Polygamy and Old Testament Law

Posted By on March 26, 2012

[UPDATE 3/27/2012: I’m already getting comments that seem to suggest that I “missed” the biblical portrayal of polygamy as causing great consternation in the home. No surprise, and no kidding. I think my post was clear on this originally, but just in case … My point in the post that follows was that polygamy in the OT was the cultural norm and was not viewed as adultery in the biblical text. I never said it worked like a charm! It didn’t. We have plenty of instances where it caused a lot of problems (but we would be reading into the text to presume it caused only problems — it would never have become a cultural norm if that was the case; ancient people weren’t self-destructive idiots). Another point is that the biblical text does not condemn polygamy as adultery. I can’t improve on the biblical text. It says what it says and has its own clear definition of adultery. This is transparent in the biblical text. When something is described in the Bible we need to be honest with the description. Lastly, since God did not step into the culture of the biblical writers and change it, or insist that the practice stop before he would give them revelation, we have to assume some apathy on God’s part toward it. It just was what it was, and God didn’t care to alter the culture in which he was dispensing revelation. That is, getting rid of polygamy — or slavery, or attitudes about the inequality of women, etc. — was not a precondition to working with human beings. The Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific culture; cultures are the product of humans, not God. A culture is evident in the biblical text because those were the people God spoke to and through, not because God invented it to be handed down to posterity.]


This post topic comes recommended by a reader who asked the following:

It seems as though polygamy was not viewed as sinful by God in the Old Testament. And while monogamy seems to possibly be suggested in the NT as a more ideal situation . . . I wonder if polygamy was still tolerated as a non-sinful situation like it was in the OT?

Good observation and good question. Polygamy is another illustration of how easily something can be understood if the Bible is allowed to be what it is, and how disturbing something in the Bible seems when its contents are presumed to derive from a modern European worldview (and contemporary evangelicalism to boot).

Let’s start with the obvious points – points that anyone who has spent serious time reading the Old Testament would have stumbled upon:

1. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament view extra-marital (a key term) sex as a heinous sin, one dealt with in the most serious way under the Mosaic law (death penalty if the sin was by consent; cp. Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). John 7:53-8:11 (its text-critical uncertainty set to the side for sake of this discussion) also suggests that extra-marital sex could still (at least in theory and in Jewish law) be punished with death.

2. Despite severity of the above, the Old Testament descriptions of patriarchal life assumes that men had more than one wife (e.g., Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon). This is known as polygamy, but is more accurately called polygyny (one husband, more than one wife), as opposed to polyandry (one wife, more than one husband). There are no examples of the latter in the Bible.

3. The Old Testament narratives also describe concubinage (e.g., Abraham and Hagar), which was not quite the same as marriage. It was also distinct from utilizing the services of a prostitute.

Let’s walk through the material and dispense with some myths and get our bearings. I have heard (in sermons and poorly-informed conversations) that the act of sexual intercourse (here defined as vaginal intercourse) constitutes, in and of itself, a marriage. This is an unbiblical idea. The glaring fact that the Old Testament uses different terms (wife, concubine, harlot) for women with whom men had intercourse (and in some cases the same man) and only one of those terms met the social, cultural, and legal parameters of “wife” (e.g., one would not hold a marriage celebration for all three) tells us clearly that the act of intercourse did not constitute a marriage in biblical thinking or theology.

Terminology for “adultery” is actually infrequent in the Old Testament. The term in the ten commandments (na’aph; Exo 20:14; Deut 5:18) occurs only one other place in the Mosaic law (Lev 20:10). Other terms are used to describe illicit sex (e.g., sex with a prostitute – zanah; e.g., Gen 38:24; Lev 21:9). Permissible (non-violent and consenting) sexual relationships with multiple wives or concubines are not described with either word. Rather, the normal euphemisms for marital intercourse are employed (the man “went in to” or “knew” his wife or concubine). Consequently, the biblical material does not consider those relationships adulterous or as prostitution.

This terminological parsing is not accidental, for the Old Testament (and the patriarchal culture in which it was produced) defined adultery very strictly as sexual intercourse with a woman already married (or betrothed) to another man.” This means that, in the Old Testament world, polygamy was not adultery; it is not treated as such in the Mosaic law.

