Abraham was called the friend of God (James 2:23). David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Solomon was the wisest man ever to live (outside of Jesus—1 Kings 4:29–34). What do these men have in common other than their apparent favored status with God? They all had multiple wives. So, what happened? Did the Old Testament God acquiesce to the cultural norms of the day and permit what He later disdained? Or is there something else at play here?
Besides the examples of Old Testament men of faith, there are various texts that are assumed to support polygamy in ancient Israel. The levirate, for instance, has been said to indirectly condone polygamy for the sake of preserving a deceased brother’s legacy (Deut. 25:5–10). However, this view neglects the fact that the living brother had the option of refusal. And no instance of its application in the Bible led to polygamy (cf. Gen. 38; Ruth 4). Another text used is the law requiring a man who has slept with a virgin not his wife to marry her (Deut. 22:28, 29). If the man is already married, it is suggested, then this would lead to polygamy. However, in Exodus 22:16, 17, where the same law is found, the father may refuse the marriage for whatever reason, so polygamy is not a given.
One text worthy of closer examination is Leviticus 18:18. In the New King James Version it reads, “Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.” Some have taken this text to mean that polygamy was actually permitted among the Israelites, just not in the case of two sisters marrying the same man. Moreover, the text is typically viewed as part of the laws concerning incest, as verses 7–17 are. The verses in Leviticus 18:7–17 have a particular formation in the Hebrew, beginning with erwat (“nakedness of”) and ending with lo tgallêh (“you shall not uncover”) forming a textual unit. The next section, Leviticus 18:18–23, has a different formation, each verse beginning with waw (a conjunction) and ending with other prohibitions beginning with lo (a negation). Leviticus 18:18 therefore, is not about incest.
Moreover, the term sister (ahôt) is used in different ways in the Old Testament. Sometimes it refers to a blood sister (Gen. 4:22), sometimes a half sister (Gen. 20:12), other times a kinswoman (Gen. 24:59, 60), or even a female fellow citizen in general (Num. 25:18; Hos. 2:1). Since Leviticus 18:18 is not necessarily about incest, the term sister here does not, of a necessity, need to be translated as referring to a blood relation. In fact, the formation of the phrase ‘ishah ‘el-’akhotah is used idiomatically in the Old Testament to mean adding one to another of the same kind (cf. Ezek. 1:9, 23; 3:13). Its male equivalent, ‘ish ‘el-’akiw, is used similarly (cf. Gen. 37:19; Exod. 37:9; Num. 14:4). A clearer translation of Leviticus 18:18 would read, “And you shall not marry a woman in addition to another as a second wife while she is alive, to uncover her nakedness” (Lev. 18:18, NASB1995 alternative).
Contrary to the view that Leviticus 18:18 sanctions polygamy with the exception of incest, this text is actually a prohibition of polygamy. Furthermore, it is a prohibition designated an abomination (Lev. 18:24–29). This means that it is universally applicable, not just restricted to the Israelites. The monogamous marriage is God’s ideal for all of humanity as set forth in the creation narrative.
The fact that we find narratives in the Bible that illustrate the lives of those living contrary to God’s commands is not an endorsement of their disobedience. In fact, the realization that men who were privileged to commune so closely with God still failed in certain areas of their lives ought to humble our perception of our own ability to live righteously. The Bible has good and bad examples (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–12). The good examples are for us to follow, and the bad examples are to serve as warnings.