GraceTALK (09.06.20) question:
Pastor Dan mentioned the other week that Abraham followed the original intent of the Lord in creation in being married to one woman, Sarah. However, Moses, David, and other leaders in the Old Testament have multiple wives and didn’t get rebuked for that by the Lord. Polygamy almost seems condoned in the Old Testament.
The short answer:
Polygamy is never condoned nor proposed as a legitimate form of marriage in the Old Testament although it is tolerated by the Lord.
Then, what about…
… the six examples of polygamy before Moses, four during the period of the judges, and nine among the Kings of Israel? If polygamy is wrong, wouldn’t God have forbidden these unions and punished those who entered into these marriages? Wouldn’t God condemn the actions of a person like Solomon who had 700 wives (1 Kings 11:3)? Before we consider an answer to that question, we need to understand why and how the Bible is written.
The “Why” and “How” before the “What”
The Bible is written within a covenantal framework. In other words, God interacts with people on the basis of a covenant (an agreement or “contract”) at a given point in time and not simply on the basis of “right vs. wrong” like we do today. Think of the covenant that is made during the purchase of a car. The seller offers terms and conditions that the buyer agrees to (monthly payments, warranties, etc.), and both parties agree to abide by those terms and conditions in order to fulfill the contract or “covenant.” The two parties then enter into the covenant through signature, thus, bringing the contract into effect. From that point forward, both parties are held accountable to the terms in the covenant. The Old Testament features various covenants between God and people but those covenants have a greater purpose than merely a performance of duties. The covenants in the Bible serve a storyline that serves to reveal God’s purposes in this world. Therefore, move past the mere related to “what” the Bible says, and consider the “Why” and “How” contained within the storyline of redemptive history. In other words, the Bible is not a manual to be followed, filled with “do’s and don’t’s” but a slow unveiling of who God is and who we are through the covenants contained in the Bible.
God in a box
Another way of considering what a covenant is would be through the imagery of a box. The establishment of a covenant is like God creating and then operating within a box… a set of boundaries that enable us to learn about both Him and ourselves within definable parameters. During certain periods of time, God establishes and operates within these boundaries so we can see if He is faithful to the terms and to see if people are faithful to do what they have agreed to do. God doesn’t cite all the wrong actions done or condemn people for all the sins committed, but only those that violate the agreed-upon boundaries. In other words, the character of God and the behavior of people are both to be seen and to be evaluated in light of the covenant in operation during a particular period of time. Which brings us to the issue of polygamy.
Solomon had how many wives?
We learn in I Kings 11:3 that Solomon had 700 wives! However, Solomon is not confronted with this as being sinful, but only that these wives “turned his heart after many gods” (11:4). How can this be? Solomon is not condemned since He is not in violation of the Covenant that was in effect at the time – the contract agreed to by Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20-24). Notice what Solomon IS guilty of – breaking the first and second commandment – to not place any gods above Jehovah (Exodus 20:3) and to not make any graven images (20:4). Does that mean God was fine with polygamy? No. It just means that God related to Solomon under the terms of the Covenant in effect. If God chose to hold Israel accountable for all wrongs done then the Library of Congress could not contain all the ways Israel (and humanity in general) had violated the holiness of God. In His mercy, God operates within a “box” – a set of boundaries, to both reveal His holy character without obliterating us and to reveal our desperately sinful condition. In other words, the issue was not “how many wives” but that the polygamous arrangement would damage the one-affection dynamic that the Mosaic Covenant demanded.
Does Jesus’ teaching support this?
When we look at the teaching of Jesus, we find something fascinating – Jesus actually operated from within the framework of the Kingdom of God – God’s perfect rule expressed in the life-choices of the individual. A person operating in harmony with God’s rule in their life would completely fulfill not only the Mosaic Law but all the Covenants ever made. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, we see this when He shatters the external rituals of “keeping the Law” of Moses through doing all things to “please the Father.” Said another way, Jesus was the embodiment of God’s rule in the life of a human, the Kingdom of God on earth. We see these two contrary world-views clash in an interaction on the subject of divorce and remarriage.
And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. 2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.” Mark 10:1-10.
Did you see how the Pharisee’s are looking for a “right or wrong” answer. Simply put, they want to perform well. The Pharisee view of marriage was based on an extrapolation of the Mosaic Covenant in an effort to justify their actions of dissolving a marriage for all sorts of reasons. However, Jesus, operating from within a Kingdom of God framework that was established during creation, destroys their rationale.
The collision of world-views
Functioning within the Mosaic framework, the Pharisees sought to satisfy the terms given at Sinai, but in doing so had warped them to address merely outward performance. Jesus, on the other hand, was operating according to a Kingdom of God framework and viewed marriage very differently: “They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.” To Jesus, marriage was governed by something greater than the Mosaic Covenant since the Father created it within the framework of His design in establishing His Kingdom on earth. The joining of one-man to one-woman for life, the blending of heart, soul, body, mind, and will was to serve His purpose in creating the world. How? Marriage would result in producing children – image-bearers who would, over time, spread out and fill the earth. The result would be a world filled with humanity bearing the image of God. Literally, worship of God in and through humanity would fill the earth. God would be glorified and our joy would be full, functioning as we were designed. Therefore, while the Pharisee simply wanted a “right or wrong” answer, Jesus provides the blueprint for the origin of marriage flowing from a God-centered, Kingdom-oriented framework. Incredibly, Jesus’ reply represents more than a mere answer to a question; it serves as a complete paradigm shift in how marriage is to be viewed. Therefore, any deviation from God’s intent in the one-man for the one-woman pattern is wrong and sinful. Examples of this would include polygamy, polyandry, and a homosexual union in any form.
So… was Solomon right or wrong?
Solomon was wrong as it relates to God’s intent for His Kingdom on earth but not condemned because polygamy was not within the “terms” of the Mosiac Covenant. Remember, God’s intent within the storyline of redemption was never to cite every instance of sinful activity, including polygamy. However, we must not infer from this that polygamy was approved of or even condoned. It could be said that the Lord picked which battles to fight when exposing and addressing the sinful nature of humanity that was typified in Israel. Said another way, the Lord tolerated polygamy. Again, the terms of the Mosaic Covenant are extraordinarily brief and yet sufficient to support the underlying storyline of redemption.
Jesus is the HERO
God’s relationship with Israel is primarily governed by covenantal agreements and these terms highlight His covenantal faithfulness in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness. The information we are given in the Old Testament is recorded to support THAT storyline. A storyline that is created to make Jesus the hero because He is the great covenant Maker as well as the needed covenant Keeper all in one. Therefore, we need to understand that just because God does not condemn some action in the Old Testament (i.e. polygamy, slavery, captivity, etc) it does not mean that He was indifferent to it or supported it as an ideal. God both overlooks as well as promotes activity that lends itself to the storyline of redemptive history and redemptive history places Jesus as the hero, rescuing us from our sin.
Our rescue is only possible through the sinless life, guiltless death, and victorious resurrection by which Jesus proves He has fulfilled the terms of the Mosaic Covenant – a contract that neither the people of Israel nor anyone else could ever fulfill given our sinful condition. May we be overwhelmed with the Lord’s kindness expressed to us in Jesus.