The reason adultery (taking the wife of another man) was so detested in the ancient world was that the act violated property rights and, more importantly, intruded on inheritance rights via illegitimate paternity. As property and its transmission through bloodlines was the primary means of economic survival in a patriarchal pastoral-nomadic culture, and later a predominantly agrarian culture, violation of inheritance lines was a serious offense that could mean (economic) life or death. Since children were obviously linked to the household of their mother, strict boundaries on women and their sexual activity were the logical focus in such a culture. There were no scientific ways to evidence paternity, and once a woman had a child by another man (even if unknown), that child (especially if male) became an inheritance threat should his biological father at some point assert rights of ownership over the property of the son and his mother. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes:

Israel viewed extra-marital sexuality in the severest light, prescribing death for adultery. As in the rest of the ANE, there was a double standard: males could have sex outside marriage, most notably with prostitutes: “adultery” meant copulation with a married woman. Beyond concern for property rights or clear paternity, the demand for sexual exclusivity for wives sought to prevent married women from establishing bonds that could weaken the family unit . . . Adultery was a capital crime according to Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:22. Both parties must die. The reasons for the gravity of this crime are never explicitly stated in the OT, yet the patrilineal nature of Israelite society strongly suggests that mistaken paternity would surely be dreaded. If an act of undetected adultery produced offspring, a likely result would be the bequeathal of the family inheritance to this illegitimate heir. (ABD, 5:1144; I:82).

These economic concerns are also reflected in laws about (consensual) pre-marital sex (Exo 22:16-17; Deut 22:28-29). These passages required payment of the marriage dowry to the father (as though a betrothal was taking place). If the girl’s father refused to let her be married to the man, the offender still had to pay since the woman’s economic value (upon her loss to her parents household) was lost (i.e., it would be unlikely that someone would later want to marry her due to the cultural stigma – note that virginity was highly esteemed and expected). Once married, no divorce was permitted in such cases. And if the woman did not consent to the sexual relationship (i.e., she was raped) the man would suffer the death penalty. These laws were designed to discourage promiscuity.

So, does the Old Testament “approve” of polygamy? Yes, in the sense that (a) it was part of the culture at the time God chose to call Abraham and create a people through him and his wife Sarah and (b) God didn’t care to outlaw the culture of the time. But it would be misguided to think that God promoted polygamy or held it out as the most desirable option. The Old Testament holds monogamy as an ideal, and makes no effort to argue that polygamy was a desirable situation for men in general. Polygamy just “was” and God didn’t care about the culture in which he initiated the next phase of his salvation plan. Polygamy had no vital theological place in that plan and would ultimately become even culturally irrelevant when Israel was replaced as the circumcision-neutral Church as the people of God. 1 It just wasn’t an issue.

These points also answer the question, “Is polygamy for today then?” No, it isn’t. It’s no more “for today” than any other cultural element tied to patriarchal Israel would be for believers in any era after the patriarchal Israelite kingdom was replaced  – in the divine design no less – by the Church. We aren’t living in the second millennium B.C.  Frankly, that question is utterly pointless and destitute of theological sense since it completely ignores what happened in the New Testament with the Church, where Israel and the Mosaic theocracy expired by divine design. On what basis would we ever assume the Church was a new form of Mosaic theocracy? Apparently the apostles didn’t get that memo since we don’t see them setting that up in Acts or assuming they should.

Lastly, the New Testament says nothing directly about polygamy. Only a preference for monogamy is evident, along with the thorny issue of divorce and remarriage. Judging by extra-biblical material, polygamy seems to have all but disappeared in first century Judea.2 It certainly existed in Jewish (and Gentile) culture in the Mediterranean, but urban life undermined the economic need and rationale for polygamy.3 The New Testament might contain hints of polygamy, depending on how the plural (“wives”) is understood in several verses (Acts 21:5; 1 Cor 7:29), but the plural may simply be collective, reflecting each male in the intended audience and their (one) wife. It’s hard to tell.

  1. And please, don’t assume I mean anything specifically eschatological about that. The Scripture is clear ( Gal 3 ) that the Church inherits the promises given to Abraham but despite what well-meaning dispensational interpreters want to say, really isn’t the key eschatological question. The real question is not “Did the Church replace Israel as God’s people?” but “Does God still have an eschatological future planned specifically for national Israel?” The two questions are not the same, though they are related. I’m not going to respond to mind-numbing questions about eschatology here. Please see the multi-part series I did on that earlier.
  2. A telling example seems to be the Jewish community associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Qumran texts 11QTemple 56:17; 19; 57:17-19 and CD 4:20-21 apparently forbid polygamy and even remarriage after divorce.
  3. The Dictionary of New Testament Background (“Marriage: Marriage, Childbearing and Celibacy”) notes: “Some peoples on the periphery of the empire reportedly practiced polygamy, including Thracians, Numidians and Moors (Sallust Iug. 80.6; Sextus Empiricus Pyr. 3.213; cf. Diodorus Siculus Bib. Hist. 1.80.3 on Egypt); writers also alleged that some distant peoples merely held children in common (Diodorus Siculus Bib. Hist.. 2.58.1). Although a few Greek philosophers supported group marriage (Diogenes Laertius Vit. 6.2.72; 7.1.131; 8.1.33), Greek culture as a whole forbade it (e.g., Euripides Androm. 465:93, 909). Likewise, Roman law prohibited polygamy, which bore as its minimum penalty infamia (Gardner, 92-93; Gaius Inst. 1.63; Dionysius of Halicarnassus 11.28.4); Roman wives found the notion of polygamy abhorrent (Aulus Gellius Noc. Att. 1.23.8). Although the practice was not common, early Palestinian Judaism allowed polygamy (m. Sanh. 2:4), and it was practiced at least by some wealthy kings (Josephus, J.W. 1.28.4 .562). The early sage Hillel reportedly complained against polygamy, but mainly because he felt wives could be dangerous, especially in large numbers (m. ‘Abot 2:7). Nevertheless, the vast majority of Jewish men and all Jewish women were monogamous, and some conservative sectarians forbade polygamy, including for rulers (CD 4:20-5:2; 11QTemple 56:18-19).

