PM3111: On Polygamy and the Bible

Basic positions

Three basic positions on the relationship between the Bible and polygamy:

  • Bible as authority, Bible opposes polygamy, hence polygamy prohibited (most common position among Christians)
  • Bible as authority, Bible allows polygamy, hence polygamy allowed (minority position among Christians)
  • Polygamy is bad, Bible supports polygamy, hence Bible is bad (common position among atheists)

OT-NT relationship


  • OT and NT situations are same
    • Polygamy disallowed in OT and also in NT
    • Polygamy allowed in OT and also in NT
  • OT and NT situations are different
    • Polygamy allowed in OT, but disallowed in NT (example of this view: It is a fact that God allowed polygamy in the Old Testament. It is also a fact that God disallowed polygamy in the New Testament (church) Eddy Cheong, "Is Polygamy a sin? - A Biblical Perspective")
    • Polygamy allowed in OT, allowed in NT; but, while allowed in NT, more strongly discouraged in NT than it had been in OT (see Barnes Notes on 1Tim3:2 there was a special propriety in the prohibition, if understood as prohibiting polygamy. It is known that it was extensively practiced, and was not regarded as unlawful. Yet one design of the gospel was to restore the marriage relation to its primitive condition; and though it might not have seemed absolutely necessary to require of every man who came into the church to divorce his wives, if he had more than one, yet, in order to fix a brand on this irregular practice, it might have been deemed desirable to require of the ministers of the gospel that they should have but one wife. Thus the practice of polygamy would gradually come to be regarded as dishonorable and improper, and the example and influence of the ministry would tend to introduce correct views in regard to the nature of this relation.)

Broad arguments

  • Most Bible passages describing polygamy describe it negatively, hence Bible is implicitly opposed to polygamy
  • Possible responses:
    • Request for more specific evidence (list and discussion of each specific passage)
    • What about seemingly neutral passages?
    • Are the problems, problems of polygamy in general, or problems caused by specific forms/circumstances of polygamy?

Biblical passages

Here are some biblical passages commonly cited as relevant to the polygamy debate:

