Bible Polygamy

With religion once again making headlines, I thought I should bring up the discussion of polygamy and of those poor girls recently discovered in that Texas ranch. Part of my reason for doing so is that I have been in some debates recently over whether the Bible condones rape. And if people believe that, then they will probably no doubt believe that “religious crazies” and their Bible think that polygamy is okay. So here is my take on it.

The first marriage
When God put Adam and Eve together, the Bible said that for this reason “shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh” (Gen 2:24). One flesh denotes a level of intimacy that is to be unsurpassed by any other relationship, therefore it would be impossible for a man to enter into such a level of intimacy with two, or three, or seven or more wives.

The emergence of polygamy in the Bible

The first instance of bigamy in the Bible appears in Gen 4:19 “And Lamech took unto him two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah”.
The cultures of the Ancient Near East allowed polygamy as a necessity. In largely agrarian and nomadic societies, big families were a necessity for survival. First because more children meant more hands to work the farm and secondly your army was made up of every able-bodied man that could use a sword or spear. For these reasons, polygamy was allowed. But for more practical reasons, it was rare even in the ANE.

Biblical views on polygamy
Only the wealthiest of men could have afforded to be polygamists. Part of this was because of the mohar or “bride price”. In Deuteronomy, the bride price of a virgin was set at fifty shekels of silver, which was equal to five years wages. The bride price served two purposes in ancient Israel. First it was a type of insurance paid by the young man to the bride’s family. If he died prematurely or divorced her, the mohar was hers to live off of. Secondly by requiring a young man to come up with so much money for a bride price, this showed that the young man could hold down a job and save a large sum of money. However, the large mohar would mean that very few could actually afford to keep getting married over and over.

But what about concubines?

I knew that that question would come up. And, I’m glad you asked. Slavery is yet another Bible issue that I plan on discussing in-depth at a later time. But, for the purposes of this article, I will touch on “slave-girls”. First, we must understand that the slavery of the ANE was not the same as it was in the first centuries of the United States. Often, in the Bible people sold themselves into slavery as a way to survive. But, in Israel, every seventh year, the year of Jubilee, slaves were to be released. The exception to this rule was the concubine. She, like a wife, was to be kept and provided for for the rest of her life. Her master could sell the girl back to her own family, but he could not sell her to third parties. A concubine’s status was a little lower than that of a full wife and her own children were not considered privy to the inheritance of the master’s property. But why would a woman be sold as a concubine? Often, it was because she could have a better life as the concubine of someone with a higher social status than to be the full wife of someone with an equal socio-economic status.

The other side of the coin
Though the law allowed for a man to take multiple wives, God warned that when there was a king in Israel, he should not take many wives, because they would entice him to worship other gods and lead him away from the LORD.(Deut 17:17) Which is exactly what happened to King Solomon.( 1 Kings 11:4-5)

The New Testament
By the first century, Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire and Augustus had outlawed polygamy. Though, prostitution was prevalent and many men had a wife, a mistress, and a concubine. It was in this time period that Jesus said, “that if a man looks at a girl with lust, he has committed adultery with her in his heart”. (Matt 5:28) And Paul would later write: “let every man have his own wife and every woman her own husband”. (1Cor 7:2)
Some have remarked that Jesus spoke against polygamy as he did divorce, saying that it was allowed because “you were hard-hearted”.(Matt 19:8)

Today, with the exception of a few cults, Christians don’t believe in polygamy as an acceptable life style. Part of this is recognition not only of the letter of God’s law, but also the spirit of the law. The women and girls in the Texas ranch have suffered psychologically, and God is a God of Justice who will judge those who abuse others.


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