Should 2 Samuel 12 be used in support of polygamy?

By Eric Johnson

Although Mormonism no longer accepts polygamy (plural marriage) as a valid practice for humans in this mortal life, many Latter-day Saints believe that, for certain periods of time (i.e. Old Testament and 19th century Mormonism), it has been ordained by God. One passage often used by Mormons is 2 Samuel 12 where the prophet Nathan reprimanded David for his adulterous affair of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah the Hittite. Verses 7 and 8 read:

And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

According to this line of reasoning, God “gave” David his wives, thus validating the practice of plural marriage. However, this passage does not support the polygamous ways of David (or anyone else) for several reasons. First of all, God generally allows for things to take place that fit within His sovereign will but not necessarily His moral will. Allowing people to do things their way is not necessarily an endorsement of their practices. According to Jewish custom, for example, a man was within his rights to divorce a woman who burned his meal or did something unfavorably to him. Just because God allowed the people to do those things does not constitute an endorsement of the practice. His sovereignty allows for those things that are both for and against God’s moral law. To use 2 Samuel 12 to legitimize the practice of polygamy goes far beyond the intent of the author or Nathan himself, as that was not the intent of the prophet’s words. It is what is called eisegesis, or reading one’s own interpretation into a text.

Second, while this passage does not condemn plural marriage, at the same rate, it doesn’t condone it either. In fact, no biblical passage can be produced to show plural marriage was commanded or forbidden by God Himself. Even though God did not forbid plural marriage, it is clear that there were penalties for those marrying multiple wives. For example, 1 Kings 11:4 says that “when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods.” It is easy to see the problems stemming from the polygamous ways of Abraham (Hagar and Sarah), Jacob (rivalry between Leah and Rebecca), and others. Where did polygamy ever work with anyone in the Bible? Meanwhile, no passage indicates that this was a practice commanded by God.

Third, the Bible endorses monogamy from beginning to end. In Genesis 2:24, it says that a man and a woman “shall be one flesh.” Jesus quoted this verse in Matthew 19, which says:

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Fourth, it must be understood that Saul only had one wife and a concubine. As the NIV Study Bible explains, “Earlier narratives refer to only one wife of Saul (Ahinoam, 1 Sam. 14:50) and one concubine (Rizpah, 2 Sam. 3:7; 21:8). This statement suggests that there were others. But since it was customary for new kinds to assume the harem of their predecessors, it may be that Nathan merely uses conventional language to emphasize that the Lord had placed David on Saul’s throne.”

In other words, Saul was not known for his polygamous ways. And when it says that in verse 8 that if that “had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things,” it would be an argument from silence to say this would have meant “wives” or “concubines,” especially since there is no proof that Saul was a polygamist in the same way that David or Solomon were.

Fifth, the Mormon must explain the Book of Mormon’s take on polygamy in order to utilize the 2 Samuel passage. The book of Jacob chapter 2 criticizes polygamy. It says,

24 Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.

25 Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, I have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph.

26 Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.

27 Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

28 For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts.

29 Wherefore, this people shall keep my commandments, saith the Lord of Hosts, or cursed be the land for their sakes.

30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

Notice how David and Solomon were criticized for their polygamy. In verse 27, it says that monogamy was the norm. The only way to support the idea of polygamy is to raise up seed (see verse 30). Yet Joseph Smith didn’t live up to that rule as he had close to three dozen wives and yet few (if any) children were the result of these unions. In addition, it makes no sense that he would have married other men’s wives since they surely were capable of raising their own seed with their own wives.

Why does the Mormon even turn to 2nd Samuel for support of biblical polygamy–especially if the Bible is possibly corrupt–and yet ignore the Book of Mormon, which is considered a superior scripture? (How often have we had the LDS cite from Joseph Smith that the “Book of Mormon is the most complete book on earth, and a man could nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than by any other book? Too many to count.) Even if it can be proven that Saul was a great polygamist, does this passage somehow counter what Jacob 2 says about the immorality of polygamy? I don’t think so. Instead of using this passage for support of polygamy, Smith had to write D&C 132 in his attempt to say that polygamy was commanded by God.

Sixth, the apostle Paul certainly did not hold the idea that polygamy was an option for New Testament Christians. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul said that if two people needed to get married to prevent lust, then “let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” No option for multiple partners was ever allowed. And if any church leader thought polygamy was permitted, then 1 Timothy 3:12 was written to stop that idea. If the Mormon Church is supposed to be a “restoration” of biblical Christianity, then how could an Old Testament practice supersede a New Testament prohibition?

Finally, just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the passage in 2 Samuel is saying that God provided the way for David to practice polygamy. This would not automatically condone the polygamy of men such as Abraham, Jacob, Solomon, or any other Old Testament figure. The 2 Samuel passage is speaking directly to David, so it cannot be considered an overall endorsement of polygamy. Otherwise each of the points made in this passage (such as the houses of Israel and Judah  given) would have to apply to every Old Testament patriarch. At best for those advocates of God-mandated polygamy, 2 Samuel can only be used to endorse David’s polygamy. . . but nobody else’s.

With these seven points under consideration, 2 Samuel 12 should not be considered a strong passage to use in support of plural marriage.


See more on the issue of polygamy by clicking here.

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