Marriage in the Bible – Part 3: Polygamy

No discussion of biblical marriage can be complete without the major elephant in the room: polygamy. Though modern Jews and Christians hold that marriage should be like Adam and Eve, one man and one woman, early Jews thought otherwise well into the post-Christian era. Echos of this practice still exist today in Islam as well as a few very fringe Mormon groups. (Mormonism as a whole outlawed the practice around forty years after the religion’s founding.)

If you are just joining us, this week in honor of my first wedding anniversary, I’m doing a post every day about a different aspect of marriage in the Torah. Monday was marriage in the creation story. Tuesday was Levrite marriage. Today, I’m digging into polygamy.

In the Torah, polygamy is just assumed. I wasn’t able to find anyplace in the Torah where it’s even considered unusual enough that it would have been written about as permitted. The first time it ever comes up, it is discussed in a very matter-of-fact way:

And Lamech took unto him two wives; the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.

Genesis 4:19

Of course, Lamech wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue: he was a descendant of Cain, his family line destined to be destroyed in the Flood, as well as a murderer. And yet, God doesn’t scold him for this and his crimes aren’t in any way related to the fact he had two wives. (Note also that this is Lamech, the son of Methushael, NOT Lamech the son of Methuselah and the father of Noah. Though I can see why you might have gotten those two confused… The second Lamech was a descendant of Seth.)

After Lamech, the next figure in the bible that is described as a polygamous is Abraham. (His father, Terah, also had multiple wives, but it is unclear whether they were simultaneous.)

And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.

Genesis 16:3

Protections of the Wives

On the bright side, the law does establish some protections for the women in a polygamous relationship. The key law is that the man “may not diminish” the food, clothing, and shelter that he provides his original wife as a new one comes on board. This may have had (if practiced) a natural limiting effect on how many wives a man could have:

If he take him another wife, her [the previous wife’s] food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights, shall he not diminish.

Exodus 21:10

Solomon and his Wives
Solomon and his Wives (source: Wikimedia Commons)

This law would have the effect of limiting a man to a number of women within his means: to have too many meant that he would be unable to care for them all equally. Presumably, this was also intended to dispel as much jealousy as possible from the arrangement as no wife could (in theory) deprive another of her rights. In practice (such as the example of Abraham, below), it may not have worked out quite as well.

This rule would have been enough to prevent a man of normal means from being able to take too many wives, but not be a problem for a king. Fortunately, Deuteronomy offers this special rule for kings:

When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: `I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’; thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, […] Neither shall he [the king] multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away;

Deuteronomy 17:14-17

The translation here is a little old-fashioned, but what it is saying is that a king shouldn’t have too many wives. In specific, the concern is that the king’s “heart [would] turn away”, in other words be so fixated on his many wives that he wouldn’t pay enough attention to God. This is a problem that Solomon may have known quite well…

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray.

1 Kings 11:1-3

If only Solomon had been wise enough to read the bit in Deuteronomy, so many problems could have been avoided!


The Torah is also careful to define laws of inheritance and birthright in the case of plural wives.

If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first-born son be hers that was hated; then it shall be, in the day that he causeth his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born before the son of the hated, who is the first-born; but he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the hated, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath; for he is the first-fruits of his strength; the right of the first-born is his.

Deuteronomy 21:15-17

The bottom line was that a man couldn’t choose to skip over his first-born, just because he liked his other wife

Expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar
Expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar (source: Wikimedia Commons)

more or even if he liked his other children more.

If you look at these last two rules carefully, that a man cannot deprive his wife of her rights or her children of their rightful inheritance, suddenly Abraham doesn’t look very good. He is in fact guilty of both. First, he kicked Hagar out of his household twice (in Genesis 16, where God asked Hagar to return, and Genesis 21, where He did not). And then Isaac was the son that received his inheritance, not his first-born Ishmael. (And God even refers to Isaac incorrectly as the “first-born” later.) How can we reconcile that? Well, obviously Abraham didn’t have the Torah and so may not have known the rules. Plus, maybe there were loopholes. Sarah was his first wife, after all, even if Isaac was his second child. Does the first child of the first wife count as the first-born automatically? And while Genesis 16 clearly refers to Hagar as Abraham’s “wife”, God only refers to her as his “bondwoman” (in Genesis 21). Me? I’m just taking option #3: God can do what he wants.

Actually, maybe you shouldn’t start adding up all the rules the Genesis patriarchs violated as they relate to marriage. Both Abraham’s marriage to his half-sister AND Jacob’s marriage to two sisters would have been banned by Leviticus 18. Hard to say how Judaism can’t see both of those violations of the rules as a good thing, in the end.

Up next: Women as property and the Ten Commandments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *