“If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have born him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son be hers that was hated: Then it shall be, when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, which is indeed the firstborn.” (Deuteronomy 21:15-16) This verse raises a major question. If God is really against polygamy then why does the law of Moses allow it?
Adding to the argument for polygamy some of the great men of the Old Testament were polygamists. Abraham, Jacob, Caleb, David, and Solomon were Godly men who practiced polygamy. The Bible records no rebuke of these men for their polygamy. Are we to interpret the Bible’s lack of specific condemnation to be approval of polygamy? Is the Biblical definition of marriage not as fixed as modern defenders of marriage would have us believe?
The most compelling evidence that God intended marriage to be between only one man and one woman is found in the words of Jesus. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce, His answer was based upon the original created design of one man and one woman. Jesus considers the marriage of Adam and Eve as the prototype and the standard for all other marriages.
If the words of Jesus teach that God is against polygamy, then what is going on in Deuteronomy 21? The law of Moses contained different types of laws. Some governed temple worship, sacrifices and ceremonial uncleanness. Other laws were civil laws which instructed the the Israelites how to live as a nation. These laws dealt with murder, false accusation, disease, slaves, conquests, poverty and other issues that all governments have to address. The only marriage related laws address suspected adultery, divorce and inheritance in a polygamous family, except for the command of Deuteronomy 17:17. God forbade kings to multiply wives. Thus, David and Solomon were in clear violation of God’s command regarding marriage.
The law of Deuteronomy 21 gives commands regarding polygamy to ethically address one problem that would arise when a man was married to more than one woman. Polygamy was part of the culture. Those with power and wealth would often have multiple wives. A man would likely leave his inheritance to the son of his favored wife instead of to the eldest son of his household. This law was intended to protect against favoritism in the inheritance.
Though the Bible does record instances of Godly men being polygamists, the majority were not. Noah, Moses, Joshua, Isaac, Joseph and many other great names of the Old Testament were unmarried or married to only one wife. In short, polygamy may have been permitted, but it was never the standard for marriage.
Why did God not just forbid polygamy outright? Why not punish the polygamist and invalidate all polygamous marriages? We can only speculate on why God did not give more clear prohibitions against polygamy, but the ancient attitudes towards women would have made punishing polygamy incredibly hard on the wives. A woman who had been married and divorced was shamed. She would have faced destitution and scorn. It was better for her to remain in the marriage, protected and cared for, than to be cast out to her shame and poverty.
At times the Old Testament law gave instructions regarding things that God did not approve of. Jesus told the Pharisees that God allowed divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts. God disapproves of divorce, but gave instructions in the law of Moses to guide it. Polygamy is much the same. God created marriage to be between one man and one woman, but He gave a law concerning inheritance in a polygamous family to protect the rights of the children.