In parallel cultures simultaneous in time with the Old Testaments happenings are texts with clear discussions of approval on polygamous activities, such as how a first wife should interact with the following wives in Buddhism’s Kama Sutra. What I have not seen is a clear discussion on whether the Judo-Christian God approves of polygamy? I do believe that the Old Testament contains detailed information that provides a solid foundation that God must either consent to or be impartial to this subject.
Polygamy was fairly common in the early centuries as that it was custom to take second wives in the cases of barren first wives or heirless estates or female prisoners of war on as concubines. “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God hands them over to you and you take them captive, suppose you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you desire and want to marry, and so you bring her home to your house: she shall shave her head, pare her nails, discard her captive’s garb, mourning her father and mother; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14) It was believed that as long as you could support your wives, then it was feasible to marry a multitude of women.
In Leviticus the LORD advises Moses is to inform to the people who are following him of what the procedures of their new life shall be in regards to sexual procedures, what is not appropriate, and what will be the consequences of those actions. “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you… None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness: I am the LORD… You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father… she is your mother… of your father’s wife… of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born abroad… of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter… of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister… of your father’s sister… of your mother’s sister… of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt… of your daughter-in-law: she is your son’s wife… of your brother’s wife…” (Leviticus 18:1-16) In this passage he focuses on the personal family lineage of the person committing the sexual act. The only act that is not specifically spoken of is that of seeing the nakedness of the father, himself. Which in turn that lack of mention negates any wrong doing that might be considered in part in regards to the acts of Lots daughters to keep his family lineage going. “of a woman and her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness… it is depravity. And you shall not take a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive. You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her… You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.” (Leviticus 18:17-23) This passage says nothing in regards to polygamy yet it discusses what is in inappropriate actions with other’s families and also even discusses outside of the human race. It would be expected that if anywhere this would be a perfectly sensible place to make notation of what would be in improper in God’s eyes.
Nowhere in these passages of Leviticus does it discuss that a second wife is not permitted. One would expect that if God had an issue with polygamy it would be noted here or in Leviticus 20:10-21 that discusses what should transpire when God’s laws are broken. Textual documentation of God calling for the burning in the case of depravity; committers of adultery, perversion, and abominations are commanded to death; the act of bestiality demands the death of both animal and person; seeing siblings naked or having sex during a menstrual cycle require separation for society; lying with a parent’s sibling or living sibling’s wife is subject to punishment and life long childlessness. Nowhere here does it express any suggestion that God disapproves of polygamy. Which in turn leads me to point out that were it not for polygamy that some of the great men in Gods holy lineage would not have been born.
In the Old Testament there are many examples of men who had they not been polygamous, some of those heirs that do Gods will would have never been born. The first man mentioned in the Old Testament that had two wives was Lamech, Adam and Eve’s great great-great-great-grandson, in Genesis 4:19. Granted had it not been for Able’s untimely death, Seth would have not have been planned to be born. But being that Lamech was the descendant of Cain, his recognition as a holy lineage probably died the day Cain killed his brother. But there are others who are recognized in the book as well that are more respected.
Genesis 38 contains discussion of Judah and his son Er who died before his wife Tamar could bear Er an heir. Onan, Judah’s second son, refused to insure the family line and God struck him down for his actions. Before Judah’s son Shela was of childbearing age, Judah lay with a prostitute or so he thought, who was in fact Tamar. Tamar kept personal items of Judah’s to ensure “payment” for his lay, which was her salvation when she was found to be with child and in “violation” of her marriage agreement. Upon recognition of who the father was of the twins Tamar was carrying, all was “forgiven” and Judah recognized his error. The first-born child was Perez, David’s predecessor. Perez, according to the last verse of Ruth, was David’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather. The next heir of polygamous birth in the Old Testament was in Ruth, the son of Boaz.
In Ruth, Boaz also took a second wife to gain land and an heir which he approached the cities participants for permission. “I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” (Ruth 4:9-10) Not only did he gain permission from the town elders the union also was blessed by all who were present. “May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah who together build up the house of Israel…”(Ruth 4:11) This blessing and this union would have in fact a very profound effect on Israel, for from this marriage a child was born to Ruth, whom Naomi cared for as her own. This child was named Obed, the grandfather of David, THE King David. Without this union, yet another second marriage, King David would have never been born.
God speaks often of King David in the highest regard, as over and over again kings who followed his reign are compared to him and how his kingdom ran. He, himself, had multiple wives whom bore many children to him. He was respected and honored by God so far that God gave David’s descendants, to some extent, forgiveness for their disrespect of God solely because they were his heirs.
David was told that his heir would build a monument to God for worship to Yahweh, and that God would care for him as his own son. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me, your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7: 12-16) The son who became king was not of David’s first wife, nor was it the first son with another. That son was the child of Bathsheba, who became David’s wife after her husband died.
Bathsheba’s first born with David died at God’s hand not because he took her as an additional wife, but because he committed sin against her husband and took his one wife when he already had the many he inherited with the throne. “‘The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought… Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or heard to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ … ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom… You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife… Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.’” (2 Samuel 12: 2-14) David laid night and day on the ground praying that God would forgive his actions and spare his first born with Bathsheba, but after 7 days the child perished. But after the first-born was lost he brought a second child into the world, that child was Solomon, which was the son who became king.
King Solomon was said to have had 700 wives of royal standing along with 300 concubines. “King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women.” (1 Kings 11:1) These women of royal standing might have been meant to ensure that there would be a solid reason to not be attacked by the other local factions. These unions were not offensive to God for the fact of polygamy, but immoral in fact for that many of these woman were of other provinces, and therefore of other religions. Polygamous religions that God instructed David’s predecessors to abolish but didn’t and therefore God desired his descendants not acknowledge.
God did indicate to Solomon of his objection to the religious conflicts that having polytheistic wives in a monotheistic home. “…from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the Israelites, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their Gods”; Solomon clung to these in love.” (1 Kings 11:2) The awareness that these women would hold true to their father’s God and their children were brought to know their Gods before that of their father troubled David’s God. If the genealogy of King David did not grow to respect and love the God of their ancestor, then he would have no choice but to remind them of the one who saved their predecessors. When God fell out of their memory before God punished the people until they remembered Him and then rewarded them. God feared he would again have to punish the children of the man who he held with the greatest respect. Because of these women God forewarned Solomon about, his greatest fear came to be true: that the wife’s were of polytheistic background and would lead the Davidic family astray from the God’s devotion.
Time and time again God speaks of actions that he is displeased by: family relations, inter-religious relations, same-sex relations (specifically said male but it is unclear if female is included as well). Never once is he angered by the action of polygamy except in the case of King David’s wife Bathsheba; which his anger was that of David’s taking another man’s bride after having him murdered. Which in reference to the 10 commandments Moses brought, that would be a large sin on King David’s behalf. I would have to say that if God is not in favor of polygamy, he is definitely indifferent to it, as long as the marriage does not break the codes and laws he has set for mankind.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Coogan: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2001.