A few weeks ago, a friend of mine needed help defending monogamy in the Bible. He knew that polygamy was unbiblical, but was having trouble putting his beliefs into words when he was challenged by his aunt on accounts in the Bible that “promoted polygamy” such as narratives on David and Solomon. It is true that polygamy was practiced during Old Testament times, so how do we handle such accusations that the Bible allows for such a practice?
A lot of problems can be headed off easily if we remember one rule: a recording of historical events does not equate to the allowance or condoning of said event.
For example, if I were to write a historical account of Hitler and Nazi Germany, it does not necessarily follow that I am advocating Nazi beliefs. No one asserts that it is necessary that authors who write of historical events first affirm the actions contained within their work as true or morally right. To say that the Bible condones polygamy because it contains accounts of polygamy is a fallacy.
Another thing that we must remember is that the Bible often portrays the sins of its heroes. This is particularly true of David and Solomon, as well as the disciples/apostles in the Gospels and Acts. We would not say that the Bible condones denying Christ based upon the fact that Peter denied Him.
In Jesus’ teaching on divorce, He pinpoints God’s original intent on marriage. Consider:
“6But 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, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.”
God’s original plan for marriage from the beginning is shown through Adam and Eve. The model is specifically monogamous, one male and one female. If this was God’s plan from the beginning, than anything other than that is sin, including polygamy. The “two shall become one flesh.” This idea can only be realized in a monogamous relationship.
But let us look more specifically at the accounts of David and Solomon. We’ll begin by looking at the commands for kings in general.
“14‘When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ … 17And he [the king] shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.”
There is not really much need of commentary as polygamy for kings here is specifically prohibited. This verse also prohibits the kings from acquire “excessive silver and gold.” In the case of Solomon, he actively breaks both of these commandments.
“1Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love. 3He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart… 9And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice”
1 Kings 11.1-3, 9
Here we see that Solomon has committed several sins: 1) He had many (many!) wives, 2) he had foreign wives, which was forbidden for Israelites, and 3) he acquired a lot of gold and silver (see 1 Kings 10.14-29 which tells about Solomon’s great riches, and is recorded again in 2 Chronicles 9.13-24). Again, these are specifically against the commandments of Deuteronomy 17. When people assert that the Bible allows for polygamy, they will usually point to Solomon first, but we can easily see that this is not a sanctioning by the Bible, but simply a historical record of Solomon’s sins. The effect of his sin was that his heart turned away his heart, just as Deuteronomy 17 and the command quoted in 1 Kings 11.2 warned. Recording a historical fact is not a sanctioning.
So what about David? Many people also point to David’s affair with Bathsheeba, and his subsequent owning of concubines. In 2 Samuel 12, we find Nathan the prophet coming to David and calling him out for his sin of adultery with Bathsheeba. Being forced to come face to face with his sin, David repents, yet he does not escape consequences. As punishment, God takes David’s son who was born of the illicit affair, as well as all of David’s other wives. This is important because it leaves only one wife, Bathsheeba. However, Scripture also records that David would take 10 concubines as well. Consider 2 Samuel 20:
“3And David came to his house at Jerusalem. And the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house and put them in a house under guard and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood.”
2 Samuel 20.3
There are two things of note here. The first is that verse 3 says that David “…did not go into them.” In other words he did not have sexual relations with them, thus not committing adultery with his wife Bathsheeba. The second thing to note in this verse is that they were “living as if in widowhood” i.e. not remarrying. Not only did David not have a sexual relationship with them, he also did not have a marriage relationship with them. Thus, he preserved his monogamous relationship with Bathsheeba.
Some may object that these commandments and events deal specifically with kings, what about everyone else? Though this question is, I think, grasping at straws, we will entertain it. There is no reason to suspect that if polygamy was forbidden for the kings, than it would not be forbidden His people the Israelites. The sixth commandment forbids adultery (Exodus 20.14) which would include forbidding polygamy. This can be seen in an argument from the lesser to the greater. Consider Jesus’ words at the sermon on the mount:
“27‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
The Jewish people at that time were great at keeping the commandments, externally. Unfortunately, that is where they stopped. As long as they didn’t commit an actual act of adultery, they were fine. Jesus directly confronts this idea, and gets (literally) to the heart of the matter. Acts of adultery stem from a sinful lusting that originates within us. It is not merely the external we should abstain from, but the internal, which is the root of the external acts. If simply looking lustfully at another woman is tantamount to committing adultery in our hearts, how much more would engaging in a marriage covenant or sexual relations apart from our wife (or husband, as the case of the reader may be)? This is one of the reasons why Jesus forbids divorce later on in Matthew 5, again in Matthew 19, and Mark 10: Those who are divorced by law and enter into another relationship is still guilty of adultery to their first spouse.
Thus, polygamy is not condoned or allowed in the Bible because it goes against God’s very plan for the marriage covenant, the union of one male and one female to become one flesh, and because it is an act of adultery. Those who point to examples of David, Solomon, and other Old Testament saints have made the mistake that a report of what took place is equal to the sanctioning of an event. As we can see, this inference is not at all necessary to make, and is quite a logical jump. In fact, if we pause to consider the teaching of tota scriptura, all of Scripture, we see that polygamy is expressly forbidden and that these individuals were sinning against God.