Does the Bible Forbid Polygamy?
by Bob Burridge ©2013
The Problem Stated
The Bible doesn’t directly use the word “polygamy” when it prohibits what the word stands for. The absence of that word in our translations of the original Bible texts is no argument that God approves of it. If marriage is explicitly defined in Scripture, and if that definition limits it to one man and one woman joined together to become one (in the sense mentioned in Genesis 2:24) then “polygamy” isn’t a marriage at all. It would be more directly addressed in different terms, and it is.
There are several lines of reasoning in the Bible that converge to make it clear that monogamy is the only true definition of marriage as defined in Scripture. Therefore it’s the only marriage recognized in the eyes of God.
In the earliest moments of human history, God established a principle which we have come to call marriage. As a creation ordinance it was introduced before the fall of mankind into sin and is therefore not a redemptive ordinance which God could modify as the work of redemption advanced. Consequently it is not limited to just certain groups of people or periods of history. It is part of the created moral order. From its revelation to Adam, to the final day of judgment, one man and one woman may join together into this special unity which alone constitutes marriage.
The purpose and definition of this union is given in Genesis 2:18-25, particularly in verse 24 which reads, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
The basic defining element of marriage is not a ceremony, or a romantic commitment. It is the solemn agreement between a man and a woman to become one flesh for life. Jesus recognized this same union as described in Genesis as still the foundation of marriage in his era.
Matthew 19:4-6,”Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In some specific sense God reveals that these two individuals become one. In Mark 10:6-9 Jesus explained that this principle has been binding upon all people “from the beginning of creation.”
It is clear that monogamy is the only ordained mode of marriage in the eyes of God. Multiple partners would violate this relationship as God ordained it. Any sexual relationship between any other than with the one partner in that covenant is a disruption of the principle of two becoming one.
The Principle of Adultery in Romans 7
In Romans 7 the Apostle Paul explained that we must be separated from looking to the law for our righteousness before we can be united with Christ by grace though faith. We cannot serve two masters. He uses marriage as his primary example.
He introduces his argument this way, “Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?”
The word “binding” here (some translations have “jurisdiction” or “dominion”) is from the root word kurios (κυριος) which is usually translated as “lord”. It carries the idea of authority. In the legal sense, it is the jurisdiction a court has over citizens in its district. Death releases a person from legal relationships. Law in its most general sense deals only with the living. Since Jesus died in the place of those he came to redeem, they are in him released from the binding and condemning nature of the law which they have violated as sinners. In him the penalty of death has been paid (Romans 3:23, 6:23, 5:6-9).
Paul then gave an illustration with which his readers could not disagree since they knew and relied upon the Bible.
Romans 7:2-3, “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.”
According to God’s law marriage is a bond for life. As introduced in Genesis 2, marriage was when Adam and Eve became “one flesh”. The union of one male and one female into one flesh is to last as long as the two live. Death is the only moral means of ending a marriage in God’s sight. Ending the marriage by divorce involves some sinful behavior on the part of at least one of the partners which destroys the covenantal contract of marriage. In the traditional marriage vow we promise before God, “till death us do part.”
If a spouse is dead, the living partner is free to be joined to another. When the conditions of a legal bond are met, the bond is no longer in effect. A new bond becomes acceptable. Any marriage bond when the original spouse is still alive is not recognized by God as a true marriage. It is condemned as immoral and contrary to law.
Sexual infidelity in a marriage is identified as “adultery” [moicheia (μοιχεία)] in this passage. This is repeatedly condemned in Scripture as sinful behavior (Exodus 20:14, Luke 18:20, Romans 2:22, James 2:11, etc.). When the marriage bond is not broken (as God defines it), to marry another is adultery. Explicitly, multiple partners at the same time is forbidden.
Polygamy in the Old Testament
Polygamy is never sanctioned or approved in the Bible. While it is true that some Old Testament champions of the faith had multiple wives, it is never presented as acceptable in the eyes of God. No comment is made in most of these cases. Similarly cases of deceit, selfish motives, and personal hatred are recorded as historical fact, but are not always pointed out as sin. That those things are not moral had already been established.
Polygamy is first mentioned in Genesis 4:19 as something practiced by Lamech, a descendant of Cain. That kings and patriarchs engaged in the contemporary cultural behavior of having multiple spouses is not sufficient grounds to eliminate the clear formulation given by God directly in the establishment of the marriage bond. The biblical record is a history of what they did, not only what they should have done.
God does not always execute his wrath for every violation of what he had already commanded clearly. There are many instances where God overlooks the sins of his people for a time so that his purposes are carried out.
Some have quoted 2 Samuel 12:7-8 as support for polygamy. To derive that from this passage involves presumptions which are not in that text.
2 Samuel 12:7-8, Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.’ ”
It was the legal procedure at that time that all that belonged to his predecessor would be given over to be cared for and managed by the successor. The text does not say that God gave Saul’s wives to become the wives of David. But they were not to be turned out to roam the streets. David received them to care for them in a kind and protective way. It would strain this passage to presume that God intended David to marry them.
Polygamy is Forbidden in Scripture
Building upon the original institution of marriage in Genesis 2, Jesus made it clear that marriage is a bond between a man and a woman where the two become one. This bond is morally and legally binding until it is disrupted by death. The Apostle Paul in Romans 7 explicitly states that if a person is married, and the spouse is still alive, to marry someone else is adultery, not a legal marriage. Biblical examples from silence where polygamy was practiced but not directly punished or condemned are simply records of history and cannot nullify moral principles God had already revealed.