Did God command polygamous relationships in the Old Testament?

Note: The following was originally printed in the January/February 2016 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here

By Eric Johnsonpolygamy

Polygamy, or plural marriage, is a sticky issue for many Mormons. Some have become deeply embarrassed when they found out how their founder, Joseph Smith, married at least 34 girls and women. In fact, a third of his marriages were to teenagers and another third were to women who were already married to living husbands. Latter-day Saint apologists have attempted to obfuscate the questionable practices of Smith and other 19th century Mormon leaders by pointing to the example of certain polygamous men in the Old Testament. This is the tactic in the introductory portion of the LDS Church Gospel Topics essay titled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” which was published on the lds.org website in late 2014:

In biblical times, the Lord commanded some of His people to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman. Some early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also received and obeyed this commandment given through God’s prophets.

The essay later explains:

The revelation, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, states that Joseph prayed to know why God justified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in having many wives. The Lord responded that He had commanded them to enter into the practice.

The following three points will show how the practice of one man marrying two or more women was a perversion of God’s original intention, even if those who practiced plural marriage were patriarchs, judges, and kings from the Bible. In addition, there were specific consequences for these actions.

  1. The design for marriage—one man and one woman—was God’s original intention  

Genesis 2:24 states, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Jesus references this important passage in Matthew 19:3-9, as does Paul in Ephesians 5:31. Meanwhile, 1 Corinthians 6:2-4 explains that

each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.

It is “each man” with “each woman,” not “each man” with “his women.” Polygamy was never part of God’s original intention. Ephesians 5: 25-27 even likens monogamy to the relationship Jesus has with His Church:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

The analogy makes no sense if polygamy is a viable option in God’s framework.

  1. While God allowed for polygamy in the Bible, it certainly cannot be said that He “commanded” it

Although it was the exception rather than the rule, polygamous relationships are found in the Bible. For example, men such as Lamech, Nahor, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and Eliphaz were polygamists according to the Pentateuch. However, it is nothing more than an argument from silence to suggest that God commanded His people to practice plural marriage, as the Gospel Topics essays argues. While there is a reference to a verse from the Doctrine and Covenants, this is not considered “scripture” for Evangelical Christians. (If God is responsible for D&C 132, why didn’t He correct Joseph Smith in his query since Isaac was monogamous, not polygamous?)

The only biblical passage used in the church essay to support the idea that God commanded polygamy is Genesis 16. The first verses of this chapter say:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

Genesis 16 does explain how Hagar was given to Abram “to be his wife,” the only reference that says this. In the immediate context, however, this is a reference suggesting how Abram and Hagar joined together in a sexual union. As one commentary points out:

The phrase “to be his wife” in verse 3 is merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse. That is clear from the phrase that immediately follows it as well as from the original request (v. 2). The context makes it clear that Hagar remained the slave not of Abraham, but of Sarai. . . . Even after the agreement between Sarai and Abram (v. 2), Hagar is still considered her maidservant (v. 3). The language is important. It is not Abram who takes Hagar into his tent, but Sarai gives Hagar to Abram. Sarai is in charge. After Abram slept with Hagar and conceived, not only Sarai (v. 5) but also Abram still talks about Hagar as Sarai’s servant (v. 6), not as his (new) wife. Furthermore, the narrator continues to call Sarai “her mistress” (v. 4). (http://www.answering-islam.org/BibleCom/gen16-3.html)

The angel of the LORD addressed her as “Hagar, servant of Sarai,” not as “Hagar, wife of Abram.” He gave her the command, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Hence, it can be seen that Sarai, not God, told Abraham to take another “wife.” Just like the issue of divorce—a practice not intended for God’s people as Malachi 2:10-16 teaches—plural marriage was tolerated but not commanded by God. Neither divorce nor polygamy was God’s original intention.

  1. Consequences, not blessings, are consistently associated with polygamy in the Bible

Referring to the examples of polygamous men described in the Torah as practicing polygamy, Old Testament professor Richard M. Davidson makes an excellent point:

Though no explicit verbal condemnation of this practice is given in these biblical narratives, the narrator (whom I take as Moses) presents each account in such a way as to underscore a theology of disapproval. The record of these polygamous relationships is bristling with discord, rivalry, heartache, and even rebellion, revealing the negative motivations and / or disastrous consequences that invariably accompanied such departures from God’s Edenic standard. The inspired narratives with their implicit theology of disapproval speak even louder, and more eloquently, than explicit condemnation (“Condemnation and Grace: Polygamy and Concubinage in the Old Testament,” Christian Research Journal September/October 2015, p. 35).

Following the patriarchs, some of Israel’s judges and kings—starting with David and Solomon—practiced polygamy. Again, however, no biblical support can be mustered to prove how these relationships were commanded by God. In addition, no example of any positive blessing can be shown emanating from polygamy. This practice was continually a detriment to the intentions of God while creating heartache for everyone involved. Davidson makes another excellent point:

In the Old Testament, there are some thirty-three reasonably clear historical cases of polygamy / concubinage out of approximately three thousand men mentioned in the Scriptural record. Most of these examples involved wealthy patriarchs or Israel’s judges / monarchs. Within the narratives involving polygamy or concubinage, the divinely inspired writers invariably embed their tacit condemnation of these practices. Mosaic legislation never commands or condones plural marriages but rather prohibits polygamy / concubinage (Lev. 18:18) as part of universal moral law based on the creation order. Thus the Old Testament documents a departure from the Edenic model of sexuality in actual practice but affirms that this departure is not approved by God. (Ibid., p. 37)

Conclusion

Mormon leaders and their apologists may think that pointing to the Bible for support of their church’s 19th century practice of marriages between one man and multiple women will suffice. However, the Bible does not support this argument. Those who advocate polygamy as a possible alternative—whether in the biblical past or even for the contemporary future—will have to come up with alternative reasoning. If God did not command polygamy in the Old Testament, could it be possible that He didn’t commend this practice to LDS leaders such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young? If so, then polygamy has not been “divinely mandated,” as the church essay makes it appear. Indeed, there can be no biblical justification for the practice and should be considered less than God’s best for all people in all times and in all places.

For a paragraph-by-paragraph review of the church essay referred to in this article, visit here