Another difficult question we face when digging deeper into the Old Testament is polygamy and its commonplace practice.
We look up to heroes of the faith like Jacob and David (Heb 11), yet each of these biblical giants had more than one wife. How can they be held up as godly examples while so blatantly violating God’s intentions for marriage? How can God both regulate Old Testament polygamy (Exodus 21:10) and yet require New Testament elders to be of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2)?
Descriptive versus Prescriptive
The difference between description and prescription is crucial to understanding commands and laws in the Bible. Geoff Ashley of The Village Church explains that “when no explicit judgment is made on an action or event, we must look beyond the overt and attempt to infer from the surrounding context whether such behavior is acceptable and good. There are often implicit suggestions within the text to grant us interpretive assistance.” For example, the disciples selected Matthias as Judas’ replacement by casting lots (Acts 1:12-28). This is not a prescription for how we should choose church leaders but rather a description of what happened. That King David took more than one wife doesn't mean we should too; Scripture’s reference to his having multiple wives is a description of his marital life.
In Genesis 2:24, God prescribes a man shall “hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Note “wife,” singular. God’s early prescription stands the test of time in the same way as He prescribes overseers to be of but one wife (1 Timothy 3:2).
Allowing versus Commanding
If polygamy wasn't okay in God’s eyes, how then do we make sense of Old Testament Law regarding polygamous marriage?
God regulates polygamy by outlining that, “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Exodus 21:10). Note that this is a conditional command with the word, “if”. Polygamy is not God’s intention, but God also understands the “hardness of man’s hearts” (Matthew 19:8). He presents obligations for the husband, should he choose to take an extra wife, that are meant to discourage polygamy.
It seems contradictory that God would allow a sinful practice and command provisions for it. Wouldn’t it be simpler to never make such regulations? John Piper explains that God allowed polygamy until the coming of Jesus due to the hardness of our hearts. The standards were raised and the undeniable simplicity of marriage was given to us with Jesus’ coming. Piper explains that in the gospel of Jesus, “the mystery of the meaning of marriage is clarified and we should be committed to making plain the beauties of Christ and His church through our covenant faithfulness between one husband and wife.” This is an intriguing point, but still a difficult conversation nonetheless.
Blessing in Polygamy?
Polygamy was a man-made idea, and its results showed. Jacob’s polygamy produced jealousy between Rachel and Leah and King Solomon’s polygamy produced a heart that turned away from God to worship the false gods of his wives (1 Kings 11:1-8). No matter how polygamy was practiced, none of the biblical examples we have produced healthy, flourishing relationships between the husband and any of the wives.
The incredible news is that we serve a God who shows us both the consequences of sin and uses our sin for his good purposes (Gen 50:20). Despite the hard hearts of man trying to corrupt God’s good design for marriage, we can remain confident that what God originally intended (Matthew 19:8) is the way for our flourishing.
Thankfully, our God is so big he works in spite of us when we choose our own way over what He prescribes. That doesn’t make hard-hearted sinful choices any less sinful, but the simple fact that God is powerful enough to work in spite of our sin should cause us to tremble, confess, repent, and walk in his good ways.