How should we view the patriarchs of the Old Testament who practiced polygamy? First, we must recognize that polygamy is described as something they practiced but never as something God prescribed. We should view these men as they are described, flawed human beings, who sinned immensely, that God still loved and worked through. This should encourage us because we all are sinners. I’m glad God works with flawed people like you and me, but make no mistake, polygamy is not and has never been intended by God.
I recently wrote an article responding to polyamorists’ claim that “love is not a finite resource.” This got me thinking about possible objections to what I wrote. Some might ask, “If human love is a finite resource, then why did the Old Testament patriarchs have so many wives and concubines?” This is a fair question that all Christians need to be able to respond to.
The ugly truth is that many of the heroes in the Old Testament were polygamists. Jacob had two wives and Esau had three. King David, the man after God’s own heart, had at least eight wives. Solomon, not to be outdone, had a staggering seven hundred wives (1 Kings 11:3).
These examples from Scripture are perplexing because God used these men to do great things for his name and his people. Would God use men who were living in sexually sinful lifestyles to fulfill his purposes? Was polygamy permissible for these patriarchs, and if it was, is it permissible for us?
To answer these questions, we need to determine one thing. Are these passages about polygamy prescriptive or descriptive? Are they prescribing how we are supposed to live, or are they describing events from the past?
Many passages in Scripture describe events God doesn’t condone. Lot’s daughters getting him drunk and having sex with him comes to mind (Gen. 19:32–36). But many passages of Scripture prescribe how we are to live as followers of God, such as when Jesus prescribes loving God with all of our heart, soul, and mind (Matt. 22:37).
Is polygamy prescriptive? The short answer is no. Here’s why. God never commands or condones polygamy in Scripture. The opposite is true.
The first mention of polygamy in Scripture says, “Lamech took to himself two wives” (Gen. 4:19). We are then told that Lamech, a descendant of Cain, boasted to his wives about murdering a boy (Gen. 4:23).