Bible Inquiries & Explanations
Q: Why was adultery and polygamy allowed to happen so freely prior to the 10 commandments?
A: As a start I should begin with what Scripture reveals as God’s plan for human flourishing and how polygamy and adultery don’t conform to said plan.
God created woman from the rib of the first man and presented her to him. Adam proclaimed her to be bone of his bone and the flesh of his flesh and he called her woman because she was taken out of man. The Bible then states:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24 ESV)
Notice the specific use of the singular nouns – one man shall cleave to one wife and the two become one flesh.
Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, reiterated this great truth in the gospels:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matt 19:3-6 ESV)
These two texts explicitly reveal God’s plan for human sexual relationships. Despite contemporary culture’s confusion and deliberate denial on the issue, God’s design in creation is for the union of not one man and another man, nor one woman with another woman, nor one man with many women, nor one woman with many men but for one man to become one flesh with one woman. That union produces offspring that then allows for more one flesh unions with a new generation. I find it odd that I need to write an explanation out for such a simple and obvious equation – but these are strange days.
With God’s design laid out, let’s address the question head on. Polygamy – the union of one husband to multiple wives – obviously lies outside the plain revelation of Scripture for marriage. Adultery – the intentional betrayal of the covenant between husband and wife with an outside party – is the ultimate act of unfaithfulness. So why did God allow these things to happen – especially among the people He called out to lavish His love on?
The simple answer is that God has allowed sin, which is at heart an act of treason, to thrive in this fallen world, even among His own people. Scripture is replete with examples of marital unfaithfulness and fornication. Polygamy first makes its appearance in Genesis 4 with Lamech, who is said to have taken two wives. From the brief bio provided in the text Lamech certainly was no paragon of virtue.
Your question takes aim at the people of the Old Testament before the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. That is an important distinction. The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not have God’s law to guide their morality – only their conscience. But as we know all to well our conscience is fine at nagging us with constant whispers of guilt when we do wrong but the influence of sin and the pressure of cultural traditions can easily drown out those voices.
God made clear His design in creation. We see how our conscience reflects this model in relationships. For example, If a man is in a relationship with two women, those women most likely will not like each other. Jealousy, strife and discord ensue. The man will inevitably at some point favor one woman over the other and give her affection and honor that he won’t give to the other. Humans are built for monogamous relationships. That may not accord with what we see in the world at times, but the sinful desires of the fallen heart prod us to defy God’s blueprint for relationships. The results are often catastrophic.
You might be interested to know that polygamy was commonly practiced even after God gave us the Law. Here’s the rub: Scripture nowhere expressly condemns the general practice of polygamy. However it is also never condoned. God has never given His blessing to the practice. Yet many of God’s people did practice polygamy. Notice, however, the fruit of such unions. Think about the resulting tension and conflict caused by Abraham sleeping with Hagar. You can almost conjure an image of the daggers Sarah and Hagar had in their eyes for each other after that incident. Hagar’s offspring, Ishmael and his descendants have been engaged in a perpetual sibling rivalry with Isaac and his progeny to this day.
Jacob, the deceiver, was himself deceived by his father-in-law and married Leah when he loved her sister Rachel. He eventually married Rachel as well but the jealousy between the two wives is well documented.
David had many wives and concubines. That apparently didn’t satisfy his lust because he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of his friend Uriah. Instead of confessing his sin he had his friend killed.
David’s son Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. They led his heart astray after other gods.
Not a good track record for polygamists in the bible, is it?
It’s interesting to note that both David and Solomon defied God’s direct commandment. Deuteronomy 17 lists specific commands for the kings of Israel. In verse 17 God clearly states that kings shall not have many wives lest their hearts turn away.
Talk about prophetic!
In the New Testament Paul lists among the qualifications of a leader in the church that the candidate be the husband of only one wife. God took seriously the holiness and conformity of elders to His will – and one of those things is the one flesh union of a man and woman in marriage.
I think it must be said that God never blesses polygamy. He expressly forbids multiple wives for the high offices of kings and church leaders.This practice carries its own baggage because it doesn’t conform to God’s original plan. God blessed the patriarchs and Israel’s kings despite their sinful tendencies and made them into vessels of grace, demonstrating His unwarranted mercy to a stubborn and stiff-necked people.
So it’s not that God was condoning all of the polygamy that was going on. He hated it but that doesn’t mean he stopped loving them. He blessed them in spite of their sin. So that makes me wonder if someone like Abraham repented for this sin? Did Abraham know it was wrong?
Yes, God is always blessing His people, despite their sinfulness. You bring up a good point. Repentance is part of the everyday life of a Christian. We never stop being sinners, but we confess our sins and declare our dependance on a merciful and loving God. That’s what it means to be one of God’s sheep. Did Abraham repent for the Hagar incident? Scripture doesn’t say but I wouldn’t doubt it after Abraham sees the strife and suffering his rash act caused. The bigger sin is his lack of faith in the promise of God to provide Him with an heir. He took it upon himself to bring it to pass.
As for the question ‘did Abraham know it was wrong?’ I would say, ‘probably not until after the fact’. Remember, There was no bible at this point in history. The only revelation Abraham had was the voice of God. Whether God revealed more than the text supplies is unknown and it is not wise to speculate further.
All I know is that Abraham is the father of faith (Rom 4:11,16).