Why did God allow polygamy in the Bible?

It would appear that polygamy is something that is tolerated rather than approved.  Just as Jesus noted that Moses allowed divorce because the people’s hearts were hard, it seems as if polygamy is something that is less than ideal.

The first instance of polygamy in the Bible is early in Genesis 4:19.  Lamech is noted to have two wives.  Lamech is also very wicked and boasts about killing a man for wounding him.  While we shouldn’t associate polygamy with wickedness just for this reason it is noteworthy that our first instance of polygamy comes from a very wicked man.

There is one place in the Bible that allows for polygamy.  In a levirate marriage a man is called upon to marry his brother’s widow in the event of his brother’s death.  This assured that the widow would be taken care of.  It also allowed for the brother’s line to continue as all children born to the widow would be considered legally to be the brother’s and they would inherit the brother’s property.

Some suggest that polygamy occurs in the ancient world as a matter of convenience.  This may or may not be the case, but here is the argument anyway.  Because of wars and a more physical lifestyle, men died younger and often before reaching marrying age as they tended to be older than their brides.  This created a shortage of available husbands.  Because women were most often untrained and uneducated they required a man to protect them.  While the father could take of them eventually he would die so it was far better to be a second wife to a man than to be left to fend for herself.  Whether this was actually the thinking of the time is questionable but the argument does make sense.

There is a very good and spiritual reason why men are allowed multiple wives but women are not allowed multiple husbands.  It is to preserve the sanctity of the family.  If a man with multiple wives impregnates his wife, it is clear who the father and mother are.  However, if a woman has multiple husbands and she becomes pregnant, it is not clear who the father may be. 

While there is not a recorded command forbidding polygamy by the time of the New Testament it did not exist.  Polygamy was not an issue in the Roman empire.  1 Timothy 3:2 states that church leaders should be “the husband of one wife.”  This would seem to imply that spiritual leaders should not practice polygamy.

When did polygamy stop in the Bible?

Polygamy begins early in Genesis 4:19 with Lamech having two wives.  Nothing good is associated with Lamech as he thumbs his nose at God and boasts of murdering another man some time after Cain killed Abel.  While this does not automatically make polygamy wrong, it is worth noting that our first instance of it comes from a very evil man.

Several Bible characters of note had multiple wives including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon.  Despite this, we don’t get the impression that this was ever the norm and was never expressed as ideal.  There is one instance in which God calls for multiple wives – the kinsman redeemer.  If a man’s brother dies that man is to marry his brother’s widow, to take care of her, and to father children in his brother’s name in order to keep his family line going.  The story of Ruth is about a kinsman redeemer.  Closer relatives refused to do their duty so Boaz took Ruth as his wife.  While Boaz is not noted as being married previously the law of the kinsman redeemer allowed for multiple wives in this case.

There is no official end to polygamy in the Bible.  There is little mention of it after Solomon and his son Rehoboam however.  While Solomon’s sin did not lie with having multiple wives but in marrying foreign women and worshipping foreign gods, it seems that Israel took note of the problem.  Multiple wives brought about trouble and if even the wisest man on earth, Solomon, could not keep from sinning the rest of Israel stood no chance.

In the New Testament polygamy was not an issue in the Roman world.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:2 that a requirement for spiritual leadership was to be the “husband of one wife.”  Some take this to imply that church leaders should only be men while others imply that it is in reference to divorce.  In either case, it seems clear that polygamy was not accepted within the church.