  • Genesis 4:19-24 - Lamech is the first time polygamy is mentioned in the Bible; Lamech had two wives. We can't say whether it was the first occurence of it per the Bible, merely that it is the first the Bible chooses to mention. It only reports one wife for Adam, Eve; for Cain it mentions, his wife (from which we might presume one); there is no mention of the wife or wives of the Cain's descendants Enoch, Irad, Mehujael and Methushael. Likewise, in Seth's line, from Seth to (the other) Lamech, there is no mention of any wife or wives, so we can't say if they were monogamists or polygamists either. The Bible reports that Lamech was a vengeful man, more vengeful than Cain was; but it gives no indication of whether this vengefulness was somehow connected to his polygamy, or an unrelated issue
  • Matthew 19:5-6 quoting Genesis 2:24 - the paradigmatic case of marriage, cited by Jesus, is monogamous (Adam and Eve)
  • Matthew 19:8 argument - Glenn Miller, "Polygamy in the NT period" The key thing to note here is that this argument fails if polygamy is acceptable! Jesus' point is that improper divorce does not nullify a marriage, and if the first marriage still stands, then a "second" marriage is adultery--and NOT simply 'polygamy'! This is very clear. Disagreement with Miller's argument
  • Deuteronomy 17:16-17 - prohibition on King multiplying wives - does this prohibit polygamy totally? or just having an excessive number of wives (such as Solomon's 700)
  • Deut. 25:5-10 - Levirate marriage. What is the legal status of this passage (is it a commandment)? There is no explicit exemption to prevent it from producing polygamy; is there an implicit one?
  • 2 Samuel 12:8 - God gives David Saul's wives. Then in v. 11 he says he will take David's wives from him and give them to another
  • 2 Samuel 12:1-4 - the Prophet Nathan has an allegory for David, who slew Uriah the Hittite in order to marry his wife. A rich man has many sheep, a poor man has only one; the rich man steals the poor man's only sheep for dinner. In the allegory, the rich man's sin was to steal the poor man's only sheep, not being rich and having many sheep to start with; arguably, David's sin was not in having many wives to begin with, but in killing Uriah and forcing Uriah's wife to marry him
  • Lev 18:18 (KJV) - Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex [her], to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life [time]. Most commonly interpreted as a prohibition on marrying two sisters, either simultaneously or sequentially. However, the word 'achowth אחות H269, which the KJV translates as sister - although that is its most common meaning, it has some other meanings, including another (consider its use in Exd 26:3 ("one to another"), Ex 26:5-6, Ezekiel 1:9,23; Ez 3:13. Hence, some suggest it should be instead, or additionally, be read as Neither shall thou take a wife to another, which could be interpreted as a prohibition of polygamy in general. (See e.g. this blog which makes that argument). Wikipedia's "Polygny" article (version of 10:35, 10 July 2011): Karaites interpret Leviticus 18:18 to mean that a man can only take a second wife if his first wife gives her consent[ref: Keter Torah on Leviticus, pp.96—97] - that interpretation relies on reading sisters non-literally, and focusing on to vex (i.e. not permitted if she vexes her, permitted if she does not) For an interpretation that permits marriage of sisters, but instead focuses on uncover her nakedness, see here.
  • Exo 21:10 - If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. (KJV) A regulation which only makes sense in the context of polygamy being permisible.
  • "Husband of one wife" as a criterion for church leadership:
    • 1 Timothy 3:2 (KJV) - A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;. In Greek, ''einai mias gunaikos andra - to be of one woman man
    • 1 Timothy 3:12 (KJV) - Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. In Greek, ''estOsan mias gunaikos andres - let them be of one woman men
    • Titus 1:5-7 (KJV) - For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: [6] If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. [7] For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God; not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre. In Greek, estOsan mias gunaikos andres - let them be of one woman men
      • Is this criteria just for those leadership positions? The counter-argument is that the other desired attributes it mentions are clearly those which every Christian should have. On the other hand, it is not impossible that there might be some criteria specific to the leadership, and that a listing of criteria should mix together the general criteria (common to all Christians) and the particular criteria (specific to the leadership) without clearly distinguishing them.
        • The OT contains marriage regulations specific to the priesthood, not of general application (see Lev 21:13, Ez 22:44). Is it inconceivable the NT might likewise contain marriage regulations specific to the church leadership, and not of general application?
      • What is Paul's target here? What is he actually complaining about? Is it polygamy? Is it that church leaders must be married (a man of zero women is not a man of one women)? Is it a prohibition of promiscuity/"sleeping around"/"fornication"? Is it a prohibition on remarriage (whether after divorce or death)? - an man who remarries after the death or divorce of his wife, is a "of one woman man" considering just the present moment, but not considering the whole of his life.
      • What does mias mean? Usually translated as "one". But consider John 20:19, which reads (KJV) Then the same day at evening, being the first [day] of the week, in Greek ousEs oun opsias tE hEmera ekeinE tE mia tOn sabbatOn - of being then evening to the day that the one of the sabbaths Here mia is being used to mean FIRST. (In the feminine dative singular, as opposed to the feminine genitive singular.) Hence, we see sometimes, it means first rather than one, so a possible translation of mias gunaikos andra is of first woman man rather than of one woman man, i.e. having at least one wife, not none; is this then, not a prohibition on polygamy, but just a prohibition on being unmarried?
      • Barnes' Notes on the Bible, on 1Tim3:2 says The husband of one wife - This need not be understood as requiring that a bishop "should be" a married man, as Vigilantius, a presbyter in the church at Barcelona in the fourth century, supposed, however desirable in general it may be that a minister of the gospel should be married. But, while this interpretation is manifestly to be excluded as false, there has been much difference of opinion on the question whether the passage means that a minister should not have more than one wife at the same time, or whether it prohibits the marriage of a second wife after the death of the first.... Barnes adopts the interpretation, that it is a prohibition on polygamists being church leaders, but not on being church members - the idea, in his view, that polygamy was still permitted, yet discouraged by restricting church leadership to monogamists.
      • On the same verse, Clarke says Second - must be the husband of one wife. He should be a married man, but he should be no polygamist; and have only one wife, i.e. one at a time. It does not mean that, if he has been married, and his wife die, he should never marry another. Some have most foolishly spiritualized this, and say, that by one wife the Church is intended! This silly quibbling needs no refutation. The apostle's meaning appears to be this: that he should not be a man who has divorced his wife and married another; nor one that has two wives at a time. It does not appear to have been any part of the apostle's design to prohibit second marriages, of which some have made such a serious business. But it is natural for some men to tithe mint and cummin in religion, while they neglect the weightier matters of the law.
      • Gill's: The husband of one wife; which is not to be understood in a mystical and allegorical sense of his being the pastor of one church, since the apostle afterwards speaks of his house and children, that are to be ruled and kept in good order by him, in distinction from the church of God; but in a literal sense of his conjugal estate; though this rule does not make it necessary that he should have a wife; or that he should not marry, or not have married a second wife, after the death of the first; only if he marries or is married, that he should have but one wife at a time; so that this rule excludes all such persons from being elders, or pastors, or overseers of churches, that were "polygamists"; who had more wives than one at a time, or had divorced their wives, and not for adultery, and had married others. Now polygamy and divorces had very much obtained among the Jews; nor could the believing Jews be easily and at once brought off of them. And though they were not lawful nor to be allowed of in any; yet they were especially unbecoming and scandalous in officers of churches. So the high priest among the Jews, even when polygamy was in use, might not marry, or have two wives, at once; if he did, he could not minister in his office until he divorced one of them (u). For it is written, Leviticus 21:13, "he shall take a wife", , "one, and not two" (w). And the same that is said of the high priest, is said of all other priests; see Ezekiel 44:22, likewise the Egyptian priests might not marry more wives than one, though others might have as many as they pleased (x): and so the Flamines among the Romans (y). An elder or pastor must also be one that is
  • Lev 21:13 - And he shall take a wife in her virginity. Gill's exposition on this verse argues hence that the High Priest must be a monogamist, since it says a wife. However, in the Hebrew, there is no article; a more literal translation is And he woman in her virginity he shall take. There is no article, but it is in the singular. It seems a bit of a stretch to say that this is a prohibition on polygamy - the polygamist High Priest would obey this commandment too, just multiple times. In any case, it is clear these are criteria specific to the High Priest, and not applying to all believers, since this passage prohibits the High Priest to marry someone who is not a virgin, e.g. a widow, or an ex-prostitute, while there is no prohibition on believers in general marrying these. Ezekiel 22:44 contains similar regulations, that are clearly only meant to apply to priests, not believers in general Neither shall they take for their wives a widow, nor her that is put away: but they shall take maidens of the seed of the house of Israel, or a widow that had a priest before.

