What's Wrong with Having Multiple Wives?
Many years ago a Christian businessman made a very controversial comment: “If the men of God in the Old Testament had more than one wife, then there is no reason why a man can’t have more than one now.” Some folks living in America may not realize that there is a religious sect in the United States whose founder had 27 wives - Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. In the early days of the religion, Joseph began practicing polygamy, which means a man is married to more than one wife. The argument for the practice was the great men throughout the Old Testament had more than one wife and God was not displeased, so why would God be displeased today?
More than one – it is true
The first person to have plural wives in the Scripture came through the linage of Adam’s son Cain. It was Cain who, in a jealous rage, killed his brother Abel and later became a marked man (Gen. 4:15). Six generations later, Cain’s descendent Lamech married two wives, one was Adah and the other named Zillah (Gen. 4:19). Lamech actually slew a young man and pronounced a curse upon himself (Gen 4:23-24).
After the flood, we come to the three main patriarchs of the faith: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren and unable to give birth, thus she permitted Abraham to go into her handmaid Hagar and birth a son called Ishmael (Gen 16). When it came time for Isaac to marry, he no doubt had witnessed the contention between his mother Sarah and Ishmael’s mother Hagar, and Isaac selected one wife, Rebecca, who birthed twin sons, Jacob and Esau. When Esau left home, he married multiple wives mentioned in Genesis 36:10. Jacob went to Syria and had his eyes on one woman, Rachel, but was tricked by Laban his father in law and after 14 years ended up with two wives, Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29). However because Rachel was barren, Jacob was given permission by Rachel to have relations with her handmaiden, where several sons were born. Eventually Rachel gave birth to two sons: Benjamin and Joseph (Gen 35). Thus, it is true that the early men in the Bible at times had more than one wife.
As men we are to love and be faithful to one woman in the same manner that Christ is faithful to one bride – the church.
Moses’ warning – don’t multiply wives
Hundreds of years after Abraham, Moses warned the future leaders of Israel against trusting in their own wealth or marring more than one wife:
“But he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, for the LORD has said to you,'You shall not return that way again.' Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself.”
– Deut. 17:16-17 (NKJV)
Despite this commandment in God’s law, David had multiple wives and Solomon amassed a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. His numerous wives were often idol worshippers and their influence drew Solomon’s heart away from God (I Kings 11:1-3). David became so “open” in his moral beliefs that he felt free to go after another man’s wife, and the end result of the affair, setting up the husband to be killed in battle, and the death of the infant child, resulted in David’s house being marked by the sword of the Lord, as long as the king lived (II Sam. 12:9-11).
While this idea of having more than one wife may seem rather thrilling and exciting for some modern day Romeo, the fact that is the multiple wife system in Israel’s ancient history caused an abundance of heartache and grief in the family. Sarah became so jealous and angry that she forced Abraham to expel Ishmael and Hagar out of the tent, sending her into the desert where mom and son came close to dying (Gen. 21:14-19), but were spared supernaturally. Jacob’s two wives were so competitive they got into a “baby making contest,” with each one trying to outdo the other. Rachel was loved and Leah was despised by her husband and this caused friction between the two sisters that Jacob married. David’s interest in women led him to eventually commit adultery and impregnate another man’s wife, giving birth to an illegitimate son that died shortly after birth (II Sam. 12) As mentioned, Solomon’s wives turned his heart from God. Multiple wives caused contention, confusion and strife in the households of men who lived with multiple wives.
Why all the Women?
The first question we must ask is what the purpose was for God allowing men in the Bible to have multiple wives. There are two very practical answers to this question. The first deals with the fact that Israel was a small nation that was going to inherit the Promised Land, a land filled with and surrounded by numerous tribes with large armies and fighting forces. For Israel to defeat their enemies it was necessary for the nation to grow large and to do so quickly. It would have been difficult for Israel to conquer the 31 cities in Joshua’s day and possess the land from Lebanon to Gaza, with just fifty to one hundred thousand men. They had 400 years from Abraham to Moses to populate the nation and prepare for possessing a large piece of real estate and defend it from invaders. Marrying more than one wife meant more children would be born and the growth of the nation would accelerate.
The second reason may concern the plagues, wars and judgments. When a plague struck Israel, it would literally wipe out thousands of men at once. When the men at Bethshemesh lifted the lid on the Ark of the Covenant, over 50,000 men in this city of Judah were instantly slain. When David numbered Israel, the death angel sent a plague throughout the land slaying 70,000 men (II Sam. 24:15-21). When we consider there are over 7 billion people on earth, then 70,000 may seem small, but to Israel these numbers represent the numbers in an entire tribe, or more. One major judgment or plague could erase between 5 to 10 percent of the male population of Israel, endangering their existence when pagan tribes surrounding the nation knew there was a shortage of men. Thus, the more children born, the more secure the nation would be.
It should be clear that the issue of multiple wives was not for the purpose of sexual pleasure and to fulfill a lustful desire for a beautiful woman. There was a practical purpose of procreation to enlarge Israel in her earliest infancy. However, when the Law of Moses came into existence, the law pointed to the relationship of one man and one woman. The only way a man could separate from his wife was if he found some “uncleanness in her” then he could give her a legal bill of divorcement (Deut. 24:1-4).
So why only one wife now?
The introduction of a new redemptive covenant established a new set of guidelines that were not practiced in the Old Covenant. One such example is circumcision. From the time of Abraham, all Jewish male sons were circumcised in the foreskin of their flesh as a visible sign of their covenant with God (Gen. 17:11-12). This was also established as part of the law that Israel followed throughout its history. Joshua found it necessary to circumcise all of the young men born in the wilderness, prior to invading Jericho (Joshua 5:2-5).
In the New Testament one of the disagreements between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ was over circumcision. Many Jewish converts did not believe anyone, including Gentiles, could be in covenant with God unless they were first circumcised. After a long debate, the early church leaders determined it was not necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised (Acts 15:5-29), since true circumcision was the cutting away of the fleshly nature of the human heart, which comes through redemption in Christ.
One of several principles that were established under the new covenant was that every man was to have his own wife, unless he was called by God to remain single for the sake of the ministry:
“Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.”
- I Cor. 7:2-4 (NKJV)
When Paul wrote concerning church leadership, the office of a Bishop, the bishop and the deacons were to be the husband of one wife (I Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). Despite this inspired instruction, there are men who carry the title of bishop who have willingly left one wife to marry another, and in some instances are on their third wife. I questioned how these individuals could justify being in the office of a bishop or deacon, until I heard a fellow minister explain the interpretation of I Timothy 3:12. According to the “bishops” who exchange wives like people change old cars, they believe the meaning of “husband of one wife” means one at a time. In other words, as many as you desire as long as there is only one that you are legally married to. When I heard this I could not understand how they had anyone sitting in their congregations, as most wives would not want their husband hearing this, as the temptation to exchange them could grow and themselves become a victim of an unwanted separation.
These types of man are twisting the Scriptures to accommodate their own weakness or personal opinions. Neither in the Greek text, nor in the English translation does it imply that a deacon or bishop can have “one at a time.” In fact the Scripture teaches that if a man cannot properly treat his wife then how can he lead the church? We are also told that a husband must love his wife as Christ loves the church. As men we are to love and be faithful to one woman in the same manner that Christ is faithful to one bride – the church.