By David Instone-Brewer, adapted from the forthcoming Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World (Lexham Press, 2019).
Jesus used the same Old Testament text to teach monogamy as used by the Jews of the diaspora and at Qumran. Polygamy had been useful in times of war for childless widows, but now it was causing hardship.
When an African tribal chief converts to Christianity, what happens to all his wives? Should he divorce them and send them back to their parents’ home in shame and penury, or should he live away from them in a separate house, but continue to provide for them financially? This is a classic problem for missionaries in countries that practice polygamy, and one to which there is no easy answer—just the fervent hope that the next generation will marry only one wife! It must seem very strange for those polygamous families when their normal, socially acceptable lifestyle is suddenly regarded as immoral.
The Jews whom Jesus lived among had the same problem. Polygamy had been considered perfectly normal and proper until the Romans took over and said it was disgusting and immoral. The Romans allowed Jews to continue practicing polygamy in Palestine, but elsewhere in the empire monogamy was strictly enforced.
Many Jews living outside Palestine, therefore, got used to the principle of one wife, and it seemed natural to them. By Jesus’ time, many Jews had come to agree with the Roman view, and polygamy fell out of practice during subsequent generations, although the Jews did not actually outlaw polygamy until the eleventh century.
We don’t know how frequent polygamy was among the Jews in Jesus’ day because we have the complete family records of only one family in the early second century—they were preserved in a bag hidden in a desert cave. So it is significant that this family does include a second wife. The documents include the marriage certificate of a widow called Babatha when she married a man who already had a wife. Babatha owned her own land and business, so she didn’t marry for financial support—perhaps it was for companionship, or even love!
Polygamy in the Old Testament
The Old Testament allows polygamy but doesn’t encourage it. Great men such as Abraham, Israel, Judah, Gideon, Samson, David, and Solomon had multiple wives, though the Old Testament records many problems that resulted. However, the law actually made it mandatory in one circumstance: if a married man died without leaving a male heir, his brother was required to marry his widow regardless of whether he already had a wife. This was so that she would have support during her old age (either from her new husband or from her son) and so that the family name and land would be passed on (Deut 25:5–6). Polygamy was also allowed in other circumstances, and the only restriction was that you shouldn’t marry two sisters (Lev 18:18).
Polygamy was beneficial when the number of men was reduced by warfare. It not only helped women who would otherwise be on their own but also helped to replace the population more quickly. In peacetime, however, this practice meant that if rich men had more than one wife, then some poor men had to remain single.
Polygamy in the New Testament
Jesus took the side of the Romans against the Jewish establishment on this occasion. Most Jews outside Palestine and some in Palestine disagreed with polygamy. For example, the Qumran sect regarded polygamy as one of the three great sins of mainstream Judaism. They called these sins “the nets of the devil” by which the “smooth-speaking” Pharisees entrapped the people.
They couldn’t actually find a verse in the Old Testament that spoke against polygamy, so they combined two different verses that both contained the phrase “male and female”—Genesis 1:27 and 7:9. The first says, “God created them; male and female,” and the second says, “two and two, male and female, went into the ark” (esv). Since “male and female” were called “two” in Genesis 7, the Qumran community inferred that it also meant “two” in Genesis 2 and concluded from this that only two people could marry. They referred to this doctrine as “the foundation of creation.” We may not be convinced by their logic, but as far as they were concerned it was case proven.
Jews outside Palestine used a different method to show that polygamy was wrong—they added a word to Genesis 2:24. This says “a man … is united to his wife”—which implies one man and one wife, so they emphasized this conclusion by adding the word “two” to the next phrase: “and those two shall become one flesh.” We find this additional word in all ancient translations of Genesis—in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and even in Samaritan—showing that it had very widespread support. Presumably, it also had some support among Hebrew speakers, but no one in Jesus’ day would deliberately change the original text, so no Hebrew Bible has this word.
