Is Polygamy for Today?

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Is Polygamy for Today?
by J.K. McKee posted 30 October, 2008

the case against polygamy

In recent days a number of issues have hit the Messianic community. Each one of these
issues has had a variety of distinctly negative effects as people have denied Yeshua’s Divinity,
questioned His Messiahship, and have questioned whether certain books of the Apostolic
Scriptures are trustworthy. Our ministry has stood firmly against the false teachings that have
entered into our midst, standing for Yeshua’s Divinity and Messiahship, and engaging with the text
of various Biblical books under fire to provide reasonable answers. We have done our best to stop
the tide of error sweeping through the Messianic world, knowing full well “if the watchman sees
the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet and the people are not warned…his blood I
will require” (Ezekiel 33:6). People who see extreme problems, possessing the skills and abilities to
address them—and who do nothing—will be held accountable by the Almighty.
There are an entire host of issues seen in the Torah that today’s Messianic movement is
either unwilling or unable to address. Some of it has come about because various teachers or
leaders “just don’t want to go there” or “open that can of worms.” Others do not know what to do.
But avoiding the controversial issues seen in the Torah is not an appropriate course of action. The
Lord Himself has said, “this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for
you, nor is it out of reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11). With a little research into the Scriptures, and
with some basic engagement of Ancient Near Eastern history, many of the tough questions we
have about the Pentateuch and its instructions can be adequately answered.
Messianics too quickly jump over issues like murder, genocide, and slavery as seen in the
Torah.1 You cannot totally blame people for wanting to not discuss these sorts of things, as they
are surely not pleasant subjects for one living in the Twenty-First Century to contemplate. But
they are a part of the Biblical narrative, and if we are mature Believers we will consider them (cf.
Hebrews 6:1-2). Yet many of those issues can be relegated to the more philosophical disciplines.
We do not practice slavery or indentured servitude in modern society today, and very few of us
will ever have to serve on a jury where the prosecution is seeking the death penalty.
However, a controversy has just arisen regarding a subject that is seen in the Scriptures,
was practiced by some people within Ancient Israel, and could adversely affect not only the
growth of the Messianic movement—but also severely shake up families and our youth. It has the
capacity to grind our faith community and the work God has called us to do to a grinding halt if
not stopped immediately.
No one who reads the Bible denies that polygamy—the practice of a man having more
than one wife—is seen within the text. The Patriarch Jacob, who was the progenitor of the
Twelve Tribes of Israel, had two wives and two concubines (Genesis 31:17; 37:2). King David, a
man testified by the Lord to be “a man after His own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), had multiple wives
(1 Samuel 18:17-30; 25:38-43; 2 Samuel 3:2-5). King Solomon, whom many consider to be the wisest
man who ever lived, had hundreds of wives and concubines (1 Kings 3:1; 11:3) that made up an
entire harem (Song of Songs 6:8).
“So what is the problem?” it is said. “Some of the most important figures in the Tanach
Scriptures had multiple wives, and so Messianic men today should be able to have multiple wives
as well. YHWH is restoring Biblical patriarchy! Women need to learn their place.”
There are, in fact, many problems to be explored when considering whether or not
polygamy is an acceptable practice for today’s Body of Messiah. Was it the ideal at Creation for
the man to have more than one wife? When a man has more than one wife, is he truly fulfilled
emotionally and spiritually with his multiple spouses? Is the household where one man has
multiple wives and children from those multiple wives truly a place of love and affection, or one
of discord and suspicion? Does the Bible portray men who had polygamous relationships as being
genuinely fulfilled, and children who were true examples of godliness? Does a man having
multiple wives express the sentiment that he places great value on women, or that they are simply

1 Consult the editor’s article “Addressing the Frequently Avoided Issues Messianics Encounter in the Torah.”
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property to be acquired? And, how many in the Biblical period actually had the financial means to
afford more than one wife? Does the Bible really lend support to the practice of polygamy today?
In this critical article, we will directly answer these questions and many more. Make no
mistake about it, while polygamy is recorded to have been practiced in Scripture—it by no means
is endorsed by Scripture!
Not a single commandment in the Torah condones the practice of
polygamy.2 God never intended a man to have more than one wife, families where the husband is
polygamous have suffered immensely from it, and polygamists today are motivated by
uncontrollable sexual urges that demean women and the equality that Messiah Yeshua has
restored to the genders (Galatians 3:28).3 And not only will we consider these factors, but we will
also take a look at many of the Tanach examples where polygamous relationships are portrayed,
later weighing in the teachings and thoughts of Yeshua and the Apostles. How do we stand against
this new wave of aberration? Will Messianic men arise who recognize women as having great
value and recognize them as their equals?