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56 Responses to “Polygamy and Old Testament Law”

  1. ?????????? says:

    Concerning note 2: The Babatha-archive, found in the vicinity of Khirbet Qumran, shows that in the beginning of the 2nd century CE polygyny did occur. Babatha marries as the second woman to Juda, who was already married to Miryam. So your statement is not correct.

    • MSH says:

      I didn’t say polygyny never occurred. I said there are no examples of it in the Bible (please re-read the post). Your reference is not biblical literature. The Babatha archive is also not Qumran (Dead SCROLL material; it is something else – and material that post-dates the Qumran material). Please don’t mis-read the material and then claim it’s in error.

      • Gegrammena says:

        @ MSH March 27, 2012 at 8:20 AM
        I’m sorry if I don’t understand you and I was too quick to say your statement is not correct. Do you mean with “polygamy all but disappeared” that polygamy was virtually absent in Judea? If that’s what you mean, I tend to disagree, because the rules of the DSS-people might not be representative for Judea. The Babatha-case is a nice counterexample.
        (P.S. I didn’t say the Babatha-archive belongs to the DSS.)

        • MSH says:

          No; “all but disappeared” means it was on the steep decline. I also said (either right before or after that line) that I was sure it was still around.

  2. Dave Moser says:

    I think you’re confusing description with prescription. That is to say, just because something is described in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s condoned by God.

    I was particularly blessed when Tim Keller pointed out in a sermon that the Bible consistently demonstrates how destructive polygamy is. We first see polygamy with Abraham and it’s a disaster. It is the outlet he uses to manifest his distrust of God and results in two people at war with each other. Likewise, his son and grandson have their marriages ruined by polygamy.

    Everywhere we see polygamy in the Bible – from Abraham to Solomon – it is presented as something which undermines the goodness of marriage. I think that’s a pretty strong message.

    • MSH says:

      The biblical text does not condemn it as adultery. I also didn’t say God approved of it. I think the real point is that it just was what it was, and God didn’t care to alter the culture in which he was dispensing revelation. All I said was that it was the cultural norm and was not viewed as adultery; I never said it worked like a charm.

      When something is described in the Bible we need to be honest with the description.

  3. David says:

    Excellent! Thanks so much for tackling this subject. A great summary of the issue. I like what you said here:

    “The Bible doesn’t prescribe a specific culture; cultures are the product of humans, not God. A culture is evident in the biblical text because those were the people God spoke to and through, not because God invented it to be handed down to posterity.”

    Good to remember. Here’s a similar example. It’s funny — I am a doctor and I do a lot of work with diet and nutrition. I see lots of people with Celiac disease, which is a disease in which gluten destroys the lining of the intestine. I see a lot of non-Celiacs who also have clinically-verified gluten intolerance, so I end up telling a lot of people to stop eating gluten. Stop eating wheat. Almost invariably, when the client is a Christian, they respond with, “But, wheat is in the Bible! How could it be bad for me if it’s in the BIBLE?” It’s actually pretty incredible how often I get this response. The problem is, just like you said, that God didn’t actually “invent” the agricultural culture in which the Bible was written as some kind of ideal to which all other cultures should aspire. It just was what it was. Scripture wasn’t written to be a divine dietary prescription from heaven. Just like it wasn’t intended to be a scientific textbook. And it appears that the OT wasn’t intended to be a manual for establishing the precise cultural norms of marriage, either.

    Thanks again. Good stuff.

  4. Patrick says:

    Abraham was not married to Hagar, no polygamy there.

    There is a passage where Yahweh is in judgment of David after David had done the Bathsheba/ Uriah the Hittite ordeal and Yahweh is chewing David out . In this passage, Yahweh is quoted as saying something close to this, “I GAVE you all these wives and you still had to do this”??? (don’t know the chapter/verse).

    Polygamy is not the ideal, nor immoral necessarily. Yahweh surely would not have given David multiple wives if it was necessarily harmful to David.

    That’s how I see lots of the weird stuff in the OT, Yahweh dealing with flawed people in a flexible manner on some subjects preventing even worse outcomes.

    • MSH says:

      Presuming Hagar was only a concubine.

