Ask Ivor

Hap asks:

"What does the Bible say about polygamy? Didn't a lot of the heroes of the Bible, like Moses, David, Solomon, Jacob, etc., have more than one wife?"

Whether these biblical characters you mention are actually "heroes" is a question all its own (Jacob, for instance, took advantage of his brother and lied to his father), but I'll stick to the main question.

Moses had one wife, but David and Solomon and Jacob were polygamists, as were Abraham, Saul, Esau, Elkanah, Lamech and others. Abraham and Jacob took additional wives to produce heirs (Ge 16:1-2; 30:1-4,9). Initially, Jacob was tricked into becoming polygamous (Ge 29:16-25). Saul and David and Solomon, as kings, were probably polygamous for political reasons. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1Ki 11:3). Moses warned that a king "must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray" (Dt 17:17). Solomon was led astray by his wives because they were foreign wives with foreign gods (1Ki 11:1-10). Moses taught that polygamists must not deprive their first wives of food, clothing, and marital rights (Ex 21:10), that they must honor the right of the firstborn (double inheritance) even if that son is not born to the favorite wife (Dt 21:15-17), and that men are required to marry childless widows of their brothers, in order to produce offspring for that brother (Dt 25:5-10).

The Jewish Talmud variously limits polygamists to 18, 24, and 48 wives.

In the Christian New Testament, Paul says that church elders and deacons "must be the husband of but one wife" (1Ti 3:2,12; Tit 1:6).

The Greco-Roman civilization that Christianity grew up in was a society in which concubines and mistresses existed, but only one wife had a legal standing. Polygamy was legal, though, in ancient civilizations like China, Japan (legal until 1880), Egypt, Babylon, and Arabia (Muhammad set a limit of 4 wives). It was also permitted among the ancient Slavs, Teutons, Irish, and Vedic Indians. It existed in Christian Europe from at least the 6th century. Some Protestant reformers, like Martin Luther, allowed polygamy. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent condemned such reformers. Both the Anabaptists and the Mormons once strongly advocated polygamy.

Modern Christians largely regard polygamy as not God's intention for human marriage, and as tending to produce family tensions and jealousies, and as being harmful to the dignity of women. However, in those cultures where polygamy has long been established, Christian converts are no longer expected to get rid of their additional wives (partly because this usually causes hardship for those wives).

Nowhere in the Bible are there examples of women with multiple husbands, but this practice has existed, in different forms, in Sri Lanka, India, Tibet, the Congo, Nigeria, and among the Australian aborigines, the Eskimos, the ancient Britons, and the Marquesas Islanders.