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"Understanding Polygamy In The Old Testament"

1 Samuel 1:1-8

By Drew Zuverink

"There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, who's name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children but Hannah had none.

Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh; where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the Lord. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb.

Because the Lord had closed Hannah's womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?"

Did you know that polygamy (the practice of having more than one spouse) is never condemned in the Bible? Many Biblical characters, who were said to be faithful people of God, had more than one spouse. Abraham, David, Solomon, and in this passage, Elkanah, all had at least two wives. What does this mean? Were they sinning by practicing polygamy? Would it be ok for us to practice it today?

Those are all really good questions, and in order to answer them, we should start with the question, "Who created polygamy?" Did God come up with the idea of multiple spouses or did people? The answer is, of course, that people did. God's ideal for marriage is seen in the garden of Eden; one man and one woman becoming one flesh. After Adam and Eve rebelled against God, and sin entered into the world, people very quickly began to marry more than one person. Eventually this would become a part of the culture back then. Polygamy is an example of broken people, forming broken cultures, in a broken world.

Ok, so God didn't come up with the idea, but couldn't he have outlawed it? The short answer is that, yes, he could have. But all throughout human history God has been working with broken people, in broken cultures, in a broken world. And I want to write one more time, very clearly, God's ideal for marriage is one man and one woman. Period. That is how he wants humans to practice the institution of marriage. But remember, polygamy had become a part of the culture back then, so God had to be strategic in his plans to bring about his ideal. Blowing up their culture by outlawing polygamy might actually cause more harm than good.

For example; imagine that you are a missionary who reaches a tribe in the amazon jungle. They are receptive to the gospel and give their lives to Christ. But there is one small problem; they practice polygamy. Now obviously you know that God's ideal for marriage is one man and one woman, but how would you go about bringing the tribe into that ideal? Would you go up to a man who had three wives and tell him, "Pick one." What would happen to the other two wives? What if they had children? Not to mention the fact that God's ideal for marriage is not divorce either, so if you force separation, you would be violating another one of God's ideals for marriage.

The point is that after the fall humans became messy and we created messy cultures. Sometimes the best thing is to slowly work towards the ideal instead of just blowing up an entire culture. Time and time again this is what we see God doing in scripture. He does it with polygamy and he does it with slavery. He works within human hearts, changing them from the inside, and bringing them to the place where they create cultures where God's ideals are the norm.

So yes, Abraham and David and Elkanah were still faithful followers of God, even though they practiced polygamy. Polygamy did not necessarily mean that they were living in sin, but only because they lived in a time where God was moving them closer to his ideal. It would be sinful for Christians in America to practice polygamy today. You could say that we know better. We know what God's ideal is, and thankfully, our culture has made that the norm. Moving further away from God's ideal would be an act of rebellion against him. Not to mention all of the obvious complications that multiple spouses would bring about. Just in the first 8 verses of 1 Samuel we see this very clearly.

So when you notice things like polygamy or slavery in scripture, know that God is not happy about them. He isn't the one who came up with those ideas, but because humans are broken people, they create broken cultural practices, and God is forced to work within those cultures. And always remember; not everything in scripture is being prescribed, a lot of things are simply being described. There is a big difference.

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