Genesis and the First Marriage
The prototype for a proper marriage relationship is seen at the very beginning with the
creation of the first two human beings: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God
he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, NRSV). Both the male and the
female bear the image of God, meaning that aside from their anatomical differences, they possess
the same capacities of intelligence, reason, and spirituality. While the male was created first, this
by no means is an indication of God’s preference of the male gender over the female gender.4 On
the contrary, the Lord says of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a
helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). The woman, Eve, was to be Adam’s ezer kenegdo (ADg>n<K.
rz<[e), a significant ally for him who would fulfill all of those things and more that he needed.5
Victor P. Hamilton comments,
“It suggests that what God creates for Adam will correspond to him. Thus the new
creation will be neither a superior nor an inferior, but an equal. The creation of this helper will
form one-half of a polarity, and will be to man as the south pole is to the north pole.”6
Genesis 2:21-24 tells us how God made the first female:
“So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took
one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The LORD God fashioned into a woman the
rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now
bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of

2 More specifically, the practice of polygyny or a man having multiple wives, compared to polyandry or a
woman having multiple husbands. The latter is not present in the Bible.
Cf. John L. Berquist, “Marriage,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2000), pp 861-862.
3 Consult the editor’s article “Galatians 3:28: Biblical Equality and Today’s Messianic Movement.”
4 God’s creation of the male first, and His own portrayal as male in Genesis, directly combated pagan teaching
of the Ancient Near East (i.e., the Mesopotamian creation myth Atrahasis) where the first humans were birthed by a
mother goddess. The Genesis 1-3 account runs completely contrary to this, as man and woman are made by the Lord ex
or out of nothing (cf. Hebrews 11:3). Females must join with males in order to conceive a child, similar to how the
womb-goddess must give birth. But from the Biblical point of view, God portrayed as male cannot give birth. On the
contrary, He must create the first two human beings out of nothing. The male being made first by no means is an
indication that females are somehow “worthless.”

5 The term “helper” or ezer is derived from the root a-z-r (rz[), which generally regards military alliances or
reinforcements seen throughout the Tanach (i.e., Joshua 10:4; 2 Samuel 8:5; Ezra 10:15; Isaiah 41:6). Consult Carl Schultz,
“rz:[',” in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2
vols (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 2:660-661.
Also consult John H. Walton’s comments in The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2001), 176.
6 Victor P. Hamilton, New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 175.
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Man.’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and
they shall become one flesh.”
Here, we see that the woman was brought out of the man’s tzela ([l'ce) or “side,” and that
Adam’s response was to admire God’s creation of Eve. The man is the “head” of the woman,
meaning that he is her origin (1 Corinthians 11:3).7 The respect that a man is to give to a woman is
most severe in the Scriptures. From the beginning of human history, the marriage relationship was
intended to be between one man and one woman. One way that v. 24 can be translated is
“Therefore a man forsakes his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one
flesh,”8 which could be taken, as Hamilton notes, “to leave father and mother and cling to one’s
wife means to sever one loyalty and commence another.”9 Surely while sons are to be loyal and
respectful to their parents (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16), in the marriage relationship one’s
primary loyalty and duty is now to the wife.
V. 24 is clearly a piece of the narration in Genesis 2 designed to call those reading or
hearing back to an important principle established at Creation. It is introduced by the words al-
(!Ke-l[;), “Therefore” (RSV), “For this reason” (NASU), or “This is why” (CJB, HCSB). Nahum
M. Sarna explains, “‘al ken…introduces an etiological observation on the part of the Narrator; that
is, the origin of an existing custom or institution assigned to some specific event in the past. In this
case, some interrelated and fundamental aspects of the marital relationship are traced to God’s
original creative act and seen as part of the divinely ordained natural order.”10 Indeed, in Genesis
2:21-24 marriage is most definitely not defined as being between two people of the same gender
joined in a homosexual relationship.11 But also, marriage is presented as being a relationship
between one man and one woman—as opposed to one man and multiple women. This is a
teaching upheld by Yeshua the Messiah (Mathew 19:5; Mark 10:7-8). The Jewish and Christian
theological traditions have both looked to Genesis 2:24 as presenting the ideal for a monogamous
marriage relationship, and Genesis 2:24 is often quoted in the liturgy of most Jewish and Christian
weddings, joined with the Messiah’s word “What therefore God has joined together, let no man
separate” (Matthew 19:6; cf. Mark 10:9).
As a direct result of the Fall,12 the tranquility and unity that was to exist between the
male and female genders was quickly lost (Genesis 3:16 compared to 4:7), with a battle erupting
between the two. While the man and woman were to originally be equal partners and allies of
each other in the marriage relationship, now with sin entering onto the scene, the physically
stronger man would inevitably dominate a physically weaker woman who would try to be his
boss: “your urge [teshuqah, hq'WvT.] shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis
3:16, NJPS).13