      I was thinking of the Keturah situation, which is a bit muddied by the language with respect to Keturah (Gen 25:1) who is described as both Abraham’s wife and his concubine (cp. Gen 25:14 and 1 Chron 1:32-33). It suggests that some concubine situations may have also been viewed as marriage. It isn’t clear that Keturah had Abraham’s children before “marriage” or after and why she is called both wife and concubine when the children are listed. If she had any of them before marriage, then Gen 25:1-4 may not be strictly chronological (i.e., Abraham might have been married to Keturah before Sarah died. The double terminology for her makes the situation unclear, leaving the possibility that Hagar was a secondary wife, though admittedly she is not specifically called that.

  5. Richard Hobirk says:

    This may be a bit off topic, but is it your understanding that all sexual activity, save that between a man and his wife (or wives or concubines), is considered by God to be a sin? How is sexual activity defined in the bible. Is it limited to intercourse? I ask this after reading some opinions about these matters by minister Dante Fortson.

    I know that Jesus says that to look upon a woman lustfully is the same as commiting adultery with her. Based on the definition of adultery, how does that work out if she is unmarried?



    • MSH says:

      There’s no sexual activity between two people that is described as permissible in either testament other than a man with his wife. The NT language in the passage you refer to uses both words for adultery and “fornication” and so they are not synonymous. It would be difficult to prove that sexual disloyalty only occurred with vaginal intercourse, since sexual pleasure is consistently cast as legitimate only within marriage. That is to say, the NT (1 Cor 7, e.g.,) insists that each partner belongs to each other and that sexual pleasure is part of such “ownership”; that would logically mean that sexual pleasure is meant for the confines of marriage. And since sexual pleasure involves more than the act of vaginal intercourse, it stands to reason that doing anything sexually stimulating with someone other than one’s spouse would be a violation of the marriage bond.

      To argue otherwise you’d need scriptural allowance for sexual pleasure outside marriage. I don’t know of any such passage.

      • David says:

        I’m trying to wrap my head around this, but might need some help. You say:

        “Theres no sexual activity between two people that is described as permissible in either testament other than a man with his wife.”

        But what about concubines? If the concubine was not a “wife,” wouldn’t this be an example of sexual activity outside of the husband/wife relationship that was not counted as adultery and was permissible?

        What about your quote from the Anchor Bible Dictionary here?:

        “As in the rest of the ANE, there was a double standard: males could have sex outside marriage, most notably with prostitutes: ‘adultery’ meant copulation with a married woman.”

        Is this referring to the popular attitude of Israel in general, or to OT law?

        • MSH says:

          I presumed the question I was answering in the comments was about the NT (to me your question had that flavor to it).

          • David says:

            Yes, you’re correct. I was originally asking ultimately about the NT, but am also curious about the OT background and context that you’ve presented here. My question then is this: Since you’ve defined concubinage as different from marriage (point #3 in the post), but have also said that all extra-marital sex is sin, how was sex with a concubine okay? You said here:

            “Permissible (non-violent and consenting) sexual relationships with multiple wives or concubines are not described with either word [naaph or zanah]. Rather, the normal euphemisms for marital intercourse are employed (the man went in to or knew his wife or concubine). Consequently, the biblical material does not consider those relationships adulterous or as prostitution.”

            So if sex with a concubine was not adultery or prostitution, but was also extra-marital, what do we call it and how do we define it in relation to whether it was sinful or not?

            Sorry if I’m being dense, here. :) Just trying to understand how it all fits together.


            • MSH says:

              A concubine was taken into one’s home and care for financially / economically (this is what distinguishes her from a prostitute, where the sex act is exchanged for money and that is the only financial “obligation”). Concubinage was much more; it presumed extended care and producing children). This is why the status of a concubine was sort of a “lesser wife”; “wife” status was deemed by status in the patriarch’s tent/home and specific rights and privileges. Since we aren’t always given such details, the precise status of a given concubine is somewhat murky. We have only biblical terminology and not necessarily many of the details. “Lesser wife” (than the primary wife) is about as good as we can do.

              You ask me why it was “okay”? The problem with the question is that it is imprecisely worded. The point of the post is the OT law (not Mike Heiser) did not define concubinage as adultery. I can’t add to the Mosaic law. It was therefore “okay” in the Mosaic law. The church today is not a theocracy under the Mosaic law and, more importantly, was not intended by God to be such. Therefore the whole question of whether polygamy is “okay” for today is pointless. It’s clearly “no” since we are not a theocracy under the Mosaic law, and also (moving further back in time) not a pastoral nomadic culture-church.

              When the polygamous culture died out (and the church is culture-agnostic / culture-atheist / culture-indifferent) one cannot presume that any particular cultural norm in the current “church era” is “for today.” This requires going back to what appears to be the original (pre-patriarchal and pre-Mosaic) intent, and that would be monogamy.

              This whole problem arises from presuming that the OT sanctified the culture we see in its pages, when there is nothing to warrant that conclusion, especially since it was God’s design to create a people of God that transcended (but did not exclude) the nation of Israel. According to Galatians 3 and other passages, the real Israel = believing Israel, which included Gentiles as heirs of God’s original covenantal promises to Israelites (who only benefited if they beleived).

