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Polygamy in the Old Testament


Covenant Reformed News

January 2019 • Volume XVII, Issue 9

Polygamy in the Old Testament

A reader writes, “I Corinthians 6:9-10 states that ‘neither fornicators’ ‘nor adulterers’ ‘shall inherit the kingdom of God.’ Surely in Israel people like King Solomon (1,000 wives and concubines) and those returned exiles described in Ezra 10 (assuming they remarried) would have been guilty of these sins and thus were barred from heaven? Surely God never lowers the standard of the law?”

We read of various men in Old Testament times who married more than one wife or who had concubines. In fact, some of the most prominent saints in the old dispensation married multiple wives or took concubines. I need name only a few: Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and others. Undoubtedly, some of the kings married more than one wife because it was a custom in those days for monarchs to demonstrate their greatness with a harem. Judah even had intercourse with a woman he thought was a whore, yet Tamar’s son by Judah, though born outside of wedlock, was a father in the promised line that brought forth our Saviour. 

Sadly, fornication also occurred among the males in Israel. When Judah was guilty of this sin, it seems as if no one thought much about it (Gen. 38), although, when Shechem the Hivite raped Dinah, Levi and Simeon were furious (Gen. 34). There is evidence though of Judah’s repentance (38:26; cf. 44:18-34).

The case of some of the returned captives who married foreign wives is somewhat different (Ezra 10). They sent away their wives and the children born to them. This was probably done under the law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

But even this regulation in Deuteronomy 24 has been an occasion for some serious disagreement and debate. It is a passage in Scripture that is appealed to in support of the legitimacy of remarriage after a separation or divorce in new covenant days. It is interesting to note, however, that the New Testament Scriptures emphatically forbid remarriage in the case of a rupture of the first marriage, so long as one’s spouse is alive (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Rom. 7:2-3; I Cor. 7:39).

It is true, as the questioner observes, that God never lowers the requirements of His law. But it is also a fact that the seriousness of a sin is determined by God in connection with the circumstances. Jesus Himself reminds us that the one who knew his Lord’s will and disobeyed him is worthy of many stripes, whereas ignorance is a significant mitigating factor (Luke 12:47-48). Therein also lies the solution to the problem. 

There can be no question that God punished the sins of adultery and fornication in the old dispensation as well as the new. Lamech, in the line of Cain, had two wives. He murdered a man and then boasted of his foul deed to his wives. He was totally disinterested in obeying God’s laws (Gen. 4:19-24).

Abraham, who married Sarah and took Hagar as a concubine, saw Hagar’s attitude towards Sarah change after Hagar conceived (16:4). He finally had to send Ishmael away because of Ishmael’s sin of mocking Isaac. Jacob married Leah and Rachel, and took two concubines, but witnessed nothing but jealousy on Rachel’s part and strife between the two sisters. Elkanah married Peninah and Hannah, but endured the grief of seeing Peninah mocking Hannah. Solomon had many wives but they led him to serve idols. God did not allow the sin to go unpunished!

The sin was less serious, however, in the old dispensation than it is in the new.

There is a good reason for this. Marriage is a picture of a heavenly reality, the true and spiritual marriage of Jesus Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-33). The heavenly and spiritual marriage of the Lord and His bride was only dimly perceived in the old dispensation. There are many times, especially in the prophets, where God calls Israel His wife. And so the relationship of marriage and the true heavenly marriage was already dimly defined. But the picture in earthly marriages of the heavenly marriage was not very clear. The picture was blurred and of poor quality. 

Yet it was a sin to distort the picture of marriage by marrying many wives. Those who did this were afflicted with trouble and grief in their homes.

I suppose, perhaps, that an illustration can be used. If you have a picture of someone you loved, anyone who would mar that picture by tearing it or defacing it with a pen would do you a great wrong and you would be angry with such a one.

But if the picture of someone you loved was a picture of someone still living and somebody would murder that person, the sin would be far greater.

So it is with marriage. The picture of our marriages is that of Christ and His church. But the marriage of Christ and His church is a reality already accomplished in those who believe in Christ and are grafted into His body by a true and living faith. Any two saints that are married are also married to Christ. The reality itself of Christ and His church is present in a very real sense in our marriages.

To desecrate our marriages by unlawful divorce and to remarry if divorced are dreadful sins that mar the figure of the reality. A man and a woman, united in sacred marriage, cannot and may not break the bond that binds them as one, simply because the bond between Christ and His people cannot be broken. 

Marriage is a great gift. It is a union of love rooted in Christ’s love for His bride. It is the sacred bond that it is because it is God’s way of bringing His elect children to life in His church (Mal. 2:15). It is honourable and beautiful. Yea, it is an institution that God created in Paradise.

Prof. Herman Hanko (emeritus, PRC Seminary)

Last modified on 01 March 2019
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Additional Info

  • Volume: 17
  • Issue: 9
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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