7 This interpretation of kephalē (kefalh,) in 1 Corinthians 11, “head” viewed as “source” like that of “a river”
(H.G. Lidell and R. Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], 430), has grown
considerably in the past twenty to thirty years. It is not without controversy, though. Linda L. Belleville describes, “Can 1
Corinthians 11 really get a fair reading from an author who assumes it teaches ‘the timeless principles of male headship
and female subordination’?” (“Response to Craig Blomberg,” in James R. Beck, ed., Two Views on Women in Ministry
[Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005], 199).
8 Hamilton, 177.
This is realized by the verb azav (bz:['), appearing in the Qal stem (simple action, active voice), meaning “leave,
forsake, loose” (Francis Brown, S.R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament
[Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979], 736).
9 Ibid., 181.
10 Nahum M. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 23.
11 Consult the FAQ on the TNN website “Romans 1:26-27.”
12 Note that the introduction of sin did not come about because the woman Eve was “stupid” or inferior to the
male Adam; the Scriptures are clear that she was deceived (Genesis 3:13; 1 Timothy 2:14). Adam chose to listen to his
wife when she handed him the fruit (Genesis 3:17), rather than instruct her that what she did was wrong and
immediately plead God’s mercy and forgiveness. Far from there being any fault with the female Eve, humanity’s
expulsion rests with the sin of the male Adam (Romans 5:12) who was not deceived and knew exactly what he ate.
13 Cf. Hamilton, 201.
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The restoration of what Sarna calls “the absolute equality of the sexes”14 that once existed
in Paradise, would have to come when the Seed promised to Eve would arrive and crush the
serpent (Genesis 3:15; 1 Timothy 2:15, Grk.). Any instance where men are portrayed as having
more than one wife runs completely against the Edenic ideal and against the trajectory back
toward that original egalitarianism.15 Sometimes we see polygamy being tolerated by God over
against more severe sins like the idolatry and child sacrifice that erupted in the Northern and
Southern Kingdoms, which eventually brought His judgment down upon them.16

Marriage in the Tanach: One Man and One Woman
While the full restoration of equality between males and females would only come when
Messiah Yeshua arrived on the scene (Galatians 3:28), with the Torah working forward toward that
,17 the witness of the commandments in the Torah upholds the ideal marriage as being between
one man and one woman as originally seen in Genesis:
“You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his
male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your
neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out
as a free man’” (Exodus 21:5).18
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's wife; it is your father's
nakedness…The nakedness of your father's wife's daughter, born to your father, she is your sister,
you shall not uncover her nakedness…You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's
brother; you shall not approach his wife, she is your aunt. You shall not uncover the nakedness of
your daughter-in-law; she is your son's wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness. You shall not
uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness…You shall not have
intercourse with your neighbor's wife, to be defiled with her” (Leviticus 18:8, 11, 14-16, 20).
“If there is a man who commits adultery with another man's wife, one who commits
adultery with his friend's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death”
(Leviticus 20:10; cf. Deuteronomy 22:22).
“He [a priest] shall take a wife in her virginity” (Leviticus 21:13).
“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful
to him…” (Numbers 5:12).
“You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, and you shall not desire your neighbor's house,
his field or his male servant or his female servant, his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to
your neighbor” (Deuteronomy 5:21).
None of these passages describe “wives” in the plural, as meaning that one is prohibited
from lusting or adulterating with “one of someone else’s wives.” A man having a single wife is what
is clearly portrayed.
Now, it is not at all impossible that some commandments listed above may concern a
man having a later second wife because the first wife has died. When Leviticus 18:18 prohibits a
son from sleeping with “his father’s wife,” this could very well not be his mother, but be his
stepmother. The death of a man’s first wife, often by childbirth, was not something uncommon in
the Biblical period—and there is no Torah prohibition on remarriage (except remarriage to a
divorced spouse in Deuteronomy 24:4). In fact, the Apostle Paul uses the Torah’s instructions on
proper sexuality within marriage to describe how Believers in Yeshua are like the widow released

