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Polygamy by V. Phillips Long

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsWhen we read the Bible it is easy for us to think that marriage was ordained from the beginning (Genesis 2) and that marriage ethics and customs have always been the same. But a close look at the Old Testament shows us that such is not the case. Marriages in the Old Testament were arranged by the family and served a very different purpose than marriages today. As a clan alliance rather than a relationship built around love, with the intention of producing the next generation rather than something like merging souls, we can imagine that some differences will exist. In ZIBBCOT, Phil Long seeks to clarify some of the marriage conventions of the biblical world:

The biblical creation account envisages monogamy as God’s design for marriage, in which one man and one woman forsake all others to become "one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Nevertheless, polygamy, or more accurately polygyny (having more than one wife), is attested already as early as Genesis 4:19, in the story of Lamech. Polygyny was less prevalent among commoners than among the well-to-do; in fact, Elkanah is the only commoner described in the books of Samuel or Kings as having more than one wife.1 This social situation is implicit in Nathan’s parable—told in the aftermath of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah—in which the poor man has but one lamb (signifying one wife), while the rich man has many (2 Sam. 12:1–3).

Polyandry (a woman having more than one husband at the same time) is not attested in the Bible. From the biblical and extrabiblical examples we have, it appears that taking more than one wife was prompted less by romantic desire than by concerns about having offspring to continue the family line and having a large enough family (wives and children) to do the work involved in seminomadic and agricultural living.2 Having multiple wives or concubines (and thus many children) was also sometimes intertwined with status issues. For a woman to remain childless, therefore, was a cause of grief and shame.

Polygamy is recognized in the Old Testament as a common practice and is regulated (Deut. 25:15–17), but it is not endorsed or encouraged. Similarly, ancient Near Eastern law codes do not necessarily promote polygamy; rather, the detailed regulations are intended to lessen its abuses.3 Compared to the systematic treatment of marriage in some extrabiblical texts, the Old Testament’s treatment is more occasional and ad hoc. For this reason, one should not seek to infer God’s standards of marital conduct from the (mis)adventures of biblical characters any more than one should infer traffic laws from the behaviors of individual drivers.4

The importance of this information is that it warns us not to be judgmental of the characters when they appear to think differently of marriage than we do. For example, we should not consider Abraham’s taking of Hagar (at the urging of Sarah) as something that was motivated by lust or lack of faith. We have to understand the marriage practices in light of the culture of the ancient world.

Zibbcotsetbox Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 So Youngblood, "Elkanah," ABD 2:475.

2 For further factors encouraging the practice of polygamy, see IVPBBCOT, at 1 Sam. 1:2.

3 See, e.g., Hammurabi’s Code, sections 128–84 (ANET, 171–74) and the Middle Assyrian Laws, sections 25–39 (ANET, 182–83). For a concise summary of polygynous practices in ancient Mesopotamia, see S. Greengus, "Legal and Social Institutions of Ancient Mesopotamia," CANE, 478–79. For a similar treatment of Egyptian practices, see G. Pinch, "Private Life in Ancient Egypt," CANE, 373–75. A list of polygamy contracts is presented in R. Westbrook, Old Babylonian Marriage Law (AfOB 23; Horn: Berger, 1988), 103–8. For an excursus on the whole issue, see H. J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East (SOTS 69; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 122–40.

4 Further, see V. P. Hamilton, "Marriage," ABD, 4:559–69 (esp. 565).

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