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:1. First, generally God 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.

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.

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?

Even if the passage in 2 Samuel says that God provided the way for David to practice polygamy (and I’m not admitting it did), this does not automatically condone the polygamy of men such as Abraham, Jacob, Solomon, or any other Old Testament figure. This is because this 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 five 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.

See more difficult Bible passages by clicking here.