14 Sarna, Genesis, 28.
15 The term “egalitarian” is simply derived from the French égal, meaning “equal.”
16 Consult the editor’s entries for the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings in A Survey of the Tanach for the
Practical Messianic.
17 An analysis of this is offered in the section on “Development and Advances of Gender Relations” in the
editor’s article “Addressing the Frequently Avoided Issues Messianics Encounter in the Torah.”
18 An historical analysis of this passage is offered in the section on “Slavery” in the editor’s article “Addressing
the Frequently Avoided Issues Messianics Encounter in the Torah.”
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from “the law concerning the husband19” (Romans 7:2), meaning that they have been discharged
from the Torah’s condemnation upon sinners (cf. Galatians 3:13).20 But remarriage and a man
having children from a sequence of marriages brought about by the unfortunate death of his
wife/wives is different than polygamy.
The witness of the Tanach’s Wisdom literature is also clear about the ideal marriage being
between one man and one woman:
An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who shames him is like rottenness
in his bones” (Proverbs 12:4).
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs
“A foolish son is destruction to his father, and the contentions of a wife are a constant
dripping” (Proverbs 19:13).
“Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has
given to you under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:9).
“I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?...If my heart has
been enticed by a woman, or I have lurked at my neighbor's doorway, may my wife grind for
another, and let others kneel down over her. For that would be a lustful crime; moreover, it
would be an iniquity punishable by judges. For it would be fire that consumes to Abaddon, and
would uproot all my increase” (Job 31:1, 9-12).
Proverbs 12:4 and 18:22 should particularly stand out: a wife is a singular treasure that a
husband should greatly value. Once you begin to add more wives—to that single wife who is the
ateret ba’lah (Hl'[.B; tr<j,[], Proverbs 12:4) or “crown (of her) husband”—it is then that the woman
becomes devalued and demeaned and/or cheapened in comparison to a man. Such a lessening of a
woman’s worth should never be present in today’s Kingdom of God! It is not unlike that common,
sinful urge today for men to “conquer” women as sexual exploits.
Scores of examples of how women are treated as less valuable than men—even in today’s
world—can be considered. It is not uncommon in various third world countries for women to
have abortions when it is revealed that the child she is carrying is female. Worse yet, if a child’s
gender is unknown and a female is born, sometimes it is left out in the open to die, in spite of
orphanages that would gladly take the child. And even when there are families whose children are
both male and female, when the male child is sick it is given preferential treatment over the
female child. These are abominations that God will rightly judge.
God made men to have a single wife in a monogamous marriage relationship. This wife is
to be a person who her husband values above all others, save only God Himself. The only reason
that a man should have another wife would be in that terrible instance of his first wife being taken
from him by death, or a justifiable reason for divorce such as adultery (cf. Matthew 19:19). Even
so, the monogamous marriage relationship is a privilege to those who participate in it.

Problem Texts that Appear to Support Polygamy
While men having multiple wives is clearly not the ideal as originally portrayed by Adam
and Eve in Paradise, some in the Messianic community believe that the Torah actually allows men
to have multiple wives. A review of some of the passages that would seem to suggest that
polygamy is an acceptable practice is certainly in order, especially as we confront this danger in
our faith community. Is polygamy permitted—or is there more to consider?

