in many kids who were half siblings and whose relationships with each other were characterized by murder, rape, and rebellion. Solomon’s many wives were instrumental in his heart turning from the Lord and towards foreign pagan deities. Arguably, one can see a subtle rebuke of such polygamist activities in the historical narratives of Scripture.
Finally, let us define what it means to be “living in sin”. Admittedly, this term is more characteristic of contemporary Christianity. Nevertheless, we can look at Bible verses which address the core idea. How I define one “living in sin” is a person who repeatedly engages in the same sin without evident repentance. What makes repentance evident? It is a definitive turning from the sinful activity. However, if someone ends up repeatedly re-engaging in the same sin they claim to have repented of, clearly there wasn’t true repentance. Now, there is grey area in this definition, as how many times do we have to see the same sin to consider it “repeatedly engaged” in? Christians are still sinners this side of heaven and we are going to struggle with sin issues while living on earth. So, the occasional relapse into sin isn’t necessarily “living in sin”. However, the key word is occasional. When someone is consistently engaging in the same sin with no evident conviction or change, there is arguably no repentance and I would say they are “living in sin”. Let us remember that sin isn’t just doing what is forbidden; it is also failing to do and be what is commanded. A root idea of sin is missing the mark, and the mark, the standard of marriage in Scripture has been clearly defined.
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. – 1 John 3:4-6
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. – Hebrews 10:26-27
What conclusions can we draw regarding Israelite Kings David and Solomon. Were they living in sin? David had 8 wives named in Scripture, other unnamed wives, and many concubines. Solomon famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Looking at those descriptions, it’s hard to say these breakings of the marriage standard were just rare exceptions. Rather, it appeared to be the consistent norm. One can’t help but think they must’ve been convicted of such violations of the marriage standard by the 3rd, 4th, 5th wife? Clearly not since they kept going. Did they break the marriage standard as defined in Scripture? Yes. Did they do it consistently? It appears so. Were they violating the command of Deuteronomy 17:17? Clearly. Did they ever truly repent? Hard to say since they kept marrying more and more wives. Admittedly, I’m hesitant to explicitly declare they “lived in sin” during their reigns; however, they do appear to fit my definition presented, and if someone wanted to say they did “live in sin” during their reigns, I probably wouldn’t argue against the idea. What does this teach us about these Old Testament figures? At the very least, they were flawed sinners like all Christians are. Praise God we have a perfectly righteous king in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the ultimate king of God’s people to whom all prior Israelite kings pointed to by contrast or flawed example. It is his throne to which we come for forgiveness from sins (Hebrews 4:16). It is through his death by which we are granted forgiveness, and it is the righteousness he perfectly exemplified to which we strive to express in our own lives. He is the singular groom who will take his singular bride, the Church, to be with him throughout all eternity.