  6. Doug says:

    Hey Mike. An interesting topic. I’ve run across more than one Reformed person in my Reformed Baptist circles that thinks polygamy is just fine today. In fact, some have even asked their wives to go along with them in the practice (which they haven’t actually gone through with). Such is the world of self-proclaimed experts in God’s word because of internet theology today. Mormons have nothing on some Reformed Baptists, much to my chagrin.

    At any rate, my comment relates to something a little different. You say, “I have heard (in sermons and poorly-informed conversations) that the act of sexual intercourse (here defined as vaginal intercourse) constitutes, in and of itself, a marriage. This is an unbiblical idea.” It seems to me that this idea comes from 1 Cor 6:16, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.'”

    The language obviously comes from the covenantal “marriage” ceremony of Gen 2:24. At least, a covenant ceremony is how many Reformed scholars have taken this passage, and probably some outside of my tradition as well. In light of this, I’ve have taken Paul to mean that the act of sexual intercourse in in fact a kind of marriage, but one without covenantal oaths, like the one Adam made at his marriage. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23).

    In other words, it seems to me that biblical marriage is supposed to be both 1. A covenantal oath and 2. A consummation of that oath in a physical act. In the case of a purely sexual relationship, and an immoral one, such as Paul has in mind, you have the later, but not the former. This is, in fact, why it is an abomination to God because it either 1. Never makes an oath or 2. Goes against an oath made to someone else (polygamy excluded for the sake of the argument, since Paul doesn’t have that in mind).

    I’m wondering then what you might think of this? I’m not saying that Paul is saying that the sex act, in and of itself, is a marriage, but rather that is emulates marriage in a way that goes against the biblical ideal of covenant making between two persons.

    Thus, there is a sense in which the act IS a marriage. But it is not the same sense in which Adam and Eve were married (any more than Joseph and Mary were married in the same sense as Adam and Eve, for they did not have #2–the sexual act–though they were considered in some sense, by nature of his idea to “divorce” Mary, married). In other words, the ancient idea of marriage was a bit more complicated than ours is today.

    So I disagree, at least to some degree with your comment here. I eagerly await your response. I’m sure I’ll learn something new from it as I usually do with the things you write.

    • MSH says:

      Yes, the act of intercourse amounts to the joining of two “fleshes” into one. But why would we assume that is marriage? The answer is an assumption based on Adam and Eve, but there were only two people in the story, so its point cannot be to sort out the language of later biblical passages where the sex act is not considered to form a marriage. My point is that the idiom does not provide a definition of marriage, regardless of how many preachers like to say that. If that idea was the case, when David had sex with Bathsheba he could have claimed she was now his wife and he was now her husband, so Uriah was out of luck. The whole “one flesh” approach to defining marriage is riddled with problems such as this.

  7. Shaun Swanson says:

    I think this is related, but maybe not.

    More than once Abraham is recorded as passing his wife off as his sister so that people wouldnt kill him. Can you shed some light on this? How does the ANE view of a marriage relate to these episodes? Why would you kill a man to have his wife but not his sister?

    • MSH says:

      Sarai/Sarah was his half sister, so he was telling a partial truth. If the Egyptians (or Abimelech, pick the story) thought she was his wife, the only way to have her (to avoid adultery) was to kill the husband. The ruse of Abraham was designed to protect his own life given that context.

  8. So, in terms of how this works out today, if mission work is going on in a culture that still has polygamous marriages, do you think it’s the task of the church to encourage monogamy while not being concerned to break up existing polygamous arrangements?

    • MSH says:

      I think it is the task of the church to transcend culture and go back to where the salvation program of God is headed (and began) — back to the Edenic ideal.

  9. Shaun says:

    So adultery was a higher crime than murder?

    • MSH says:

      where would you get that idea? if both were capital crimes, one can’t be higher than the other – ?

      • Shaun says:

        Because you said, ” the only way to have her (to avoid adultery) was to kill the husband.” So they would be fine with murdering Abraham but not adultry? It just seems really weird.

        • MSH says:

          If they wanted her they would murder to get her. If there were any question about where she came from and if she was another man’s wife, they just eliminated the witness to the contrary. (That’s the sort of thinking I had in mind). It’s not that they were more afraid of one law or another. You get rid of people who could cause a problem and get you in trouble.

  10. kennethos says:

    On a similar note (though slightly different lane), any suggestions or thoughts regarding the relation of ancient culture to the roles of women, as compared to today? There are those folks (mostly smug, know-it-all progressive-types) who glory and delight in painting God as misogynistic, and apply “enlightened” 21st century thinking to pre-BC thinking, and allege nasty things toward God because of how women were allowed to be treated. I’m just curious a good way to respond to such thinking.