Exodus 21:7-11
“If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. If
she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall

19 Grk. tou nomou tou andros (tou/ no,mou tou/ avndro,j), “the law of the husband” (YLT) or “the law of marriage”
20 Consult the editor’s article “Have We Been ‘Made Dead’ to the Truths of God’s Word?” for a further
examination of Romans 7:1-7.
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let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of
his unfairness to her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to
the custom of daughters. If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her
food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. If he will not do these three things for her, then
she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”

These regulations are given as “judgments” (Exodus 21:1, KJV) or mishpatim (~yjiP'v.Mi),
indicating that they compose Pentateuchal case law. There are some translation and textual issues
that need to be considered in any interpretation of Exodus 21:7-11. It does concern the selling of a
young woman to a family as an intended wife for either the man or for his son (v. 7-9), in a kind
of indentured servitude vis-à-vis an arranged marriage for a family that is destitute and needs a
daughter provided for. But how this is applied and whether or not polygamy is even a factor are
things we must examine carefully.
V. 8a in most Bibles is rendered as “If she does not please the master who has selected her
for himself” (NIV). There is a very subtle, yet significant, difference in the reading lo (Al), “for
himself,” versus lo (al{) or “not,”21 with only a handful of Hebrew witnesses reading with lo “for
himself.”22 Both sound exactly the same audibly, yet textually the superior reading is lo or “not.”
When “not” is recognized as the correct reading, the clause asher-lo ye’adah (Hd"['y>…¿al{À-rv,a])
translates as “so that he does not choose her”23 or “so that he did not designate her.”24 The textual
issue of v. 8a is important because of what is seen in v. 10, “If he takes to himself another
woman…” Because of the man’s rejection of the woman contracted to him (v. 8a), he is now free
to take another as his wife (v. 10). No polygamy need be present.
Another issue regards v. 10b, where it is said that the woman rejected may not be refused
“conjugal rights” (NASU) or “marital rights” (RSV). Here, it would seem that the woman
contracted to him, who he has now rejected and taken another in her place, should still be
allowed some sexual pleasuring (perhaps by a male prostitute?) even though she is unmarried!
The term onah (hn"[o) is a difficult one to translate, as BDB simply defines it as “cohabitation.”25 The
challenge with viewing onah this way is that it does not follow the standard Ancient Near Eastern
formula of “food, clothing, and ointment”26 (cf. Hosea 2:8; Ecclesiastes 9:7-9). Sarna notes for us
that “Rashbam and Bekhor Shor favor another rendering of ‘onah as ‘dwelling,’ ‘shelter,’ which is
supported etymologically by the Hebrew noun ma’on, me’onah, ‘dwelling, habitation.’”27 Onah
does come from the root a-v-n (!W[), a verb form for “dwell” (BDB).28 So, far be it from the woman
being refused “her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights” (NASU)—it would be more akin to
“her food, her clothing, or her shelter,” or perhaps even “her oil.”29 Not providing these things for
the woman he rejected, she is then free to leave and cannot be sold by him (v. 11).
Exodus 21:7-11 is not about polygamy; it is about what to do with a woman contracted to
a man as his wife, and how he is to properly treat her should she not be what he wants. If he
rejects her as a wife, he still has to provide for her basic needs. If he fails to do this or fails to see
that she is redeemed (v. 8), she is free to leave ein kesef (@s,K' !yae). He has to let her go “without
any exchange of money” (HCSB).

21 The Keter Crown Bible Jerusalem: Chorev, 2006), Heb. p 93.
22 Karl Elliger and Wilhelm Rudolph, eds., et. al., Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Stuttgart: Deutche
Bibelgesellschaft, 1977), 120; Aron Dotan, ed., Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2001), 110.
23 Walter C. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 184.
24 The Holy Bible: Updated New American Standard Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), note on Exodus
20:8, p 72. 25 BDB, 773.
26 Nahum M. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 121.
27 Ibid.
See also Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 185.
28 BDB, 732.
29 Cf. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary:
Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 98.
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Leviticus 18:18
“You shall not marry a woman in addition to her sister as a rival while she is alive, to
uncover her nakedness.”

