The question really says it all, doesn’t it?
Okay, clearly not, seeing as how there appears to be a great deal of confusion on the issue. Cult leaders say “yes,” usually because they want to satisfy their own sinful desires. Most Christians would say “no,” although they’re not always sure how to articulate why, beyond pointing to the creation of Adam and Eve.
Some, though they disagree with polygamy, say you’re not going to find it explicitly condemned in the Bible. “Despite what some may think, the Bible never condemns polygamy,” Rachel Held Evans writes in A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Kindle location 1316), to give but one example.
One doesn’t have to look hard to see that many of the “heroes” of the faith were polygamists—Abraham had multiple wives and concubines; Jacob had multiple wives and concubines as well. Even the greatest kings of Israel, David and Solomon, had multiple wives.
So… does that mean it gets a green light—or at the very least, a proceed with caution?
We find an explicit command against kings and rulers taking “many wives,” (along with excessive riches) in Deut 17:17, “lest his heart turn away,” but that’s about it. While you might not be able to point to a specific verse that says verbatim “polygamy is wrong,” one only has to look at how polygamy is depicted:
The first polygamist is Lamech, who takes two wives, Adah and Zillah (Gen. 4:19). Lamech, a descendent of Cain, is a prideful and wicked man, one who arrogantly boasts to his wives about his murdering ways and lack of fear of repercussions (Gen. 4:23-24).
This is not a good start.
Abraham, the man of faith and friend of God, is another polygamist. It didn’t go well for him. Sarah, who gave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine, became bitter with Hagar when she conceived Ishmael and treated her harshly. Eventually Hagar was sent away with her son, while Sarah and Isaac remained with Abraham. (see Gen. 16, 20)
Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah before Rachel, and treated her as more of a burden than a blessing, and there was clearly strife between the two wives/sisters (see Gen. 29-30).
Gideon, he of fleece fame, had “many wives,” and also led Israel into idolatry because of the ephod he made (Judges 8:27-35).
Elkanah, the father of Samuel, was a polygamist. He was married to both Hannah and Peninnah, who is called Hannah’s “rival” (1 Sam. 1:6-7).
King David may have been a man after God’s own heart, but a one woman man he was not. He was married to Saul’s daughter, Michal (1 Sam. 18:27), but during his exile took for himself many wives: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and Eglah (2 Sam. 3:2-5). Later, when he settled in Jerusalem, he took for himself more wives and concubines, including Bathsheba (2 Sam. 5:13). His family was characterized by strife and rivalry as well with attempted coups from two of his sons.
Solomon, David’s son, was even worse, with 700 wives and 300 concubines, most of whom he married for political purposes such as Pharoah’s daughter. “And his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3), he fell into idolatry and the nation was eventually split in two under his son’s harsh rule.
Those are but a few examples of practitioners. And while all were used by God, and many are shown as heroes of the faith, we never read that God was pleased with their polygamy.
So, what about monogamy?
Interestingly, where polygamy is portrayed in a consistently negative light, monogamy tends to be displayed with an equally consistent positivity.
When Adam is introduced to his wife, he rejoices over her with a love song, “they were naked and not ashamed,” and God declared it all “very good” (Gen. 2:1-24; Gen 1:31).
The created ideal remains the standard throughout the Scriptures.
The Song of Song’s celebration of romantic love is entirely within the context of monogamy. The aforementioned Deut. 17:17, as well as the command to abstain from adultery (Ex. 20:14), implicitly point to monogamy as the ideal (after all, if one is the standard, then anything beyond that is “many” and adultery against the one). The New Testament explicitly calls it out as the ideal for marriage by placing it in the characteristics of both elders and deacons—”the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).
Most significantly, marriage is described as a picture of Christ and His bride, the Church (Eph. 5:23-33). Jesus loves His bride, He will never forsake her. His heart has no room for rivals.
So does the Bible permit polygamy?
Our starting point determines the answer, ultimately. If we see the Bible as a mere collection of ancient stories, we’re going to have trouble answering that question definitively.
If you’re evil and trying to violate people in order to satisfy your own sinful desires (see Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism), then you can probably twist together a case.
But if marriage is a picture of the gospel—if Jesus’ love for His bride is your starting point, as Paul says ought to be—you can’t honestly come away from the Scriptures suggesting it advocates for polygamy.