Was Moses a polygamist?

The Bible mentions as wife of Moses:

  • Exodus 2:21 (KJV) And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.
  • Numbers 12:1 (KJV) And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman. (Many newer translations have, instead of Ethiopian, the more literal Cushite)

Three basic possibilities:

  1. Zipporah and the Ethiopian/Cushite woman are the same person
  2. Zipporah and the Ethiopian/Cushite woman are different people; after Zipporah died (or else was divorced), Moses married the Ethiopian/Cushite woman
  3. Zipporah and the Ethiopian/Cushite woman are different people; Moses had two wives simultaneously (he was a polygamist)

The argument for (1), is based on what is the correct meaning of Hebrew H3571 כושית Kuwshiyth. We know (Exodus 2:15-22) that Zipporah was a Midianite. Cush is traditionally understood as Ethiopia, which is some way away from Midian. However, some suggest Cush has some other geographical meaning - hence some argue that Midian is Cush (or part of Cush), and Zipporah was the Cushite. On the other hand, the tradition of identifying Cush with Ethiopia is very ancient, since both the LXX and Vulgate translate Numbers 12:1 with Cush=Ethiopia

With respect to (2), the text nowhere mentions that Zipporah died, or that anything else such happened to her. That she did die, is an assumption without any specific evidence to support it.

Assuming Zipporah and the Ethiopian woman are different people, then Moses had two wives; the text is silent on whether he had them simultaneously or sequentially, so maybe the best approach is to accept that we don't know, and either are possible.

If one accepts Mosaic authorship of the Torah, then the question of whether Moses was a polygamist is important for its interpretation. Some passages in the Torah have been given both pro- and anti- polygamy interpretations; the question is which interpretation is correct? If Moses was a polygamist, that would be evidence against the anti-polygamy interpretations being correct.