Some have seen hints at polygamy in Leviticus 18:18. One way of looking at this is as a
prohibition to a man to marry his wife’s sister while the wife is still alive, as the two wives would
become rivals and cause chaos in the house. Another view is that this permits a man to take
another wife, just one who is not the sister of a man’s first wife while the wife is still alive. The
second view permits polygamy.
There is some difficulty with how to understand the phrase ishah el-achotah (Ht'xoa]-la,
hV'ai), literally meaning “a woman to her sister.” In many cases, this is understood idiomatically as
meaning “one woman to another,” with “sister” taking on a more generic sense. While viewing
“sister” generically would not be inappropriate elsewhere, Walter C. Kaiser indicates “There is no
reference to a relationship by blood in the [various] other”30 cases where such language is used,
unlike in Leviticus 18. Previously in Leviticus 18:16, the Lord decreed “You shall not uncover the
nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness.” A woman was not permitted to
have sexual relations with her brother-in-law, as a part of the prohibitions against incest. Clearly,
we have to place Leviticus 18:18 within the scope of the legislation where God demands of
Ancient Israel, “not [to] do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do
what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes”
(Leviticus 18:3). Both the Egyptians and the Canaanites were sexually lewd people whose deviant
practices—which included polygamy—the Israelites were not to follow.
Kaiser correctly concludes, “The closeness of relationships given in the text would seem to
force us to say that the text prohibits…marriage between a man and his sister-in-law (wife’s
sister). Leviticus 18:18, then, is a single prohibition against polygamy and abides by the law of
incest stated in the same context.”31 A man is not permitted then, to ever marry his wife’s sister, or
for that same matter marry any one of his wife’s “generic sisters” (meaning females in the
community) while she is alive. He is only permitted to marry another wife when his current wife
is no longer living.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17
“If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the
unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be
in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the
firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn. But he shall acknowledge the
firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he
is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.”

Deuteronomy 21:15-17 on the surface, at least to some Bible readers, does appear to reflect
a condition of polygamy within Ancient Israel. After all, “If a man has two wives…” (v. 15). But is
the context of this passage a man who presently has two wives, one who he loves and one who he
does not love? Or is the context of the passage the proper dispensing of inheritance to the
firstborn son, perhaps a son born to an unloved wife (v. 17)?
Kaiser indicates that in v. 15 “The Hebrew verb is not so easily translated.”32 The clause in
question opens v. 15, ki tih’yeyna l’ish she’tey nashim (~yvin" yTev. vyail. !'yy<h.ti-yKi), “If a man have two
wives” (JBK). The verb tih’yeyna appears in the Qal imperfect tense, which is normally translated
as a future tense verb in English,33 i.e., “If a man will have two wives…” Kaiser goes on to say,
“Hebrew is notoriously disinterested in our Western preoccupation with the tense of the verb and

30 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 186.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid, 187.
33 C.L. Seow, A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), pp 205-213.
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Is Polygamy for Today?

time in general.”34 This means that when one translates the Hebrew Tanach into English, context
must always be considered, and value judgments have to be made. So, is Moses issuing a ruling
based on whether a man has two wives at the same time, or has had two wives in a sequence,
with one dying and being replaced by another?
Ki tih’yeyna l’ish was translated into languages with more specific verb tenses long before
English came on the scene. The Greek Septuagint renders v. 15 with clause ean de genōntai (eva.n de.
ge,nwntai), meaning “If there have been…” This is similarly followed by the Latin Vulgate’s
rendering si habuerit homo or “If a man have had…”35 These ancient versions reflect a second view
that it is not a man who presently has two wives as being the issue, but rather a man who has had
two wives throughout the course of his life.
The concern of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is that proper inheritance is offered to the firstborn
son. If the man has had two wives, with one wife dying and him marrying a second time, he
cannot disregard children born from his first marriage. He must still consider the firstborn son
from his first marriage to be the firstborn son, one who is to be granted a greater share of
inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:15-17 cannot be viewed as endorsing any kind of polygamy as that is
not the central focus of the text; inheritance is the focus of the text.

2 Samuel 12:7-8
“Nathan then said to David, ‘You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel, “It is I
who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I
also gave you your master's house and your master's wives into your care, and I gave you
the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you
many more things like these!”’”

In 2 Samuel 12:7-8, we see a declaration by the Prophet Nathan to King David. The Lord
tells King David how He has “anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of
Saul” (NIV). He also says, “I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your
arms” (NIV) or “possession of your master's wives” (NJPS). Here, some would stop and say that
God Himself did not allow, but instead gave, King David the previous King Saul’s multiple wives.
So, God must endorse polygamy as a valid practice, at least here for Israel’s monarch.
King Saul only had two wives: Ahinoam (1 Samuel 14:50) and the concubine Rizpah (2
Samuel 3:7). If a Divinely allowed polygamy is considered here, then it is not insignificant for us to
note that this Ahinoam was David’s mother-in-law (cf. 1 Samuel 18:20, et. al.). This would have
been a form of incest directly condemned by Leviticus 20:14: “If there is a man who marries a
woman and her mother, it is immorality; both he and they shall be burned with fire, so that there
will be no immorality in your midst.” It is notable that Ahinoam is the name of one of King
David’s later wives, but there is a difference between “Ahinoam the daughter of Ahimaaz” (1
Samuel 14:50) and “Ahinoam of Jezreel” (1 Samuel 25:43; 27:3; 30:5; 2 Samuel 2:2; 3:2; 1 Chronicles
3:1) and they are not the same woman.36
The difficult phrase to translate appears in v. 8, v’et-nashei adonekha b’cheqekha (^q,yxeB.
^yn<doa] yven>-ta,w>). Here, the imprecision of Hebrew can reflect on interpretation, which has King
David practicing incest and hence liable to being burnt alive. Or, “the wives of thy lord, into thy
bosom” (YLT) is more akin to “the women of your lord into your care,” as nashei can be rendered
as either “wives” or “women.” This would mean, as Kaiser describes, “everything that was Saul’s,
including all his female domestics and courtesans, passed over into David’s possession.”37