When the Pharisees were questioning Jesus about divorce, he took the opportunity to set them straight about polygamy, too. Jesus used both sets of arguments used by other Jews. He quoted the key verse used by Qumran Jews (Gen 1:27) and even said this was what happened “at the beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6, which presumably reminded his listeners that Qumran Jews called this “the foundation of creation”). Then he quoted the verse preferred by Jews outside Palestine—Genesis 2:24—including the additional word “two” (Mark 10:8; Matt 19:5). By deliberately using both arguments, Jesus emphasized that he agreed with those Jews who taught monogamy, contrary to the Pharisees.
Paul took the teaching against polygamy further by reversing the command that a man had to marry his dead brother’s wife. This had always been a difficult rule, though it made sense in the world of the early Old Testament. In Hittite law (and probably other ancient Near Eastern laws), a widow could be married against her will to any male relative—even to her husband’s elderly grandfather or infant nephew. But Moses’ law restricted her marriage to someone of roughly her age—that is, she should only marry a brother of her husband—and she was allowed to refuse. Paul later decided that this law was outmoded. He said that a widow could marry whomever she wanted (1 Cor 7:39)—though he added that she should marry a fellow believer.
Creating new problems
Enforcing monogamy may have cleared away a scandal, but it created a new problem for the church. Suddenly there were more widows without husbands and without support because they couldn’t become anyone’s second wife. To try to help these widows, the church created a new type of social club for them—a widows’ association.
This spread outside Palestine as a good solution to a problem they shared, because no polygamy was allowed outside Palestine. It was one of the first things the fledgling church did, and right from the start it was problematic—Greek-speaking widows complained that the Aramaic speakers were being given more food, for one thing (Acts 6:1)! Young Timothy, leading the church in Ephesus, had other problems with his widows, and Paul had to write a whole chapter to help him cope (1 Tim 5). Nevertheless, this association was a good solution to their needs, and it was far better than expecting these women to each find a new husband.
Why did Jesus and Paul change God’s commands? Had God always been in favor of monogamy so that they were now returning to his original wishes? Although Jesus said that this was how things were at the “beginning,” this doesn’t mean that God had subsequently given the wrong commands to Moses. It was the purpose of these commands, rather than the commands themselves, that was important. It was God’s purpose that Jesus and Paul were upholding.
God’s purpose for marriage was to help individuals find mutual support in families. When there were too few men due to warfare, this purpose was accomplished by allowing polygamy to ensure male heirs. In more stable times, polygamy resulted in many men remaining single because wealthy men could have many wives. In order to maintain God’s purposes at times like these, the rule about polygamy had to change. God’s purposes are eternal, but his commands change in order to carry out those purposes in different situations. We might summarize God’s purpose in the words of Psalm 68:6: “God sets the lonely in families.”
We can feel smug that our society doesn’t allow polygamy, but in some ways we are like the Romans, whose law was based on a morality that most didn’t follow. Despite their official condemnation of polygamy, many respectable Romans had multiple marriages because divorce was easily obtained and mistresses were openly accepted. Eurydice, a newlywed Roman wife in the first century, was given advice about a happy marriage by Plutarch: “If your husband commits some peccadillo with a paramour or a maidservant, you ought not to be indignant or angry, because it is respect for you which leads him to share his debauchery, licentiousness, and wantonness with another woman.” In other words, extramarital sex was so normal that she shouldn’t take offense.
In modern Western societies, various surveys have revealed that 13 percent of women and 20 percent of men commit adultery—and this is likely to be underreported by those who are questioned. Perhaps soap operas represent our society more accurately than we’d like to believe.
Jesus criticized polygamy as a warped version of the lifelong committed relationship of a one-plus-one marriage. Our society recognizes that this is a very special relationship, and we strive toward it, but in many cases we fail. So much time and money are often spent on the wedding and an almost equal amount on a subsequent divorce, but often we spend little time, care, and attention on the marriage itself.
This post was adapted from Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World (Lexham Press, 2019).