    • MSH says:

      I think I sort of did that with respect to the “God doesn’t create culture” idea. The culture was what it was when God decided to act. The laws leave people in their culture; they do not give them a new culture that is “superior” to other ANE cultures, or some “advanced spiritual culture.”

  11. Charlie says:

    It seems to me that sex is used to perfect the marriage. The ceremony and the act of sex may be simultaneous for instance Jacob/Leah, but they do not necessarily occur together. In the Christian culture today, ideally you have a marriage ceremony and later that night (or in the back of the limo) the marriage is consumated. I would think this is why Mary and Joseph were not necessarily married because their marriage was not yet consumated. I think we are in agreement, I’m just stating it here for clarification.

    • MSH says:

      Since marriage is for the pro-creation of children (though sex is not only for procreation – cf. 1 Cor 7 and Song of Solomon), a marriage must be sexually consummated to truly be a marriage. My point (and I am sure you are following) is that, biblically, the act of sex does not constitute a marriage bond.

      • Charlie says:

        I agree that sex alone is not marriage otherwise there would not be a need to make a distiction, there has to be some intent to form a commitment. Nevertheless, there is some kind of bond formed between two sexual partners.

        I Cor. 6:16 …he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for the two, saith he, shall be one flesh.

        Is this passage merely referring to the physical offspring as the one flesh? or is it referring to a deeper, spiritual connection? I would assume based on the context that this refers to a spiritual connection for the very next verse says “he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit.” I think about the boast of Wilt Chamberlain that he had sex with over 20,000 different women (none of which would have been considered his wife) what kind of bond (if any) was Paul referring to that existed between Wilt and these 20,000 women.

        Additionally, I’m not sure I follow v. 18 where it states that “every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body.” I can think of many sins that seem to be sins against one’s own body, say suicide for instance, how can EVERY sin except sexual sin be “without the body”? Maybe not for a female, but for the male it seems that sex occurs “without the body” Is this referring to the passage of DNA material? Or is it referring to this mysterious bond? I have trouble grasping this passage. Can you provide any guidance here?

        • Charlie says:

          The other thought I had is does this passage refer to sex at all or is it using sex as a graphic to illustrate our relationship with Christ in that by worshipping false gods we are “joining” ourselves to that deceptions whereas by being “joined” with the Lord leads us to truth. The deception that comes as a result of following after false gods/religions would be the sin “against his own body”. Like I said, this passage gives me trouble.

          • MSH says:

            The act of spiritual disloyalty was indeed described with the language of whoredom (joining oneself to a foreign god) and adultery (taking a god that is not yours properly – recall Israel’s covenant relationship to Yahweh and the fact that the gods of the other nations were allotted to them by Yahweh – Deut 4:19-20; Deut 32:8-9, reading verse 8 as properly [“sons of God”] with the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX).

        • MSH says:

          I think the Corinthians language is a euphemistic way to describe the sexual act. There need not be any theological point to it. In human experience, there may be emotional or “spiritual” meaning to it (or not, apparently in Wilt’s case).

          I think Paul’s wording here is hyperbolic and we need not take it to be a statement intended to literally correspond to all reality and experience.

  12. John says:

    I have one question for you which bears on recent discussions I have had. You mention above that “And if the woman did not consent to the sexual relationship (i.e., she was raped) the man would suffer the death penalty.” It was my understanding from Deut 22:28-29 that in the event of the rape of a virgin, her attacker would marry her with no other consequence save that he could not divorce her. I have discussed this recently after some news articles were published concerning the suicide of a young Moroccan girl who was forced to marry her attacker under laws which seem to mirror the Deut material. Personally, I have no issue with understanding this as a cultural phenomenon and not an establishment of an ultimate ethic for rape situations, but if there was a death penalty associated, that would change how I understand this particular law.
    Thank you,

    • MSH says:

      you’re right about the virgin; my wording was imprecise as I intended the example to be a betrothed or married woman (since the discussion was about adultery, which requires that status for a woman in the Mosaic law for “adultery” to be in view).

  13. Gabriel says:

    Very interesting information. So in a nutshell, summarize everything for me in a simple way.Ohh an could you answer these questions for me if you don’t mind.
    1.Does God like polygamy?
    2. Why do some people such as Hebrew people say that Yashua enjoys when a man marries more than one woman?
    3. Was it always God’s plan for every man to have one woman or should I say every husband have his own wife?
    4. Will God ever fix or correct the marriage problems we have today and back then?
    5. Why does God allow polygamy?
    6. Is polygamy a sin?
    7.Which relegion is correct when it comes to a monogamy marriage or polygamy marriage?