34 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 187.
35 Ibid.
36 Diana V. Edelman, “Ahinoam,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (New York:
Doubleday, 1992), 1:117-118.
37 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 188.
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Is Polygamy for Today?

When the four passages in the Tanach (Exodus 21:7-11; Leviticus 18:18; Deuteronomy
21:15-17; 2 Samuel 12:7-8), which seem to allow for polygamy, are carefully considered—they by no
means allow for this aberrant practice. Each one of them has a specific context that reflects a
specific situation in the Ancient Near East, and anyone claiming that polygamy is specifically
condoned in the Tanach is not guided by the ideal as established in Genesis.

The Tanach’s Testimony on Polygamy:
Was it really worth it?

Even though there is no verse in the Scriptures that would somehow give Divine approval
for polygamy, no objective reader denies that it appears in the Tanach. “Indeed, the OT is replete
with illustrations of polygamous marriages” (ABD),38 including men such as: Abraham (Genesis 16;
25:1-2), Jacob (Genesis 29:15-30), Esau (Genesis 26:34; 36:2; 28:9), Gideon (Judges 8:3), Elkanah (1
Samuel 1:2), David (1 Samuel 18:17-30; 25:38-43; 2 Samuel 3:2-5), Solomon (1 Kings 3:1; 11:3), and
Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 11:21). One of the obvious errors of those believing that polygamy can, or
should, be practiced today is in failing to recognize the types of men who had multiple wives.
Both liberal and conservative Biblical scholarship recognize that the examples of polygamy seen in
Scripture are limited. The common man simply did not have the financial wherewithal to support
multiples wives and families:
“Looking at these lists of polygamists, one is led to the conclusion that polygyny may have
been limited to men who occupied leadership positions who were well off, or who had some
other claim to distinction…[T]he books of Samuel and Kings record little about any commoner,
or the marriage of any commoner” (ABD).39
“Polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives) was largely confined to the ruling and
upper classes” (ISBE).40
Most are in agreement that Genesis 2:24 lays forward the grounds for a proper Biblical
marriage, but that does not always mean that the ideal was necessarily followed. In fact, some have
attributed polygamy as being one of the reasons that God was required to send the Flood to
destroy ancient humanity (Genesis 6:1-7), save Noah—who was monogamous—and his family.
Yet we see it revived again in the lives of the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob, and observed by
many of the monarchs of Israel, both of the Northern or Southern Kingdoms. So what happened?
Perhaps things were a bit different for those before the formal giving of the Torah at Mount
Sinai—after all, Abraham and Jacob could easily have been following Mesopotamian traditions
inherited from their homeland in Ur. But after Mount Sinai and the codification of the Torah,
surely the understanding that polygamy was not something intended by God was understood?
Many find support for polygamy on the basis of the harsh conditions of the Ancient Near
East. “Women’s life expectancy was much shorter than that for men, and pregnancy was among
the leading causes of death for Israelite women. In this situation, polygyny became a way to
maintain the supply of women in the household as well as to increase its fertility” (EDB).41 Such a
position obviously feeds some kind of male dominance. “Wherever the emphasis of marriage is
placed on procreation or the sexual satisfaction of the man, more than likely polygyny will
flourish” (ABD).42 Yet, how frequent was this observed in Ancient Israel given the economic
realities for most households? This is where the Scriptures are clear that most polygamists were
wealthy men, as opposed to the common man. And today in the Twenty-First Century West, the
stark economic reality is that rather than having more children, having less children is more
financially feasible for monogamous married couples.43

38 Victor P. Hamilton, “Marriage (OT and ANE),” in ABD, 4:565.
39 Ibid.
40 R.K. Bower and G.L. Knapp, “Marriage,” in Geoffrey Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible
Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:262.
41 Berquist, “Marriage,” in EDB, 862.
42 Hamilton, “Marriage (OT and ANE),” in ABD, 4:565.
43 Consult the FAQ on the TNN website “Birth Control.”
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Is Polygamy for Today?

