Several prominent men in the Old Testament were polygamists.
King Solomon, the man the Bible calls “wiser than all men” (I Kings 4:31), had “700 wives and 300 concubines.” Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, had 18 wives and 60 concubines.
Invariably during a Bible study of a book from the Old Testament, someone will ask me a question about polygamy.
A casual reading of Old Testament Scriptures (Genesis through Malachi) leaves the impression that men having multiple wives and concubines was not an act God prohibited or censored. Polygamy even seems to be something God allowed.
Old Testament Culture
Children in the ancient world were man’s highest form of wealth. The more children, the more influential the man.
Why did God allow many wives and concubines in the Old Testament?
If polygamy is a sin, why didn’t God condemn people like Abraham, who had three wives, instead of the Bible calling Abraham “faithful” and “a friend of God” (James 2:23)?
Some Christians pretend that although the men of God in the Old Testament had multiple wives, they only “slept” with one wife. The other wives and concubines, these Christian moralists argue, were more like “housemaids” and “household servants.”
Yet the Bible teaches just the opposite.
For example, in Genesis 30:14-16, Rachel and Leah, two of Jacob’s wives, argued over who will “sleep with Jacob” that night. Rachel grants Leah the privilege of “sleeping with Jacob” in exchange for Leah giving Rachel the “mandrakes” that Leah’s son Reuben had harvested in the fields.
Mandrakes (Heb. dudraim ) are mentioned in Genesis 30:14-16 and in Song of Solomon 7:13. The mandrake is a Mediterranean plant from the potato family that grows low like lettuce. Its leaves are dark green, and its flowers are purple. The root is usually forked, and when the mandrake bears fruit when ripe (early in May), the fruit is about the size of a small apple, fragrant, yellow in color, and quite flavorful to the palate.
Orientals and Arabs call mandrakes “the devil’s apple” because when mandrakes are eaten, they give sexual energy to the person who eats them.
A book written in 1881 by Dr. Benjamin Ward Richardson Richardson, called Lectures on Alcohol, reveals that experiments with wine made of the root of mandrake produce a narcotic, causing deep sleep. The ancients used it as an anesthetic. However, a mandrake digested in small quantities acts like opium, exciting the nerves and acting as a sexual stimulant.
Rachel let her rival sister and wife, Leah, sleep with their mutual husband Jacob “for the mandrakes.”
Try teaching that story to your 4th grade Sunday School class.
Cultural Morality and Christianity
During the Old Testament days, the accepted cultural norm for all the nations was “many wives and concubines.”
Was multiple wives the ideal for a man during Old Testament days?
God revealed the ideal in the Mosaic Law, saying that Israel’s king “…must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold for himself” (Deuteronomy 17:17).
But — Dr. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones says “but” is the most crucial word in the Bible – Solomon had “700 wives.” King Solomon led Israel during their glory years. Solomon’s mistake of many wives didn’t preclude him from Kingdom leadership.
It did, however, contribute to his personal downfall.
“For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father” (I Kings 11:4).
The above verse (I Kings 11:4) is very interesting.
Before you wax eloquent on King David’s qualifications for Kingdom service because “his heart was right with God,” and before you condemn Solomon and affirm his downfall because “his heart was far from God,” everyone needs to ponder how to answer a specific question.
“At what number of wives – between 8 and 700 – does a man’s heart turn away from God?”
Solomon had seven hundred wives, and David had eight wives. Solomon’s heart turned away from the Lord, but David’s heart “was wholly true to the Lord his God.”
You say: “But you ask such a silly question! A man must have just one wife and only one wife. That’s how we know a man’s heart is true to God. Any more than one wife, then that man’s heart is not right with God.”
But the Bible states, “David’s heart was “true to God” with eight wives.
The culture in David’s day deemed eight wives healthy, but seven hundred wives excessive.
It’s the Heart
Be careful in this modern day of evangelicalism disqualifying someone from Kingdom service because they violate the church’s cultural preferences for external morality. Those of us who grew up in a church culture may be responsible for losing a generation because we forced them to “check off” a morality standard that fits our particular church culture, and we disqualify them if they don’t.
- Don’t live together.’
- Don’t drink alcohol.
- Don’t use tobacco.
- Don’t go to concerts.
- Don’t miss church.
- Don’t go to the movies.
- Don’t get a tattoo.
- Don’t dance or go to dances.
- Don’t play sports on Sunday.
- Etc., etc., etc.
God doesn’t exclude from Kingdom service the people Christians tend to exclude.
When I’m asked about the leaders of Israel in the Old Testament having “many wives and concubines,” I sense the one asking is bothered.
“Pastor Wade, why does God seem to allow men with moral issues to lead His people?”
Here’s how I answer: ”
When I read of ‘many wives and concubines, I realize that God measures the heart for service qualification in His Kingdom.
I am cautious that I don’t set a standard for Kingdom service using an external moral code of my making.
In our day, people like David (people who’ve been divorced and remarried) are often not allowed to lead God’s people.Why are the divorced disqualified from ministry? Because it seems we’re more interested in people checking off the box that says they look good externally (or at least, ‘like us’) than we are examining the condition of their hearts.
I want someone in Kingdom service sho is living selflessly, loving sacrificially, and seeking others’ interests first.
So in my way of thinking…Divorced people, remarried people, people in blended families, couples living together, and people from non-traditional family situations who express their love for Jesus Christ should be accepted as people of God capable of serving His Kingdom because their loving, selfless hearts demonstrate their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.Where does the church draw the line?Good question. And a question with answers that may vary from time period to time period, from culture to culture, and church to church.But for all ages, it’s always …
About the heart.