Q. Legalizing polygamy has been in the news lately. If it’s wrong, why did so many Old Testament believers practice it? Why did they go unpunished?
A. In the Dispensation of Innocence, God spelled out His perfect plan for marriage: “And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him. . . . Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. . . . Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:18, 22, 24; Ephesians 5:31).
Notice the singular aspect of this plan—a helper, a woman, a man. The passage implies that a man should leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife one time, except for death (cf. Romans 7:2, 3). But mankind’s fall into sin brought all kinds of deviations from God’s perfect will, including issues in sex and marriage. Polygamy got its start in the ungodly line of Cain (Genesis 4:16–24). We then read about other perversions of fallen mankind as we continue through the Scriptures, including homosexuality and incest (Genesis 19; Jude 7).
We view the swinging pendulum of morality over the centuries—from civilizations that were very corrupt, to societies greatly influenced by the Scriptures, such as our own United States. In recent years, however, the spiritual foundation of our country has been under attack. We are witnessing profound changes regarding homosexuality, abortion, prostitution, gambling, pornography, and so on. Signs indicate that things will only become worse.
I wrote a letter to one of our U.S. senators recently about the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. military. He answered my letter, “I oppose discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation.” I would like to respond by asking him what stance he will take when the issues of polygamy, incest, and other perversions come next. I have news items before me that report legalizing these practices is being considered in countries including Canada, and in some countries, they have been legalized already. Newsweek reported that “polygamy activists [are] emerging in the wake of the gay-marriage movement.” Surely we are living in days like those of the judges, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Our society is reaping from at least a couple of generations who have been thoroughly exposed to relativism, lack of Bible doctrine, and “do your own thing” philosophies.
Polygamy was indeed practiced by a number of Old Testament believers, including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. However, we must remember that others did not practice it, such as Adam, Noah, Job, Isaac, Moses, and Joseph and Mary. Practicing polygamy did not make it right. Feeble attempts have been made to explain why God allowed it and didn’t punish those who engaged in it: A woman’s need for the protection of a man outweighed the prohibition, since there were more females than males in the world; wars resulted in the need for replenishing the population; polygamy was better than divorce. None of these has Scriptural support. The fact is, we do not know just why God allowed polygamy. We do know that it wasn’t His design from the beginning. The Bible says that God permitted divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts, not because He approved of it.
Throughout time, God’s long-suffering concerning the innumerable evils of mankind is obvious. We learn of tragedies in our day and wonder, Why, God? Why do You allow such suffering and evil? But then we who know the Scriptures realize that mankind chose to sin and must bear the consequences. It was not God’s fault. And we remember that someday all things will be made right. In the meantime, we can trust the sovereignty of God. He knows what He is doing.
Polygamy has brought much unhappiness to its participants and victims. Accounts of polygamy from Utah in the 1800s reveal a sad chapter in U.S. history. In the Old Testament, Abraham’s household suffered due to friction between Sarah and Hagar, and the consequences of his sin have resulted in major world tensions and conflicts today. If you read carefully the accounts of polygamists, you find that polygamy led to their downfall. David and Solomon are prime examples.
Some people say we should merely let people do whatever they wish, especially when it involves “religious beliefs.” But the government must protect people from what is destructive. The Biblical formula for marriage—one man, one woman—is under attack and must be protected if we are to continue as a society.
This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin by Norman A. Olson.