    I know its a lot of questions and I’m sorry haha. But I really need help on this. Thanks so much. Your brother in Christ, Gabriel

    • MSH says:

      1. Does God like polygamy?

      ** He didn’t care enough to forbid it to Israel; the record there is clear. It is also clear that patriarchal culture should not be considered synonymous with urban Israelite culture (the settled culture withing the land). The Bible doesn’t have God endorsing one culture, so the patriarchal lifestyle is not being endorsed. But God did nothing to forbid the unions of people like Abraham, and he had plenty of oppty to do so (the same God who asked him to sacrifice his son didn’t tell him to repent for his marital issues). There is no evidence in the NT that any of this was endorsed either.

      2. Why do some people such as Hebrew people say that Yashua enjoys when a man marries more than one woman?

      ** This seems like a contrived category. I don’t know of any such statement in the OT or that would be made by any Jews today.

      3. Was it always God’s plan for every man to have one woman or should I say every husband have his own wife?

      ** I think one can read Gen 1 as the ideal, and that ideal is reinforced by example in both testaments. However, the biblical writers weren’t idiots; they could read Gen 1-2, and yet THEY did not restrict its wording to one coupling. The text was read as a declarative statement of any legitimate marriage. It’s only later western cultures that assumed they were smarter than the Israelites about the meaning of their own sacred text. And so these passages can be read either way – in the context of one marriage or more than one. If the text could only be read one way (say, a 17th century Protestant way, or 20th century evangelicalism), then one has to wonder why biblical figures weren’t universally rebuked for having more than one wife.

      ** But it is quite a flawed idea to say “I’m going to take this culture that wasn’t endorsed by God — i.e., he doesn’t tell all people everywhere to adopt polygamy — and then argue that God wants me adopt that cultural practice today.”

      4. Will God ever fix or correct the marriage problems we have today and back then?

      ** Pardon, but this is a silly question. The second part involves a different space-time continuum. The former is part of a future paradise.

      5. Why does God allow polygamy?

      ** this was addressed in the post to some extent. It’s akin to asking questions like “Why didn’t God give us wings to fly?” All we can conclude from the text is that God was more interested in a salvation plan than mandating a culture when he decided to prompt people to write things. Maybe you’ll get to ask God this “why” question and others some day.

      6. Is polygamy a sin?

      ** Also answered in the post, which I won’t rewrite here.

      7.Which relegion is correct when it comes to a monogamy marriage or polygamy marriage?

      ** it’s “religion”; the question is vague (is it asking about world religions or something in the Judeo-Christian orbit). The question is also misguided. It assumes we can take a culturally-bounded practice and ask if it’s divinely ordained today. If it wasn’t divinely ordained (endorsed) then, what’s the point of the question?

      ** Generally, you seem to have trouble distinguishing between things that are just described in the Bible (why not ask if God demands or forbids reclining while eating?) and those items related to the Bible’s theological message (the purpose of telling us about Abraham and Israel in the first place – what God was up to. God wasn’t up to founding a culture; he was up to a plan to save humankind.

      [adding one other thought 3/19; MSH]
      In case the above isn’t clear, the patriarchs lived in an era prior to the writing of any Scripture (in the most conservative view, that would be the Mosaic period, ca. 1450 BC). Once the patriarchal stories were written down, presumably from oral tradition, and then made their way into the Torah, we see no evidence that God cared about their polygamy. There is no indication God was displeased with Jacob, for example, and his wives and concubines, from whom came the 12 tribes. There is no indication God was upset with this — He never asks Jacob to dump all the women except one — or that Jacob’s polygamy made God look elsewhere for a son of the promise, or that the polygamy impeded God’s salvation plan in any way. Likewise, we never get any indication God approved, or liked it, or thought it cool. There’s nothing. Hence the obvious conclusion: God was indifferent; it made no difference one way or the other. When we get the Torah, there are a couple laws that presume polygamy is still in the culture. But there is no mandate for it, as though endorsing it, and there is no prohibition against it. Genesis 1-2 could be read by a patriarch and interpreted as “yes, in all of my marriages, my wife [and I, as head of my own house] have left father and mother and become a marital unit [“leaving and cleaving”; “one flesh”]. As time went on and patriarchal culture faded (in to urban, settled life), the biblical indication (descriptions in stories) is that polygamy faded. God didn’t intervene and demand a return to polygamy. He didn’t say “you finally got it right” either. There’s just the presumption of monogamy or predominant monogamy in the culture.

      Point (again): The Bible does not endorse a single culture. Stuff like this was incidental and beside the point of why God was doing what he was doing with Israel and then with the church. If this isn’t the case, we’d have God rebuking his chosen people (starting with Abraham) for the practice from the get-go. We don’t. God was interested in more pressing issues.

  14. Angel says:

    I’m not completely in agreement with your point that God didn’t care enough about polygamy to forbid it. Besides, not having any evidence for God’s intentions on this matter, your view also reduces God’s morals to cultural relativism. The culture back then was also to serve idols but yet we find God going strongly against that. In today’s time, we find acceptance of gay marriage on the rise, should we believe that God would allow that? It would also seem that allowing adultery to be defined in such UNequal terms lends a very clear support and accomodation for polyGYNY.

