If God Values Women, How Could He Allow Polygamy?

A shorter version of this article was published in the June 2017 issue of Today in the Word, a publication of Moody Global Ministries.

Question: In the New Testament, God elevates women to a place of honor unlike the culture in those days. But in the Old Testament, God seems okay with polygamy and concubines. Why is that?

Julie’s Answer: You are correct that the New Testament honors women in a way that was uncommon in the ancient Greco-Roman world. In his book, How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt notes that in ancient Greece, women had the social status of slaves. They were not allowed to speak in public, and girls were not allowed to attend school. Women were considered inferior to men, and poets even equated them with evil.

The Romans didn’t treat women any better. They considered a wife to be the property of her husband and granted him complete control over her and everything she owned.

In contrast, Jesus treated women with respect, and two of His closest friends were Mary and Martha. Rather than discouraging women from learning, Jesus encouraged Mary to sit at His feet and listen to His teaching (Luke 10:38–42). He also violated cultural norms when He started a conversation with a Samaritan woman in public. Likewise, the apostle Paul commanded husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25)—a radical idea in the ancient world.

Certainly, the value God places on women in the New Testament seems inconsistent with the Old Testament practice of polygamy.

Certainly, the value God places on women in the New Testament seems inconsistent with the Old Testament practice of polygamy. It also seems inconsistent with Genesis 1 and 2, where God creates male and female in His image and the two become one flesh (Gen. 2:24) – a symbol reflecting Trinitarian life and love.

I believe polygamy is the result of the curse God placed on the woman in Genesis 3: “(Y)our desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.”  Sin perverted the relationship between men and women, so it’s not surprising that men begin to take multiple wives and treat those wives as property. 

Interestingly, after His resurrection, Jesus appeared first to women.  Some theologians have concluded that this appearance to women symbolizes a reverse of the curse, and I tend to agree with them.  After the resurrection, polygamy is not mentioned in the Bible, and the one-flesh union of husband and wife is revealed to have even more significance.  As Paul notes in Ephesians 5:31-32, it signifies a “profound mystery” – Christ’s relationship to the church. 

Others argue that husbands ruling over wives is God’s way of protecting women after the Fall.  Yet ruling is diametrically opposed to the kind of servant leadership Jesus advocated (Matt. 20:25-26), so I find this interpretation not only unconvincing, but troubling. 

Regardless, polygamy is always shown in Scripture to cause problems.  It seems to be something God temporarily permits, but like divorce, only because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matt. 19:8). 

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4 thoughts on “If God Values Women, How Could He Allow Polygamy?

  1. Marie Brennan

    Part of the reason God allowed polygamy was to create a nation and a family line for Jesus to be born into. Few people believed in God in the same way Abraham did, and Abraham was promised that he would be a father of many nations. At least one of those nations had to believe in the One true God. Abraham took great pains to find a special wife for his son Isaac, from a relative family who believed in God. God needed a people, and a family who would follow his word. In the beginning especially, intermarriage between relative families was necessary, and so polygamy strengthened the gene pool. Many wives enabled many children to be born and brought up to believe and live the Old Testament Gospel, thus the nation of Israel was brought forth. The Jewish nation knew and taught and tried to keep the commandments of God. They were generally a healthy and a clean people, and so God created a strong ancestry for His only begotten Son.

  2. Stan Albuquerque

    I believe this is a touchy subject due to the fact that the question already betrays a certain bias. In other words we are reading our own cultural bias and modern cultural prejudices into the text with this sort of question. We may not realize that there was more going on than God just allowing polygamy because men liked multiple wives. It wasn’t just about sex, or pleasure. There where numerous reasons why women needed the protection of a husband in the ancient world, not only from men, but also from angelic beings who abused their divine position to mate with women and produce offspring. Paul specifically addressed this sort of thing in his letter to the Corinthians (1Cor 11:10).
    Furthermore, marriage limited the increase of this sort of wickedness, aside from have a symbol of authority on her head that protected her from the angels. I believe there is a lot more to marriage than we’ve given credit for. Most of us in today’s world only equate marriage with “falling in love” and “starting a family” and such. In reality the dynamics of marital union brought both protection from evil and social order, and in certain cases the laws were designed to preserve the seed that would eventually lead to the birth of Messiah.
    To properly answer the question we CANNOT look at this issue with modern eyes where our present theological prejudices don’t get in the way of our understanding why the scriptures make allowance for things we no longer practice.

  3. RE: “It seems to be something God temporarily permits, but like divorce, only because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matt. 19:8). ”

    SINCE WHEN did God ever make any concessions to hard-heartedness? Is that why Jesus said several times, “if you do not forgive your brother’s sins, you will not be forgiven”? Wasn’t (Moses merely managing sin instead of dealing with it in the way Jesus came and did? After all, Jesus NEVER said “God allowed you to divorce your wives…” He repeatedly said in Matt. 5, “it is written…BUT I SAY UNTO YOU….” Is hard-heartedness an acceptable attribute of a follower of Christ? The very idea that God “allows” divorce because of our hard-heartedness is pure slander.

    Few people after the 4th century have been able to grasp the full magnitude of what Jesus was saying in Matt. 19:6, when He said “they are no longer (never again) two but one flesh” as a result of God’s hand instantaneously creating a supernatural entity upon valid vows, ahead of physical consummation that He goes on to tell us is severable only by death. Jesus was not just saying that divorce and remarriage is immoral, by saying unequivocally that everyone who marries a divorced person commits {Greek verb tense: present indicative – enter into an ongoing state of] adultery. He was saying that dissolving the union with the companion of our youth is impossible, and entering into another relationship as long as that spouse lives is a hell-bound sin. #noexcusesnoexceptions

    In many ways concurrent polygamy seems more moral than the serial polygamy the harlot church not only accepts, but facilitates these days, because at least there’s not economic abandonment, and even worse, economic extortion / parental alienation.

    • robert

      Hello UDIO, let’s agree that all sins (all offenses to a perfect God) are hell-bound sins and therefore the Grace of God and the Justification provided by Jesus’ blood is necessary for us all. I think you would agree (?) that whether person A has been married to one other person for 30 years, or person B has been married to three persons over the course of 30 years, both person A and person B are sinners in need of God’s grace.

      Let’s also agree that the Christian church in the US is much too permissive toward the sin of divorce. Love you.

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