Q.

Please comment on the Old Testament practice of polygamy, especially since 2 Samuel 12:8 seems to indicate that God gave David even more women than he had previously. Surely the practice is wrong.

A.
Let me first comment on the particular passage you noted. It reads, “And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.”

A quick reading of this verse might imply that God gave David multiple wives and, therefore, condoned polygamy. But we must look at the passage carefully. The context of this verse is the confrontation the prophet Nathan had with David over the latter’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba and his other sins of murder and subsequent cover-up.

In His message to David through Nathan, God underscored His goodness to David in the past for the purpose of showing David how unnecessary his sins were. God in His sovereignty had given David everything one person could ever hope to achieve or acquire. “Everything” included all that had belonged to the former king, Saul (“thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives . . . and . . . the house of Israel and of Judah”).

The reference to Saul’s harem (many kings of that day had harems) does not mean that David actually married any of Saul’s wives but rather that, as a matter of fact, he did acquire everything Saul had owned. So God here was not approving of polygamy but merely stating the fact that David had acquired all that King Saul had had. The conquering king had the right to take control of a defeated king’s household. Those people would not be on the same level as the prevailing new king’s own family and were often made common slaves.

Some people have a problem with the word “bosom” in the King James Version, taking it to mean intimate relationships. The word might better be rendered “keeping,” as it is used in the New King James Version. Thus the verse reads, “I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping.” David had been entrusted with the care of those women when he took over Saul’s throne.

This explanation does not overlook the fact of polygamy in Old Testament times or its sin and the skirting of God’s one-man-one-woman design for marriage. Polygamy brought untold jealousy, strife, and confusion upon people, even those who, like Abraham, believed God. God never endorsed polygamy, but He did allow it to happen, just as He in His longsuffering allows hideous sins to take place today. Perhaps those Old Testament people were similar to the pagan Gentiles the apostle Paul referred to when he stated, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; bit now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30). Certainly the full light of the gospel, made possible with the completed Scriptures, shows God’s clear intent that one man and one woman be joined together in holy matrimony to become one flesh (see Genesis 2:18–25; Psalm 128:3, 4; Proverbs 5:18; Ecclesiastes 9:9; the Song of Solomon; Matthew 19:3–9).

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (January 1996).
© 1996 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.