    • MSH says:

      The Bible is not culturally relative. It’s culturally apathetic. Adultery is very clearly condemned, so your other example carries no weight for comparison. And the Bible defines adultery clearly, and its definition did not rule out polygamy *in the biblical culture*. We aren’t living in the second or 1st millennium BC, so I’m not sure why you’re worried about OT polygamy. When Jesus was asked about marriage, he framed the discussion as one man and one woman. He could have said “and let’s not forget about how cool polygamy is” but he didn’t. Same for Paul (and the rest of the NT).

      I think you’re manufacturing a problem.

  15. Angel says:

    You also mentioned that God was concerned with more pressing issues. In Genesis 29:30-33 it would seem that God was concerned with a man loving TWO different women equally. Then furthermore, he takes ACTION (perfect moral action?) to support the relationship by enabling both women to be fruitful.

    • MSH says:

      Genesis 29:30-33

      30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.
      Jacob’s Children 31 When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” 33 She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.

      Did God tell him to divorce one of the women? No. Did he tell him that he shouldn’t have married more than one in the first place? No.

      The example carries no weight for the specific point you’re trying to make. The issue isn’t whether polygamy can cause problems in the home (monogamy can do that too). It’s that there’s no specific prohibition of the practice. See my other reply – again, I think you’re manufacturing a problem.

  16. Angel says:

    Cultural relativism and apathy have the same implications if you’re saying God didn’t forbid polygamy because of culture. I thought that God would cover ANY moral issue because its good and even if it goes against what we want. My focus is on whether or not polygamy is a sin and my points will be in relation to that issue.

  17. Angel says:

    We’re not living in 1st or 2nd BC. Why do you bring that up when God’s rules transcend time/culure? Even if God’s law undergoes some evolution or gradual process from time to time i’d want evidene and logic to point that out to me and to what extent that happens. Id want to know WHY the change occurred, what the SPECIFIC change wad, etc.

    • MSH says:

      Because not everything in the Bible is for today – according to the Bible. Many laws were set aside in the NT period (read the book of Acts, for example).

  18. Angel says:

    I used Genesis 29:30-33 to show God’s DIRECT involvement in helping out a polygamous marriage. All that God does is GOOD so polygyny is good unless God would also help 2 gay guys to love each other, as well. Please give me a ONE word answer. Is polygamy a sin? Yes or no?

    • MSH says:

      Polygamy was not a sin in the OT law. It is not endorsed in the NT. I give biblical answers here, and they require more than one word. If you don’t like biblical answers, read another blog.

  19. Angel says:

    Let me quote from your article:
    “These points also answer the question, “Is polygamy for today then?” No, it isn’t. It’s no more “for today” than any other cultural element tied to patriarchal Israel would be for believers in any era after the patriarchal Israelite kingdom was replaced – in the divine design no less – by the Church. We aren’t living in the second millennium B.C.”

    At best, your explanation sheds light on why polygamy began to die out. The problem now is that I fail to see how or why those cultural reasons relate to theology, or more specifically, to the moral status of polygamy. Last I checked the law still applies (Romans 3:20, Romans 7:7), esp. the 10 commandments, and in those very 10 commandments adultery is mentioned. We already know how adultery was defined which you also covered in your article.

    Please elaborate on your reason for calling polygamy a sin under the NT because I see that many of the ways and reasons for BOTH monogamy and polygamy in biblical times are OUTDATED, so should we do away with monogamy by your logic? Why can’t people TODAY engage in polygamy out of love and wanting to build a family as people do for monogamy? Bloodlines, marriage dowry, familial inheritance/ property rights, legitimate children are NOT necessary factors for marriage nowadays.

    • MSH says:

      we aren’t in a theocracy … the dietary laws are set aside in the book of Acts … the sacrificial laws need a temple (and there was this guy named Jesus who fulfilled their typology – he was the whose atonement they pointed to … etc. etc.

      My position on polygamy is clear. You quoted it.

  20. Angel says:

    To add to my last post,, BOTH monogamy and polygamy can be practiced under a patriarchal system. Just look at the Middle East today!!!

  21. Angel says:

    Are you open to one-on-one debates? If so, I would love to debate this issue with you and on another site. I tried to engage you here but it seems you aren’t clearing my comments and I’m not sure if it’s because you have no answers. A debate would be a good way to press you on these matters. What say ye?

    • MSH says:

      I have no interest in debates. That’s why I blog and have websites. People can interact with the content. My blog is not a forum for you, and you don’t get to dictate what I spend my time on for my blog’s content. You should have your own site (seems to me).

  22. Trent Wilde says:

    Hey Mike, interesting article. Just wanted to mention that the first comment after the ABD quote has “These economic concerns are also reflected in laws about (consensual) pre-marital sex (Exo 22:16-17; 22:28-29).” as the first sentence. The second passage referenced is actually from Deuteronomy, so if possible, you may want to insert that.
    Blessings :)

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