Why is there polygamy in the Bible? Is polygamy acceptable to God? What does God say about polygamy versus marrying only one wife?
An unfortunate practice that arose after God established the institution of marriage is polygamy. Polygamy is having more than one spouse at the same time, a custom that has been primarily practiced by men having multiple wives.
Though many people in the Western world may think of polygamy as archaic, the fact is that it is legal in 58 countries and is widely practiced throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Some point to the examples of polygamy in the Bible and think that God sanctioned men having multiple wives. But the truth is that God never ordained polygamy and does not approve of it.
Monogamy in the Bible
God’s intent was made clear when He created marriage. He took one rib from Adam and created one woman. He then ordained that man would leave his parents “and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
When God’s law was codified and given to Moses at Mount Sinai, God considered the sanctity of marriage so important that He dedicated one of the 10 Commandments to guarding it. The Seventh Commandment clearly states, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). This means that a married person is not to have sexual relations with anyone other than his or her spouse. God does not want anything or anyone to interfere with the special relationship between a husband and wife.
Later, when Jesus Christ was addressing the subject of marriage and divorce, He quoted Genesis as God’s original intent for marriage: one man and one woman.
Jesus said, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh.”Jesus said, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
Husband of one wife
When the apostle Paul addressed marriage, he also recognized only monogamous marriages between one man and one woman.
“‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Two become one flesh—one husband and one wife.
“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2, emphasis added). Verse 12 includes this requirement for deacons as well.
These verses do not mean that polygamy was allowed for lay members of the Church. Literally the phrase in Greek is “a one-woman kind of man,” indicating exemplary devotion to his wife (NKJV Study Bible, note on 1 Timothy 3:2). Since the Church leadership is to set the example for the rest of the Church, it becomes clear that this pattern is what is expected of everyone—one man and one woman bound in marriage.
Jesus taught forcefully in Matthew 19:9, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” To marry a second wife after being bound to the first, lawful wife is to commit adultery.
History of polygamy
Even though Adam and Eve rebelled against God and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, the biblical narrative shows them living out their lives with each other and having children. For about five generations, it appears their children followed that example (Genesis 4:17-18).
But in time people departed from this pattern established by the Creator. Lamech is the first man the Bible records as having two wives (Genesis 4:19). And as the biblical record continues, we read a sad history of men taking multiple wives and concubines (women who didn’t have the same status or privileges as wives). These relationships were outside the pattern God had established.
Problems with polygamy
When we read the Bible’s stories of individuals who practiced polygamy, we don’t read about men living in happiness and marital bliss with their multiple wives. When we are given details of these marriages, we mostly read about drama, strife and jealousy. For example, see the sad stories of Abram, Sarai and Hagar (Genesis 16); Jacob, Leah and Rachel (Genesis 29-30); and King Solomon and his hundreds of wives and concubines (1 Kings 11:1-4).
Polygamy was never God’s intent or something that pleased Him. Like divorce, it was allowed because of the “hardness” of the people’s hearts in Old Covenant times (Matthew 19:8). In New Testament times, God expects His people to practice marriage only as He originally designed and intended it: between one man and one woman.
It is only through lifelong monogamy that we can truly understand the spiritual symbolism of marriage as a picture of the deep relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32).
Learn more in our article “What Is Marriage?”