The testimony of Israel’s monarchy leads many to conclude that the practice of polygamy
by many of its kings makes it acceptable. As Kaiser observes, “Some will wonder: Why was no
punishment inflicted on these polygamists by the government?”44 The answer is blatantly obvious
to anyone who reads through 1&2 Kings or 1&2 Chronicles: the significant majority of Israel’s kings
were absolute monarchs who could seldom be reprimanded for any issue. Kaiser continues, “there
was censure for this type of adulterous action in the Deluge and in the law of Moses. In addition
to this, the narratives of Scripture imply that this state of affairs is the major reason for much of
the misfortune that comes into the domestic lives of these polygamists.”45 It is rightly summarized:
“polygyny created problems for Hebrew married life” (ISBE),46 notably including:
• Abraham’s and Hagar’s unhappiness (Genesis 21:8-16)
• Rachel’s bitterness (Genesis 30:15)
• The death of Gideon’s offspring (Judges 9)
• Hannah’s anger (1 Samuel 1:6ff)
• David’s complicity with the death of Bathsheba’s husband (2 Samuel 11)
• Solomon’s idolatry (1 Kings 11:1-8)47
Messianic men today who somehow think that HaShem is restoring polygamy to the Body
of Messiah have an immense problem when they encounter Deuteronomy 17:17 in the Torah,
where it is said of Israel’s future kings, “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart
will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.”
We see specific warnings
here that a monarch shall not “acquire many wives for himself” (CJB) nor seek after great wealth.
The ArtScroll Chumash commentary on this verse is quite valuable:
“Self-aggrandizement was typical of monarchs…Not so [an Israelite] king…because his
glory was the glory of the nation, he was required to maintain the dignity of his office, but he had
to curb his appetites and make himself an example of moderation and obedience to the Torah.”48
Indeed, this is followed by the instruction, “Now it shall come about when he sits on the
throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of
the Levitical priests” (Deuteronomy 17:18). One might say that ha’torah ha’zot (taZOh; hr"ATh;) could
apply to the singular decree for the king not to multiply wives. Yet it is clear that even though
Moses issued a direct command against polygamy for Israel’s future monarchs, they did it anyway.
Why did they do this? Was it because Deuteronomy became a forgotten book of the Torah, only
to be rediscovered during the time of the Josianic reforms (2 Kings 22:3-13; 2 Chronicles 34:9-21)?
T.D. Alexander explains,
“It is hardly surprising…that knowledge of the ‘book of the law’ should have been
neglected, if not deliberately suppressed, by the Judean and Israelite monarchies. As the book of
Kings reveals, the contents of Deuteronomy offer a serious indictment of the practices of many
kings. To take but one example, Solomon’s desire for wealth (1 Kings 9:10-10:29), horses from
Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29) and many wives (1 Kings 11:1-8) stands in marked contrast to the advice
given in Deuteronomy 17:16-17. Given the overall spiral of spiritual and moral decline that
followed on from the reign of Solomon and eventually led to the destruction of the Jerusalem
temple by the Babylonians, it is hardly surprising that specific references to the ‘book of the law’
are few and brief.”49
The Book of Deuteronomy gives a most serious indictment against the kings of Israel
being polygamous and multiplying wives for themselves, something that hit its lowest point in the
life of King Solomon. In spite of his wisdom, the post-exilic testimony of Nehemiah 13:26 is that
“the foreign women caused even him to sin.” Solomon’s polygamy, and the state-sponsored

44 Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 183.
45 Ibid., pp 183-184.
46 Bower and Knapp, “Marriage,” in ISBE, 3:263.
47 Ibid.
48 Nosson Scherman, ed., ArtScroll Chumash, Stone Edition (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2000), 1029.
49 T.D. Alexander, “Authorship of the Pentateuch,” in T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds.,
Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), pp 68-69.
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